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.
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
“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
bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from
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
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
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
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
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
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
• soil quality
• farm-gate nutrient balance
• pest management
• 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
• 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
• bioregional food security
• farm workers issues
• nutrition research, education and implementation
• hunger issues
Enough Generalities: Energy as a specific
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
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,
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