Lifecycle of a Leaf

Our food system is insane. Making it better will make us happier…

In the second quarter of 2009, the nation’s GDP hit its lowest point of the Great Recession, unemployment marched toward its 10 percent peak, banks seized nearly a million homes…and I graduated from college. I was lucky to have a degree, though I couldn’t use it, so I took the best job I could find: working at an outdoor sports store with an attached ice cream and fudge shop. (Word to the wise—selling pajamas and fudge under the same roof is a recession-proof business model.) By the end of peak tourist season, my wrists were shot to hell from scooping hundreds of ice cream cones every day. During the summer, even at the height of a recession, the town of Bar Harbor, Maine, gets leisurely trampled by a few million people, and they all want ice cream. Ours was the first one off the pier where many of the world’s largest cruise ships dock.

My wrist-wracking toil was terminated with the dwindling trickle of seasonal visitors and so, with few other options—the recession hitting peak unemployment the month prior—and a small pile of hoarded tip cash, I joined a friend in starting up a new company. He was the real business and engineering mind behind the venture, with me offering some real-world agricultural know-how and the top-quality sidekickery that only a guy named Sam (inside or outside of a fantasy novel) can provide. We decided to jump into an industry that neither of us had much real experience in, but, well, neither did anyone else. We were trying to design a new way of growing food. 

The new food-growing system we designed was run on hydroponics, which means growing plants suspended in a nutrient-rich water stream. Hydroponic growing is not new. But we experimented with a variety of newer high-tech methods, like using low-energy LED grow lights in a highly dense, stacked grow system with automated nutrient flows. Essentially, we were trying to develop a way of growing leafy greens using computers and a finely-tuned environment in an urban area at commercial scale. We must have been doing something right since a horticultural lighting team at the world’s largest lighting manufacturer/popular electronics brand wanted to work with us and ended up co-opting some of our design. 

The business benefit to the concept was that we could sell lettuce near where it would be consumed, year round, which meant delivering more and fresher leaves with fewer labor needs and costly chemical inputs. But the broader social benefit was that this technique could dramatically reduce the negative impacts that the production of packaged salad greens has on people and the world, which is worse than you might imagine. Water pollution, air pollution, water waste, land use footprint, fertilizer and pesticide reliance, and, perhaps most importantly, carbon emissions: Our technique could have reduced all these destructive environmental problems. (It could have, but our particular company was not successful; we’ll get to the why of that later.)

Here, however, you might want to stop me and say, Wait a minute, Sam, how could growing leafy greens indoors with light-emitting diodes and computers be more energy-efficient than growing greens in a field with sunlight? That is a reasonable question and in a reasonable world, it wouldn’t be more energy-efficient. But we don’t live in a reasonable world. So to answer that question, let’s take a quick journey through the surprisingly intricate absurdities of our current fossil-fueled food system. One of the more illuminating products for exploring this system happens to be the humble packaged salad greens you can find in a supermarket. So let’s start there…

The Life(Death)cycle

So you’re at the grocery store and your basket is full of Cool Ranch Doritos, pudding, and cheese, but you’re between health insurance plans and spent the afternoon woe-scrolling Instagram, so you shuffle out of the frozen pizza aisle to guilt-purchase a box of arugula, 65 percent of which you know will rot in the fridge before you eat it. What you may not know is that—notwithstanding the label showing an idyllic farm—a huge industrial infrastructure shuttled that shame-lettuce into your basket. Here’s a basic sketch of the process from farm to garbage; let’s keep a count of the number of fossil fuel inputs involved, bearing in mind that I’ve surely missed some.

Input #1: Since, like all other leaves, arugula starts as a seed, these seeds were likely extracted and bulk-sorted in a mechanized process using fossil fuel energy. Then they were shipped using diesel fuel to the field (input #2) in California or possibly Arizona, since  98 percent of packaged salad greens are grown within those two states. By this point, the ground has been stripped and prepared with internal combustion engine vehicles (#3) into which the seeds are planted with precision seeders (#4). Water is sprayed in vast quantities—agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s human-use water—through pumps powered typically by (you guessed it) fossil fuels (#5) until seedlings break the ground. Laborers traverse the field, sometimes with vehicles (#6), applying pesticides synthesized from—and manufactured with—petroleum (#7): herbicides to kill weeds, fungicides to kill fungus, and pesticides to kill insects and rodents. Petroleum-derived fertilizers (#8), too, have been applied in a mechanized process (#9). When they’re ready, the arugula leaves are cut with big diesel-fueled vehicles (#10) and transported to a processing facility that is powered by, most likely, coal (#11). There, the leaves are sorted on conveyors (#12), washed in industrial washers (#13), dried in industrial dryers (#14), and then packaged with machines (#15) into plastic (#16) containers. 

