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Solutions to Climate Change

Why What We Grow and What We Eat Matters

By Will Raap
Founder and Chairman
of Gardener’s Supply

Will Raap
Will Raap in Burlington's breadbasket, also known as the Intervale. It's home to a dozen farms that provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the city's residents.

Over thirty years ago, as part of my graduate work, I traveled to England to research the UK “garden city” movement where new cities were developed after WWII creating village centers surrounded by protected greenbelts. Gardening areas and small farms were planned into these new cities. British planners knew that gardens and local farms provided much of the wartime food and research in the UK showed gardens were about 3 times more productive per acre than commercial farms. Gardens and local farms have always been a key part of British food security.

I spent much of the past three decades promoting more food gardening and sustainable local farming in the US and Central America because of what I learned in the UK. Sometimes I felt this effort was irrelevant as food prices from our industrial system declined continually, outcompeting local food production until it nearly stopped. But recently we have become aware that industrial food has less nutrition, less flavor and can leave us vulnerable to food safety and security issues.

And now risks associated with our petroleum-based economy have become real overall and specifically for agriculture. Everything is connected in our global economy and any disruption in oil supply and prices ripples far and wide. This is especially true for food and agriculture. More than ever, cheap oil equates to cheap food …but the reverse is true for expensive oil.

Oil has allowed the development of modern society and economics. We are able to do about 100 times more work than we could do without it. An average 12 gallon tank of gas contains energy equivalent to about 4 years of human labor. Apart from uranium, oil has the greatest energy density of any other substance known.

Oil has allowed the human population to quadruple in 150 years as fewer farmers are needed to feed over 6.5 billion people. The average bite of food travels 1,500 miles from farm to dinnerplate. And every 1 calorie of energy from our food required about 10 calories of fossil fuel energy in farm machinery, fertilizer, pesticides, refrigeration, transportation and packaging. This level of energy dependency is the quintessential example of an energy economy that must be transformed as oil prices increase.

We have created a society and economy that depends on cheap petroleum to thrive. But the oil is running out and the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels for cheap energy are catching up to us. We now are faced with responding simultaneously to two of the greatest challenges in human history: climate change and diminishing oil reserves. From my perspective, the good news is that individually, and together, these challenges will cause a shift back to more local food production.

Climate Change is a “Long Emergency”

From the cover of Time magazine, April 3, 2006: "The debate is over. Global warming is upon us — with a vengeance." Over the past century humanity has taken vast amounts of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas from underground carbon reserves and by burning these fuels released immense amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. CO2 and other “greenhouse gases” have upset the thermostat of the planet, triggering global climate change.

Climate change is an urgent and complex problem with a relatively simple cause but long term, likely severe consequences. Excess CO2 in the earth's atmosphere is raising temperatures around the globe causing dangerous new weather patterns, loss of plant and animal species, rising oceans and dislocated populations, declining forests and growing deserts.

Atmospheric CO2 levels are approaching 400 parts per million (ppm) and leading experts are now saying we need to reduce this to 350ppm to avoid environmental and economic catastrophe (see www.350.org). Because 85 per cent of world energy comes from burning fossil fuels, it is very difficult to reduce CO2 emissions quickly without economic disruption. And the food system is one of the major contributors of CO2 emissions. Food production, processing and distribution are estimated to be the source of over 20% of CO2 emissions in the US and about 15% globally.

There are only two things we can do to reverse global warming and avoid the consequences of climate change. First, we must reduce the amount of greenhouse gases — especially CO2 — that we are directly and indirectly responsible for emitting. Second, we must find ways to remove the excess carbon that has already been released into the atmosphere by increasing the earth's natural carbon "sinks" — the forests, wetlands, grasslands and healthy farmlands that help regulate climate by storing CO2. (See www.earthcarbonoffsets.com)

Both of these solutions are necessary. We need to immediately slow the global increase in carbon emissions through gains in energy efficiency and the development of carbon-free renewable energy sources. This will slow the growth of atmospheric CO2 levels. But we also need to reduce the levels of CO2 that are already in the atmosphere to buy time for clean technologies to be phased in. Without reductions in accumulated concentrations we may rob ourselves of the time to reduce our ongoing emissions of CO2.

