Grow your own food with sunlight – instead of eating oil

It takes four glasses of oil to make one hamburger

Most of the oil is used to produce the nitrogen used to grow the ingredients for the burger – according to Michael Pollan. The alternative is to eat locally grown food for which the energy comes from the sun – and from human labour. If there was to be a return to ‘sun-grown’, instead of ‘oil-grown’ food then agriculural employment would have to rise again after a long fall.
The other point about a burger-rich diet is that it is extremely bad for your health. The US healthcare crisis is said to be is a consequence of the US diet which is a consequence of the US pattern of agricultural subsidies. In Europe, the pattern is similar but not so severe.
Landscape architects and garden designers can do a little to ameliorate the problem: they can include food plants in their planting designs.

Above image courtesy Pete Foley. Below image, of a local garden in Berkeley, California, courtesy hfordsa

29 thoughts on “Grow your own food with sunlight – instead of eating oil

  1. Christine

    The Energy Bulletin ‘Why our food is so dependent on Fossil Fuels’ is an enlightening read.
    The UK food supply is said to be 1) Vulnerable 2) Inefficient and 3) Unsustainable.

    Landscape architects and garden designers by incorporating food into their designs could assist by ‘acting locally’ as you suggest. However, as consumers we all have a degree of power which can influence the food chain globally. Awareness of the problem is a very important first step: thankyou for the post.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I agree that the UK food supply is dependent on a level of oil supply which is unsustainable in the medium term. But I also think the countryside could be re-planned in a way which could make the UK self-sufficient in food. The appearance of the landscape would undergo drastic change but this has happened before eg1 the Neolithic forest clearances eg2 the introduction of Roman agriculture eg3 the introduction of feudal agriculture after c1066 eg4 the enclosure movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. Much of the landscape has been ‘fossilised’ for the past 2 centuries and the people have come to love their ‘fossil’. My personal preferences for the UK are (1) keep the ‘fossil’, (2) use it for producing very-expensive ‘organic’ foods (3) import other foodstuffs from lower-cost producers.

  3. Benz

    I am really writing in response item (3) Food is far too cheap and many of the people and countries that produce our food get a raw deal. Government/EU subsidies and tariffs for importing food place the developing world on an unequal footing. A hangover from colonialism. The low-cost producers are generally lower cost because they are being exploited and not being paid properly. The cut flowers and green beans and mange tout that come from Kenya also have enormous impacts on the landscape where whole lakes are disappearing because of irrigation. Cheap water makes cheap produce – but we buy it all the same and turn a blind eye.

    Finally, food is far too cheap and of poor quality and farming methods are extremely wasteful. How much oil and water goes into making a kilo of beef or pork. It is horrendous. What is the point of converting soya protein into beef protein – it is wasteful. Rather just eat the soya. We are awfully greedy and the general public do not have a clue what goes into our food, how it is produced and what impact this has on other people and the environment.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    I agree that food is too cheap in the industrialised countries but since the quality of mass-produced good is also very low, maybe prices are fair in relation to quality.
    Food imports are a difficult problem. On the one hand, I agree that it is wrong to subsidise sugar production in Europe when it could be imported at lower cost from tropical countries. But if we have a dozen countries offering to supply us with sugar at a dozen price levels, how can we tell consumers not to buy the cheapest sugar because the price is ‘unfair’ to the producers? It may be that the lowest-cost supplier has better soil or a better climate or better techniques – or just a greater need to increase sales.
    One point I am very sure about is that the law should require better food labelling. The food industry is terribly opposed to this – which proves how important it is. They are acting as bandits, making us buy bad food: ‘Hands up – your money then your life’ is their motto.

  5. Adam Hodge

    Whilst Benz has a point about beef and soya protein is it not well known that the western world’s enthusiasm for soya is contributing to vast acreages of the brazilian rainforest being cleared for Soya production. Another eco disaster. Perhaps our own home grown rapeseed or beans
    might be a good alternative

    Tom make reference to the burger diet being fairly you mean the meat rich diet or simply burgers. The lengthy research of Dr Mary Enig seems to be most insightful as to the root cause of the failings of the western diet. Her research of some 20 years ago, suppressed by American food industry is now proving frighteningly accurate.

    Perhaps if the country grew more free range chickens that produce high nitrogen fertilizer one could reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    Re Soya, they also feed it animals and less soya is required if humans eat the beans instead of ‘routing’ them through cattle to their plates.
    Re the ‘burger diet’ I am using it as a label for the bad habits of eating an excess of: unsaturated fats, trans fats, sugar, salt, calories etc – instead of eating ‘five-a-day’ with lots of dark green leaves and fibre (and using herbs instead of salt and sugar as flavourings). The bad diet leads to obesity which leads to CHD, strokes, diabetes etc etc.