Then the packaged greens are put on a truck (#17), then onto a diesel-powered, refrigerated train (#18), and shipped across the country to a grid-powered distribution center (#19) , let’s say Hunts Point, a sprawling food-warehousing complex in the Bronx. There they are moved with a forklift (#20) to a truck (#21) that takes them to a supermarket where they sit on a refrigerated shelf (#22), are then plopped in your basket, chucked in your electric refrigerator (#23), and partially consumed in exactly one meal before you forget about it. 

But wait! The cycle isn’t complete. As soon as the greens smell or look off, or you need more space for pudding in your fridge, you throw the greens into your bin, which is picked up by a garbage truck (#24) and ends its short life in a landfill that emits lots of methane—this isn’t a fossil fuel input, but it is a potent greenhouse gas! In fact, methane is between 30 and 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Such landfills represent the third-largest source of methane emissions in the United States. That’s on top of the prodigious methane emissions that come from manufacturing ammonia fertilizer, which are 100 times higher than the industry reports. Meanwhile, since you’re a good environmentalist, you put the plastic container in a recycling bin. From there, the packaging is placed on a truck (#25) and brought to a sorting center (#26). At one time it would have been chucked onto a huge ship and chugged across the world to China or Canada where gods only knew what happened to it. But now that China isn’t taking America’s plastic waste any longer, that plastic container will usually be incinerated (emitting greenhouse gases), piled in landfills (emitting greenhouse gases), shoveled into the ocean (to break down into microplastics and end up inside your body or a whale’s), or sent to some other countries (#27+).

So there are—at minimum—around 30 points at which fossil fuels are used to grow, process, and distribute a simple box of lettuce leaves. This doesn’t even take into account all the fossil fuels that were burned to manufacture and ship all the tools—the trucks, the hoses, the tractors, the trains, the washers and dryers—needed to run the farm and ship the product. Of all food, lettuce is not uniquely carbon-intensive. The entire food system in the Global North is like this. In fact, a lot of other food supply chains are much more carbon-dependent than lettuce. Chocolate often starts as a bean in West Africa, goes through lots of mechanized processing, frequently exploitative labor practices, and may cross three continents and an ocean before it arrives as a slab in North American supermarkets. Coffee lives a similar life. This doesn’t even begin to dissect the lab experiments—like Pop-Tarts or cheese puffs—that require an industrial process just to conceive. Nor does it address industrial meat production, which swallows up about 80 percent of all agricultural land use, tons of energy inputs, and spews lots of greenhouse gas emissions—around a quarter of all emissions, by some estimates—while exploiting lots of precarious workers and killing billions of living beings.

Illustrations by Heather Milligan


Fossil Food

But our food system’s complete dependence on carbon emissions remains the direst and trickiest problem. Without severe intervention, greenhouse gases will, in a handful of years, trigger runaway climatic feedback loops that will be unstoppable and could ultimately kill most life on Earth, as they did during the Late Permian extinction event. Right now, virtually every calorie of food consumed by someone in the Global North depends on a whole lot of greenhouse gas emissions. This has to change radically and rapidly if humans and other complex life will be able to continue making Earth their home. 

All this adds up to one fact: The fossil-fueled-food system is terrible. And while it’s terrible in a lot of ways beyond dependence on fossil fuels, most of these ills are compounded and enabled by the use of fossil fuel supply chains. Food contaminated by passing through many hands sickens about 48 million Americans per year; a lot of harmful, synthetic additives cause chronic illnesses like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease (the latter two being the top causes of death in the United States); overuse of fungicides and antibiotics in the food industry are directly leading to drug-resistant infections that threaten to kill 10 million people or more per year by 2050; pollution from food processing despoils huge expanses of air and land; air pollution from growing corn alone kills about 4,300 Americans every year; billions of animal souls are tortured and brutally killed every year; farms displace wild animals and are one of the leading contributors to mass extinction of wildlife; food corporations exploit precarious workers; healthy food is often inaccessible to lower-income people; industrial agriculture depletes nutrients from the soil at a rate faster than it can be replenished, which is hurtling the entire world toward mass starvation; and much more. Our fossil food kills in so many ways. 

