Food, water & energy

This poster showed up on Facebook last week. I agreed with it immediately – but then started thinking why. Why is growing your own food ‘a protest…that will overturn corporate powers’? How can growing your own food ‘change the world’? It seems to stem from the food-energy-water nexus that’s increasingly prevalent in the media (and is in the ‘top 10’ of current trendy topics in academic research), but it’s not clear how aware the public is about it.

Everyone knows that food is critical to survival. From famine in Ethiopia to community food banks in North America, people need food. Our industrial farming system is highly reliant on energy to produce this food. The size of our farming operations makes it unrealistic to rely on manual labour – thus we use tractors, combines, plows, etc. All of which run on fuel. This type of agriculture also requires large inputs of synthetic nutrients to feed crops (even crops that are meant to feed livestock). And the production of these nutrients through the fertilizer industry also requires a lot of energy inputs.

Food production also requires water. Whether you’re gardening in your backyard, or growing a quarter section of canola, your crops need water. In many areas water is a limiting factor and complex irrigation infrastructure has been installed to maintain specialty crops. This is the case in southern Alberta. This agriculture-intensive region is supported by a vast network of irrigation reservoirs and canals that cross provincial and international borders. All the water in these systems comes from surface water supplies – and the rivers in this area have been closed to new surface water licenses since 2006. Studies have shown that, if there is a dry year in this area AND all the water licensees withdraw their full allocation, there won’t be any flow left in the rivers.

Ultimately we need food, but food production relies on energy and water. Both of which are highly valuable resources on their own, and required (demanded?) for other uses. A great example of the fight for these resources is in Colorado, where the state put water licenses up for auction. Energy companies who need water for resource development were able to outbid farmers who needed water for growing food. But what does all this have to do with growing your own garden?

Food produced in a backyard garden requires less energy. You’re using manual labour instead of fossil-fuel driven equipment, and you’re eating directly from your backyard instead of eating food that’s been shipped across the country to your local grocery store. Water use is a bit trickier. There’s no way to avoid watering, but in backyard gardens you have the option of putting plants closer together which conserves water by reducing bare soil. It also depends on what your water source is. Are you using rain barrels or treated water from the tap? Tap water obviously is less energy and water friendly than rain barrel water, but in some cases you have no choice.

But putting in a backyard garden involves more than just thinking about water and energy – for example, money. Robin Mather, the author of ‘The Feast Nearby‘, lost her job and her marriage and had to find a way to support herself, which eventually included gardening and raising her own chickens. Barbara Kingsolver writes about the year her family grew all their own food in ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle‘. She calculates that it cost them $6/day to produce food for a family of four, although that doesn’t account for the significant labour involved.

Book cover from Amazon.ca

Book cover from Amazon.ca

Side benefits of home gardening include access to food varieties you can’t get at the store. Last year I had Russian blue, Bintje and French fingerling potatoes – none of which I could get at my grocery store. Same with the Brandywine tomatoes and the Sierra Blanca onions. Others see it as a way to grown and preserve heirloom seeds – Carolyn Herriot in Victoria, BC grows heirloom varieties of all sorts of vegetables, and saves the seeds for selling as part of the Seeds of Victoria project. In some ways it can counter health concerns – you know how you’ve grown your crops, and can avoid things like E. coli contamination on spinach or lettuce, or the use of pesticides and herbicides in food production.

Gardening is a great way to see the fruits of your labour – literally! Some also families find it a good way to spend time with kids – although when I was a kid, my sister and I each had our own garden plots and helped out in the main garden. My plot was overrun with weeds and raspberries, and my ‘help’ consisted of pulling out bean plants because I ‘thought’ they were weeds (and not my favourite ones at that, haha).

So will growing your own food overturn corporate powers and change the world? I think it might – not right away, but one backyard at a time. What do you think – and how is your garden growing?

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One thought on “Food, water & energy

  1. I think it will take an awful lot of people growing and harvesting their own crops to really change anything, but ideally there is definite truth in it. For me and my family, we garden because it's just a way of life. I'm from an agricultural community in Kentucky. There's always been a garden. Now that I'm married and not as rural as I once was, my garden is small, but still present. Our yearly staples are squash, zucchini, tomatoes, and onions. This year we're also growing kale. Last year we tried carrots, but that was mostly a disappointment. We've also got a large herb garden filled with perennials that I love dearly. Great post today!

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