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Are Calories and Nutrition the Reasons for Organic Gardening?

Updated on February 3, 2012

Low-calorie edibles

Broccoli floret
Broccoli floret | Source
Edible flowers
Edible flowers | Source

Why grow your own food?

Paul Wheaton believes this YouTube video addresses one of the most important questions in the food world today: the question of how much land is needed to grow enough food for one person.

Leaving aside the related questions of that person's need for air, water, shelter, medicine, beauty, danger, and other people to fall in love with, I think the video is interesting in part because it exposes a blind spot of the self-sufficiency movement.

All three of the growers commented on the popular topic:
"Gardening isn't really "growing all your own food" if you still have to import high-calorie foods (like grains and oils)."

"Most people when they say "We grow our own food," they mean they grow all their own produce. Vegetables and maybe fruits. That's not where most of your calories come from."

There's a hypercrisy (*like hypocrisy, except instead of failing to consider, they over-think) among organic food growers that can be very discouraging to new gardeners.

The question of acres per person is an important research topic, with dark implications for population limits and the survival of wildlife (i.e. all those other species responsible for the production of air, water, medicine, shelter, beauty, danger, etc).

But I think total self-sufficiency is not the most useful approach to a lower-footprint organic lifestyle. Self-sufficiency is a meager definition of human worth. It is almost the opposite, in fact, of one's value to other people: your ability to provide, for others as well as yourself, cool and useful things that make it worth keeping you around.

So instead of counting calories alone, let's really look at the cost and value of food.

High-calorie foods like grains, oils, and meat, have very different caloric yields per acre than than vegetable produce. Fresh veggies have much higher nutrition than either bulk foods, or processed vegetable products. And it's not just the acreage, as the video mentions; it's the 'inputs,' the imported compost or fertilizer, tractor fuel or pesticides, water rights, and biomass that make up a farm's footprint.

But many gardeners are not as excited about growing staple foods as about a diverse crop of tasty, treat-like veggies and fruits.

Why is that?

Is there a good reason for this attitude?

Well, there's a definite nutrition benefit to growing veggies locally, organically, and right at home. Commercial varieties are often bred, picked, and processed to preserve appearance and texture, not nutritional content. They may be picked weeks or months earlier than a home grower would consider them ripe, losing a lot of sun-time and substituting ethylene or artificial colors. So the actual nutritive value, measured as vitamins or 'brix' or sweetness or flavor, can be much higher in home-grown produce than in fresh supermarket produce. Out-of-season produce can be even worse. So the experience of quality, of sweetness and crunch and tenderness and flavor, is something that home-grown produce can improve very dramatically.

There's also the relative effort of not just growing a food, but harvesting, processing, preserving, storing, and transporting from field to table.

I think there's a huge difference in how much work it is to grow these foods, and transport them. Vegetables are fun and easy to grow (in season), easy to harvest, but hard to transport intact. Fruits can be even easier to grow, but hard to store, and to protect from pests. Grains and oils are more work to grow, and to process for storage, but both of these tasks become easier at large scale, and the resulting foods are very easy to ship. Non-toxic additives like diatomaceous earth can protect grains from insect depredation for months or years; but fruits and vegetables will breed flies in a matter of days unless preserved with salt, sugar, sulphur, or refrigeration.

So when looking at how 'sustainable' a garden lifestyle really is, it's also important to look at these two additional factors:

-The sustainability of your effort, as you make the transition to production rather than consumption; and

- The sustainability of the additional resources that must be invested per person, or per calorie, if you choose to purchase food from a distant farmer versus growing it yourself.

A lot of the high-calorie foods (grains, legumes, oils) can be stored for long periods, usually dried. Historically these 'cash crops' were hoarded, transported, and traded like cash, because they would last, and anyone could use them. Even tubers and meats could be smoked, salted, or rendered for trade. About the only thing more commonly traded than high-calorie foods were the salts and spices that preserved them, and the luxury goods people could produce when fed well.

In part because of this easy keeping factor, and in part because of the scale on which bulk foods are farmed (making certification more economical), organic grains and legumes can be more affordable than organic vegetables or fruits. High-calorie organic ingredients also contribute to processed and convenience foods, which can provide a welcome and wholesome treat.

Fresh produce is not as calorie-rich. When you consider the amount of energy needed to process it into a stable form (canning, drying, or pickling), or to maintain it in a highly nutritious but unstable frozen state, the amount of energy invested per calorie of food value suffers greatly. It is true that it is much healthier to eat mostly fresh produce. But if you are buying produce in the same store that supplies non-perishable staple foods, you will notice that the perishable foods are much, much more expensive.

Can the calories lost in transporting, refrigerating, and wastage (spoiled) produce somehow be credited to my 'account'? I will spend a fraction of the same calories to grow my own produce, and I can get a lot better value for money (nutritionally speaking) if I can find a way to buy local and direct through a farmers market or an organic food delivery service.

So EROEI (Energy return on energy invested) is a concept that really applies to growing your own food. This is also a real factor that makes it obvious when commercial agriculture is ultimately unsustainable. (Along with the depletion of the biomass of soils, forests, wetlands, and the biodiversity which support air, water, shelter, medicine, beauty, etc, etc..)

