Jason Bradford on reforming the current food system

Ecological Economics and the Food System

May 20, 2009  Jason Bradford

Jason Bradford has many articles on reforming the fossil-fueled food system, here are just a few ideas excerpted from this article: 

To get by on ambient energy as much as possible, we have sought alternatives to fossil fuels in every aspect of the food system we participate in. Table 1 considers each type of work done on the farm, to the fork, and back again and contrasts how fossil fuels are commonly used with the technologies we have applied.

Type of Work Common Fossil-Fuel Inputs Alternatives Implemented
Soil cultivation Gasoline or diesel powered rototiller or small tractor Low-wheel cultivator, broadfork, adze or grub hoe, rake and human labor
Soil fertility In-organic or imported organic fertilizer Growing of highly productive, nitrogen and biomass crop (banner fava beans), making aerobic compost piles sufficient to build soil carbon and nitrogen fertility, re-introducing micro-nutrients by importing locally generated food waste and processing in a worm bin, and application of compost teas for microbiology enhancement.
Pest and weed management Herbicide and pesticide applications, flame weeder, tractor cultivation Companion planting, crop rotation, crop diversity and spatial heterogeneity, beneficial predator attraction through landscape plantings, emphasis on soil and plant health, and manual removal with efficient human-scaled tools
Seed sourcing Bulk ordering of a few varieties through centralized seed development and distribution outlets Sourcing seeds from local supplier, developing a seed saving and local production and distribution plan using open pollinated varieties
Food distribution Produce trucks, refrigeration, long-distance transport, eating out of season Produce only sold locally, direct from farm or hauled to local restaurants or grocers using bicycles or electric vehicles, produce grown with year-round consumption in mind with farm delivering large quantities of food in winter months
Storage and processing at production end Preparation of food for long distance transport, storage and retailing requiring energy intensive cooling, drying, food grade wax and packaging Passive evaporative cooling, solar dehydrating, root cellaring and re-usable storage baskets and bags
Home and institutional storage and cooking Natural gas, propane or electric fired stoves and ovens, electric freezers and refrigerators Solar ovens, promotion of eating fresh and seasonal foods, home-scale evaporative cooling for summer preservation and “root cellaring” techniques for winter storage

Table 1. Feeding people requires many kinds of work and all work entails energy. In most farm operations the main energy sources are fossil fuels. By contrast, Brookside Farm uses and develops renewable energy based alternatives.

Our use of food scraps to replace exported fertility also reduces energy by diverting mass from the municipal waste stream. Solid Waste of Willits has a transfer station in town but no local disposal site. Our garbage is trucked to Sonoma County about 100 miles to the south. From there it may be sent to a rail yard and taken several hundred miles away to an out of state land fill. We are also installing a rainwater catchment and storage system that will supply about half the annual water needs to offset use of treated municipal water. The associated irrigation system will be driven by a photovoltaic system instead of the usual diesel-driven pumps on many farms.

Let me put the area of lawn from this study into a food perspective. The 128,000 square kilometers of lawns is the same as 32 million acres. A generous portion of fruits and vegetables for a person per year is 700 lbs, or about half the total weight of food consumed in a year.[xviii] Modest yields in small farms and gardens would be in the range of about 20,000 lbs per acre.[xix] Even with half the area set aside to grow compost crops each year, simple math reveals that the entire U.S. population could be fed plenty of vegetables and fruits using two thirds of the area currently in lawns.

Number of people in U.S. 300,000,000
Pounds of fruits and vegetables per person per year 700
Yield per acre in pounds 20,000
People fed per acre in production 29
Fraction of area set aside for compost crops 0.5
Compost-adjusted people fed per acre 14
Number of acres to feed population 21,000,000
Acres in lawn 32,000,000
Percent of lawn area needed 66%

Labor Compared to Hours of T.V.

For its members Brookside Farm’s role is to provide a substantial proportion of their yearly vegetable and fruit needs. Using our farming techniques, we estimate that one person working full time could grow enough produce for ten to twenty people. By contrast, an individual could grow their personal vegetable and fruit needs on a very part-time basis, probably half an hour per day, on average, working an area the size of a small home (700 sq ft in veggies and fruits plus 700 sq ft in cover crops). American’s complain that they feel cramped for time and overworked. But is this really true or just a function of addiction to a fast-paced media culture? According to Nielsen Media Research:[xx]

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