Saturday, September 25, 2010

Vicki Robin and the 10-mile Diet

I recently came across Vicki Robin's blog on her 10-Mile Diet. Her CSA farmer challenged her to eat for one month (September) on what she was getting from her share. Vicki decided to allow any other suppliers within the 10-mile radius, as well as foods from her own garden. She made exceptions for salt, oil, coffee/tea, spices, and lemons. (I made similar exceptions.)

It is fascinating reading.


Deciding to eat within such a small area means that she knows personally everyone who produces her food. A tomato, a beet, a bunch of greens, a wedge of goat cheese: everything has a name attached to it, a person she has talked to, oftentimes a friend or someone who quickly becomes a friend. Barter becomes an important part of acquiring a varied diet.

She knows that the food she is eating was not created in a factory somewhere, or shipped from China, or picked by underpaid and probably illegal farm workers. (By the way, people who complain about the high cost of fruits and vegetables should consider that most of the workers in these crops are Mexican nationals, poorly paid, ill-treated in many cases, working 14-hour days in the sun and dust. If immigration laws are strictly enforced due to public pressure, produce prices will skyrocket and availability will drop precipitously. So be careful what you wish for.)


A 10-mile diet means eating what grows in her area, in season. She lives on an island in Washington State, with a mild and fairly benevolent climate. The foods are fresh, often picked days or even hours before being eaten. They are at the peak of their flavor and nutrition.

Ingenuity is required to deal with a surfeit of zucchini or other vegetable. (The rule on zucchini: either too many or too few. I unwisely planted TWO hills of zucchini; one would have provided enough for us and the neighbors with some extras for the chickens.)

Intensive vs. Extensive Agriculture

Extensive agriculture is what we usually think of these days: vast monoculture fields, very few workers, a full load of herbicides, insecticides, GMO crops, artificial fertilizers, huge and expensive farm equipment, and loads of diesel to power it. And you can think of 100,000 cattle in a feedlot, eating the subsidized commodities that are making them sick (and us sick as well), turning fertilizer into a massive disposal problem. Extensive agriculture is highly capital-intensive: expensive equipment, expensive chemicals, expensive fuels.

Intensive farming is agriculture on a human scale: small farms, plots, even pocket gardens. It requires lots of work and attention from people, and is thereby labor-intensive. This is the way farming has been conducted for 10,000 years, up until the 20th century. Many small growers are organic: they get a higher return for their produce, in return for more attention and care for their crops and the soil. The yield, counted per acre or per dollar or per-anything-else except hours of labor, is much higher than for extensive farming.

In the U.S. these days, extensive agriculture produces dry beans, feedlot and CAFO meat, and grains and all the multitude of industrial food products created from them. If you are eating locally, especially hyperlocally like Vicki, these foods are pretty much out of the question. Your choices come from the intensively-farmed items: fruit, veg, backyard eggs and chickens, hobby honey, the occasional grassfed steer, someone's pet dairy cow.

Vicki found that she was losing weight (good), and that she was REALLY missing grains, crackers, breads, and such foods (painful).
If Jim and I had stayed strict on our 100-mile diet here in Colorado, we would have had to make the same choices as we ran out of stock on hand. As the first year elapsed, we had expanded our range for staples (grains, etc.) to the western U.S. I did enough meal planning inside the 100-mile circle to gain some new insights about how dependent the standard American diet is on cheap petroleum and other resources. We kept the rules in place for fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy, and eggs (backyard eggs are the best!).


When everything on the table came from her neighborhood, grown or created by people she knows (or by herself), Vicki found that she gained a much greater appreciation for the work involved to put that food on her table. The goat cheese, the onions, the chard, were little treasures, their full costs appreciated. And the essential gift nature of food becomes visible again. We don't MAKE food; at best we make it possible for God/Mother Nature/the soil and all its denizens to give it to us.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Time for Conservatives to Conserve

And it's time for Progressives to rethink what they mean by progress.

It is very interesting what has happened to the concept of Peak Oil recently. Just a few years ago, it was the abode of the doomers, tinfoil hat people, and the oh-so politically correct. The mainstream just said 'whatever', blithely assuming that if humanity needed something, anything, in whatever quantity, it would always be there for us.

