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"Adjusting to a Sustainable Food System" by Josh Trought, published January 2007

Over-consumption is a problem on the global level. We are consuming vast amounts of resources at a rate that cannot be replaced. The US consumes 25% of the world's energy but carries only 5% of the global populace. The general consensus in the scientific community is that we have used one half the oil in the Earth and will consume the rest in the next 30 years. Nuclear plants and mid west coal plants can supply increased energy to the Northeast with substantial environmental costs. Our food and suburban housing system is designed to function with low cost fuel.

It takes about 10 fossil fuel calories to produce each food calorie in the average American diet. So if Jane Smith's daily food intake is 2,000 calories, then it took about 20,000 calories to grow that food and get it to her. In more familiar units, this means that growing, processing and delivering the food consumed by a family of four each year requires the equivalent of more than 930 gallons of gasoline. In other words, we use about as much energy to grow our food as to power our homes or fuel our cars.

To reduce our energy consumption relating to food we need to identify the structures that create these inefficiencies. As a culture we need to pinpoint how we can provide our necessities without exploitative, non-sustainable resource consumption. Here are some reasons why food is more energy intensive than it needs to be, and ideas for ecological eating.

*Humans are omnivores not strict carnivores. Our current diet is high on the food chain. Meats, poultry and fish contain necessary proteins, but most American diets contain too much protein — about twice the recommended quantity. Since 80 percent of grains go to feeding livestock, the amount of energy used indirectly to support our diet is staggering. It takes 10 times the calories to raise an animal as are produced through its consumption. Animals grown in feedlots or factory pens take three times more energy calories to raise than free-range, grass-fed critters. The ground water and air pollution that results from feedlots is also immense.

Alternatives? Choose your protein sources wisely. The best meat comes fresh from happy animals raised by a farmer whom you know. Consider substituting beans for meat to satisfy your body's need for protein one night a week.

*Packaging and processing require more energy than is required for production of the food itself. Processes such as bleaching flour reduce the nutritional content of the food. Excessive amounts of sodium are often added to food products in an attempt to preserve some semblance of flavor. Juices are diluted, pasteurized and sweetened, thereby reducing the nutritional value associated with the fruit itself.

Alternatives? Eat more fresh foods and fewer processed foods. Whole fresh and dried foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes have much less embedded energy than processed food. In general there are many vegetables that are currently underutilized in our diet. We have a tremendous tradition of storing root crops and squash through the winter. We need to focus on eating what is available seasonally and focus on recipes and food preparation that incorporate these ingredients. Community Supported Agriculture is a system where consumers buy farm shares to receive produce as it becomes available during the growing season. There are also cookbooks available that provide recipes tailored to regional crops that are organized by the seasons.

*The food items on U.S. grocery store shelves have traveled an average of about 1,500 miles. Table grapes grown in Chile, transported by ship to California and shipped by truck to NH have traveled over 8,600 miles. Pineapples grown in Hawaii, shipped by plane to California and by truck to NH have traveled over 6,000 miles. Buying local keeps the revenue in the community. Wise investment in local products builds the capacity of the food suppliers in this area, and lessens community dependency on far-flung supply lines. California has long reaped the benefits of federal irrigation projects and migrant labor costs. The federal subsidization of fossil fuel and the interstate transportation system has enabled this inefficient system of food distribution to develop.

The trend in the past century has been to move manufacturing and food production offshore to achieve higher margins. Globalization is profit maximization. Unfortunately the globalized economy and the grapes it brings us from Chile depend on a continuing abundance of low cost oil. Without cheap oil, producing food at remote locations becomes ridiculously inefficient. Rising transportation fuel costs will curtail the economies of the global food trade in perishables.

It is difficult to imagine that we are dependent on Chili (South America) for apples in New England. One hundred years ago cider was the most common beverage in this region and apples were synonymous with this landscape. As oil production diminishes over the next 25 years we need to recreate the food security network that once existed in New England. We cannot depend on the oil fueled "Green Revolution" that has promised to feed the world.

Alternatives? Buy local. Rather than supporting low wage labor and the global consumer economy we can choose to support local food production and community self-reliance. We should focus on ways to create an enduring stable perennial food system in the place where we live.

Human culture must adapt to what is available locally. We must utilize innovative and traditional methods to extend the growing season, preserve the harvest, and live within the limitations of our regional resource base. There needs to be a strong appreciation and celebration of the foods that thrive in our region. This can be accomplished through a conscious decision by society to promote these ideals and necessities. There are limitations and benefits to the ecosystems of each region. If we are to live in this cold climate we must find a suitable way to be regionally independent in our food and resource consumption.

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