Sustainable food and farming: Part IV – Ecological “rule” number one – use current solar income


In my last Sustainable Food and Farming post, I concluded with the statement that Mother Nature \”runs\” by  three ecological principles (its her \”rulebook\”).  They are:

  1. Use current solar income.
  2. Recycle everything (waste = food).
  3. Encourage biological diversity.


In this post I\’ll explore not only ways in which sustainable farms use current solar income, but how I try to apply this ecological \”rule\” in my own life.

Lets begin with a 6 minute video from a lesson I presented to my University of Massachusetts class, Sustainable Living, on the \”rules of ecology\”.


In this video, I offered a few examples of  how I try to employ the ecological principle \”use current solar income.\”  Of course I also use lots of archaic solar income too (fossil fuels), but my family is moving in a direction that recognizes the fact that humans use in one year the amount of oil, coal and natural gas that it took Mother Nature roughly a million years to create….. and that\’s not sustainable.  Yikes!

But how do we apply this principle to farms?  Well, the obvious answer is that crops are solar powered.  True, but the industrial production system employed throughout much of the world is a huge \”oil hog.\”  We can do better!

The scientific literature and popular press abounds with stories of how energy inefficient our current food production system really is.  Traditional, pre-industrial societies lived on an energy ratio (energy out/energy in) of near 100/1, that is the energy produced by capturing sunlight in crops was 100 times greater than the energy used in growing the crops.  Today, that\’s entirely reversed as we have created a food system that uses more energy than it generates.

This incredibly wasteful system evolved during a time of cheap fossil fuels.  The fact that it takes 97 times more energy to grow and airfreight asparagus from Chile to your plate in the wintertime misses the point.  We don\’t eat asparagus for the caloric (energy) value, so it seems just fine to use energy to produce the food we truly want…. right?  Well lets look at the big picture.

A recent U.S.D.A. publication reported that between 1997 and 2002, over 80 percent of the increase in annual U.S. energy consumption was food related.  And over half of this was due to an increase in energy intensive technologies that contribute primarily to convenience.


According to this report \”…the egg industry illustrates the long-term trend of substituting energy-intensive technology for labor. High-technology, energy-intensive hen houses, and more use of liquid, frozen, and dried egg products (instead of whole eggs) increased energy use per egg by 40 percent in 1997-2002.\” Agriculture is a mechanized, energy-intensive industry.

But before we go \”industry-bashing\”, the report also found that \”Consumers are relying on blenders and food processors instead of knives and chopping blocks, and self-cleaning ovens have replaced elbow grease.  The U.S.D.A Economic Research Service estimates that food-related home energy use increased by 3.9 % per meal between 1997 and 2002.\”

That\’s us!


So yes, agriculture needs to be more energy efficient…… but while we are supporting sustainable farms by buying local food, lets have a closer look at how individual households can change our own energy consumption patterns.  We can make a difference!

Why don\’t we:

  1. Grow our own food (as much as possible anyway)!
  2. Purchase Energy Star appliances whenever possible which use energy more efficiently.
  3. Take pleasure in the simple act of chopping vegetables rather than using electric appliances whenever possible.
  4. Avoid fast food….. which is not only wasteful of energy but generally unhealthy.
  5. Cut out consumption of meat products, especially beef, in favor of plant proteins and smaller servings.
  6. Yes, and of course…..  support local farms which reduce fossil-fuel dependent fertilizers, eliminate packaging and reduce transportation costs.
  7. What else?

How do you think we can better \”use current solar income\” in our food growing, buying and preparation practices?  Please post below….


  • And, to see my Facebook group, Just Food Now, click here.

  • For my posts on Sustainable Food and Farming, click here.