A Vision for local agriculture

As the gardening season draws to a close, it is sometimes good to reflect on why all of this growing and eating seasonally is so important.  There are the obvious benefits of taste, quality of food, and true enjoyment of the whole process.  But as we become more aware of the effects of our food system on the world around us, I believe we have to look at issues of environmental degradation and pollution.

Modern agriculture is very heavily dependent on oil and as such, contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions.  It is estimated that in the past 50 years, the amount of oil used in agriculture has increased 80 times, while yields have only increased four times.  A 2oo1 British study done by PowerSwitch UK estimates that the average British family of four is responsible for about eight tonnes of CO2 emission through the food that they eat in a year, while this same family only emits about four tonnes of CO2 through the car that they drive in that year.  Similarly, an American study shows that the average person consumes 10 barrels of oil per year through the food that they eat, 9 barrels per year through the car that they drive, and 7 barrels per year for household consumption.

Oil is used in agriculture for many things – the production of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, mechanical cultivation, irrigation, processing, packaging, storage, and distribution.  By far the biggest consumption of oil occurs in the refrigerated transport of fruits and vegetables, by both plane and truck.  To give an example, it is estimated that it takes 127 calories of energy to fly one calorie of lettuce from the U.S. to Britain.  Changing one’s diet to include a high percentage of local and seasonal foods can go a long way to making a real difference when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If we want to imagine what a truly l0cal agricultural economy would look like, we can look to Cuba for inspiration.  A 2006 video entitled ‘The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil’ (produced by Faith Morgan, Pat Murphy and Megan Quinn Bachman and available through New Society Publishers) gives some very powerful images of a society transformed.  Before 1990, Cuba exported 80% of its agricultural outputs – primarily sugar cane and tobacco – and imported 80% of the food it consumed.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cuba lost access to oil imports, export markets, and capital.  Today Cuba produces 80% of the food that it consumes, farmers are among the highest paid workers, and the Cuban diet has changed to include a large variety of fruits and vegetables. Throughout the country every inch of vacant land has been turned into gardens, producing both food and cooling shade.  Cubans consume only 1/10th of the energy that North Americans do and they are the only country to come even close to meeting the World Wildlife Fund’s targets for sustainable living and development.   Today Cuba’s largest export is ideas, and people come from around the world to learn what can be done.

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