Food systems considered

Learning about food chains, food webs, ecological efficiency, food pyramids, chemical energy, etc. in natural systems is certainly interesting, and critical to managing those systems. But is any of this knowledge useful in comparing and contrasting with human food systems? Which part of the human system would we want to consider (for example, just a local produce component, a single industrial product like mid-western corn, or a vertically integrated food provider than produces the wheat – that turns into the flour – that bakes into twinkies – that get shipped to the grocery store – that get eaten by kids – who use the bathroom – that leads to the lake – that feeds the algae, etc.). Almost all of the food systems in developed countries are subsidized by fossil fuels. Does this make the comparison much less useful? If we successfully move away from fossil fuel subsidies, will this make the comparison more relevant?


Pick one or two ecological ideas and see if you can apply them to some aspect of the human food system. By “apply” I mean draw some conclusion that might inform a modification in the system that in some way “improves” the human food system. The idea of “improve” here is completely value driven, so be clear about what your values are.

Matt’s Vermont food system:

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5 Responses to “Food systems considered”

  1. Tamar Bouchard says:

    The concept that leapt out of this look at the laws of thermodynamics and energetics is that eating a vegetarian diet would seem to be the most energetically efficient diet for our bodies as consumers. Humans can be omnivorous, so we have the option of entering the food chain at either the primary, secondary or tertiary level and if the primary level yields the most energy for our bodies it would make sense that this would be the best level for us to connect with. My son and I had a conversation at lunch today about his choice to become a vegetarian and some of the nutritional things he needs to be aware of while he is following his eating program, such as making sure that he is getting the proper amounts of B vitamins and iron from other sources besides meat. He has a friend who is a long time vegan who has just been advised by his doctor that he needed to return to eating at least some meat to replenish nutrients he was missing in his diet. Missing these vital nutrients has made him very sick for a long period of time, so just being vegan or vegetarian is not the only consideration; ensuring balanced nutrition in the overall diet is the most important factor.

    When considering the idea of vegetarian or vegetable rich diets it is also important to realize the impact on the environment of the planet as a whole. Producing vegetation has all of those energetic returns and benefits to the environment that meat production does not. I remember watching a program on climate change long before it was a buzz word where scientists had modeled the expansion of the desert regions of the African continent based on the increased cattle production and the resultant overgrazing that basically killed the bioavailability of the land for further grass production. This was tied to local economic pressures created by World Bank loans to undeveloped countries. The native population who had subsisted on the land for centuries was forced to produce cattle in order to repay loans made by World Bank so that the country could have progress in the form of infrastructure. The pursuit of the “better” standard of living threatened their very existence in the long term.

    The trouble with conventional farming practices in the United States is that aforementioned fossil fuel subsidy. The petrochemicals used to increase crop yields is also sucking out all of the useable energy in the plants. If the first law of thermodynamics is that energy is conserved then it makes sense that if you are producing greater and greater crop yields on the same patch of soil, then the more overall crop harvest there is the less energy there is per plant, so the produce is actually less full of nutrients then it would be with a normal unsubsidized yield. Our American diet is full of low nutritional value corn and wheat that is then fed to meat animals that are medicated and over inflated in the same way, so that the resulting plate of food has less of the good energy in it then it did in the days before corporate farming became the norm. Even if you are not a vegan you can still be getting low nutritional value food.

    It also makes sense that processed food would have lower nutritional value the more times it has been stepped on or processed into another form. Every time the food is cooked some of the energy is lost.

