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Rebuilding the Foodshed: Fields of ENERGY

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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.

Rebuilding the Foodshed

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.)

Do we simply go retro? Techno? Heck, no. A total historical reversal to preindustrial conditions is just as unlikely as a technological absolution for our modern-day petroleum-based gluttony.
The energy behind human civilizations was once a product of the food supply. But we are at a point in human history in which food is predominately a result of nonhuman energy inputs. The prospect of bringing food and energy closer to a one-to-one ratio of calories invested to calories derived is extraordinarily complex, and it has direct links to the call for creating more sustainable and resilient food systems. Today in the United States, these food and energy questions comprise a quandary that most of us can ponder in relative comfort, without the imminent threat of being unable to feed ourselves due to costs, energy constraints, or shortages. And yet, even as we relish the extraordinarily low cost of food in the United States, certain threats do lurk in the background. The energy supply that feeds our food system is at short-term risk of disruption by natural disasters, international conflict, and economic turmoil. The long-term impacts of worsening climate change, dwindling petroleum supplies, and increasing global population pressures are looming realities that we may try to ignore but ultimately cannot avoid. We have already seen how spikes in food prices can create social unrest with the seeming velocity of the flick of a match.
Such inquiries into food security should not be viewed as mere intellectual exercises or myopic self-preservation interests. Perhaps the most compelling reasons to grapple with our precarious food/energy imbalance are sheer justice and altruism.3 People who are “food insecure”4 are generally far too busy trying to convert their own personal energy into food dollars to spend much time researching and thinking about the national food and energy dilemma. The onus is upon those who are concerned enough to care and are able to do something about it. As actor Alan Alda once said during a graduation speech to a group of medical students, “The head bone is connected to the heart bone—don’t let them come apart.”5
Energy Fields
I am an optimist and a good-natured (I hope) skeptic. But from my vantage point as a farmer and an academic, few things worry me more about the human condition than the intertwined fragilities of our food and energy supplies—and our habits that exacerbate the amount of energy consumed between farm and fork.
I struggle to make sense of the food/energy dilemma most every day, although I would by no means characterize those days as gloomy or my attitude as morose. Rather, my days tend to be filled with sunshine, pastoral landscapes, solar panels, healthy livestock, laughing children, and inquisitive students. But the energy-to-food ratio is a constant theme, starting with the morning milking on our off-the-grid farm. Our grass-fed herd of American Milking Devon cattle get either fresh pasture or good-quality hay every morning—no grain, but plenty of gain. The milk pails are washed with solar-heated hot water while the early morning lights in the house are powered by yesterday’s sunshine. (We are almost entirely solar-powered, with fossil-fuel backups providing about 20 percent of the additional energy we need.) We’ll use one of our two Kubota tractors to do the morning’s heavy lifting or towing, but the goal is to use them as little as possible and, when feasible, not at all.
When the chores are completed, by me or often by one of our apprentices, I admittedly leave home in a gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive vehicle and head out sixteen miles to my job at Green Mountain College, where I oversee the college’s Farm & Food Project. As I pull up, students are usually walking to and from the farmhouse and the various outbuildings that comprise the college farm complex, often toting milk pails or vegetable bins as they wrap up morning chores there. Their farm—and it is theirs in many ways—is much like mine at home, an experiment in trying to minimize energy inputs and maximize food output. However, their work is more rigorous in its analytical aspects, thanks to the research oversight headed by my colleague Kenneth Mulder, one of the few PhDs in the United States who is also an expert at using oxen in agriculture.
The farm’s focus is to probe ways toward a food system that eschews fossil fuels as much as possible—and indeed, all of the activities on the farm seem to orbit the question of our overblown American diet. Draft animal equipment, photovoltaic panels, a solar hot water system, greenhouses, ergonomic hand tools, and bike tractors dot the farm. Students’ experiences with these techniques and technologies contrast sharply with the predominant realities of our current food system, which has us guzzling kilocalories of diesel energy in our tractors and gorging on excessive calories of food energy from our kitchens.

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.