If it took 500+ calories of fossil fuel to grow, transport, and preserve for market a 100-calorie basket of strawberries (to invent a purely hypothetical example), then those strawberries are not feeding the world no matter how nutritious. They are depleting the world. The missing 400+ calories are converted into CO2 (fuel exhaust) and agricultural runoff, neither of which supports life as we know it. (There are a few calories invested in the plant's leaves, but this is of limited use because the commercial sprays make the leaves unsuitable for food, compost, or medicine.) In a post-carbon economy, there would be no point to farming this way, as you can't break even no matter how much fruit you grow.
From an effort-and energy standpoint, fresh meat has a huge footprint. It also has a huge impact on the availability of clean air, water, shelter, truth, beauty, danger, and other qualities of life.

Fresh meat has a lot of calories, which is good if you're trying to get enough food, but unhealthy if you are already over-consuming. Meat is also calorie-expensive to grow, store and ship, often having a footprint ten or a hundred times that of a similar vegetarian protein like nuts, grains, or even milk and eggs. Meat production for fast-food and other low-grade commerce is responsible for much of the current environmental destruction of rainforests and wildlife habitat, just as the seas were over-harvested in past centuries to make dog food, lamp oil, and margarine. In other places, factory farms and feed lots produce horrible abundances of animal wastes, which often end up as off-shore pollution that further depletes the marine life. It is simply very difficult to find cheap meat that doesn't come with hidden costs, usually over-exploitation of a resource.

But meat is also super-tasty, easily digested, and has key nutritive benefits that can be hard to get from other foods. If you are a committed omnivore, there are excellent reasons to consider on-site meat and egg production, especially compared to commercial purchase. The question of whether you import calories to support your meat animals is almost unimportant compared to the other factors in their production: commercial producers are also buying feed, and your chickens can eat bugs and compost and table scraps and should ultimately require less of the commercial feed. And far, far less hormones and antibiotics. So home-grown animal proteins can be healthier, and possibly more efficient, than purchased protein. If you can't stomach the thought of butchering an animal that you have known and cared for, then you may need to question your ethics in eating animals that have been kept in much worse conditions for your distant pleasure. Eggs taste better than chickens, anyhow.

If you don't mind killing once in a while, another low-footprint option for supplemental protein is to hunt or fish. Recreational hunting may seem like murder to some people, but in fact it can be a much more generous approach to meat-eating. Hunters who watch for wildlife all year round, and follow them through the kinds of forage, shelter, clean water, and spacious territories they prefer, and notice when a herd changes size or condition, have the knowledge and sympathy to ensure the survival of wild species. Buffalo do not thrive because we eat cattle instead.

Traditional cultures knew where to find the herds and schools of wildlife at the moments of their greatest abundance, and well before the invention of farming, there was extensive trade in smoked, dried, pickled, or otherwise preserved animal and fish proteins, and especially in rendered oils. A spoonful of oil can vastly reduce the amount of other foods that need to be consumed for survival; it's a make-or-break essential in subsistance situations.

The absurdity of trying to evaluate whether migratory geese have eaten the same number of calories from our garden, as we gain when we shoot one for the table, and how to count the poop they leave behind in that final moment, should illustrate the limits of a 'closed-loop' analysis of human food production. There is no real closed loop on the planet; even the planet receives essential energy from outside (sun and tides). All attempts to live in a sealed bubble so far have failed, usually in a matter of months or years, not generations. The illusion that we can be self-sufficient on any amount of land is just that, an illusion.

Without the clean air from ocean algae, spray, and rain; without the clean water from atmospheric cycling and microbiological filtration; without the shelter and climate mitigation provided by forests and sloughs; without the beauty and utility of even synthetic materials, and the danger that culls ourselves and all other species from reckless over-population, the footprint of one's garden in acres is trivial. If the world's commercial food supplies collapse in a cataclysmic shock, no amount of acreage can guarantee even the most careful gardener to survive.

So while importing grains for yourself and your livestock may not be 'self-sufficiency' in the mathematical sense, I do think it can be a wise move toward a lower-footprint lifestyle.

Growing your own favorite foods can be a very realistic way to reduce your energy footprint, carbon footprint, and the amount of arable land that others farm on your behalf, often in unsustainable ways.

Buying organic 'cash crops' from people who are doing their best to produce food in sustainable ways seems like a workable part of a globally-sustainable solution. Raising chickens on the worms from your neighbors' unwanted compost, and selling the eggs to purchase OG grains and chocolate, fair-trade coffee, local honey, and non-GMO oils, might do more for a sustainable future than trying to subsist on local tubers, bedstraw, and legumes you can grow yourself. I'm sorry, but no other bean is a substitute for chocolate.

If the question is 'How many people can we fit on the planet?' I don't want to imagine the answer. Nothing in human history suggests that increasing the population density ever leads to a fairer distribution of food. As a group, the 'maximum sustainable yield' population of people is one drought cycle away from rationing and riots, and one climate cycle away from famine and war.

I want to get better and better at thriving in a smaller footprint, living in ways that make room for antelope and owls, elephants and tigers, brain coral, and every creeping thing that has no Latin name. I don't want to barely conserve the treasure in my keeping; I want to return it with interest when my time comes.

I don't care much how much land I need for my own exclusive use, or how many people could live on a 'fair share' of nature's bounty.

I want to know how to share it better.


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