Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing material from Chapter 4 (Energy) of the latest Resilience guide, "Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable & Secure Food Systems". This is a heck of a chapter, one that takes a look at the complex relationships between food systems, energy and waste. If you eat food, grow food, use energy, create energy, or make waste, you’ll find yourself fascinated.
Food is energy. Food provides energy. Food requires energy. Food and energy are virtually synonymous. They even share a common unit of measure. But that doesn’t mean that they are in balance. To the contrary. And nowhere is that imbalance more evident than in the United States.
As soon as one opens wide and espouses the need for a food system that’s balanced in terms of health, equity, and ecology, it becomes apparent that much of the discussion is about how to extract one’s ecological footprint from one’s mouth. The problem is that, in terms of energy, our ecological footprints are estimated to be somewhere between seven and ten times the size of our mouths. In other words, it takes seven to ten calories to produce and deliver the equivalent of a single calorie of food in the United States.1 These food system calories eventually add up to an estimated 19 percent of America’s total energy consumption.2 (It is important to note here that we typically measure calories in our diet as a “small calorie,” the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius. When we measure energy on a larger scale, we call it a “kilocalorie” or a “large calorie” and denote it with a capital C, as in “Calorie,” since it is defined as the amount of energy needed to raise one kilogram of water one degree Celsius.)
My favorite view from my office window in the second floor of a restored farmhouse is the summer scene of the oxen cutting and bringing in the hay for their winter ruminations. Other days, I gaze out the window and watch Kenneth and the students work in the vegetable fields that are his research plots. He has divided the vegetable production into three plots, each powered by a different system (see fig. 4-1). The easternmost section is cultivated, planted, maintained, and harvested exclusively by human power and the use of highly efficient hand tools. The middle section relies upon a combination of human power and a BCS walking tractor, essentially a highly versatile tiller with a variety of implements ranging from a sickle bar mower to a potato harvester. The western plot catches the most attention, as it is the market garden section powered primarily by the oxen and their accoutrement of fancy new (yes, generally new, and also quite efficient) tillage equipment.
1. Martin C. Heller and Gregory A. Keoleian, Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System, report no. CSS00-04 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems, December 6, 2000), 42.
2. David Pimentel et al., “Reducing Energy Inputs in the U.S. Food System,” Human Ecology 36 (July 15, 2008): 459.
3. It is important to note here that I also think it imperative that we consider the plights of those persons well beyond our local and national borders. The point here is that it is often easier to begin the caring process when there are direct and proximate relationships. "Local," in my view, is a starting point for caring—not an endpoint of any sort.
4. “Food-insecure” populations include persons who have limited or uncertain access to nutritionally appropriate foods.
5. Alan Alda, Things I Overheard while Talking to Myself (New York: Random House, 2008), 47.
6. David Pimentel and Marcia H. Pimentel, Food, Energy and Society (New York: CRC Press, 2008).
7. For more information on the number of calories expended in producing a single calorie of food in the U.S. food system, see Heller and Keoleian, Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators. More information on this topic can also be found in Richard Heinberg and Michael Bomford, The Food & Farming Transition (Sebastopol, Calif.: Post Carbon Institute, Spring 2009), http://www.postcarbon.org/report/41306-the-food-and-farming-transition-toward.