Move away from growing lawns and into growing food.
Eat Your View
by John Abrams
It feels funny writing a column about energy and food. I know a little about energy, but I’m not a scientist or an engineer—I’m a user, like everyone else. And I think I’d call myself a dedicated student as well, because in my business, I often find myself advising clients, who are building or renovating, about the sensible use of energy. But I wouldn’t say food is exactly my area of expertise.
I like to eat, of course, like everyone else. I like to cook, but it’s very recent. And it’s been a long while since I’ve grown much of my own food. But I find myself returning—these days—to an important interest of my long ago back-to-the-land roots: edible landscapes.
In the spring issue of Edible Vineyard, I wrote in general terms about the fossil fuel use embedded in food, and the fact that the various parts of the food chain represent about 20% of all fossil fuel use. The food system is a major contributor to global climate change.
The conventional wisdom is that much of that is consumed in long-distance transportation of food. That’s true, but the biggest culprit is the production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, which account for as much as 40% of food chain energy use. And nearly a quarter of the energy used in food production goes to processing and packaging food.
Both can be dramatically reduced when we grow locally. The agricultural revival is strong here on the Vineyard, and growing, and it can have significant impact. During World War II, according to the USDA, 20 million victory gardens produced 40% of America’s fresh vegetables. My wife Chris and I have just begun a project to gradually replace the ornamental plants around our house with edible plants (very gradually, I imagine, as our good intentions will surely collide with other commitments).
At my company’s office we have two large high-bush blueberry plants right outside the door. They bear plenty of fruit. Some years, at the height of it, we have a great blueberry pancake breakfast at the office. Those shrubs could just as well be bayberry, or winterberry, or any other non-food-producing shrub, but why not get some productive use—and culinary pleasure—from them?
And we’re beginning to wonder why, at each home we build or renovate, we don’t do more to plant edibles in the landscapes we make.
There are tremendous opportunities, as well, beyond our individual homes. Imagine almost any office building, school, or hotel you’ve been to. As my friend Alex Wilson writes in Environmental Building News (EBN), “Conventional practice in commercial development of all types is to install generic shrubs and shade trees in a sterile landscape of mounded mulch and turf…Why not devote some of that landscape to trees and shrubs that bear fruit? While there are plenty of examples of homeowners’ replacing their lawns with edible landscapes, EBN was—remarkably—unable to find any examples of commercial buildings whose owners implemented an edible landscaping strategy.”
The Island Grown Initiative’s exciting farm-to-school program (Island Grown Schools) could be extended far beyond vegetable gardens at our schools. What about the new landscapes at the hospital and the YMCA? Wouldn’t it be nice to wait outside for your doctor’s appointment and munch fresh blueberries? Or pick an apple on your way out of the YMCA after a swim?
When I was growing up in California, we used to stop in Sacramento for dinner on the way home from the Sierras in winter. The streets were lined with orange trees. While our parents and their friends sat in the restaurant drinking and yakking, we kids would clamber onto the roofs of cars and pick oranges.
Though we can’t grow oranges here, there’s a lot that we can grow, and many people are. The payoffs are less energy, greater self-reliance, smaller carbon footprints, better food, more delight. Seems like plenty, doesn’t it?