  7. Benz

    The rain forest that is being lost is to grow soya for cattle fodder – I am sure that the soya being grown there is not being used for tofu burgers. I buy frozen soya beans and they are great, but seem to be expensive compared to other fresh/frozen pulses.
    Edamame, green soybeans which are picked before full maturity, have 22 grams of protein in every cooked serving. Red kidney beans have 16g.

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    Soy is classified as a source of ‘complete protein’ but I think it yields only 7 of the 22 amino-acids and that some of them are available only from animal sources.

  9. Benz

    I presume you mean that the amino acids are available as dairy and not in meat. Millions of people on the Indian sub continent don’t eat meat.

  10. Christine

    Should we consider the influence of geography on diet? Greece, with over 15,000km of coast has the longest coastline in Europe.

    The Mediterranean diet has for a while been considered superior to other cultural diets – with those eating traditional Greek diets high in olive oil consumption the most advantaged. Enhanced health benefits and longevity is said to hold true for Greek populations in Greece and Australian Greek populations.[ ]

    The diet is low in meat and higher in seafood intake.

    Perhaps as a culture Greek people are more health conscious and have a higher dietary awareness? Greek students in Evansville Indiana are choosing healthier, locally grown foods. [ ]

    Greece has a population of @ 10.7 million but they feed a tourist population of 13 million. How do they do it? [ ]

    It is interesting to note the mooted move by Greece to low density peri-urban development to reduce urban sprawl rather than high density inner city development. Geography again?

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    I agree about the value of the Mediterranean diet and wonder if a Baltic diet brought similar benefits in the great days of the herring trade, before over-fishing destroyed the fish stock. I am less convinced about the Greeks having a healthy life style. Modern Greek cities do not encourage exercise and I think they Athens rivals Lisbon for the title of LEAST CYCLIST-FRIENDLY CITY IN EUROPE.

    Everyone now agrees that heredity and environment influence personality, perhaps equally, but there is less agreement about the balanced influence of history and geography on the character of nations: I think geography is under-retated as an influence.

  12. Christine

    Yes it seems the modern Greeks (in Greece at least) are water babies, rather than avid cyclists. [ ]. Perhaps they are discouraged by the topography? [ ]

    Would have loved to have visited at least two of the three classical gymnasiums (the academy, the lyceum and the Cynosargues)in Athens.

    The connection between diet and exercise is important. They are not often considered together.
    Galen believed that “What alters or increases his/her respiratory rate is defined as exercise for that individual; what doesn’t, isn’t.”

    The Greeks thought that temperament influenced how individuals engaged in physical activity. The choleric individual is a natural sportsman, the sanguine individual is an artiste and team player, the melancholic like sports of skill or endurance and the phlegmatic is the least inclined to exercise.

    To maintain health they recommended a balance between exercise and rest.

    If this suggestion was taken seriously there would be a balance of opportunties within the built and natural environment for rest and exercise.

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    I like the reconstruction, because I like reconstructions, but I think their artists tend to be over-influenced by the physical form of modern cities. I recommend a week studying Akrotini to future reconstructors of ancient athens – and another week in Pompeii.
    One of the nice things about the modern Greeks is that they have a healthy scepticism about their own culture. I hear of a male population which loves to spend the day sitting in cafes, smoking, drinking and arguing about politics. Do you think this counts as a balance between exercise and rest?

  14. Benz

    There are some foods that have great benefits – good olive oil, honey, yoghurt, fresh vegetables, seafood – All sounds mediterranean to me. I once sat next to a Greek man on a plane and he said he was 90 something and he said the reason for his longevity was his home made olive oil and that he personally went through 1 litre a week – He had it on everything.

  15. Tom Turner Post author

    I have been vegetarian for about a third of my life and can’t say that I have noticed a health difference between veggie and omniverous phases. Given the long period in which humans have eaten meat, our bodies must be pretty well adapted. I can however imagine that the drugs used in industrial meat production, and the wretched diet administered in factory farms, produces harmful food products. Wild food, including seafood, is an attractive alternative – but if we all ate wild food there would be no wildlife left. Irresponsibly farmed salmon and trout seem just as bad as American beef – and the inputs are much the same. And what about aquaponic food? Does it have the drawbacks of industrial agriculture or the benefits of wild food?

  16. Benz

    Aquaponics is of course an intensive way of producing food – fish are stocked in tanks at higher levels than normally found in nature but it works well because the amount oxygen given to the fish is correct and if over stocking does not occur then the fish do not appear to suffer. The produce is ‘organic’ if the food given to the fish is organic. Thus one is getting organic fish and vegetables.

    There is nothing that can compare to wild food especially when collecting it oneself – there is an instinct within to hunt and gather. The advantages of gathering food are numerous especially being out in nature and getting exercise and normally done with family and community creates social bonding. Hunting mushrooms for example is a wonderful past time. I remember the excitement when I captured my first ‘cep’. As you say, we cannot survive on gathering wild food. Most of us would not survive.

