Beyond organics:
Envisioning a sustaining food system

The “Gandhi of Greenhouses” airs his frustration with a piecemeal organic movement and lays the framework for a more holistic approach to sustainable food security.

By Steve Moore
Posted May 13, 2004

Editor’s NOTE: In a recent two-part series, George Devault described Pennsylvania farmer Steve Moore’s elegant, low-input greenhouses. Now Moore himself waxes philosophical about the real energy costs of food and his vision for a better system of food production.

Editor's note: Steve Moore is no longer farming in Pennsylvania. He is currently the small farms manager of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at North Carolina State University in Goldsboro, NC.

“The ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ applies to the [number of] people
within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an
insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations,
bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the
heritage of those unborn generations.”

~Theodore Roosevelt, 1916

It seems we are both heirs of and participants in that “unprincipled generation”. We have made huge strides in organic production and public acceptance. Yet, key “principles” go unanswered and in many cases the questions go unasked.

How does organic agriculture affect energy use (especially fossil fuel)?

How does organic agriculture affect water use, human nutrition, food security, local economics and hunger?

Can organic agriculture be sustained by “off farm” fertility? What is the “true cost” of organic apples from Washington state, Argentina, or even China, when they are sold in Pennsylvania?

Is an “organic Twinkie” healthy?

Many of these questions come as a result of trying to comfortably “fit” organic into our existing food system and the relative infancy of the organic movement as a whole. We have learned a lot (an awful lot) that can be applied to a sustaining food system. But it is time for that difficult teenage adolescence of “organics” to move to a more mature fulfillment.

Wes Jackson recently called it the “misplaced concreteness” of organic agriculture. It is time for people of principle to seek a fresh envisioning, a square-one holistic approach to the complex issues that must be designed into a sustaining food system, and then begin working toward specifics. Is this going to be difficult? Yes! Will this plan solve all the problems inherent in our food system? No, but we will know what they are and face them. Without this context, so-called solutions to one problem can exacerbate others and potentially underutilize our resources of time and money.

I know I am not alone in these concerns, and many in the “choir” have better and stronger voices. But, let us join our voices and visualize the design, then the pieces can fit together.

I have been struggling with this lack of sustainability in our food system since the mid ’90s (post USDA Organic Standards syndrome and post UN Agenda 21). It seems even more apparent with the rejection of a recently submitted SARE grower’s grant to assist my wife, Carol, and I in accelerating our understanding and documentation of our “energy work” [producing vegetables with minimal inputs, including designing and operating greenhouse systems that do not rely on fossil fuels]. We felt we had a good proposal, The King of Agriculture Energy, David Pimentel, Ph.D. of Cornell University, and Biointensive guru John Jeavons were our technical advisors (certainly an all-star cast).

We didn’t even make it to the first round. Why? Well I am sure there are lots of good grants out there, but the comments indicated that we were dealing in something that held little interest for consumers and farmers [energy conserving vegetable production]. So, it’s back to self-funded research.

It did refresh my concerns about the need for building a sustaining food system. They still linger (Carol would say “fester”). I ask myself, “When are we going to look holistically at this issue of sustainable agriculture and not just add pieces?” Are we only going to pick the pieces of sustainability that we like, look doable, meet our agendas, or are just warm and fuzzy? Can you imagine building an airplane by engineering pieces without an overall conceptual design for the entire aircraft? It would be absurd. But isn’t that just what we are doing with sustainable agriculture? We are working on the pieces without an overarching conceptual design. Certainly, many have espoused the big three: environmentally sound, socially just and economically viable. A great start, but it has long since been the “right time” to begin the process of holistic intentional design. Sustainable agriculture can no longer remain a three-sentence definition.

Does this mean that everyone who works on any piece of the puzzle has to work on it all? Of course not. But it should mean that anyone working on a piece should have a causal working knowledge of the design plan so their piece will “fit in.” It is time to envision and design the plane of sustainable agriculture and dream of it really flying!

A Developing Strategic Plan for a Sustaining Food System (SFS)

I am a farmer, one who loves the soil more than ink, and I will fully confess my inabilities to this task. Perhaps it is you the readers, in combination with The New Farm, who may prove to be the right format to begin to flesh out a sustaining food system. Here are a few, limited thoughts on a SFS. They are very basic and I offer them only as a start. They are the big three with a few fill-ins to get the ball rolling.


