Changing our fossil-fuel drenched food system starts right here, right now

Fueling Ourselves

by John Abrams

Fueling Ourselves

Susie Middleton

I’m on a plane, flying from Boston to Colorado to visit my daughter and to ski. The fossil fuel energy used for my part of this flight—just mine, mind you—will add about two tons of emissions to my (already way too large) carbon footprint. My one flight will put more carbon into the atmosphere than the average person in some developing countries will produce in an entire year. Jet planes don’t go easy on energy use.

Food is energy too. It fuels our bodies just as wind turns blades and aviation fuel powers planes. A strawberry has about five calories of energy in it (a calorie is actually a measure of heat energy). Flying that strawberry from California to Boston consumes 50 to 100 times more energy than the energy contained in the strawberry. And transport energy is only a part of the fossil fuel invested in that one juicy strawberry.

Not so long ago, the energy in food came from a remarkable convergence of sunlight beamed from afar, nutrients stored in soil, and the activity of human hands. This collaborative trio got help from ingenious tools, and, sometimes, strong animals (who, in turn, contributed to the fertility of the soil with their waste).

But then we learned new stuff.

We learned that we could make machines that could do more work than animals. We learned that we could use the same soil over and over and replace the depleted nutrients with fossil-fuel fertilizers. We learned to process foods and refrigerate them and ship them and distribute them and cook too much of them and waste even more of them.

Now that we’ve moved rapidly from family farming to industrial farming, the food chain in the U.S. is responsible for up to 20 percent of our fossil fuel consumption, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which points out that fossil-fuel use by food systems in the developed world “rivals that of automobiles.”

We learned so much that the energy ratio (energy out compared to energy in) in agriculture has decreased from close to 100 percent for traditional pre-industrial societies to less than 1 percent in the present food system. In other words, subsistence farming was (and is) almost 100 times more efficient, in terms of energy use, than industrial farming is today.

How long will the planet support a system so impossibly inefficient? I don’t pretend to know, but it’s not likely to be long. If we keep doin’ what we’re doin’, we won’t be able to keep doin’ what we’re doin’.

Something will have to change, and maybe there’s more we can learn, and some things we can un-learn.

It seems hopelessly sentimental and naïve to imagine that Morning Glory Farm and Whippoorwill Farm and all the other growers on Martha’s Vineyard (and all those still to come) can produce all the food we need locally. But we have to start somewhere, and thanks to farms like these, we already have. Now that we know so much, maybe we can combine our vast store of information with our collective ingenuity, and begin to think differently about how we use energy to make food. It’s not all that implausible to imagine that we can remember how to use the sun and the soil and our own robust activity to make what we need in ways that will allow us to keep doin’ what we’re doin’.

I’m still aloft. We’re getting close to Colorado. There’s no food, to speak of, on this plane. I’m hungry and ready to get off. How long will Chris and I be able to casually hop on a plane and fly out to Telluride to go skiing? That’s my problem to figure out, but I know deep down that something has to change in that regard, too.

Maybe we can start by being more sensible. Herman Daly, the economist and futurist, maintains that fully 50 percent of international trade is the simultaneous exchange of essentially the same goods. The Danes ship cookies to America. Americans ship cookies to Denmark.

“Why in the world,” he asks, “don’t they just exchange recipes?”

And why don’t we just drive to Vermont to ski?