Can we retool our fossil fuel-intensive economy quickly enough to reduce emissions? Can we stop trashing existing healthy carbon sinks like tropical forests and wetlands and restore the earth’s natural carbon sinks fast enough? The feedback loops that will answer these questions are measured in decades, and the trends are not positive. But the impact and feedback loops related to Peak Oil are measured in the price of energy and felt in a matter of months.

A Diminishing Oil Supply … To the Rescue?

World discovery of oil peaked in 1964 and has been declining ever since. Despite considerable improvements in technology there is no prospect of any significant new large oil discoveries. We are currently consuming more than 4 barrels of oil for every one discovered.

We have already consumed almost half of the earth’s total oil reserves. This means we have pumped out about one trillion barrels of the estimated two trillion barrels of oil that were once available.

About a trillion barrels of oil remain below ground. The problem is we are running out of cheap oil. The quality and accessibility of half of the remaining oil reserves is declining. Remaining oil is often found in areas like deep oceans and the Arctic, presenting technical extraction challenges and much higher costs. Extraction costs are increasing as demand is increasing meaning prices will increase as well.

Will dwindling oil supplies solve the climate change problem because our use of oil and other fossil fuels will slow as prices most assuredly increase? CO2 emissions are likely to slow as fossil fuel prices rise. But, there will still be a growing demand for oil, coal and natural gas, especially from China, India and other fast-developing economies. Fossil fuels still offer unparallel energy density value compared to other fuels. And remember, many experts now believe that to solve climate change CO2 levels in the atmosphere must be reduced from current levels, not just slowed.

Our Future Food Economy

OK, so climate change is real and a growing problem with potentially dire consequences, but in the long term. And our petroleum-dependent industrial food system is a major source of greenhouse gases so there will be pressure to transform it with CO2 emission reduction incentives and penalties. I believe it is clear that climate change mitigation strategies will lead us back to more locally-produced food, both to reduce CO2 emissions and also because local farming and gardening most often employ sustainable practices that build the soil by adding organic material (i.e. by creating a ecological “sink” to store carbon from the atmosphere).

Our economy recently experienced the economic consequences of diminishing oil supplies, as oil prices exploded to nearly $150 per barrel. Food costs rose immediately and dramatically. We also experienced the social consequences as food riots broke out throughout the developing world due to biodiesel competition for grain crops leading to supply shortfalls and price inflation.

Just as British urban planners created policies to support local food growing in gardens and small farms after WWII I believe we are seeing global conditions, led by climate change and rising oil costs, to encourage the same policy shift in the US.

In fact, for most of this decade there has been a quiet revolution developing in our food system. We are still getting most of our food from distant industrial farms. But more and more food is being grown in and around cities, towns and neighborhoods where we live. People want fresh and healthy food without chemicals and grown by people they know. They want some sense of control over food safety and security. This revolution is taking place in home gardens, community gardens, new organic farms, membership farms, abandoned farms brought back to life, and new residential developments designed to feed as well as house residents. I’m working on a range of these initiatives in Vermont and Costa Rica, and the ground swell of interest is building.

Community-supported agriculture
Burlington residents pick up fresh produce at the Intervale Community Farm, a 500-member, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm that began in 1990.

How can we foster this local food movement near our homes?

  • First, grow a garden or help a friend to grow one. Sign our Grow What You Eat pledge and spread the word.
  • Second, buy locally grown and prepared food whenever possible. You can learn about local farmers markets, membership farms and other ways to buy more local produce at LocalHarvest.org.
  • Third, you can support policies that help your local economy transition to more local food and energy independence. One good model I recently discovered for comprehensive food and energy transition planning comes, appropriately enough, from a town in England and is explained on this website: www.transitiontowns.org.

Will Raap is Founder and Chairman of Gardener's Supply Company. Read more of his Founder's Corner essays.

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