Friday, August 20, 2010

Energy or land: pick one

A short follow-up in response to the many very interesting comments I've received today about my Times Op-Ed and my earlier post today on local food.

The fundamental fact is that we have an inescapable choice in our food system: use small amounts of energy, or vast amounts of land. By spending not much energy to make fertilizer and run machinery — and trivial amounts of energy to ship the stuff we grow from the places it grows best — we have spared and conserved hundreds of millions of acres of land that otherwise would have had to be brought into agricultural production. That's land that protects wildlife, that adds scenic beauty, and it's also often land that is highly erodible or otherwise unsuitable for farming. Let's not forget that in the old days of local agriculture, vast amounts of unsuitable land were plowed, especially in the Northeast and Appalachia, with truly devastating effects on soil erosion.

A second point is that while conventional wisdom brands chemical fertilizer and herbicides and long-distance transport as "unsustainable," in fact the supposed "sustainable" alternatives are frequently much worse. If you don't use chemical fertilizer (produced from the infinitely renewable source of nitrogen in the air), the "organic" alternative is to use fertilizer made from ground-up fish mass-harvested in trawl nets. If you don't use herbicides to control weeds (which also virtually eliminates the need for tillage of any kind), the alternative is labor- or fuel-intensive mechanical plowing and cultivation that results in markedly greater soil erosion.

Finally, my point in comparing the transportation costs of food to such home energy inputs to the food system as refrigeration was to point out the absurdity of making a cause célèbre of the trivial while ignoring the vast. If we really want to do something about the energy wastes in our food system, there would be a tremendous — and immediate — impact if people with ten-year-old refrigerators replaced them with a new Energy Star model. You could cover the energy cost of shipping several thousand lettuces a year across the country with what you'd save by upgrading one home refrigerator.

Finally finally:  Tomatoes were not the best example for me to use, I admit: the ones grown for shipping do taste lousy. But I can buy in my supermarket excellent green onions, jalapenos, onions, potatoes, savoy cabbage, and many other fruits and vegetables that come from Florida, California, and Mexico, and I don't think anyone could tell the difference between those and ones grown next door.


I am truly grateful for all of you who have taken the time to write comments and send them to my blog. I've been even more grateful for the fact that with extremely few exceptions, you have been civil, sane, thoughtful, calm, respectful to others, and have added interesting and valuable perspectives even when sometimes very sharply criticizing me or your fellow commentors. Many of your comments are models of how to disagree without being disagreeable, and my hat is off to you.

Let me stress: I thoroughly welcome disagreement and lively debate. But there are some rules I will enforce. I will not post any comments that contain insults, unfounded personal accusations, or that impugn the motives of others.

Thanks again, and keep those cards and letters coming!