After air and water, food is our most important connection to the environment.
Food is the way we take energy from the sun (and nutrients from the air, soil
and water) into our bodies so we can grow, breathe, think, work, play, love and
learn. We are solar-powered beings.
Bringing our food supply closer to home is one of the most effective and
powerful strategies we can use to create positive changes in our health, in the
environment, in our society and on this planet. Growing greens and potatoes in
gardens, sprouting seeds on our kitchen counters, stopping at nearby farms to
buy milk or vegetables, preparing family meals from basic ingredients and other
ordinary acts of feeding ourselves are critical steps to a better future.
By the middle of the next century, the United States population will double and
the amount of arable land will be reduced to just over one half of an acre per
person, according to David Pimentel, an ecologist from Cornell University. The
price of food will be driven up, and as a consequence, our diets will change.
This was just one of the warnings about the future food supply which came from
this spring's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science. Strong demand and resulting high prices for water, energy, and
American grain, as well as a doubled population and a significant loss of
cropland to erosion and development, will put a great strain on the earth's
Forty years from now there will be only one third of an acre of cropland, per
person, globally. Currently, there is just under seven tenths of an acre per
person. Nearly one billion people are poorly nourished, and all the world's
major fisheries are being overfished. About 35,000 children die every day of
hunger and related problems. (Four thousand of those are infants who die because
their mothers were convinced to give up breastfeeding in favor of using infant
formula. The global food system's pressure to eliminate healthy, traditional
ways in favor of a new, packaged, processed, dangerous and profitable product is
enormous and starts with the very young. )
Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute believes that crop improvements and new
technologies will boost the earth's annual grain harvest to two billion tons.
That would be enough to feed 10 billion people at India's nutritional level.
This yield would feed less than half the world's current population at the
present U. S. nutritional level, or the world's present population (5.7 billion
people) at about Italy's nutritional level. The average American consumes nearly
1,800 pounds of grain a year, the average Italian, nearly 900 pounds and the
average Indian consumes just 440 pounds of grain per year.
The U. S. diet requires great quantities of grain because so much of it is fed
to animals in order to produce meat and dairy products. Pimentel believes that
by the middle of the next century, higher food prices and resource constraints
will cause the percentage of animal products in American diets to be cut in
half, while the percentage of grains and vegetables will increase. He also
predicts there will be a much more limited variety of vegetables.
Brown sees additional problems in the rising incomes in China and the rest of
Asia, which he fears will encourage more people there to want meat and dairy
products. This development will require even more grain. China already imports
great quantities of grain from our country.
Some scientists believe that we can feed 10 billion people by the year 2025 and
still leave some room for nature if we just develop and implement enough new,
high-tech agricultural practices. These would include genetically engineered
crop plants (which produce their own fertilizer and insecticides) and synthetic
growth hormones for chickens, pigs, fish and beef. More synthetic fertilizers,
enhanced computer technology and fancy new farm equipment would be required for
the few, very large farms which scientists think will produce most of the food.
However, these scientists have little or no idea what the vast majority of
humans will do to earn the money needed to buy this food. They have no plan to
cope with the negative effects from the global climate changes that are bound to
occur from increased energy use by these high-tech agro-factories and an
increasingly distant food system.
We have been spoiled in this country with plentiful, seemingly low-cost food,
thanks to fertile soil, subsidized grains, water and energy, and to our
willingness to accept the environmental and social damage caused by industrial
agriculture. On average, Americans spend about 15 percent of their disposable
income on food -a much smaller percentage than people in most other countries
spend. The poor in this country, however, spend up to a third of their income
on food. These figures don't include food's many hidden costs. The food system
consumes large amounts of our tax dollars in energy, agricultural, advertising,
regulatory, waste disposal and health-care subsidies. The system also depends on
generous tax benefits. Its appetite for fossil fuel and nuclear energy to
transport food, to manufacture and recycle bottles, cans, and plastic-paks, to
build and power fancy new stores and restaurants and to market promotional
"give-aways" is voracious.
