Sustainable food and farming part V: Ecological "rule" number two – waste equals food

In my last post I examined Mother Earth’s Rule Number One: Use Current Solar Income.  Now lets look at Rule Number Two: Waste Equals Food.  Okay, so if you are not familiar with the concept of ecological rules (or perhaps more properly “design principles based on natural systems“), or if you are just not a person who responds well to rules (like many of us with “authority problems”), you might wonder what all this “rule stuff” is all about.

Good question…….  lets start with another question.  How are we (humans) doing as a species?  Well, quantitatively quite well.  There are A LOT OF US roaming around the planet.  But how about qualitatively?  Lets think about our quality of life and ask again “how are we doing?”

I know lots of people who will hesitate to answer that question with a roaring “GREAT!” There seems to be a low level of discontent among many people I know.  Some of the symptoms of discontent may be seen in overuse and abuse of alcohol, pharmaceuticals, shopping, recreational sex, video games….. you know “distractions.”

Leslie Howard explained this to Betty Davis in the classic 1936 film, Petrified Forest. Here is a one minute clip from the film:

So the cause of “world chaos” is nature fighting back, huh?  Fighting back against human pursuit of “distractions” perhaps?  But what are we being distracted from?

Well, lets turn that question around and ask “what is our/my purpose in life?”  Do I have one?  Can I clearly state a reason for getting out of the bed in the morning?  If not, well then “distractions” sort of make sense.

Well, for me “ecological rules” are derived from my understanding of where I fit in the world.  My own sense of purpose comes from a worldview that places me (an individual) as an integral component of a hierarchical system of increasing complexity from cells, to organs and organisms (the individual), through the family, community, ecosystem, earth, universe, and divine.  In this complex living system – I belong.

I’ll explore this idea more in a future blog, but for now lets just say that I’m an ecological being……  and therefore, I ought to pay attention to ecological rules.  The rules, borrowed from architect William McDonough, suggested in an earlier blog were:

  1. Use current solar income
  2. Everything cycles (waste equals food)
  3. Enhance biological diversity

In this post, we are looking at Rule Number Two!

Here I am again in my Sustainable Living class at the University of Massachusetts talking about “waste equals food”:

So, waste equals food….. at least in my household.  But how does this apply to farming.  Well lets think of a farm as an agricultural ecosystem.   We might depict it like this:

So, an agroecosystem is a geographically bounded place on earth (a field, farm or watershed for example) that has been designed and managed by humans for a specific purpose such as growing food.  It exists in relationship with an external environment.  On most farms, inputs like sunshine, perhaps fertilizer, water and seed flow in.  Food and other “stuff” flow out.

When that other stuff is clean, no problem.  But when soil, nutrients, or pesticides flow out….. big problem!  Agroecosystems that are “leaky” are not designed well.  This situation is typical of many industrial farms that are really good at growing food, but not so good at preventing harmful waste products from flowing downstream and required lots of inputs.  By optimizing the system for continuously using and reusing energy and nutrients within the system the system becomes more efficient.

In this model, the system produces food, but minimizes waste and requires fewer inputs because energy and nutrients are recycled within the system (waste equals food).

But, can this really happen on the farm?  Sure, but it takes farm managers willing to pay attention to detail.  Here is a clip from a workshop at Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts (with an apology for the sound quality – it was a windy day).

That’s right….. waste equals food at Simple Gifts Farm.

Can you think of other ways of cycling nutrients and energy on a farm?  How about in your own life?

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Sustainable food and farming: Part IV – Ecological “rule” number one – use current solar income

In my last Sustainable Food and Farming post, I concluded with the statement that Mother Nature “runs” by  three ecological principles (its her “rulebook”).  They are:

  1. Use current solar income.
  2. Recycle everything (waste = food).
  3. Encourage biological diversity.

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In this post I’ll explore not only ways in which sustainable farms use current solar income, but how I try to apply this ecological “rule” in my own life.

Lets begin with a 6 minute video from a lesson I presented to my University of Massachusetts class, Sustainable Living, on the “rules of ecology”.

In this video, I offered a few examples of  how I try to employ the ecological principle “use current solar income.”  Of course I also use lots of archaic solar income too (fossil fuels), but my family is moving in a direction that recognizes the fact that humans use in one year the amount of oil, coal and natural gas that it took Mother Nature roughly a million years to create….. and that’s not sustainable.  Yikes!

But how do we apply this principle to farms?  Well, the obvious answer is that crops are solar powered.  True, but the industrial production system employed throughout much of the world is a huge “oil hog.”  We can do better!

The scientific literature and popular press abounds with stories of how energy inefficient our current food production system really is.  Traditional, pre-industrial societies lived on an energy ratio (energy out/energy in) of near 100/1, that is the energy produced by capturing sunlight in crops was 100 times greater than the energy used in growing the crops.  Today, that’s entirely reversed as we have created a food system that uses more energy than it generates.

