A More Sustainable Food System — UN Report

A few years ago, Why Did Ancient Civilizations Fail? identified many of the same problems outlined in the recent UN report on our diet and its climate effects. What follows is a brief excerpt from the book.

earthspongeA sustainable food system can be built on the three principles laid out at the beginning of this chapter. For each practice, we can ask ourselves if it respects the variety of life on Earth, if it mimics natural systems and subsists off of the surplus, and if it avoids unnecessary complication. As with my discussion of energy use, the suggestions here would require a wholesale reordering of our way of life, but again I point out that we should adapt now, on our terms instead of waiting for nature to force us to change later, on its terms. We can start with a counterpoint to each of the inherent weaknesses in our current agricultural system: reliance on fossil fuels, wasting of nutrients, lack of natural mimicry, and quantity over quality.

By now, you will not be surprised that I am advocating for reducing and eventually ending the use of fossil fuels in our food system, but this does mean the end of abundant food. The easiest way to cut down on wasted energy is to grow high-value, difficult-to-transport foods in our own gardens and communities. Fresh fruits and vegetables are necessary for a balanced diet, of course, but many of them are energy intensive (and flavorless) when grown industrially. If people used the green space in their cities (including their yards) for growing vegetables, it would cut the fuel wasted in transportation and refrigeration. Furthermore, with local gardens, we would have a place to deposit our compost waste back into our local environment. Patches of variegated gardens across a town also mimic robust natural ecosystems by reducing crowding, communication, and exclusivity. The major sacrifice would be having to go back to eating season-appropriate foods and relearning how to grow and store foods at home.

We could also save huge amounts of energy by reducing our consumption of meat. For each calorie of meat, an animal must consume about seven calories of plants. Today the average American eats about a half a pound of meat per day; twice as much as a century ago. This balloons the average American’s consumption to 6200 plant calories each day.1 If we kept meat to an occasional treat, for example, having a quarter pound of meat with two dinners per week, it would bring us down to 2673 plant calories per day and more than half our production needs.

Ecologically speaking, vegetarianism is the most sustainable way of eating. Some groups are mostly vegetarian, such as Hindus who occasionally eat chicken and fish. Others, such as strict Buddhists and Jains, are completely vegetarian. Even our hunter-gatherer ancestors got the majority of their calories from gathered plants, not hunted animals. The only mostly carnivorous societies are those that live in the Arctic, where not enough plant life grows to support human populations.

Meat can be eaten within a sustainable food system, but not at the rate that we are currently consuming it. My proposal would be for communities to raise small animals for milk, eggs, and meat along with their gardening. Chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs are more efficient than larger animals. Chickens, for example, reach adult size and are ready for eating within a few months, plus they lay eggs and forage for much of their food. Pigs can eat our leftovers, storing the calories for our later enjoyment. Sheep and goats can provide milk and meat and, if kept to modest herds, will not overtax an environment. Roaming herds that occasionally lose a member as a meal mimics the natural cycle of ruminants. If you are involved in the birth and raising of these animals, you are unlikely to slaughter them lightly. In addition to having fewer animals under this scheme, fewer will be eaten because of the emotional and logistical hurdles each person would have to overcome. Local animals can also provide nitrogen-rich fertilizer for gardens.

One of the most productive forms of small-scale agriculture is the wet-rice paddy. The artificially-constructed paddies mimic a pond ecosystem. Grasses (rice) are fertilized by fish droppings and nitrogen fixed by algae growing in the water.
2 Additional fertilizer from water buffalo, waterfowl, silkworm droppings, and night soil can be added. The bottom of the field is sealed by a layer of clay, trapping the nutrients in place. The ponds can be built on sloped land, creating a picturesque landscape of terraces. The paddy is so efficient that it can produce more per hectare than industrial rice production. Even though the paddies are worked by hand, they produce over 3 calories of food for each calorie of labor, whereas industrial fields worked by machine only produce a little over 1 calorie of food for every calorie of fuel and fertilizer used (Netting 1993: Table 4.4).

An efficient dry-land strategy is polycropping, that is, planting a variety of species together in the same plot. Rarely does one see a field or forest of a single species because ecosystems prefer diversity. Every inch of the Earth provides a variety of ecological niches and a field is no different. The Maya, as I have said elsewhere, used the corn-beans-squash triad as a form of polycropping (the beans fixed nitrogen in the soil, the corn provided something for the beans to climb, and the squash covered the ground to prevent weed growth). The Kofyar, in Nigeria, grow millet, sorghum, cowpeas, and groundnuts in an integrated cycle, producing much more per hectare than growing any single species as a monocrop.3

Even with our primary cereal crops, smaller fields put into a multiyear rotation with animals and complementary crops could support communities that are spaced more evenly across the landscape. A variety of cereals (wheat, barley, oats, corn, soy, millet, and others), tubers (potatoes), and grasses (quinoa) could be grown patchily. The diversity of staples reduces the likelihood that all of a community’s food would be destroyed by an infestation, disease, or storm. Recall the Inca farmers, unsure as to whether or not they would be struck with disastrous weather brought on by ENSO, planted a variety of crops in different altitudes and at different times to ensure enough food would be available.

The type of food system I am describing would be difficult to carry out in dense cities, but that discussion will have to wait until we come to social organization, below. It is not impossible, though, to significantly increase the amount of high-value, difficult-to-transport foods grown in urban environments. Community gardens are springing up in vacant lots across the United States. Chicago has an experimental growing space called the Plant, which is worth finding on the internet. A rooftop garden provides food and insulation for the building below.

Landscaping can be reformatted to use beautiful edible plants instead of simply decorative ones. For example, I have seen a mix of lettuces used for ground covering instead of ivies and shade trees that also provide fruit. On the other end of the spectrum, modern landscaping often attempts to recreate natural environments: mulch mimics the natural layer of decomposing litter on the forest floor; only if the leaves and other litter are collected must processed mulch be applied. To add a further layer of complication, leaves, sticks, and tree fall are often hauled away, ground up, turned into mulch, and then driven elsewhere to be used as groundcovering.

Any call to abandon fossil-fuel-driven agriculture and food systems is radical and unlikely to enjoy widespread favor. What I have outlined here is a starting point for a wider discussion. This is what I envision as a more sustainable system. It is not as easy or convenient as our current system, but I feel compelled to reiterate that our way of life is artificially cushy because of our cheap, abundant, but finite energy sources. Our free ride is coming to an end, and we must prepare to disembark into a vastly different future.


1 The math: The USDA (2003) reports American meat consumption breaks down as: 33 percent beef, 24 percent pork, 1 percent veal/lamb, 27 percent poultry, 7 percent turkey, and 8 percent fish. This works out to an average of 1079 calories per pound of meat (0.454 kg). The average American eats 2700 calories per day. Twenty-one percent of those calories (567 calories) are from meat, which requires 4067 plant calories to produce (2700-567 +4067=6200 plant calories).

2 This information is summarized from Chapters 1 and 4 of Netting’s (1993) Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture.

3 See Netting et al. (1989). Also, thanks again to Glenn Stone for his lectures on this topic.

Works Cited

Netting, Robert McC.
1993 Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

United States Department of Agriculture
2003 Agriculture Fact Book, 2001-2002. United States Department of Agriculture, Washington.

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