Act: Inspiration

Can Foodies Save the Planet?

August 3, 2017

Having at times gone into rehab for our addiction to climate porn — wilderness retreats with no internet, long distance travel, remote natural building projects — we always fall back when we return to default world. Nowadays we could say we’ve become a high-functioning addict. We sip our morning coffee while surfing through RSS feeds from Joe Romm, Peter Sinclair, Paul Beckwith, Bru Pearce, Nick Breeze, James Hoggan… the list goes on.
These porn themes are redundant and recursive. Honestly, they have not changed since 1988 when Jim Hansen let both shoes drop in his Congressional testimony. To summarize:
  • We are in the lower curve of acceleration for man-made climate change.
  • We can see an expressed effect of 0.8°C in average global temperature, 20 cm. sea level rise (varies by location), and the Sixth Great Extinction. These have already happened.
  • On our present trajectory by mid-century a Sandy-scale superstorm will strike some major city approximately every other year and halting the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is no longer possible.
  • What we cannot yet see is the implied effect. The one that locked in when we crossed beyond 300, then 350, then 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. Still to come, although not yet unavoidable, are 3 to 7 degrees of warming, dustbowls in the centers of continents and untold meters of sea level rise.
  • Lots of bad stuff happens at 1 degree of warming. It is exponentially worse at 1.5. Two degrees is unimaginably horrible for mammals and many higher life forms. The warming now ahead even if the Paris Agreement is followed to the letter — 3 degrees, possibly more — won’t really matter for humans because we will have died out before then.

“This is not tenable. No moral society would risk this. No moral society would ever come near this. I think we will get desperate in ten years. I had hoped we would get desperate this decade rather than next decade. We are serious this decade, finally. Hopefully we will be desperate next decade and then in the 2030s we will be so far beyond desperate it will look like World War II.”— Joe Romm 

This chart from Hansen & Sato shows continued actual global 
emissions versus the IPCC optimal target (RCP 2.6) which
requires a 3% decline slope.
Facing all of these grave threats, humans collectively have chosen to go insane. We are greening our homes, buying electric cars, climbing stairs over riding the elevator. We are changing lightbulbs, buying local stuff, putting solar on the roof. Meanwhile CO2 and methane emissions continue to rise.
Why such a disconnect? Why are we, as Martin Lukacs asks, “bringing a flyswatter to a gunfight?”
The places we get our information — mainstream media, television ads, school textbooks, church sermons, even the campaigns of mainstream environmental groups — have all gone soft. They are dumping out fake news by the bushel. Even Al Gore and Bill McKibben soft-pedal human extinction.
But, hang on, there are a few loose threads in our sweater. What if we just pull … here?
At the terminal phase of complex civilizations, just before they implode and the great cities all crumble as their populations disperse back into nature, typically accompanied by famine, disease, wars, waves of refugees and precipitous decline in stored knowledge, there are the grand eras of spectacle, theater, and peak excess.
You can put that pin in the human timeline now, marked “You Are Here.”
We are at or close to the summit of Peak Excess, where we shall have the best views of the splendid dawn of the Age of Consequences.
The sweater thread? Foodies.
Foodies are a fragile thread could alter that trajectory. Gourmet feasts and fads, celebrity chefs and gastronomic tournaments are also standard fare during Peak Excess periods, but the contemporary variety bears a slightly different flavor. We have begun, at the edges of that movement, to compute nutrient density and score it along with flavor and tradition.
Nutrient density is a function of growing healthy plants and, in some cases, feeding them to healthy animals. These become food by ways and means that do not rob their nutrient stores and may even enhance them.
For example, organically grown carrots, onions and cabbages might be hand processed into slaws and krauts that allow friendly lactobacillus to join your gut microbiome to help digest your food and boost your immune system.
Perhaps — because they are organically certified — they came from soils that are teeming with happy aerobic bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods and earthworms (as opposed to being deadened by the wasting effects of chemical addiction or hyperactive genes).
Plants garden, too. They cultivate the soil microbes they most desire by feeding them the sugars those life-forms most crave. Out of gratitude or greed, the microbes build zones of protective communities around the roots of the plants. They excrete enzymes to absorb, concentrate and convert those nutrients.
To pay their rent and get more of those great sugars, they give back to the plants the nutrients they have converted, using runners like root nematodes.
This nutrient-cycling system been going on in our soils for about the last 3.5 billion years. It is highly sophisticated now. When dumb two-legged agronomists arrived they proclaimed that only three essential nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) are needed for plant growth. So now we run down to the store and buy a sack of chemical fertilizer, made from and by fossil fuels, and we expend enormous energy — a caloric deficit of 10 to 1 or greater — and besides producing food with all the nutrition of cardboard we bank existence-threatening greenhouse pollution.
Elaine Ingham says,

“Everything in balance. And that is what the biology is so good at. Releasing all the nutrients in the proper concentrations so nothing is lacking. It’s like calling up for a pizza — the exudates are the telephone, calling up and asking for exactly what it needs, and the bacteria and fungi are the cooks who pull all the right ingredients together, based on what the plant ordered, and the protozoa etc. are the pizza delivery guys, who deposit those nutrients right where the plant needs them, in the root zone. Isn’t that cool?”