This incredibly wasteful system evolved during a time of cheap fossil fuels.  The fact that it takes 97 times more energy to grow and airfreight asparagus from Chile to your plate in the wintertime misses the point.  We don’t eat asparagus for the caloric (energy) value, so it seems just fine to use energy to produce the food we truly want…. right?  Well lets look at the big picture.

A recent U.S.D.A. publication reported that between 1997 and 2002, over 80 percent of the increase in annual U.S. energy consumption was food related.  And over half of this was due to an increase in energy intensive technologies that contribute primarily to convenience.

According to this report “…the egg industry illustrates the long-term trend of substituting energy-intensive technology for labor. High-technology, energy-intensive hen houses, and more use of liquid, frozen, and dried egg products (instead of whole eggs) increased energy use per egg by 40 percent in 1997-2002.” Agriculture is a mechanized, energy-intensive industry.

But before we go “industry-bashing”, the report also found that “Consumers are relying on blenders and food processors instead of knives and chopping blocks, and self-cleaning ovens have replaced elbow grease.  The U.S.D.A Economic Research Service estimates that food-related home energy use increased by 3.9 % per meal between 1997 and 2002.”

That’s us!

So yes, agriculture needs to be more energy efficient…… but while we are supporting sustainable farms by buying local food, lets have a closer look at how individual households can change our own energy consumption patterns.  We can make a difference!

Why don’t we:

  1. Grow our own food (as much as possible anyway)!
  2. Purchase Energy Star appliances whenever possible which use energy more efficiently.
  3. Take pleasure in the simple act of chopping vegetables rather than using electric appliances whenever possible.
  4. Avoid fast food….. which is not only wasteful of energy but generally unhealthy.
  5. Cut out consumption of meat products, especially beef, in favor of plant proteins and smaller servings.
  6. Yes, and of course…..  support local farms which reduce fossil-fuel dependent fertilizers, eliminate packaging and reduce transportation costs.
  7. What else?

How do you think we can better “use current solar income” in our food growing, buying and preparation practices?  Please post below….

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  • And, to see my Facebook group, Just Food Now, click here.

Sustainable food and farming part III: Lets get practical!

Praxis (noun) ; translating an idea into action; the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted or practiced, embodied and/or realized.

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A few weeks ago I asked my Sustainable Agriculture class to define the word praxis.  They struggled with this question, so this blog will give my class (and all of you readers) an example of praxis as applied to sustainable agriculture.

I began to explore the concept of sustainable agriculture in two previous blog posts, both a bit “heady.”   I’m encouraged however by American psychologist, Kurt Lewin’s most famous quote “there is nothing more practical than a good theory.”

In my first post, Sustainable Food and Farming Part I: Is sustainable agriculture sustainable?, I explored the difference between mechanistic and ecological approaches to farming and science. I wrote “I will address this topic using both theory and practice….”

In my second post, Sustainable Food and Farming Part II: symbols and perspectives matter! I compared various ways of looking at sustainability. I asked “….what if we tried to understand how natural ecosystems function, and then design managed ecosystems like farms using principles of ecology?”

In this post I will attempt to translate these ideas into practice – yup, that’s praxis.

So lets ask “are there any real world examples of farms that are managed using ecological principles?”  Certainly there is research exploring the relationship between farming and ecology, the most famous is probably Wes Jackson’s work at The Land Institute in Kansas.  Other examples can be found among the Permaculture Community, mostly on small plots.    But most of the agroecological research is being conducted by farmers themselves.  Farmers who associate with the sustainability movement conduct practical experiments each year trying to discover what works best in their specific ecosystem.  We might all learn from them….. for example;

…here is a video from a workshop called “Farming is Ecology.”

In this video we see examples of how thinking of a farm as an agroecosystem can help generate sustainable farming practices at the Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In the video, we see examples of  three ecological principles (can you identify them?):

  1. Use current solar income whenever possible.
  2. Recycle everything (waste = food).
  3. Encourage biological diversity.

My next post will explore these ideas more fully, but for now I’ll ask you…..

1. Do you know of any farms that are managed using ecological principles?

and

2. Can you identify ways in which these ecological principles are working in your own life?

Please share your thoughts in the comments box below!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

Sustainable food and farming part II: symbols and perspectives matter!

In my first post of this series, I asked the question “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?” Of course the answer will depend largely on how we view sustainability.  In the standard (and for the most part universal) perspective, sustainability is viewed from three perspectives;

  1. Environmental Quality
  2. Social Equity
  3. Economic Viability

….. or variants of these.

If sustainable systems need to be supported by three legs of a milking stool (to put it in a farming context), it is clear that all three are important as a two-legged stool won’t stand.  While this is a simple, powerful image and perhaps useful as an introduction, it also comes with problems.