As solar-powered beings, we require relatively little energy. Depending upon
our age and activity level, we need between 2,000 and 3,000 Calories
(kilocalories to a scientist) worth of food energy per day. This is equivalent
to the energy in less than one tenth of a gallon of gasoline, or about one cup.
The amount of energy needed to keep an efficient automobile going for four
minutes will keep a human going for 24 hours.
The relevance of the term efficiency depends on what it is that's being
measured. Compare a supermarket lettuce, grown in an irrigated California
desert, to a lettuce growing in our garden. Efficiency is one justification for
nearly every aspect of the store lettuce. Labor efficiency is a reason for
large scale farms and stores. The irrigation system, trucks, pesticide factories
and applicators, the federal regulatory system, the supermarket's cooling,
heating and lighting systems may all have increased efficiency. This efficiency
relates to the First Law of thermodynamics which says that energy and matter are
always conserved. That is, neither of them can be destroyed.
The-miles-per-gallon rating on a car is an example of First Law efficiency - how
many miles result from each unit of energy consumed. Improving First Law
efficiency is an important conservation measure.
For our future, however, it is more important to consider efficiency as measured
by the Second Law of thermodynamics. This law says that energy moves in one
direction only - towards being less useful. All the energy in any meal that we
eat flows into the environment as waste heat. It is conserved, but is less
useful than the food or the sunlight from which it came. That energy's potential
is reduced; Its disorder or entropy is increased. The disorder resulting from
our profligate energy use is rampant and increasing rapidly.
To measure efficiency by the Second Law, we have to compare the amount of energy
used to the minimum required. Using this important criterion, the lettuce in
our gardens is close to infinitely more efficient than the California lettuce.
(Just when I thought we'd hit the low point in efficiency, on May 24, 1995, the
USDA proposed the importation of lettuce from Israel, after "efficient"
treatment for fruitflies and other pests.)
Using our bodies to tend organic gardens is the essence of efficiency according
to the Second Law of thermodynamics. Since all the energy used is solar, the
entropy created is within the planet's normal energy flow.
Human beings, in places ranging from the Kalahari Desert in Africa to the Arctic
Tundra, and even in our fertile temperate zone, fed themselves within their
local ecosystems, using only renewable (solar) energy and their ingenuity. For
most of our species' history, humans have obtained their food energy from their
immediate environment, directly from the plants which collected it and the
animals that passed it along, using that stored solar energy first to hunt and
gather, then to grow and raise plants and animals. Eating came only after this
work, plus any necessary fuel-gathering, grinding and cooking. Wastes were
deposited back into the local environment for decomposition and recycling. In
many societies, this work not only fed people, but also left generous amounts of
time for family, community and cultural activities. More nourishing ecosystems
were created in the process. The astounding bounty of edible plants and animals
that the Europeans found in New England, and the fecundity of the inhabited
rainforests were the results of centuries of human's interaction with and
management of ecosystems. All that bounty was not an accident.
This brings us to a promising path that leads toward feeding ourselves in the
21st century. This path empowers individuals and families, provides healthier
diets and addresses large global problems head on. It involves individual
participation in producing food where we live. This greatly reduces our food
system's energy requirements, increases our food's freshness and flavor and
fosters holistic interaction with our ecosystem. In addition to gardening, this
path also involves eating less meat, cooking more, spending less money in the
global food distribution system and giving more to farmers and gardeners in our
Bringing our food closer to home is not only a powerful way to effect positive
change, it is probably essential for our survival.
I suspect that if we are to have any hope of feeding everyone on this planet
from its available resources, we need to be able to do it almost everywhere,
especially in a land as abundantly blessed with resources as this one.
When we realize that we can convert our lawns to valuable farmland, and can
produce bountiful harvests using ecological methods, we are well on our way to
solving global problems.
Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
(203) 888-9280, firstname.lastname@example.org