The New Environmentalism pt 2 – Accepting Trade Offs

April 27, 2012

By Matt Palmer

I am starting with this quote today from an article by Bryan Walsh, who writes Time Magazine’s Ecocentric Blog.

When it comes to energy, everyone loves efficiency. Cutting energy waste is one of those goals that both sides of the political divide can agree on, even if they sometimes diverge on how best to get there. Energy efficiency allows us to get more out of our given resources, which is good for the economy and (mostly) good for the environment as well. In an increasingly hot and crowded world, the only sustainable way to live is to get more out of less. Every environmentalist would agree.

Mr Walsh’s blogpost is an interesting cost/benefit analysis of industrial farming versus organic farming from the perspective of energy efficiency and crop yields. He quotes a new study in Nature that has found industrial farming, overall, gets 25% more crop per sq. ft. than organic. This difference shrinks to 5% when comparing corn, grain, and soy to perennial fruit trees and rain-watered legume crops. How would systems thinking enhance some of the options proposed in Mr Walsh’s article?

If the nutrient quality of the end product crop counter-balances the difference in energy efficiency, and the impacts to the environment from growing corn, grains, and soy outweigh efficiency benefits and nutrient deficiencies, should we make different choices on what processes we use for the crops we grow for the planet?  One of the arguments in the article is that industrial farming makes sense with higher calorie crops where the energy efficiency is greater, and that the 5% energy trade-off might be okay with organic fruits and legumes because they have a higher nutrient content.

Energy efficiency is not the end all and be all, and in fact, history shows that efficiency usually results in greater consumption. In the case of industrial farming, and continued use of nitrogen, GMO crops, and pesticides, are the trade offs of soil degradation, and ocean acidification something we just have to deal with? What about the trade-off on crop diversity?

There is no clear answer, because while calorie dense foods are important in poorer economies, should we value calories over nutrients? Ugali, a food dish made from ground up corn, is a staple of the diet in Kenya, because it fills bellies. Having eaten ugali, I can tell you that it has very little taste, but does fill you up fast. But, there is not a big diversity of diet in Kenya and other developing countries, so would the introduction of nutrient rich foods give greater health benefits, than focusing on calories? In North America the problem leans more to a diet filled with empty calories.

There are two other issues I would like to consider: use of food crops (particularly corn) for bio fuels, and food wastage.

Corn based ethanol is flat-out bad. The energy efficiency is terrible, the environmental benefits are minimal, and as the food shortage of 2007 demonstrated, the impact to global food markets is potentially disastrous. Yet, the corn lobby in the U.S. continues to hold tremendous power, securing massive subsidies, ensuring that corn-based ethanol production continues. The large amounts of nitrogen, pesticides, and water used to grow corn, combined with soil erosion makes one question how farmers could support this given that it may lead to large tracts of unusable farmland.

So yes, it might be more energy-efficient to use modern industrial farming techniques, but is the long-term viability of the land considered, not to mention the effects of the nitrogen and pesticides within the food chain.

There is one issue all of us can begin to deal with today, whether you support organic or modern farming: food waste. Here is one of the most amazing statistics in Mr Walsh’s article: farmers produce more than 3,000 calories for every person on the planet every day. I wrote about food waste previously in my post, Food, Waste, and EnergyThe numbers on food waste are shocking. The good news is we can all make a stand, and do things in our daily lives to reduce waste. Encouraging restaurants to serve smaller portions, and getting grocery chains and farmers to find better ways of reducing food waste wood go a long way to providing significant energy savings A huge portion of daily energy consumption is from the production of food.

I think that Mr. Walsh’s blog today raises some excellent points, and makes credible suggestions into how we address sustainable food production. I caution against energy efficiency being the most important factor, and I’m not sure they are suggesting that. I would love to hear some discussion regarding a nutrient rich diet vs a calorie rich one.

Applying systems thinking to this issue, weighing out all of the factors; energy efficiency vs crop yield, nutrients vs calories, food wastage, etc; will yield the best solution.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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