Making that massive change haphazardly could be disruptive, leading to famines and wars. But such chaos will inevitably mar our future anyway if we ignore this problem now. So we can either fail to plan or we can confront it head on while we still have the ability to implement proactive solutions. While doing so entails risks, it could also provide an opportunity not just to avert catastrophic climate impacts, but also to make the food system better in all those other myriad ways that it needs to improve. In fact, decarbonizing the food system could single-handedly address most of the problems listed above and fix a lot of other issues at the same time. 

As an added benefit, decarbonized food can also offer greater resilience in the face of climate-related disasters. The climate has already changed. Weather-related disasters are already occurring at unprecedented scales and intensities. Our current food system, dependent as it is on monocultures, vulnerable supply chains, and precarious workers, is not at all resilient to the new climate we’re living in. Recent climate-driven flooding in the Midwest, for example, has decimated many crops in the short planting season, which will have major ramifications for commodity prices later this year. Large-scale farming itself is a product of the Holocene, a geological epoch and climatic era whose reliable weather patterns made organized agriculture possible in the first place. Those of us alive today are the first generations of humans to live in a post-Holocene world; how farming will fare in this new era remains to be seen. It’s unlikely to be good. Any number of climate emergencies—floods, droughts, blights, pests, fires, superstorms—can shock our food system, throw it into chaos, and leave huge populations without access to even basic subsistence. 

While this new agricultural precarity will likely hit the Global South the hardest, people living in the Global North should not feel safe. Anyone whose food supply is dependent on supermarkets and complex supply chains is risking shortages and even overnight food scarcity. When I lived in Edinburgh, a highly functional city in a very progressive country (that is, Scotland, not the U.K.), a freak snowstorm—ultimately just a few inches of snow—exacerbated by climate change was sufficient to shut down the food supply chains. Supermarket produce shelves were bare for weeks after. Even eggs and milk were difficult to get after the storm. 

A decarbonized food system, on the other hand, demands that we build a system on smaller, local scales, shorter supply chains, and ecologically sound principles that are far more robust in the face of literally every single disaster a broken climate can throw at us. But what would it mean to decarbonize food? What could a non-fossil-fueled-food system look like, and how could it benefit life in other ways (besides allowing it to survive into the future)? 

Non-Fossil Food

At the tiny college I attended in Maine (where the dining hall frequently ends up on top-10 lists for its local farm food), every student was required to take an internship before they could graduate. So for my internship, I did what every good post-civilization-pondering student does and went to work on a fairly self-sufficient, low-carbon farm to learn how to eat independently from complex fossil fuel supply chains. In a scramble to find a farm willing to take me on and cover room and board, a friend told me about one that she’d worked on in northern Italy. Seemed like a nice place to spend a summer, and it was. But what she’d neglected to mention was the dictator.

The remote farm sat perched on the side of a mountain overlooking vast green ranges stretching out into tumbling hills and valleys. Old, likely medieval stone structures made up the compound at the heart of the farm. At any given time, a cadre of about half a dozen vagabonds associated with  WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and other traveling farmworkers (who also exchanged their labor for room and board) lived and worked on the land with the family that ran it. The lifestyle was austere. I lived in a small, bare room crawling with scorpions, which I caught and returned to the sunken field outside my room. The bathroom was shared with the other workers and the water heater was wood-fueled (that is, you had to build a small fire underneath the tank if you wanted a warm shower—I usually just took cold ones). Electricity was scarce. The food was almost entirely vegetarian, bread-free, and bland—far from the sumptuous, meaty pasta I had imagined. This protein-deficient diet sent me on hours-long treks down the mountain to the ancient town of Bobbio, where Celts and Romans once lived. There I would eat an entire chicken, or stuff slice after glorious slice of unparalleled pizza into my face, or even hoard peanuts to bring back to my room like a hungry rat. Peanut-laden and tanned, I’d hike hours up switchbacks through forests and fields stalked by wild dogs and wild boars.   

And here you might protest again: But Sam, this so-called “self-sufficient farm” was leaving you deprived of basic nutrition. It wasn’t producing the pizza you depended on for protein and happiness. How is that a desirable alternative to our food system? Well, as it turned out, the farm could have easily provided a much more nutritious cuisine than it did. It wasn’t some little hobby garden: It grew tons of vegetables, fruits, livestock, and commodities that it sold on the market. It had more than enough food and revenue to lay out a full-blown feast every single night and still sell a lot. But the farm didn’t. And the obstacle was not the reasonably ecological way in which the food was produced. The obstacle was a tyrant. The farm was run by a greedy old man, that perennial obstacle to fairness, abundance, and progress.

