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.
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
insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn
bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting
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
• 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
• 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
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
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,
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
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