  2. Michelle Audas says:

    In thinking about food systems, I am thinking about our local farmers market and ecological efficiencies (hold on). If I think about ecological efficiency applied to food systems, in my simplistic way of thinking, I think about maximum food, with minimal energy and minimal disruption. This takes me to my local farmers market. Food producers at our market included several quaker families who produce the best garlic and tomatoes I have ever tasted. All of the energy going into the production process comes from human labour, animal labour and nature, as there is no mechanization on these farms. All of this energy comes from a recycling process, as humans and animals burn energy (calories) in their efforts, and natures great machine depends on the recycling process for her various energetic inputs. All of the quaker food producers live within 50km of our market, and many of the families travel together to supply anxious market patrons, like me. Our market is in the center of town, and many patrons walk or bike there, there is minimal parking, and I would estimate 40% of its visitors arrive without burning fossil fuels. The market suppliers are well recognized for providing the highest quality food around, at fair prices, with minimal impact. I see this as a highly efficient means of growing and supplying food in our community.

  3. Monika Derrien says:

    Comparing and contrasting human food systems (as compared to food webs) requires a consideration of many factors, including ecological energetics and efficiencies. In a system which depends so heavily on the external input of fuel in order to power the system, the change in any one of these variables can make the system calorically or economically inefficient. Since traditional fuels (oil) has been so cheap, the system has evolved in a way that maximizes the cheap input. But between the detrimental environmental effects and rising costs linked to depleting supplies, the system will not sustain itself in its current manifestation.

    How do you organize understanding of human food system? You can track nutrients, fuel, money, time, calories – as they enter and exit different parts of the system. In tracking these nutrients, you will go through the cycle of photosynthesis, digestion, decomposition, etc. Human food cycles don’t really go “full circle” because of the external inputs and outputs that are not re-cycled into the system. Human waste isn’t used to complete the cycle – it adds to a different system that doesn’t “need” the input, and can’t use it to make food. Since in human food systems, the bulk of food is grown and processed fairly far away from where it is consumed, the cycling of energy is disconnected and incomplete. Attempts are made to keep the cycle – through making composting, organic fertilizers – but large-scale agriculture has “cheaper” ways of obtaining energy and nutrients. Human food systems are less of a system than the food webs that most other organisms are part of.

    The monoculture design of industrial agriculture may be efficient with cheap oil, but when energy inputs become more expensive, the cost of energy invested may not be worth the energy output. Large-scale agriculture operations that are made for mass exportation to far away places – that have been encouraged in developing regions around the world – may turn out into losing investments. There will not be enough local demand to fill the market, and huge infrastructural changes will have to be made in order to create food systems that are more locally sustainable and affordable.

    I made a concept list of energetic concepts that can linked to food systems:

    Energy Production and Transformation – including inputs (labor, fuel, sunlight, water, seeds, fertilizers), methods, outputs, re-use and re-cycling. Combinations of variables that affect production levels – climate, weeds, animals, soil quality

    Transportation – how foods are transferred from the production to the consumption phase (in human systems, this is transportation by trucks, trains, air – even if it’s just 15 miles down the road in a local food system), as well as the human labor used transporting this energy

    Energy Transfers – including the efficiency of energy transfers, the methods needed to make energy transferable (cooking, preserving, etc.)

  4. Ian Raphael says:

    Well the first thing that comes to my mind is the trophic conversion of energy from plant to animals in our mainstream food system. It is said to take 4 acres to feed the average meat eater verse a ¼ for a vegetarian. This is a direct result of the amount of calories of plant matter need to produce one calorie of meat energy. Americans in 1950 ate about 144lbs of meat per person. In 2007 the average went up to 222lbs person. Global consumption of meat per capita has doubled in that period of time as well. India and China are also beginning to eat way more meat. This steady rise is unsustainable in so many ways but for this example I want to just focus on land use. As many studies show the global populations will continue to grow tremendously in the coming years. Demand for food will then increase and agricultural land will become a premium. If humans continue to eat larger quantities of meat than is reasonable and necessary, there will be even more strain on the land to produce livestock feed. Then you think about the amount of fossil fuels it takes to raise livestock and the amount they release themselves, ie methane farts, you can see that livestock and our currently agricultural system is the biggest industry contributing to climate change. In my research about seed banks, I read that if green house gas continues to be emitted at a steady rate, by 2050 we could be looking at a 30% decreasing in crop production due to climate change. The food system to me is supporting a positive feedback loop and is creating a negatively escalating system that is unsupportable. The key, in my opinion, is not so much advocating a purely vegetarian diet, but to minimize the amount of meat consumption to normal levels. Humans historically did not eat anywhere near the amount of meat we do now. By eating a more balanced diet of vegetables, the human food system has the potential to provide more energy per acre to feed our growing populations.

