By guest blogger: Nicky Schauder of Permaculture Gardens. Permaculture Gardens is a Green Business Network member.
Sustainability has not always been at the forefront of people's minds. But in the past decade, we have seen an increasing awareness in the media and in our society about how humans are affecting the environment and how in turn the environment affects us.
Climate change has taken center stage in the political arena with a focus on "peak oil" and fossil fuel usage. As such, the term "sustainability" has been pushed as a catch-all term to encompass all of our efforts to control our impact on the natural environment.
For those of us consciously aware of how we affect the environment and wanting to take some kind of action at a personal level, there are a lot of choices available to us.
Sustainability in Energy Use
One choice would be to look at energy efficiency and sustainable energy sources by improving your house efficiency or switching to using solar energy.
Another choice could be to reduce your transportation costs. You could walk more places, drive more fuel-efficient cars, or take public transportation.
You could also grow your own food and reduce your consumption of manufactured or processed goods shipped from far away. In an extreme lifestyle change, you could do all these things and start your own homestead, living off the land.
However, most of us live in urban or suburban settings. We usually only have the energy and time to tackle one of these things. I want to make the argument to you that choosing to grow your own food will make the biggest "sustainable" impact at both the personal and national (community) level.
Economic Benefits to Growing Your Own
First let's talk about the economic benefits to growing even a small portion of your own food. Look at the energy/food data below collected on the average yearly household budget in the US (2014 - Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Gasoline and motor oil 2,468
Gas and electric 1,956
As you can see from this shortened chart, of all the expenses above targeted for sustainability, food costs are by far the highest. If we switched to solar energy, we'd save an average of $84 / month or $1008 / year based on this solar information. Improving the efficiency of our house would save us 11% on average/month or around $211/year.
If we drove a more fuel-efficient car (2 times more efficient just to overestimate), we'd save $690 in fuel costs/year. Driving an electric car could save us a maximum of $900/year in fuel charges (in Hawaii). If we totally eliminated driving places and just walked or biked everywhere, we'd save $2468/year on average but that's probably unrealistic.
“Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable.” - George Washington Carver
Of course, all these efficiency steps have huge upfront costs. But I don't want to complicate things when you'll see shortly that growing food is the clear winner.
Breaking it Down
Now let's see how much money we'd save for different scenarios of growing our own food. In a very simple case, 100 square feet planted with basic annual veggies could very easily produce 80-100 lbs of produce in a year (visit $700 in 100 sq. ft for a demonstration). Given the going rate for organic food in the markets at $4-$6/lb for organic food, you'd save $500/year on food costs, which is pretty close to the fuel savings for a hybrid car.
If you could generate 300-400 lbs of mixed fruits/veggies during the year, which is very doable for a townhouse-sized yard or slightly bigger, you'd save $1500-2000/year on food. Of course, $5/lb is an incredibly low estimate. Keep in mind that this food is as fresh as you can get (talk about farm to table). You can grow varieties you can't even find in the store (for those of us who love gourmet food varieties). So without factoring in labor, growing your own food will by far make the largest economic impact of all sustainable choices.
But It's Too Hard
Usually the complaint about gardening is that it is labor-intensive. Factoring that makes growing your own food more expensive.
But if we set up self-reliant systems that don't need a lot of care and feeding (like using perennials and no-till gardening), we can easily take care of our garden in the time it takes to go shop at the supermarket each week, so labor is neutral cost.
Also, for many of us, gardening is deeply spiritual and provides many benefits that we can't quantify in capitalistic macroeconomic terms.
Now that we've shown that growing your own food can make a big difference economically at the personal level, let's take a look at the impact it makes at a national level. Since the rise of the organic food movement, there has been a lot of research done on trying to compare the efficiency of locally grown food vs transporting the food across the globe, as well as organic vs conventional growing.
Sustainability vs. non-Sustainability
This has led to terms in the industry like food miles and LCA (life-cycle analysis). These try to measure greenhouse gas emissions to bring a certain food product from seed to table. Conventional food producers that ship from far away ignore soil health and environmental damage that this causes. Although many of these studies were written by economists with absolutely no real farming experience, they generally point out that transportation costs are outweighed by the costs incurred by the method used to grow the food. Follow this link for a dry, but fair analysis of how limited most of these studies are.
We might assume that it would be difficult to feed the ravaging hordes in a major city like New York City without using a highly mechanized industrial agricultural system. But interestingly enough, there is a precedent in the modern era for a large city using urban farms tended by its residents to not only survive but flourish.
Take Cuba for Instance
Cuba suffered massive petrochemical shortages in the mid-90s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Traditional farming using fertilizers and pesticides couldn't have worked. Havana, the capital city, underwent a massive transformation over the next ten years. It emphasized local and household urban farming. The result is startling; today in a city of 2.1 million residents, urban farms supply 70 percent or more of all the fresh vegetables. Imagine what an impact this could make in a more advanced open society!
What you can do about climate change
As Geoff Lawton put it, "All the world's problems can be solved in a garden."
At this point, if we haven't yet convinced you that gardening is the green choice, why not try closing the loop on our food consumption by starting with composting. Here's a little blog we wrote about how you can turn your waste in the goldmine that is, compost!
Better yet, why not start growing your own climate victory garden, as we suggest here.
There are so many reasons to start growing in your backyard. And our mission statement explains "why we grow."