Last week, we talked about the need to build more perennials into our food system. This week, I want to and take the story just a bit further.
If you zoom out to the biggest picture of Earth, you’ll see that the one true input to our planet is energy from the sun. All of the matter either just warms up or cycles around inside the outer atmosphere. Sometimes the matter changes phase between gas, liquid and solid with most of the movement and transformation powered by energy from the sun.
The excess amount of energy provided by the sun is massive compared to our needs. The energy contained in the sunshine that falls on Earth each hour is more than the total energy we consume in our whole global economy each year– and most of that comes from yesterday’s sunshine (i.e. fossil fuels).
In living ecosystems, plant life does the initial catching via photosynthesis, and all other life does the cycling – doing its best to make the most of that initially captured energy. The energy stored upstream in the cascade of cyclers we simply call “food.” We count this stored food energy in “calories” which are just a different unit of energy from the “watts” we count in a light bulb.
To make the most of this solar-powered food system, we must do three things:
- Catch every drop of sunshine possible. Anytime a drop of sunshine falls on bare soil, you can think of it as a solar spill. A while back I did a little math and found that the amount of energy wasted when sunlight falls on bare soil in out-of-season cropland is roughly equivalent to the total amount of coal, oil and natural gas produced each year in the US combined. So when I see bare farm soil on a sunny day here in Texas, I now see the equivalent of an oil tanker accident or an oil well blowout.
- Use every drop of sunshine caught. The UN classifies roughly two-thirds of agricultural land on the planet as permanent pasture. That means it can only grow grass – something we humans are not able to eat. But some animals, like cattle and sheep, have a digestive organ called a “rumen.” A rumen is a microbial fermentation tank that can digest bulk plant matter like grass and convert it into usable nutrients. So when ruminants graze, they “upcycle” the solar energy captured by grass and thus substantially increase the overall supply of food for the larger food web.
- Catch every drop of sunshine in a way that enables even more drops to be caught. I realize this sounds like voodoo, but this is the real magic of “regenerative” agriculture. When we apply the principles of regenerative agriculture, we make the soil healthier tomorrow than yesterday. Healthier soils feed more nutrients to plants and catch more rain from the sky. Then when the next drop of sunshine falls, more of it can be converted into food, which means more food for the whole web of life.
In short, the health and prosperity of all life on Earth – from bugs to birds to people – is directly tied to how good we are at helping the totality of life on this planet catch and use every drop of sunshine.
When we eat food, we are quite literally eating sunshine, just after something else caught it first. If we grow food in a way that enables all of life to catch more sunshine in more places more of the time, the future is bright. If we don’t, not so much.
As we discussed two weeks ago, watching life itself, like birds, is the best way to understand whether we’re succeeding. Next week, stay tuned for an even bigger story about how catching and cycling solar energy helps to actually cool the planet, too. That’s actually something we could use a little help with right now.
Blue Nest Beef Co-Founder & CEO