    There are many reasons to support local agriculture but for this next example I want to focus on ecosystem balance in a global agricultural society. When things from far away lands are consumed locally, the waste produced from consumption does not return to the source. Or visa a versa, the amount of waste to produce food that is exported out of the local area in concentrated locally rather than spread out. An example is CAFOs which can get so big they rival the amount of fecal waste as NYC. What do both of the examples do the balance of local ecosystems? We know that the waste from CAFOs are really bad on the environment and affects the air and water quality for local residents. Also by focusing on large crop/monocultures and CAFO to be exported, the amount of biodiversity decreases which in turn affects ecosystem health and sustainability.

  5. Matt Sayre says:

    One conclusion people might draw from the ecological concept of ecological efficiency is that human diets should be 100% plant based. This would be consistent with efficiency in that meat has a only a small fraction of the edible kilocalories that most agriculturally-grown plant crops offer. The dilemma is that as humans we are omnivores. Our metabolic system requires some chemical compounds that can only be acquired naturally from plants and other compounds that can only be acquired naturally from animals. So, a growing consensus is that most people should eat mostly plants, but not exclusively plants. Another conclusion one might jump to is that people should eat food produced as locally as possible, however when one considers both quality and environmental impacts one might come to a different conclusion. For example, I am unable to explain the details of the justification for Stonyfield Farms choice to produce yogurt using milk from New Zealand, but the basic analysis is that the grass-fed dairy cows in New Zealand produce a healthier milk for human cansumption and amazingly the carbon footprint of Stonyfield’s production and distribution using the New Zealand milk is lower than using more milk produced in geographic locations much closer to their yogurt-production and distribution facilities. In other words (or in other ecological terms), creating the most ecologically-sound food-system is complex. The food-system is a complex-system and the complexity of the system leads to emergent phenomena. One hotly debated food-system “solution” is the growing use of Genetically-Modified Organisms to help “increase efficiency” and production output as well as reduce pesticide use, decrease water-usage for irrigation, and increase the hardiness of the crops. These goals may sound good but GMO use raises concerns about unintended consequences, the many unkowns, and the complex interactions between living things that will emerge as more and more GMO’s are introduced into ecosystems. Consequences such as decreased biodiversity and increased soil degradation are strong possibilities. My conclusion about using GMO’s as a solution is that in the face of uncertainty we should err on the side of caution, or in other words let the precautionary principle be our guide. Where that principle will guide us is unclear to me becuase of such complexity within the system. Our current food system produces unprecedented amounts of food but due to the economic aspects of the system still leaves many people food “insecure” and exposed to food-related sicknesses. The system also uses water, soil, and fossile fuels more and more effiently every year but still uses them at unsustainable rates. In addition, the system produces excellent financial returns for people such as distributors but leaves many farmers with no financial benefit and often requires them to operate at a loss. And, the system is producing large quantities of food that is simply unhealthy. One thought I will share that is informed by ecological ideas is that maybe the goal of the food system should not be efficiency. Nature is not necessarily efficient. For example, it seems to me that in nature it might take millions of seeds to produce one new plant, however the ecosystem uses the undeveloped seeds as nutrients for some other productive process. It closes the loop so the overwhelming waste produced by the inefficiency of one process becomes food for the system. What would it look like for some aspects of our food system to be transformed to be “inefficient”? For example, one might envision people replacing machinery to provide some of the labor required for production. Would that type of inefficiency be good or bad in terms of sustainabity?

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