Growing Food: The “Green” choice

In the past decade there has been increasing awareness in the media and in our society about how humans are affecting the environment and how in turn the environment affects us. With climate change taking center stage in the political arena and a focus on “peak oil” and fossil fuel usage, the term “Sustainability” has been pushed as a catch-all term to encompass all of our efforts to control our impact on the natural environment.

For those of us consciously aware of how we affect the environment and wanting to take some kind of action at the personal level, there are a lot of choices available to us. One choice would be to look at energy efficiency and sustainable energy sources by improving your house efficiency or switching to using solar energy.

Amsterdam has more bikes than cars on the road

Another choice could be to reduce your transportation costs by walking more places, driving more fuel-efficient cars, or taking public transportation. You could grow your own food and reduce your consumption of manufactured or processed goods shipped from far away. In an extreme lifestyle change, you could do all these things and start your own homestead, living off the land.

However most of us live in urban or suburban settings and we usually only have the energy and time to tackle one of these things. I want to make the argument to you that choosing to grow your own food will make the biggest “sustainable” impact at both the personal and national (community) level.

First let’s talk about the economic benefits to growing even a small portion of your own food. Look at the energy/food data below collected on the average yearly household budget in the US (2014 – Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Food 6,759
Gasoline and motor oil 2,468
Gas and electric 1,956

As you can see from this shortened chart, of all the expenses above targeted for sustainability, food costs are by far the highest. If we switched to solar energy, we’d save an average of $84 / month or $1008 / year based off this solar information. Improving the efficiency of our house would save us 11% on average/month or around $211/year.

If we drove a more fuel efficient car (2 times more efficient just to overestimate), we’d save $690 in fuel costs/year. Driving an electric car could save us a maximum of $900/year in fuel charges (in Hawaii). If we totally eliminated driving places and just walked or biked everywhere, we’d save $2468/year on average but that’s probably unrealistic.

Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable.George Washington Carver

Of course, all these efficiency steps have huge upfront costs, but I don’t want to complicate things when you’ll see shortly that growing food is the clear winner.

Now let’s see how much money we’d save for different scenarios of growing our own food. In a very simple case, 100 square feet planted with basic annual veggies could very easily produce 80-100 lbs of produce in a year (visit $700 in 100 sq. ft for a demonstration). Given the going rate for organic food in the markets at $4-$6/lb for organic food, you’d save $500/year on food costs, which is pretty close to the fuel savings for a hybrid car.

If you could generate 300-400 lbs of mixed fruits/veggies during the year, which is very doable for a townhouse-sized yard or slightly bigger, you’d save $1500-2000/year on food. Of course, $5/lb is an incredibly low estimate, since this food is as fresh as you can get (talk about farm to table) and you can grow varieties you can’t even find in the store (for those of us who love gourmet food varieties). So without factoring in labor, growing your own food will by far make the largest economic impact of all sustainable choices.

Usually the complaint about gardening is that it is labor intensive, and factoring that in makes growing your own food more expensive. But if we set up self-reliant systems that don’t need a lot of care and feeding (like using perennials and no-till gardening), we can easily take care of our garden in the time it takes to go shop at the supermarket each week, so labor is neutral cost. Also, for many of us gardening is deeply spiritual and provides many benefits that we can’t quantify in capitalistic macroeconomic terms.

Now that we’ve shown that growing your own food can make a big difference economically at the personal level, let’s take a look at the impact it makes at a national level. Since the rise of the organic food movement, there has been a lot of research done on trying to compare the efficiency of locally grown food vs transporting food across the globe, as well as organic vs conventional growing.

This has led to terms in the industry like food miles and LCA (life-cycle analysis), trying to measure greenhouse gas emissions to bring a certain food product from seed to table (of course, ignoring things like soil health and environmental damage). Although many of these studies were written by economists with absolutely no real farming experience (follow this link for a dry, but fair analysis of how limited most of these studies are),
they generally point out that transportation costs are outweighed by the costs incurred by the method used to grow the food.

It’s quite common to make the assumption that it would be difficult to feed the ravaging hordes in a major city like New York City without using a highly mechanized industrial agricultural system. But interestingly enough, there is precedent in the modern era for a large city using urban farms tended by its residents to not only survive but flourish.

Cuba suffered massive petrochemical shortages in the mid-90s after the fall of the Soviet Union and traditional farming using fertilizers and pesticides couldn’t have worked. Havana, the capital city, underwent a massive transformation over the next ten years, emphasizing local and household urban farming. The result is startling; today in a city of 2.1 million residents, urban farms supply 70 percent or more of all the fresh vegetables. Imagine what an impact this could make in an more advanced open society!