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The "embodied energy" carried by our food

Growing Your Own? Local vs. Organic: Why We Should Think Before We Simply Buy.

Most of us do not think twice before purchasing our daily ‘fresh’ produce from our local supermarket. We rarely heed attention to those little stickers on the apples that say “Chile,” or the “Morocco” stickers on the tangerines.

Needless to say, our food travels a long and lengthy journey before ever reaching the kitchen. Doron Amiran, program director of the Solar Living Institute, explains why it is important to be aware of where our food comes from, and how it is grown.

faircompanies: Can you tell us about the garden at the Solar Living Institute?

Doron Amiran: We’re here in our kitchen garden… it’s a garden where our interns grow much of their food. You’ll notice they do it not only organically, but using permaculture principles. So one of the principles of permaculture, for example, is no mono-cropping. So everything is interspersed. We’ve got some chard here, we’ve got flowers, we’ve got herbs, we’ve got vegetables, we’ve got kale, we’ve got lemon cucumbers. So we have a lot of different types of things all planted together here.

Should we pay more attention to where and how we get our food?

Food is something that all of us are consuming on a daily basis. Most of us don’t think about the ‘embodied energy’ and pollution that our food represents. The average piece of food in the United States travels over 1000 miles from farm to plate.

Okay, think about that for a moment, over 1000 miles from farm to plate. And so if you add up all of the food that you eat on a daily basis, all of the boxes of cereal, all of the energy bars you might be unwrapping, all of the vegetables, the meats, the grains, the breads, etc, you can see that there is a huge amount, there’s that term again: ‘embodied energy,’ captured in our food.

And, so here’s a great opportunity for each one of us to reduce our ecological footprint, reduce our carbon footprint, while also doing something else we all believe in, which is supporting local economies. So there are a number of ways you can do that:

  • Obviously, the most local thing you can do is grow your own. Grow your own food. Whether it’s just a little planter box with a few basil plants, or whether it’s a whole full-blown garden like you see behind me, whether it’s just a small patch of land out on the side of your driveway where you grow a couple of tomatoes, whatever you can do to grow your own, is both awareness and you’re saving energy and pollution. So that’s the easiest.
  • The next best thing if you can’t do that is patronize your local farmers’ markets. Farmers’ markets are a great way to find out where your food is grown. You can ask the farmers questions: “Do you mono-crop? Do you poly-crop? Are you organic? Do you spray? What do you spray? When do you spray?” You can make much more informed choices when you can interact directly with the farmer, and have a much more satisfying experience, and keep those monies in your local community.
  • If you are going to a grocery store or some type of produce market, start asking questions: “Where was this grown? How far did this come?” A lot of times it will be product labelling that say for example, “these apples grown in Chile.” Well, I love Chile. I think Chile’s a beautiful country, and I hope to travel there more extensively some day. However, if I’m choosing an apple that was grown here in Sebastapol, Sonoma County, Mendocino County, versus an apple that was grown in Chile, I would prefer the local apple every time, because of the ‘embodied energy’ represented. So those are a variety of ways we can make those choices.

We make those choices when we go out to eat. You can patronize restaurants that buy local. You can patronize stores that buy local. Make sure you give those produce managers and store managers credit and thank them.

It’s a movement that we’re trying to build here. So don’t just go and buy the product and speak with your dollars, but take the time to fill out a comment card and say “thanks for buying local, I plan on supporting you.”

So grow your own, go to farmers’ markets whenever possible, buy local if you can, and that can have a huge advantage in terms of our collective reduction of pollution and energy.

Besides food being labelled ‘organic’, are there any other factors we should be aware of when buying our food? For example, what’s the difference between mono-cropped and poly-cropped foods?

Sure, sure. Well, I mean, obviously there’s a lot of labels that go around food. You know… organic, biodynamic, etc. Some of the things really to look out for is A) how far away was it grown? A lot of times a product that may not have been grown under a certified organic label but is only a few miles away from your house, versus something that was grown organically 5000 miles away, you might prefer to buy the local product. Lack of use of pesticides is a big part of it. The types of fertilizers is a big part of it.

Most organic farmers also employ a technique known as poly-cropping as opposed to mono-cropping. Mono-cropping is what you think of that’s one crop, just wheat, just soy, just corn, for acres and acres, and in some cases thousands and thousands of acres.

In much of the Midwest, through the United States, we have these massive industrial farms, huge amounts of fossil fuel inputs, both in terms of the fertilizers and in terms of the farm machinery, not what I would call the ideal farming scenario.

So most organic farmers will employ some type of poly-cropping. In other words, they have different types of plants growing on their farm. Not only does that reduce the amount of fossil fuel inputs, but perhaps, as importantly, it creates a diverse environment within the farm that reduces the needs for pesticides in the first place.

A lot of times, if you have flowers and herbs all planted together, in this poly-cropping way, then what you’ve got is you’ve got a much more healthy community of insects, microorganisms, macro-organisms.

And they’re going to keep any kind of diseases or problems in check in a natural kind of way as opposed to all of a sudden you got nothing but wheat, you get a wheat blight, and the next thing you know you need to go to your local Monsanto dealer and you know, pump some chemicals on to your crops. So, there are a lot of good reasons why a more diverse planting is to be recommended.

And I recommend that to you also, if you’re going to be growing food at home make sure you just don’t plant big swaths of tomatoes and put your flowers over. Plant them all together. They all like to be together. The ladybugs, the beetles, and all those other critters, that are going to help keep the aphids and the mites in check, will be more likely to be in your garden if you got a nice diverse mix of happy plants.

If we wanted to start our own garden, are certain plants better or easier than others to grow in our backyard?

Right. Well, you know, I mean, what grows best in your particular backyard depends on where your backyard is. I mean, if you live for example in Costa Rica, then I highly recommend papayas and avocados.

On the other hand, if you live in Northern California, such as we do, and a latitude similar to a kind of central Europe, then you are going to do well in the summertime with things like tomatoes, cucumbers, basil. In the wintertime you’re going to do better with things like lettuces, broccolis, and the like.

But the best thing to do is go talk to the old folks. Go talk to the folks who’ve been gardening, in your neighborhood. Talk to you neighbors, you know, “What grows well?”

Take a look over the fence, “Wow, that particular breed of tomatoes looks like it’s doing really really well. What types of tomatoes are you growing?” Because the Early Girls that do well in one area, might not do so well 50 or 100 miles away.

And so you really want to lean on that local knowledge. Talk to the elders. Talk to your neighbors. If you need to, there are always university Ag extensions, farm bureau; you can talk to a lot of those folks.

Go to the local farmers’ markets. Talk to the farmers. There usually more than happy to tell you, “Oh, you know, don’t plant Early Girls they do terribly here because we get that late frost. What you want to do is you want to plant, you know, the ‘Giuseppe’ tomatoes or you know, the ‘Little Golden Pear’ tomatoes. They would do really well.”

It’s all climate based, neighborhood based, regionally based. The best thing you can possibly do is, don’t listen to me, lean across the fence, and ask your neighbor.