A friend pointed me to this opinion piece in the New York Times that looks at the Eat Local concept as a way to mark environmental impact in food production. The article describes a New Zealand study that challenges the assumption that distance traveled automatically means higher fossil fuel consumption. The study doesn’t undermine the point that local eating advocates make but instead expands the way we are currently looking at energy use to include more factors that arise anywhere in the food production cycle including, “water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.”
I’ve brought up this article here because although few of us as home gardeners are producing on a massive scale I see urban agriculture and growing food in our own backyards, on rooftops, community gardens, and waste spaces as a way to offset some of our own individual carbon input by eating about as local as it gets — literally stepping out our front or back doors to collect tonight’s dinner. And while that is awesome in itself I have noticed or at least pondered the impact my own small scale food production “systems” may have on the environment. While most of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“factor inputs and externalitiesÃ¢â‚¬Â mentioned in the article do not apply to my style of food growing, there are other factors to consider. For example:
- How much tap water do I use in my gardens?
- What kind of packaging is used in products such as organic fertilizers, soil amenders, and container soiless mix? How is this packaging disposed?
- Where do the ingredients in my container soils and amenders come from? For example, are any natural resources being plundered to provide the peat in my mix?
- How far do these products need to travel in order to get to my garden?
- What about the materials used to produce the containers I grow in? How far do they have to travel?
- What about other materials used in the garden? i.e. Stakes, plastic ground covers, tools, etc?
- What about the plants themselves? Are they high-impact energy suckers or are they suitable for this climate and the conditions that exist here?
Having looked at each of these factors I would say that their impact varies depending on the garden or type of garden. For example my community garden plot is in-ground and does not require things like purchased soil, and containers. I employ water-saving methods such as amending my soil, and applying mulch. It’s a fact that container gardens require more water than in-ground gardens and since I can not hook up a rainbarrel system to my apartment, the amount of water used directly from the tap is a whole lot higher than at my community garden plot regardless of how much I mulch the containers, employ water-wise tricks, use greywater, or run outside with buckets when it rains.
I bought packaged soil amenders for the community garden this year and then transported them and myself in a cab from a local garden centre to the alleyway next to my plot. I don’t know where the amenders came from originally although I am hoping that since it was predominantly mushroom compost that it came from somewhere local — yeah it probably didn’t. So in the future I could look into where the amenders are from, buy amenders that are delivered to the curb without packaging, or rely soley on compost from the garden. Thankfully Davin and I have got more composters going at the community garden this year than ever before so that last one is very doable. I walk the bulk of my purchased soil amenders and container soils from the store to my gardens in a granny cart so no fossil fuel inputs there.
As far as containers and container soil goes I feel some relief in that I have been using the same containers and the same soil (with some supplementation of new soil, compost, and other amenders every spring) for several years and will continue to use them for years to come. Many of my containers are recycled items like dresser drawers found on the curb, broken watering cans and busted buckets or items purchased from thrift stores and yard sales.
While I don’t have a special calculating method set up to get a really accurate picture of how my gardens are doing against this sort of equation, through estimation I can guess that the food I grow myself is still generating a much smaller footprint than anything purchased at the grocery store. I’m not absolutely certain about how it holds up against much of the local produce I purchase weekly at the Farmers Market but I would guess that since I am doing a pretty good job of keeping most energy inputs low and adding in the fact that I walk or bike to both gardens and harvest everything by hand my total input has got to be lower still.
What about you? Can you think of any inputs I might be missing in this equation?