  17. Tom Turner Post author

    I suggest (1) using a little extra breath and type by speaking of ‘organic aquaponics’ instead of just ‘aquaponics’ (2) signing up to a code of conduct for ‘organic aquaponics’.
    Too many food producers have used ‘organic’ as an excuse to raise prices – without making a significant departure from inorganic farming.
    And I have seen some filthy-look fish farms.
    Nor do I have a good opinion of hydroponic vegetables, from which aquaponics takes part of its name.

  18. Benz

    There are good farms and farmers and then there are bad ones. The vegetables I have grown are very, very tasty. Hydroponic strawberries are good. Aquaponics = less water use than traditional agriculture, less land use, less fertlizer inputs, less discharge and nutrients into the environment, more crops in less space, more food can be grown on rooftops and in areas where other crops could not be grown… what’s not to like?

  19. Tom Turner Post author

    Antibiotics and fungicides, if they use them in the ways they are used on fish farms. Growth hormones? Lack of nutrient diversity? Use of soybean as a fish food? I don’t know but I bet there are ways of corrupting the process and would therefore prefer to have an organic stamp on aquaponic products.

  20. Christine

    I am wondering what sub-limit state farming practices would be like? For example, how could yeilds be maximised, organic conditions optimised and environmentally harmful inputs eliminated?
    Would farming practices be described by the equation Organic = X where X = Inorganic > X < Wild food?

    Tom, it would be excellent to spend a week studying Akrotini and Pompeii for a week each to better understand ancient Athens.

  21. Tom Turner Post author

    But for the fact that changing the system of agricultural subsidies is impossible, I would like to spend time investigating their consequences. The aim SHOULD be to spend the money on public goods. Farmers do not see it this way. They want the money to be spent on their WELFARE.

    ‘Inorganic farming’ is just a joke and a way of being rude about industrial farming. A linguistic alternative to ‘organic’ is necessary. ‘Sustainable’ means hardly anything and ‘ethical’ sounds rather prim. Maybe the best thing is to write a code of conduct and give it brand name.

    Re Akrotiri, I regret that the site has been closed since the roof collapsed in 2005. Very sad. Pompeii is rather sad too. It is over-run by school children and the antiquities would be in much better condition of the site had never been excavated. Archaeologists want to conserve the past but they very often wreck it.

  22. Christine

    Sustainability has meaning if you consider it as a balance between the competing interests of the environment, economy and society.

    In some circumstances, the social goal of the welfare of farmers might also be considered a public good (ie. disaster relief or assistance to adapt farming practices to climate variability due to climate change).

    In other instances buying out farms (for economic or environmental reasons) with just compensation might also fulfil a social goal and also be a public good in the sense of promoting the good society.

    Perhaps there is another term other than inorganic and industrial to describe a range of contemporary farming practices that are not environmentally efficient.

    Should we be considering sustainable archaeology, and antiquities and archeological tourism also?

  23. Tom Turner Post author

    Norway is an interesting case in point with regard to sustainable farming. A key reason for the Norwegians not wanting to join the European Union is that the EU level of farm subsidies, normally described in Britain as ‘bloated’ or ‘grotesque’, was regarded as niggardly. As I understand it, they use subsidies to maintain traditional farming landscapes and communities. I hope they also produce non-industrial high-quality food. These would certainly be public goods. But the UK system of paying farmers more and more money to produce worse and worse food does not generate public goods. The policy is also bad for agricultural exporters. Am I right that Australia, like NZ, does no longer subsidises farmers? Or are they paid for some public goods?

  24. Christine

    Yes. Australia’s Producer Support Estimate (PSE) [market price support, budgetary payments and budgetary revenue foregone] has fallen from 13% in 1986 to 3% in 2009.

    Agricultural policy in Australia is based on the premise that government will only intervene economically to correct market failure. Market failures relevant to agriculture include (non-rival and non-exclusive) public goods (ie water allocation between the environment and consumptive uses), externalities (ie air pollution), natural monopolies (ie the supply of water) and risk (particularly catastrophic risk).

    New Zealand has the lowest OECD PSE figures (1% in 2004-06), lower even than Australia, and only provides payments for pest control or relief against climate disasters.

  25. Tom Turner Post author

    I would like to import an Australasian Minister of Agriculture into the UK, but before taking office she or he would need to study the principles of organic agriculture, landscape architecture and historic conservation. Studies of the economics public goods and the market for luxury goods would follow. Are any candidates available?

  26. tom

    Obviously extremely difficult for individuals to affect policy, unless we happen to be in government, but as will all things that start in a micro fashion, we can all vote with both our wallets and our trowels! In our family we are gradually educating ourselves as to how much we can supplement our food purchases by planting, even in a small garden. Small steps, granted, but steps nonetheless.


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