The distance in consumption; where should we put our plate?

Distance from the Sun

This is a little idea that I came up with a while ago when trying to explain energy transfer through the trophic levels to my fiancée, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to relate on a much wider scale beyond eating.

Basically, almost all the energy we use comes from the sun and the rest from geological processes. Almost all the building blocks for everything we’ve come to take for granted came from the Earth; if you can imagine a few hundred million years ago, the physical matter that make up every living human today, every car, building and tree, the diversity of living biota, all the matter that came together on the battle field, were taken to others worlds and brought back again or chipped in stone or inked on papyrus to form a wealth of dreams, philosophies and historical references, it was all yet to be much more than abiotic material on and in the Earth, simple expressions of life working, together with geological process, to make new things and change the atmosphere or matter yet to crash into the surface from other places in the cosmos.

Please excuse me for not going to a deeper level – to discuss the soul and identity. I won’t cast any judgement in that arena. I just want to make it clear that all matter was here and all that we are physically came from that; in an amazing series of geological and biological processes as did everything else. It is all particles from the Earth and elsewhere, changed through energy supplied by the sun and geological forces. Pretty amazing to think about!

My point is this; the further you are from the origin, the more energy and resources are required to create the product. The distance for the origin is not just spatial, but also time and/or process chain.

Closer to home

Take for example beef, being a large and long living animal; a lot of resources are required just for growth and exercise. Doing a quick analysis of water requirements for example, beef production is heavy on resources (indeed all cattle related produce is). When compared with the same unit weight of fish meat, it can seem initially wiser to consume fish rather than beef. However, if you look at the processing requirements, storage and shipment, it might sway back the other way.

Comparing meat to plant material, more often than not, this analysis is in favour of plant material being more efficient (it is closer to the energy sort via photosynthesis), yet when you turn grains into muesli-bars, when you cut the fruit up, place it with syrup in a tin, when you take a root vegetable or juicing fruit, process it and convert it into a powdered and concentrated form and then ship it all over the world, or take plant material and place it in cold storage for months on end (which is quite common of supermarket “fresh” produce), what is the true energy and resource requirement?

Feel sorry for my partner yet? Don’t worry – she gets her own on me!

At first glance, it’s a troubling thought

…but it tends to meet up with what nutritionists and doctors has been telling us for years; fresh is best, it meets up with what many different government bodies have been telling us for years; buy local. It’s funny how common sense often tends to be across disciplines like that.

I read a number of writers argue that what would be key to addressing many of the issues of sustainability of human habit begins with community. This is the key to fresh, local produce and could indeed provide local economic growth without the “breed like rabbits” stupidity largely adopted by economists across the globe. It also helps build moral and concern for the local envrionment; when we feel part of something larger than ourselves and our four walls, there is a sense of pride and belonging.

A true optimist would argue

…that if everyone kept a small patch in their yard, a few fruit trees and/or chickens, fed on rain water tanks as much as possible, they could decrease their shopping needs and at a weekend market, trade what they don’t need at a counter, which it could then be fed into various stalls alongside local grower stalls. What, of this yield, is not required could then go to a fixed market stand at a local or nearby mall a filter out from there.

As part of this, volunteers (retirees would be a great start here) could help assist people set up their own patch through both lectures and visits. To further this, agricultural and environmental experts could also provide the occasional lecture as well as web-based learning to give pointers on efficiency, crop choice for yard space, season and typical local climate as well as updates following both research as well as developments made within the community (helping the lines of communication between and among the public and different educational bodies).

This would give the local community a chance to get to know each other, lower shopping cost (waiting for the big chains to listen to the struggling family has proven to be ridiculous as prices ever creep upward), increase the freshness, thus health value from the produce, lower shipping, thus related emissions, lower general and recycling waste and provide the community with a sense that they can make a difference, locally, for the better.

Alas, I understand that it is not that simple in practice; there are many different considerations that need to be made. It is nice to think that this would be possible and indeed, as most Aussie still prefer low density living with a sizable plot, it makes sense to use the land sensibly, rather than the never ending clearing for consumption…

Just some food for thought! 🙂


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