The former doctor who owned the land and ran the farm seemed to be an aspiring cult-leader. He loped around the fields like a grouchy Italian Gollum with a shaved head, barking at volunteers and family members and occasionally reducing workers to tears. He was himself, in his body, austere: the physical embodiment of stinginess. He preached a bizarre dietary philosophy based on blood type and used it to justify depriving workers of sufficient nutrition. “Oh you’re B+? Just rice and root veg for you!” He demanded we get up early and work late. Being mostly ignorant of the Italian language, I was immune to his verbal abuse and sermons on the benefits of quinoa. But it was clear that he was motivated by hoarding money, throwing feasts for affluent customers who paid a pretty penny to have dinner on the farm and learn about his food philosophy, and by selling the tinctures of calendula oil squeezed from the flowers we workers harvested and chopped.

But even despite the austerity, it was a beautiful summer. I carry vivid memories of reading in a sunny field, strolling along mountain paths to nearby villages, and bonding with the animals and other workers. Many animals roamed the farm, with ducks, cats, bees, and sheep adding much life to the compound. One of my main tasks was to lead the flock of 44 sheep into the alpine meadows and watch over them for hours on end to keep the wild dogs at bay. I spent these hours reflecting, basking in the sunshine, wandering the hills, and inventing tales. Sometimes I would hike down to the town to see a band, or jump from cliffs into the river Trebbia.    

This experience offered a small glimpse into what a low-carbon farm and lifestyle can look like. A decarbonized food system will almost certainly entail dismantling the huge, complex supply chains we currently depend upon. This means growing more food near where it’s consumed and at a smaller scale. Remove the austere dictator running it and the farm would have been a pretty idyllic place to live and work—even, dare I say, utopian. With aggressive measures like radically enforced commons and laws against land hoarding to prevent such petty tyrants from rising, it’s a utopia that’s readily replicable. Living an active, outdoors lifestyle made me  healthy and hale. I felt a connection to the land. I felt satisfaction from growing food for people. I enjoyed wonderful, restful (if insufficient) leisure time. So how do we replicate something like that at scale while ensuring a more equitable ownership of land and less precarious existence for farm labor? How do we have non-fossil farms and avoid the dictators?

Green New Farms 

First of all, we can’t simply “decarbonize” or “de-mechanize” the food system all at once and immediately switch to idyllic organic farms. If we tried to do that haphazardly, it would almost certainly result in a collapse in food supply or food price shocks, and the death and turmoil that would accompany such a global famine. And what a responsible, managed decarbonization of food should look like in detail is beyond the scope of any single piece of writing; it would have to involve granular, specific plans that vary depending on the locale, the crops involved, and the people served. There’s no standardized policy that alone can govern the decarbonization of food. There are just too many local complexities. There are regionally variable pests, variation in soil input needs, difficulties in fertilizing and rotating fields in some places where a lot of people live, and the myriad ways in which agricultural land can be interwoven with wild spaces and species depends on local ecological knowledge. Above everything else, there’s the wildcard of climate change that casts a looming chaotic shadow on any plans we try to make now. Because of the local granularity, municipalities must be at the frontlines of governing this transition.

But there is one thing we can be doing now in spite of these local complexities and global uncertainties. There is one policy that we can standardize and begin applying at a federal scale, possibly contained within the boundaries of the Green New Deal or a similar policy. And that is federally subsidizing small-scale, low fossil fuel-input agricultural projects and dismantling the large fossil fuel ones. (We can break up the big banks and the big farms at the same time.) But doing this, decarbonizing the food system, will almost certainly mean changing the way in which people work and live in the world; if we’re going to get the political buy-in necessary to dramatically change how food is produced, and fast, then we must discuss the big patterns in lifestyle change that might accompany a managed decarbonization of the food supply and how that can make life better. 

One of the often-overlooked consequences of deindustrializing food is that it will almost certainly change the composition of the labor market. Today in the United States, only about 2 percent of workers are employed in agriculture. And many of those workers are exploited, underpaid, and toil in harsh conditions. This is due to fossil fueled industrial capitalist production. By mechanizing the process of growing food with petroleum, far fewer workers are required to grow the same density of calories as in a non-carbon, non-mechanized food system. Meanwhile, given the demands of a concentrated, corporate capitalist market, owners are incentivized to squeeze every available ounce of time and labor out of their workers. Without synthetic fertilizer and the use of big machinery like those used to grow salad greens, different methods will be necessary and, in some cases, almost certainly require more hands tilling the soil. Dismantling our current system will probably mean that a lot more people will need to do agricultural work. Selling this fact may be a political obstacle to decarbonizing agriculture. 

