Morality and Food Production

Matt has a post on issues with food production.

I don’t really have time for a detailed response, but would like to mention a sermon I heard Lori Kenschaft deliver at the local Unitarian Church entitled Life In Balance: The Spiritual Practice of Gardening.

I really liked it as a mature perspective on food production. I particularly enjoyed her blending of spirituality and science.

For most of the history of life, nitrogen was one of the things that most limited how much life could exist. There was plenty of nitrogen in the air, but most living beings cannot use that nitrogen. Some bacteria, however, can take nitrogen from the air and bring it into their bodies, a process that is usually called “fixing nitrogen.” Until the 1940s most of the world’s biologically available nitrogen was fixed by those bacteria, and the rest of us depended on them for our lives.

During World War I, however, German scientists figured out how to fix nitrogen chemically, on an industrial scale. After World War II this technology was adapted to make fertilizer instead of munitions. Chemical fertilizers allowed a huge expansion in the world’s food supply and therefore the world’s human population. It is estimated that about half of the nitrogen that is now biologically available on this planet was fixed chemically, not by bacteria. And about 40% of the human population, more than two billion people, owe their existence to those chemical fertilizers.

The problem is that chemical fertilizers, and chemical herbicides and pesticides, kill many of the things that live in soil and form the community that makes soil healthy. Over time, therefore, farmers have to use more and more fertilizer to keep producing the same amount of food. If the soil becomes too damaged, crops fall no matter what.

Fixing nitrogen chemically requires a lot of energy. It requires heating the mixture to about 700° Fahrenheit at 200 times atmospheric pressure. So farmers nowadays often use more than a calorie’s worth of fossil fuel to produce a calorie’s worth of food. As the soil becomes more damaged, that ratio gets worse over time. This is, by the way, why corn ethanol is not an answer to our climate change problem.

There are several reasons why the global price of food commodities increased by more than 60% in the last year. But one of them is that the price of food is now closely linked to the price of oil. And the diversion of corn into making ethanol has helped create real problems for the 2½ billion people who live on less than two dollars a day.

Personally, I like the concept of community gardens both as a mechanism for creating interpersonal connections and to help address some of the issues surrounding food production.

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