HOW CAN THE WAY WE EAT REDUCE GREENHOUSE GASES?
"For the first time in history, we witness a human-made environmental crisis of world-wide proportion, evidenced in the explosive growth of human populations, in the poor integration of a powerful and efficient technology with environmental requirements, in the deterioration of agricultural lands, in the unplanned extension of urban areas, and in the growing danger of extinction to many forms of animals and plant life. It is becoming apparent that if the current trends continue, the future of life on earth could be endangered."
This statement was made by the Secretary General of the United Nations to the U.N. General Assembly in 1969, one year prior to the first Earth Day, and expressed the primary reason why we would need to have an Earth Day. We simply had not been paying close enough attention to the impact that human activity has had on our planet home.
Today, we are celebrating Earth Day for the forty-first time, and it is fair to say that all of those concerns addressed by the Secretary General are still issues today and arguably have only been exacerbated in the intervening forty years–despite our heightened awareness.
In fact, the number of issues has grown and the dilemma intensified. We've just had a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a Nuclear Power plant melt down in Japan, a series of food crises in Asia, several ongoing wars in the Middle East directly or indirectly related to petroleum reserves, and continuing changes in the climate created by an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to our industrial way of life.
If we are honest, we must admit that we are not looking at a simple patch work of actions to solve these issues, but really a change in the way we do everything in our lives. A complete culture change, if you will.
So the question before us today is: how can the way we eat reduce greenhouse gases and our carbon footprint?
One answer to that is a complete culture change that begins at heart of all culture–how we eat–and how we grow and distribute our food. But this is not simply about minimizing greenhouse gases, though that is surely part of it, it's about changing how we eat in a way that impacts all of the environmental issues that we face.
Short of cutting up our credit cards and throwing away our car keys and finding a nice warm cave to live in, the most widely accepted response to climate change is the concept of relocalization.
Relocalization is essentially a process of decentralization, a community design strategy based on reducing commuting and freight transport distances as a way to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
This strategy applies equally well to concerns for peaking oil production and the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment. It is also very much the underlying principle behind the Transition Towns movement and the effort to minimize the use of fossil fuels as a way of life.
When relocalization is applied to agriculture and the way we eat, the accent is on the decentralization of our global food system and the reduction of the part petrochemicals play in the production and transportation of our food.
For the individual, this translates into the philosophy of eating locally grown foods and supporting local producers as much as possible. If you want to cut your carbon footprint and do other nice things for the planet by the way you eat, eat local and eat organic.
In a sense, this strategy is telling us to turn our food system inside out. That is, instead of targeting agricultural production first for the global market and then for the regional market and lastly for the local market. The priorities are reversed. We would target production first for local consumption, then the region, and lastly for the world.
This means instead of following the industrial model of regional monoculture, farmers would be actively engaged in producing the maximum variety of fruits, nuts, legumes, grains, animal products, and vegetables that our foodshed can provide for the populace. As individuals, it would become our responsibility to explore and expand the meaning of local cuisine, that is, learning a diet that is best served by where we live.
Because this involves a move away from the petrochemical inputs of industrial farming and puts an emphasis on smaller diversified farms, farms that run as whole systems, producing a wide variety of crops, integrating livestock into the cycle of nutrients, and eliminating as many of the off-farm inputs as possible, relocalized agricutlure also answers to other ecological needs–by protecting the ground water from leached chemicals, helping maintain species variety, and conserving or rebuilding the soil and the soil biology.
A relocalized food system also answers to a variety of food security issues. Local food means those who produce our food are closer to where we live. If we are worried about food safety, we can know our farmers and their farming practices and make our choices accordingly.
A working local food system also means you have local storage and distribution. Thus in times of emergency, stores of food are always close at hand and do not need to be shipped in from long distances.
Shortening supply routes is also a common sense response to dwindling oil reserves and the impact of rising gasoline prices on the cost of food.
Again relocalization–which is a form of culture change–answers to many issues–just one of which is climate change.
Today in Eugene, there is a high awareness for the relocalization model. The community of local food advocates are several years into the work of reinvigorating our local food system. This includes groups like the Ten Rivers Foodweb in Corvallis and the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition in Eugene, which provides us with the Locally Grown food directory, and the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project which actively pursues the increased production of staple crops and the rebuilding of local food infrastructure to process and distribute those crops.
It is also true that several of the City and County officials are aware of the value of relocalization. The City of Eugene, in conjunction with EWEB and Lane County, recently put out economic analysis of the local food market and three recent video lottery grants from the County have gone to the creation of food system infrastructure.
Yes, we are moving ahead, if slowly, on the path to the relocalization of our food system.
That said, there is an argument that suggests the global food system actually costs less in food miles than local systems. That a semi-truck carrying 40,000 pounds across the country is more efficient than twenty farm-trucks carrying 2000 pounds on short routes in and out of town. But if you look at it more closely you see that yes, band-aiding a local model to the global system with old pickup trucks running routes around town—like we have done—is not particularly efficient. But rebuilding the entire food system for efficient local processing and distribution and nesting it properly within global and regional systems is a different story. That would decrease food miles and diminish carbon dioxide emissions.
(This is the transcript from a talk given by Dan Armstrong at the City Club in Eugene on Earth Day, 2011.)