It’s early February as I write, but the ground outside the MOFGA offices is missing its blanket of snow. For the past two months, as I take my evening walk, the stream on the hillside has been running almost half the nights, often running as fast as it would at spring thaw. There’s already talk of tapping maple trees. Maybe this is what winter will be like in a world of climate change.
Each year the world burns enough fossil fuel to produce the equivalent of 400 years of stored sunlight. That is, if, for the next 400 years, we turned all the sunlight that hits the earth into energy that humans can use, the energy from that light would equal only one year of fossil fuel consumption. We continue to increase the amount of petroleum we use even as the available supply literally goes up in smoke and heat.
We are able, and willing, to turn energy into food. The production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the mechanization of every possible function on the farm, and the transportation of raw ingredients from every corner of the world has "freed" much of the U.S., and world, population from food production. Estimates of the energy input to food output ratio suggest that even unprocessed, raw foods take 10 calories of energy for every calorie of food produced. Processed foods and foods that travel long distances use 200 calories of energy or more for 1 calorie of food energy.
When we look at the future energy economy, we know that sunlight is our basic resource. Stored sunlight (petroleum, coal, natural gas) is a tool, but can’t be the basis of our economy. The ratio of energy used:food calorie produced needs to be much closer to 1—sunlight in, plus sunlight stored in the soil, equals food out. That means that building soil fertility and building soil organic matter must be the focus of agricultural systems, which is the basic tenet of organic agriculture.
Richard Heilberg, in Powerdown, describes strategies for building a post-petroleum society. One that he presents, but then dismisses, is a "lifeboat" strategy with dispersed, decentralized groups, showing what is possible in each area. That means local farmers producing local, organic food for themselves, their neighbors and their communities.
Unlike Heilberg, I think the lifeboat strategy has merit, and so I think MOFGA is in the right place at the right time. This year marks 35 years of shared work aimed at figuring out how to grow organic food. Hundreds of certified farmers and thousands of organic gardeners are growing around Maine. We know that we can grow the food we need to eat, and grow it with minimal energy inputs. Now we need to share with the public the knowledge that we’ve acquired and that we share with one another.
We know we are addicted to oil. Each seed we plant this year is another way to capture sunlight and convert it to food. Let’s get growing!