This research project, dubbed LEAFS (Long-Term Ecological Assessment of Farming Systems), is Kenneth’s brainchild, a means of evaluating all of the energy inputs and outputs within each system. The goal is to develop a database of ten years of experimentation in order to discover the energy requirements of each system and to assess its efficiencies and challenges.
One of the more amusing aspects of it all is watching students work with stopwatches and scales in order to monitor their own energy inputs and each plot’s productivity. Even the energy expended by the oxen in pulling different pieces of equipment is measured by means of a dynamometer, a device placed between draft animals and any load that they pull as part of a task on the farm. The dynamometer sends a signal to a computer in the oxen-driver’s backpack, indicating precisely how much energy the oxen are exerting every second. This information is then transferred to a Google Earth map so that the oxen energy can be recorded both in joules (a unit of energy) and on a map that details the different levels of energy expended on certain tasks and in specific locations.
Efficiencies can also be measured in a variety of ways. For this long-term ecological study, Kenneth has opted to analyze efficiency in terms of labor, land, and energy, and his figures are based on wholesale organic vegetable prices (see table 4-1). It is interesting to note that the energy efficiency (measured as energy return on energy invested, or EROEI) of all four calculations ranges from 2.3 to 7.0, which is significantly higher than the range of 0.26 to 1.6 that is typical for conventional vegetable production in the United States.6
Trade-offs are inevitable in farm management systems, but seldom do aspiring farmers get to test out the practicalities of different systems, much less measure them with the sophistication provided by Kenneth’s expertise. The most elusive variable is energy, but it is arguably the one that currently warrants the most scrutiny.
The farm is the natural starting point for rectifying the imbalance between inputs and outputs, but if we are truly seeking balance in our food system, we must also assess the basic energy parameters that frame our daily decisions as consumers. In doing so, most of us gravitate immediately to the production and distribution aspects of our food system. Granted, those are critical components to tackle. However, food production and distribution often seem a bit beyond the scope of control for the average person, and—somewhat contrary to our recent intense focus on food miles—the transportation portion of our energy diet is actually relatively small in comparison to other parts of the food system that are based upon and driven by consumer choices and household habits.
As it turns out, the elements of the food system most within our control often tend to be those parts of the system that are closest to home, and they are also among the most energy-consumptive components found between farm and fork. The food and energy decisions we make in and near the home have the greatest impact on our personal energy-to-food ratios (see fig. 4-3).7 Household storage and preparation represent the largest single sector of energy use in the entire food system. When it comes to energy issues and food systems, “local” starts to become quite personal.
In order for the food and energy dilemma to really hit home, so to speak, it helps to remember that every step in the farm-to-plate process increases total energy inputs, making food waste an issue that we can ill afford to toss casually aside. As we work our way through the food chain, it will become increasingly obvious why reducing waste is such a critical link in creating resilient local food systems.

Post Carbon Institute

8 Comments on "Rebuilding the Foodshed: Fields of ENERGY"

  1. Arthur on Thu, 25th Apr 2013 2:44 pm 

    One of the best ways to renew our approach to food is to get rid of grain altoghether. If you do, you get rid of the necessicity of maintaining endless cornfields with huge machines. Switch to gardening, that can be done without (large) machines. Fruit, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, beans, onions, nuts, etc. Chicken for eggs, cattle for limited amount of meat. I haven’t been eating bread for years, don’t miss it and it is unhealthy as it is processed food. Do not need pasta either. Bye bye grain.

  2. BillT on Thu, 25th Apr 2013 2:53 pm 

    Ok, this permaculture system may work for 1 billion or fewer of us earthlings. What about the other 6 billion? And do you really think it is possible in today’s world to try to turn back the clock to the hunter/gatherer days? LMAO!

  3. J-Gav on Thu, 25th Apr 2013 3:55 pm 

    Arthur – I agree, at least reducing grain output and replacing it with nutritonally more concentrated foods makes sense. Haven’t been eating much bread myself for several years and I live in a country where it’s a major staple (France).

    BillT – you’re right that the agro-ecology/permaculture/food forest movement won’t scale up fast enough to deal with all the coming food shortages (just not enough cheap, arable land around for everybody). Still, I think they may be our best chance of giving locals a shot at subsistence/semi-independence from the soon-to-break-down JIT world-wide criminal food processing and distribution system. And, if carefully designed, it should help make reversion to hunter-gatherer days totally unnecessary… (not enough forest left for that anyway).

    As to how many billions such a system could sustainably feed is an open question but I tend to believe it could be as much as 2, possibly 3. Ok, that still leaves the other 4-5 billion in the lurch but I see die-off as being preferable to the almost inevitable die-out which is otherwise in the works.

