Solar-Powered Beings

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, February 26, 1999

We are all solar-powered beings. The energy that we use to think and breathe, to dream and to pump our blood, to work, love and play- all that energy comes from the sun.

Green plants store solar energy by disassembling carbon dioxide from the air, and joining its carbon atoms into energy-storing simple sugars. These are later converted into the substance of plants. We consume that stored energy when we eat the roots, stems, leaves, fruits and seeds of plants or eat eggs, milk or meat from animals which have eaten those plants. Our digestion and respiration take apart the complex carbon compounds in food, releasing their stored solar energy for our use. To accomplish this process, we consume the oxygen that the plants gave off as a waste product and release (as carbon dioxide when we exhale) the carbon which was used to transport the solar energy into our bodies. This carbon can then go back to plants to carry more energy to us. Such an elegant cycle!

The energy it takes to keep a body functioning for 24 hours is equal to the energy a sport utility vehicle consumes in about two minutes, or to a 150 watt light bulb burning the whole day. It is remarkable how little energy it takes to keep us going. Yet, 800,000 people on this Earth don't get even that much stored solar energy each day. Others around the world destroy their environment in order to get enough fuel to prepare just one daily meal.

In cooking, we add energy to the food. We also add energy by grinding corn into flour, pressing olives into oil, or even packaging complicated meals into small plastic containers and shipping them frozen half way around the world. The energy added may be human, or may come from renewable, fossil or nuclear fuels. That energy may make the food more available, digestible, or convenient, but it doesn't increase or decrease the amount of energy the food can release in our bodies.

This system is very elegant when it is primarily solar-powered. The sun's energy, free and bountiful, collected by beautiful plants, is taken into our bodies and used to tend those plants and create our meals. That energy keeps on flowing, now as our waste heat, into the environment and eventually into outer space.

Solar energy moves through the ecosystem without creating harmful effects. The exchange of waste gases between animals and plants, and the digestion of organic wastes in compost piles illustrate the continual cycling of nutrients which, with the one-way flow of energy, is necessary to maintain an ecosystem.

A solar-powered, local, sustainable food system is the basis of all the world's great cuisines. French, Italian, Thai, Indian and Chinese cooking are all based on foods that are readily available nearby and in season, and on processing that is easily done on a farm or in a well-equipped kitchen. Many of us value growing our own food, grinding wheat to make bread, or making mayonnaise from olive oil and home-raised eggs, for the quality of the experience, as well as for the flavor of the food.

Unfortunately, our economic accounting system doesn't value these things at all. None of the solar energy on which we run or any of the work we do in our gardens is included in the official accounting of energy use and gross domestic product. Of course, all the fossil fuel and nuclear energy that is used in our food system is carefully counted, whether it is used to manufacture large farm equipment, fertilizers or pesticides, is used to operate an energy-intensive drive-thru, fast-food restaurant, or is used to truck lettuce 3,000 miles across this continent.

Our short-sighted accounting system encourages the demise of small-scale, sustainable production and promotes a very energy-intensive food system.

Learn more about local farms, gardens, and good food at the NOFA Winter Conference on March 6, one week from tomorrow, at the First Church of Christ in Wethersfield, Connecticut. The conference, "Shaping the Organic Landscape," features a keynote address "The Changing Faces of Organic Gardening: From Homesteaders to Soccer Moms," by Nancy Beaubaire, the editor of Organic Gardening Magazine, and 13 workshops for gardeners, farmers and eaters. There'll also be a farmers market, pot luck lunch and exhibits. For further information call (203) 484-2445 or go to
Hope to see you there!

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.

This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.