I’m in the grocery store, bright and early. Planning for friends to join us for dinner, I decide to make homemade lasagna. Coming into the market from the wintery snowy morning, it is easy to take for granted the amazing array of colourful vegetables and fruits on display. Only the price-points really indicate which one are in and out of season, but even in November, there are still strawberries, grapes, and watermelons on the shelves.

There are organic avocados and lush deep black violet. The ripened-on-the-vine tomatoes are bright red, lush, looking ready to burst. The eggplant is deep forest green. The spinach is crisp and delicious looking. The variety of mushrooms, from white button mushrooms, to mid-size cremini, to large portobello, contrast with the sprigs of standard curly parsley, and fresh basil that I put into my basket.

Tonight, I’ll serve veggie gluten-free lasagna, served with salad, olives, wine, gluten-free buns. Not everyone at tonight’s meal is celiac, but some are. Not everyone is vegetarian, but others are. So I’ll serve the same to everyone, with a dairy-free pasta and marinara with fresh basil option for those who need it.

One ecological argument is to go veg. There are, of course, many reasons to go veg, beyond energy consumption, but the Mercy for Animals organization makes the energy argument to convince yet another group of people to consider switching.

But the energy footprint of one meal — not to mention the energy in terms of human labour preparing the processed foods — is much more complex to calculate than simply going veg. Yes, there are production costs, and the carbon footprint at that level, but there is also the footprint of transportation to markets that operate with the oil-fuelled global capitalist system.  And there is the way we shop. While we might all enjoy farmer’s markets in the summer months, the majority  of the food we buy comes from the well-heated and intensely illuminated warehouses with automatic sprinklers watering the produce on a mechanized schedule. And this is very intensive. Even the farmers’ markets have an energy footprint that is not insignificant, with farmers rising very early on market days, often travelling several hours to their vending locations, working all day, and packing up at night. Burning gas and burning the candle at both ends.

If transportation becomes solar-powered or is powered by some other much less intensive energy source, as some hope, that only deals with the carbon footprint of our food at one moment in the supply chain. The production of our food, is currently, incredibly intensive.

I cannot help but wonder where my firm and fresh and luscious eggplants are from.  California maybe? The tomatoes are certainly from California, I think. But then I wonder if even in California these can be grown at the moment without an energy-intensive greenhouse, not to mention the water demanded of growing produce on an industrial scale. And, if these sweet  is California, then I cannot help but cringe about the fact that they are shipping us their scarce water resources, and I’m buying them in the form of tomatoes. The drought state of emergency ended this past spring in many California counties, but it doesn’t mean the threat is over. This too is part of the global energy system, where oil moves water–the basis of life–from one place to another. Whether in the form of soda water, or fresh flowers, or bottled water tapped from reservoirs and aquifers that should, theoretically, be serving the common good, rather than being exploited for profit.  Are the mangoes that I decide against buying from India? Depending on the area, India is suffering drought and flooding. No, these mangoes are from Mexico. The gluten-free pasta I buy is from Ontario, or is it just a supplier in Ontario? Labelling laws allow us to hide some of the supply chain of our foods and this brand seems to be available fairly globally — certainly also in the U.S.  The Italian-style ricotta, I discover when I Google the brand, has a Canadian URL but again the company/distributor is intentionally ambiguous about where the cheese is coming from. The parmesan, at least I know, comes from Italy. The olives are a product of Italy, packaged and distributed in Canada. The white and red wine are from New Zealand and Argentina respectively. Many roads have been travelled and many hands have laboured to make my homemade meal possible. Needless to say, I am not mollified merely by the fact that the meal is vegetarian. And, I wonder how energy transition will impact how and what we eat: that basic ritual at the heart of every culture.

But we’ll have a lovely time. The friendship and camaraderie and the talk of politics and current events will all be locally manufactured. Homemade.

(Image: Photograph of lettuce clustered together in plastic bags.) 


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© 2021 Sheena Wilson, Associate Professor, University of Alberta
Principal Investigator: Feminist Energy Futures; Future Energy Systems’ Energy Humanities: Speculative Energy Futures and iDoc Projects
Co-founder and co-director of Petrocultures Research Group
Editor-in-chief, Imaginations Journal



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