Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is Food Self-Sufficiency A Pipe Dream?

Lately I've been coming across quite a few people online who rail against the idea that anyone could achieve food self-sufficiency. One guy on a forum asked the other members if any of them were growing and/or raising all their own food. He was arguing that food self-sufficiency is unrealistic. The replies went on for pages and pages but not a single person could say yes to his question. A lot of people wanted to defend the idea, but nobody could provide the proof. On other sites, I see people arguing that it's a ridiculous goal to aim for--we're social animals and we should all work cooperatively to ensure a solid food supply. Growing your own food supply is portrayed as inherently antisocial.

What do I think about all of this? I'm one of those who defends the idea of food self-sufficiency, yet haven't achieved it for myself yet. I don't see anything inherently antisocial about growing food or learning everything you possibly can about growing crops and/or raising animals. It's just like learning to be a good cook--if you love cooking you want to develop a wide repertoire of skills. You don't neglect a certain area of cooking--say pastry-making--just because there are others who could do that more efficiently for you. You dive into everything. Developing multiple competencies is something we thrive on. It's fulfilling, and from a survival perspective it is enormously advantageous. I think it's important for each of us to constantly work to expand our personal competencies. Does that mean we then only use those competencies for self-serving purposes? Of course not. We can use those skills in community just as well as in our private spaces. I for one would love to participate in a community of well-rounded people who have multiple competencies, rather than in a community of specialists. In strong communities, redundancy of skills is important. It's not that I don't think a certain degree of specialization is helpful--just that each specialist should also have basic broad competencies as well.

So I've been puzzling out this self-sufficiency thing. Is it really that difficult to grow all of your food supply? I just don't think so. I've been doing a lot of calculations this weekend and what I've deduced is that I should easily be able to grow 80% of my food supply in just 800 square feet of space. That's 80% of all my nutritional needs: calories, protein, starches, vitamins, minerals, and fats. The weak area would be providing enough fat in my diet. The climate isn't right to grow foods like avocados or olives but I would be getting some fat from nuts and seeds. Adding a few hens would be helpful (each egg has 6 grams of fat) but that would mean expanding the garden to grow their feed. One or two dwarf or pygmy dairy goats would more than cover my need for fats, but again, the land area required would increase significantly. Since I'm living on about a sixth of an acre currently, goats aren't a possibility. However, my ultimate point here is that growing a complete diet isn't at all unrealistic, nor would it be an overwhelming amount of work.

I already have experience with growing a 500 square foot garden and that was extremely easy to manage. This year's garden should be over 1000 square feet. The challenge isn't really the work involved, it's the knowledge that's required. Understanding my body's nutritional needs and then translating that into the right foods to grow and the correct amount of space to allot to each food--that's the real challenge.

The other big challenge is that given the standard American diet most of us are accustomed to, growing your own food almost by default means massively changing your diet. And even though that change is healthy and in your best interests, it's still very hard. I've been in the process of changing my diet for the past five years--eliminating processed foods, cooking from scratch, and using as much garden produce as possible--and still I know that I have to change my eating habits even more dramatically if I want to eat only what I grow. I've mentioned before how growing my own food is teaching me about what is sensible to eat and to grow. What's sensible to grow ends up being what's very, very healthy to eat, but it also ends up being a diet very foreign to us in the modern western world.

In February, the USDA came out with the most recent statistics (from 2008) on our food consumption patterns. It's quite scary. If we were to try to model our gardens on the diet these statistics show we're eating we would need quite a large amount of land and resources. The average American is eating 922.6 pounds of food per year, or 2648.6 calories per day. It breaks down like this:

Obviously each person's needs are unique. A teenage boy or a manual laborer will need to eat much more than a sedentary senior citizen or someone with an office job. A good formula for calculating your individual caloric needs can be found here. My needs fall somewhere around 1800 calories per day (less in winter when I hibernate), which amounts to roughly 68% of the average cited above (2648.6 calories/day). If I was a representative American (thankfully I'm not!) that would mean I'm eating 93 pounds of grains per year, 66 pounds of sweeteners, 85 pounds of fruit, 114 pounds of vegetables, 39 pounds of added fat, 127 pounds of dairy products, and 103 pounds of meats, eggs, and nuts. It adds up to 627 pounds of food per year.

Using intensive gardening methods I know that across all crops I'm roughly able to yield 100 pounds of food per 100 square foot bed. Obviously some yields are much higher and some much lower, but that's a good figure to play with. In order to grow 627 pounds of food I need approximately 6.27 100 square foot beds, which is an incredibly manageable thing to do. But it's not enough to just grow 627 pounds of food--it has to be the right combination of crops to ensure I'm getting adequate calories and nutrition.

I'm still trying to figure all of this out. John Jeavon's book How to Grow More Vegetables has been very helpful. His charts listing expected yields allow me to calculate my space requirements. Learning the nutrition side of things has been more daunting, especially when there's so much conflicting information. Just how much fat does a person need? How much protein for optimal health? This is where I need to focus my energy--educating myself on nutrition. I'm one of those Weston Price groupies, so my ideas are far from the norm. Finding good information is challenging.

Nevertheless, I think I'm on the right track with what I'm planning to grow this year. I've got some good protein crops--seeds, oats, amaranth, chickpeas, and dent corn (never did get around to ordering Spanish peanuts this year--darn!) and good calorie crops (same as above plus potatoes and sweet potatoes), plenty of starches and a huge range of fruits, veggies and herbs to round out my nutritional requirements. I still want to get this down to more of a science, however.

The diet I end up with is not going to look anything like the standard American diet. That's one thing I'm quite certain of. I suspect it will end up having an indigenous American flavor to it when all is said and done--depending more heavily on corn, beans, squashes, amaranth, and potatoes for a large percentage of my calories--and less on wheat and sugars.