If we wonder why we get sick all the time, maybe it is no wonder. We are missing nutrients just the same as our plants are. Mostly, we are missing the same nutrients are plants are.
When it comes to growing nutrient dense foods, nothing outperforms biochar. There is a good reason for this. The micropore structure works in the soil the same way a coral reef works in the ocean — as a platform for biodiversity. That it also converts carbon into long-term storage away from the atmosphere is of minor concern to foodies. What it does to the life of the soil, it also does for the health and the nutrient-density of the plants. That not coincidentally translates into deeper, richer flavors.
Nutrient density measuring devices (beyond your nose and tongue) are not yet available to consumers, but the day is not far away when they will be. Before then, we may start to see food labeling based on ND codes. We already do for some “cool” foods grown in biochar-amended soils.
We only need a fraction of the Earth’s soils to be converted to nutrient density. The French initiative 4 Pour 1000, calculates an 0.004 increase in the carbon density of soils would be enough to turn back the Anthropocene.
If we are as we eat, then perhaps we can eat our way out of this.
Lorin Fries, the head of Food Systems Collaboration for the World Economic Forum, says that food tech is changing as rapidly as iPhones:

A decade from now, the food we eat today — and the systems behind it — may seem as outdated as a phone without apps. Technology is accelerating change everywhere. The question is not whether it will reshape how we make food, move it and eat it; the question is how.

Imagine opening your fridge in 2030. Maybe that pork came from a single pig cell, grown into “clean meat” in a lab. Perhaps that leftover rice was gene-edited with CRISPR-Cas9 or the lettuce was produced with a personal “food computer” in a city building, through a data recipe.

To which we reply, eeeeewww! No thanks.

In Mexico City there is a restaurant that serves only traditional indigenous foods from chinampas, the superabundant aquacultural systems that built the Aztec Empire. The purchasing power of foodies is helping to revive the ancient chinampas of Xochimilco.
What’s wrong with terroir? Not terror, which is what comes to mind when we think of CRISPR rice, but terroir, the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype — its unique environment contexts, farming practices and specific growth habits. Think varietals of wine, coffee, tobacco, chocolate, chili peppers, hops, agave (tequila and mescal), tomatoes, heritage grains, maple syrup, tea and cannabis.
We would take a deep humus with faint hints of cherries and chocolate over synthetic hydroponic media any day. Perhaps the CRISPR can design to boost an ND score, but we tend to doubt it. It’s the bacteria, stupid. And for those you’ll need recalcitrant soil carbon and plenty of it.

Food, glorious food!
Hot sausage and mustard!
While we’re in the mood —
Cold jelly and custard!
Pease pudding and saveloys!
What next is the question?
Rich gentlemen have it, boys —

Food, glorious food!
We’re anxious to try it.
Three banquets a day —
Our favourite diet!

Just picture a great big steak —
Fried, roasted or stewed.
Oh, food,
Wonderful food,
Marvelous food,
Glorious food.

Food, glorious food!
What is there more handsome?
Gulped, swallowed or chewed —
Still worth a king’s ransom.
What is it we dream about?
What brings on a sigh?
Piled peaches and cream, about
Six feet high!

Food, glorious food!
Eat right through the menu.
Just loosen your belt
Two inches and then you
Work up a new appetite.
In this interlude —
The food,
Once again, food
Fabulous food,
Glorious food.

— Oliver!


Teaser photo credit: By Autopilot – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Albert Bates

Albert Bates was a civil sector representative at the Copenhagen climate conference, trying to point the world back towards a stable atmosphere using soils and trees.  His book BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth has just been released and his book Plastics: From Pollution to Evolution is due out in April 2019. Past books include Climate in Crisis and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. Working with the Global Ecovillage Network he has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than 60 nations. A former environmental rights lawyer, paramedic, brick mason, flour miller, and horse trainer, Albert Bates received the Right Livelihood Award in 1980 as part of the steering committee of Plenty, working to preserve the cultures of indigenous peoples, and board of directors of The Farm, a pioneering intentional community in Tennessee for the past 40 years. He has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than sixty nations. A co-founder and past president of the Global Ecovillage Network, he is presently GEN’s representative to the UN climate talks. When not tinkering with fuel wringers for algae, hemp cheeses, or pyrolizing cookstoves, he teaches permaculture, ecovillage design and natural building and is a frequent guest on the ETC Podcast.

Tags: carbon sequestration strategies, food culture, nutrient dense foods