We are solar-powered beings.
We are all solar-powered beings. The energy that we use to think and
breathe, to dream and to pump our blood, to work, love and play- all that
energy comes from the sun.
Green plants store solar energy by disassembling carbon dioxide from the
air, and joining its carbon atoms into energy-storing simple sugars. These
are later converted into the substance of plants. We consume that stored
energy when we eat the roots, stems, leaves, fruits and seeds of plants or
eat eggs, milk or meat from animals which have eaten those plants. Our
digestion and respiration take apart the complex carbon compounds in food,
releasing their stored solar energy for our use. To accomplish this
process, we consume the oxygen that the plants gave off as a waste product
and release (as carbon dioxide when we exhale) the carbon which was used to
transport the solar energy into our bodies. This carbon can then go back to
plants to carry more energy to us. Such an elegant cycle!
The energy it takes to keep a body functioning for 24 hours is equal to the
energy a sport utility vehicle consumes in about two minutes, or to a 150
watt light bulb burning the whole day. It is remarkable how little energy
it takes to keep us going. Yet, 800,000 people on this Earth don't get
even that much stored solar energy each day. Others around the world
destroy their environment in order to get enough fuel to prepare just one
In cooking we add energy to the food. We also add energy by grinding corn
into flour, pressing olives into oil, or even packaging complicated meals
into small plastic containers and shipping them frozen half way around the
world. The energy added may be human, or may come from renewable, fossil or
nuclear fuels. That energy may make the food more available, digestible, or
convenient, but it doesn't increase or decrease the amount of energy the
food can release in our bodies.
This system is very elegant when it is primarily solar-powered. The sun's
energy, free and bountiful, collected by beautiful plants, is taken into
our bodies and used to tend those plants and create our meals. That energy
keeps on flowing, now as our waste heat, into the environment and
eventually into outer space.
Solar energy moves through the ecosystem without creating harmful effects.
The exchange of waste gases between animals and plants, and the digestion
of organic wastes in compost piles illustrate the continual cycling of
nutrients which, with the one-way flow of energy, is necessary to maintain
A solar-powered, local, sustainable food system is the basis of all the
world's great cuisines. French, Italian, Thai, Indian and Chinese cooking
are all based on foods that are readily available nearby and in season, and
on processing that is easily done on a farm or in a well-equipped kitchen.
Many of us value growing our own food, grinding wheat to make bread, or
making mayonnaise from olive oil and home-raised eggs, for the quality of
the experience, as well as for the flavor of the food.
Unfortunately, our economic accounting system doesn't value these things at
all. None of the solar energy on which we run or any of the work we do in
our gardens is included in the official accounting of energy use and gross
domestic product. Of course, all the fossil fuel and nuclear energy that
is used in our food system is carefully counted, whether it is used to
manufacture large farm equipment, fertilizers or pesticides, is used to
operate an energy-intensive drive-thru, fast-food restaurant, or is used to
truck lettuce 3,000 miles across this continent.
Our short-sighted accounting system encourages the demise of small-scale,
sustainable production and promotes a very energy-intensive food system.
Learn more about local farms, gardens, and good food at the NOFA Winter
Conference on March 6, one week from tomorrow, at the First Church of
Christ in Wethersfield, Connecticut. The conference, "Shaping the Organic
Landscape," features a keynote address "The Changing Faces of Organic
Gardening: From Homesteaders to Soccer Moms," by Nancy Beaubaire, the
editor of <I>Organic Gardening Magazine,</I> and 13 workshops for
gardeners, farmers and eaters. There'll also be a farmers market, pot luck
lunch and exhibits. For further information call (203) 484-2445 or go to
www.connix.com/~nofact. Hope to see you there!
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.
(C) 1999, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "Living on the
Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays Living on the Earth:
Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill
Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid. These essays first
appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted
weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since November 1995 are
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