  4. GregT on Thu, 25th Apr 2013 6:07 pm 


    Time to move away from large population centres, involve yourselves in small local communities, and establish resilient local food networks. Learn how to take care of yourselves.

    How much time is left? Two years? Five years? Ten? Twenty?

    One thing that’s certain, if we don’t completely kill ourselves off, a large percentage of people are not going to make it through the transition to a low carbon society.

    Will you be one of them?

  5. Arthur on Thu, 25th Apr 2013 6:55 pm 

    I watched “The Edge”-1997 recently, which was supposed to be situated in Alaska but in reality was mainly filmed in Alberta. What a magnificent country that is! Canada, Montana, North-Dakota and France seem to be the better places to survive.

  6. BillT on Fri, 26th Apr 2013 2:03 am 

    I’m doing just that, GregT. We are building a farm in the far country that is based on permaculture. Hundreds of square miles of almost empty mountain land around us and the Pacific about a two hour walk east. At an elevation of 250 feet, we are above any storm surge or flood from the river 1/4 mile to the north. There are two springs on the site that run year round and are drinkable. We will be totally independent in two more years. But, I realize that most cannot do that in their crowded country where Big Brother is breathing over your shoulder with regulations you never heard of.

  7. tubaplayer on Fri, 26th Apr 2013 8:51 pm 

    @BillT and @GregT
    GregT – absolutely right! I have been here just over 5 years in what used to be a USSR satellite country. I found the country by a process of elimination. According to what I have read, this small country precipitated the fall of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain”. I came from the UK – not so far away. I found the place where I live by absolute chance. It was the most trivial incident that I witnessed when I had come to look at property that tipped it for me. A villager’s chickens had escaped the yard onto the road. A bunch of village children had foregathered and were herding them back into the yard. My immediate thought was “That will do for me!”. I took the time and trouble to do some calculations with the aid of a map. With few exceptions the dwellings here are all within municipalities. Even the smallest villages are regarded as municipalities. In the local area there is available about a hectare of mixed arable and managed forest for every member of the population. Community? Most definitely! Although only a small village – less than 300 population – there is a network of support. The range of skill sets still amazes me after five years. Yes, the killing of ourselves and the majority of the rest of the species on earth worries me greatly.
    BillT – For long I have wished that I knew more about permaculture. At the moment I make it up as I go along. I rotate my crops, such as they are and lots of good ex-goat sh*t compost goes in the ground. I never even thought about flooding when I bought the place. The local big river is about a kilometer away. The vast majority of the village has never been flooded in living memory. At the end of the winter we had a huge (for here) snowfall followed by a change to rain and rapid thaw. The local river reached a new record height. It did not get near any of the properties in the village. No springs here, but almost every property has a well. I have several nearby neighbours that still drink the water from their wells. I really must get the water in mine tested. Ah! Big Brother. Yes, we are in the shadow of big brother. This country is now in the EU, which is why I have right of residency. Fortunately, it is also a country that tends to submit to the rules more in the breach than the observance.

    I am a long time reader on here but rarely post. Normally, either one or both of you has posted in your own inimitable style what I would have wanted to say anyway before I get here.

  8. Arthur on Sat, 27th Apr 2013 9:51 am 

    Not difficult to guess the names of the three small countries tubaplayer is talking about.

    “Ah! Big Brother. Yes, we are in the shadow of big brother. This country is now in the EU, which is why I have right of residency. ”

    The most anti-EU country in Europe, Britain, is the most Big Brother by itself. USA is probably even worse BB.

    Ca. 8 years ago I travelled by car from Holland via Germany and Poland to the three newly EU adopted Baltic countries myself, via Vilnius, Riga to Tallinn. Lonely, empty, slightly melancholic places, very green. Not difficult to understand tubaplayers affinity for Bill’s stories; it is tempting indeed to move to a country with much lower standard of living, where you can be king with your western sources of income. I had similar feelings when I was in Sevastopol/Crimea/Ukraine and noticed brand new 100 m2 flats on offer for $50k, in a beautiful setting and nice climate and still only 2 hours flying home from Odessa. From secondary airports in Holland you can fly to the Baltic states for 50 euro. Britain probably likewise.

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