The three-legged-stool image is a variant of the commonly used Venn diagram which appears in many forms throughout the academic and farming  literature as well as  in marketing materials for various sustainable products.

Of course, the idea is that we all want to work toward the region where the circles overlap!   My problem with this commonly used depiction of sustainability is that it puts equal importance on each circle (or leg) and creates a situation in which competition among the three perspectives is inevitable.  This is a problem!

If we approach sustainability from the perspective of three interlocking yet  still competing objectives, we will never change our personal lives or our social systems in ways that can be sustained.  If this diagram remains as our model of sustainability then I’ll answer the question in my previous post (is sustainable agriculture sustainable?) with a resounding NO!  While this commonly accepted model of sustainability is a useful way to talk to someone who is new to the conversation, it is not adequate.

From this viewpoint, economic concerns will always trump environmental quality and social equity.  In fact, it could be argued that most modern industrial systems (including agriculture) are designed to exploit both people and the environment in order to maximize economic return.  A more progressive approach might be to “optimize economic return with the least negative impact on people and the environment as possible.” Have you ever heard that one?  I have.  But it is still about trade-offs.   Can’t we do better?

How can we look at sustainability in a way that integrates economic viability, environmental stability and social equity?  Where do we look for an answer?  Well, to me….. we look to the earth as our teacher.

I will examine  this idea in my next post, but to give you a taste of where we are headed – lets think about living systems (like farms) as levels of complexity, each level embedded in the next more complex level.

If we begin to see living systems as subsystems embedded in larger subsystems from the atom and molecule through the living cell, organs, organisms and on “up” through levels of ecological complexity….. then maybe we can make some sense out of our sustainability diagram.

What if “Mother Nature” was our model for sustainability?  What if we tried to understand how natural ecosystems function, and then design managed ecosystems (like farms) using principles of ecology?

Well, maybe then we would turn our Venn diagram into a model that depicted the relationship among each perspective more like a living system – more like Mother Earth!

What if we saw that a healthy economy depended on a healthy social system?  And a healthy social system depended on a healthy environment?  Maybe then we would see that competition among these three “legs of the stool” will not get us where we want to go!

To me, the symbolic representation of the three perspectives is important.  The living systems model represents a richer understanding of the relationships among potentially competing objectives.  But I”m really curious about what you think, so lets ask some questions.

  1. How might this “living systems” model of sustainability change our thinking?

  2. How might it change our behavior?

  3. How might it change the way we grow food?

  4. What do you think?

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For ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

Sustainable food and farming part I: Is sustainable agriculture sustainable?

“There is always a well-known solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.” – H.L. Mencken

When I began my career as an agricultural scientist, the “well-known” solutions for farming problems were mostly about which fertilizer to apply or which pesticide to spray.  Fortunately, that rather simplistic approach lost favor as we became more aware of its unintended consequences.  Nitrates in our drinking water, herbicides in the surface water, and tons of soil running down stream were pretty clear indicators that something wasn’t working.

Of course is was yet another economic crisis in the mid-1980’s that drove farmers to join together to “invent” something they chose to call sustainable agriculture.   Agricultural scientists were slow to get the message, but eventually most came around to talk about sustainability in their own terms.  Today, sustainable agriculture is pretty mainstream.  But the terms that mainstream agricultural scientists choose to use (that of reductionist science)  is really not such a radical departure from the past.  Loosely described as “input substitution,” most agricultural scientists began trying to develop safer ways to apply pesticides and more organic means of applying nutrients.  With some exceptions, the scientific community struggled to think about farms as ecosystems, and most university trained scientists continued with a mechanistic approach to solving problems on the farm.

Many farmers on the other hand quite naturally saw farms as complex agricultural ecosystems, even when they didn’t have all of the tools or ability necessary to manage such complex systems.

This series of posts will explore what it means to be sustainable and compare the so-called mechanistic and ecological approaches to farming and science.  I will address this topic using both theory and practice, and while my exploration of sustainability will most likely apply to many aspects of life, I intend to focus principally on food and farming.  This is where my heart is and this is the area of study that I have a modicum of experience and some expertise.

Any linear mechanistic approach to solving problems in agriculture, a decidedly complex ecological system, is likely to fail in the long run.  As the quote from H.L. Mencken above suggests, even the most obvious solutions applied to complex systems are likely to be wrong when approached from the wrong frame of reference.  So perspective matters.  My next post will explore ways of looking at sustainability as I try to answer the question “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?”

If you are curious about the author of this blog, you are welcome to check out a bio statement on my web page, where you may find some background information as well as links to some of my writing and videos.

My hope is that this exploration elicits a passionate but thoughtful response from readers.  So let us begin this discussion with a question…..

…..is sustainable agriculture sustainable?

What do you think?

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