Or maybe not. When asked in a recent Gallup poll about where they want to live, the largest percentage of Americans (27 percent) say they wish to live in rural areas. Today, so many workers toil in degrading service sector jobs indoors, in unpleasant, rapidly gentrifying cities, alienated from each other and from nature. Or they rot on rolling chairs in dank, fluorescent-soaked offices. Nature deficit disorder is rampant and people are sicker and sadder because of it. As Jacobin recently reported, “A survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition suggests that there’s a generation of young people who want to farm sustainably, organically, and as a part of a robust local food system. Their main concerns are an inability to afford land, student debt, poor health care, and a shortfall of skilled farm labor.” Many more people today would enjoy owning and working on a small polyculture farm, but only if they could survive in an economically secure way and with the autonomy of working according to the needs of the land and their bodies rather than the needs of absent capital or mini tyrants. And today the economic incentives to allow this at scale just aren’t in place. This may be the largest obstacle to decarbonizing food and expanding small farms. 

Huge monocrops are more profitable and are subsidized by the federal government. As a result, large farms are swallowing up the smaller and medium-sized operations around the country at a rapid pace. Subsidies go in exactly the wrong direction, and they’re protected by the large, powerful food corporations and lobbies that profit from them. As a result, small farms are economically difficult to sustain and their owners often live financially precarious lives. Farmers are killing themselves at rates double veterans and higher than any other job in the United States. This is due directly to the industrialized consolidation of agriculture and the financial burden this places on smaller farms. Until that industrial consolidation changes, it will be difficult to sell a program in which more people have to go work on farms. And it can only change through politics and policy. As one farmer told InsideClimate News, “I don’t think any of us wants to get bigger […] It’s just the curse of a commodity business. We made all the focus on production, and all the economics, the subsidies, are tied to production. We have a production-focused agriculture policy.”

Farm subsidies and economic incentives will certainly have to be refocused to benefit small-scale agriculture and give small farmers the means to live a comfortable, secure life owning or working on small farms. Giant food corporations that depend on and incentivize huge supply chains and massive farms while peddling toxic food will have to be dismantled, disincentivized, or significantly reformed. Agroecological education will have to expand in public schools. Woven within the political battles to come, we will have to validate the virtues of nurturing nonhuman life and the deep dignity of protecting the ecosystems on which we all depend for our own lives. We have to inculcate a sense of high status and respect in the endeavor of feeding one’s community. And even those of us who aren’t farmers need to care more about the fundamental question of where our food comes from.

The high-tech greens venture I helped start up after college failed. It failed for many reasons, some of which were our own missteps. But one important reason it failed is that very few investors are focused on making agriculture better. Very few entrepreneurs are interested in working on making food systems healthy. No one with power and money really cares about fixing our food. There’s little profit in it: Even the biggest, most profitable farms operate on slim margins. Why invest in a new farming venture with a 10 percent return on investment when you can get a 40 percent return on a new app that counts the number of times you stroke your beard? Our hydroponic greens venture and many others like it have failed in part because capitalism has failed. The economy often rewards the bad and punishes the good. As long as growth and private profit dominate our reasons for doing things, small farms are going to lose. As long as the subsidies, policies, and incentives benefit big fossil-fueled food, then that’s what we’ll get, in addition to all the cruelty and poison that’s inextricable from a petroleum-powered life.

One way we can start working toward better policy is to extol the virtues of the better lives we can lead with decarbonized farms. We can discuss the real benefits that come when we build our lives around nurturing new growth and life that gives sustenance to our bodies and communities. Food is one of our most intimate relationships with the rest of life on Earth. If we can envision an entirely retooled relationship to that life, then we can start building a new food system not dependent on pain, suffering, and fossil fuels. With it can come a reorientation to each other, to our economy, and to ourselves. Small, communally-run farms can accomplish this, and policy should empower them to do so. The lifecycle of a leaf should not resemble a harsh, violent industrial holocaust. It should reflect the fundamental facts of a natural lifecycle: a healthy birth, steady growth, a timely death, and, from that, new life.

Editor’s note: Updated for minor correction and clarification about GDP in 2009. The real GDP is obviously much greater in 2009 than the Depression-era GDP.


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