• soil quality
• farm-gate nutrient balance
• pest management
• biodiversity
• air quality atmospheric balance (CO2, carbon sequestering)
• energy use
• water use
• carrying capacity of the land


• respectable and consistent income
• economic strength and stability at community level
• reasonable return on investment
• “real” cost of production of specific crops


• land use
• community stability
• quality of life for farmers
• healthy and egalitarian distribution of food
• information/education transfer to current and future farmers and community members (professional improvement) and continuous research
• humane treatment of farm animals (probably farmers too!)
• bioregional food security
• farm workers issues
• nutrition research, education and implementation
• hunger issues

Enough Generalities: Energy as a specific example

For three decades, Carol and I have had a keen interest in reducing our fossil fuel use on the farm. We started farming with horse power for just that reason. It was great and we enjoyed their use, but as we began to more fully understand our energy (and land) use, we realized that it might not be our “final” answer to the nagging question of energy conversion/conservation.

In terms of production, energy conversion deals with the energy put into a crop versus energy derived from that crop. About this time (12 years ago) we were introduced to and experimented with commercial production using hand power, particularly Biointensive. After 26 years of horse power, we sold our six workhorses (yes, we were guilty of “get bigger or get out”), completing our switch to using hand power. We have found it both environmentally sound and economically practical.

Our society is dealing with—and globally promoting—a finite energy source (fossil fuel) as if it will last for an eternity. The UN Development Commission has stated that we will not be able to grow food using oil the way we do by the year 2020 (Lansink, 2002). Doing some quick math, we are only 15 years from that date. So how are we going to deal with the conversion of 10 calories (many have suggested a much higher value) of fossil fuel required to produce 1 calorie of nutritional energy at the table (Miller, 1994)? This includes energy uses in production, transportation, processing, distribution and preparation. Many well-written articles have recently brought the whole energy food relationship to the forefront. However, little has been done to get to the nitty gritty of experimenting with and documenting more energy efficient ways of producing food.

Just a few sound bites on energy use in processing and preparation of food. Green beans have 159 calories per pound (Onstad, 1996). It is interesting that commercial processing requires 261 cal/pound (home processing 344 cal/pound) with the glass jar (16 ounce) alone requiring 1,023 Cal (Pimentel, 1996). Now add heat to warm them up at home, then put the leftovers back in the fridge and reheat them. Sobering isn’t it! (This is one reason Carol and I have chosen to store and eat more lacto-fermented foods, sauerkraut, carrots, beets, etc.)

Using Biointensive techniques (deep soil preparation, close plant spacing, farm-grown compost crops, permanent beds and paths, etc.), we produced an average of 380 pounds of onions per 100 square feet. This is 65,000 calories. We factor the laborer’s gender, weight, activity level and the ambient temperature into our worksheets. No, we are not nuts (I hope). From this we can calculate the amount of human work calories it takes to produce those onions. We combine this with the energy cost of growing our own compost crops and making the compost, the embodied energy (amount of energy used to make the tools) and the direct energy for electricity for irrigation pumping.

Our end result is an energy efficiency ratio of one calorie of all this input energy into 43 calories of output energy (onion power). U.S. mechanized agriculture (chemical and probably large-scale commercial organic) has an energy efficiency ratio of about 1 calorie of energy in (mostly fossil fuel) to .9 calories (Merrill, 1978) of energy out. This low conversion value in mechanized agriculture is not uncommon. Here are some energy efficiency ratios (cal input/cal output) of a few vegetables: cabbage 0.89, peppers 0.13, spinach 0.52, strawberries 0.21 and lettuce 0.14 (Pimentel, 1980).

Many people are put off by the intensity of the numbers and worksheets. (And no, I really haven’t been in the sun too long). However, it seems that this is the kind of specifics we will need to make informed choices as we seek to put “directed concreteness” into a sustaining food system. One can go even further (and we should), noting that calories vary by variety and growing conditions. Carol, in her dissertation for a Doctor of Natural Medicine, compared the USDA constituent level of calories (and many other constituents) for various vegetables and has shown a 6 percent decrease in onion calories from 1981 until 1999. Yes there is a lot to do, but a lot has been done and can be done to inch toward our goals. But it needs to be in the perspective of an overarching sustaining food system plan or else it is just another random piece.

The Driving Force

In the ’60s and ’70s farmers predominantly drove the organic movement and created consumer demand. Perhaps that same strategy can be employed to drive a sustainable food system by allowing farmers to market their products in the “niche” market of a SFS. We need to increase consumer awareness of the need for a Sustaining Food System. We need consumer confidence in our ability to understand the issues and to incorporate them into the farms and the entire food system. As always, the ultimate goal and challenge is to know who grows your food and have confidence in their knowledge.

However, for those who don’t know their farmers, can we even dare to imagine a time when our food may end up with some sort of a “sustainability” designation? Imagine a farmer being able to produce an 85 percent sustainably grown carrot instead of a 70 percent sustainably grown one. And, giving consumers the opportunity to vote for the future in the marketplace, to become a “principled generation” and invest in a truly sustainable food system! This may sound impossible, but so did building a 300-passenger jet or flying to the moon or proving the world isn’t flat! Let’s be a “principled generation”! Let’s just roll up our sleeves and dig in!

(c) 2004 Steve Moore