Now, in the last year, by osmosis as far as I can tell, Peak Oil is just part of the daily background of our lives. It has gone from being ridiculed by most to being accepted by most. There are a few outliers who still believe that the interior of the earth is stuffed with oil which is constantly renewing itself for our benefit, but that theory is getting pretty hard to sustain by anything except blind faith.

The drumbeat of upcoming energy scarcity underlies much of what we think and do these days. It's the big player behind the economic woes, the frantic bitterness of political battles, and the quiet paying down of household debt. People are still buying and driving the SUVs and huge pickup trucks, but just as you can feel September's coolness foretelling winter, there is a sense that the summer of energy abundance can't last. Buy and drive now, while you still can.

Or, on the other side of the aisle so to speak, progressives push for CFL lightbulbs, wind turbines, hydrogen power, cellulosic ethanol, and some are even advocating nuclear power plants. But it's too little, too late. Every alternative power source requires big inputs of energy, initially and ongoing. This is the kind of energy that we thought we had in the 1970s, when Appropriate Technology had its heyday, but Good Morning America put an end to it.

Today, while the government is frantically trying to revive the growth bubble with debt, households are cutting down on their debt. This does "depress demand" in a badly-skewed economy where most economic activity is in borrowing money and buying stuff. How can you sustain an economy on little more than consumer purchases and service industries? An economy MUST be based on making things and growing things, thereby creating value. And that economy of making and growing MUST be based on the primary economy of the natural resource base.

Petroleum is called fossil fuel for a reason. It's based on the concentrated sunlight of 500 million years. Humans have burned through about half of this phenomenal legacy in 120 years. The carbon sequestered under the ground from a far hotter, wetter time is being restored to the atmosphere from our tailpipes and chimneys. We've been in a "growth" economy for so long that this highly-unusual situation seems normal to us.

Fossil fuel means we aren't getting any more of it. Fossil water (in the big aquifers) means that when we draw it down, it isn't coming back except in geological timeframes. Basing our agriculture on the use of petroleum and its products and aquifer-based irrigation is kind of dumb in the long run.

It's no use to say that we need conventional agriculture to feed the 7 billion humans today and the 9 billion humans predicted in a few years, when the petroleum feedstock upon which conventional agriculture depends will be running short soon. We'd better figure out other ways to grow food, and soon. An entire generation of farmers is reaching retirement age, replaced by tractor jockeys who are paid so little for their work that their spouses have to work in town to make ends meet.

Let's list just a few of the ways that conventional agriculture depends on petroleum.

  • fuel for the tractors

  • energy and resources to create the high-tech farm equipment

  • fuel for the Haber-Bosch process to produce synthetic fertilizers from atmospheric nitrogen (this process is a HUGE energy hog)

  • energy to find or create and ship phosphates and other agricultural chemicals

  • petroleum fractions and energy to create the herbicides and pesticides

  • fuel to ship the resulting products from vast monocultures to consumers all over the world

  • petroleum to create all that plastic packaging

  • and there are many more ...

Organic agriculture is one of the few success stories of sustainability from the second half of the 20th century. Of course before the 19th century, all agriculture was "organic" by today's standards. Intensive organic agriculture can feed people; it is highly efficient in terms of output per acre and output per dollar invested, and inefficient in output per hour of work (the only measure that modern economists are interested in).

The bottom line is that Progressives need to find a new definition of progress. The future is not bright for economic growth, full employment in highly-paid technological jobs, unlimited medical care for everyone, a college education for every student, and the other ingredients of the "good life" we have come to expect. We need to find our helping hands at the ends of our own arms.

The bottom line is that Conservatives need to stop relying on tax breaks, deregulation, and handouts to the major corporations to fuel growth, and stop trying to streamline government to meet the desires of the rich and powerful rather than the common man. We need to realize that smaller is better, that community matters in the long run, that your neighbors at your back are better than a bunker filled with rifles, ammo and spam.

I am hoping that we can make common cause, that the Progressive and the Conservative can meet over the back fence, trading zucchini and onions, honey and rabbits, knitting instructions and breadbaking lessons. We've all got too much to lose to keep up the pointless power battles that have been distracting us for so long.