Biological Compatibility and Ecological Performance, or What does cooking dinner have in common with building a home?
Last column I spoke of Building Biology and the direct correlation between the ability of a home to nurture health (biological compatibility) and its ecological performance. Throughout most of human history, craftsmen have built enduring, climatically responsive shelters with the materials at hand. In an abrupt departure from all that proceeded we now “assemble” homes with mass-produced industrialized building products at great cost to our bodily health and the health of our environment.
This health/ecology inter-relationship can be understood through the examination of many facets of modern American life. This is not only relevant to what we build; it is equally relevant to what we eat, what we wear, how we travel, how we treat illness, etc. The production and consumption of food is an excellent example of this inter-connectedness.
I have personally been a health food enthusiast dating back to the early days when tiny health stores stocked gigantic vats of rancid peanut butter. However, I never really thought much about the connection between food and ecology until a visit to Canada a few years ago. At that time, their government had issued the “One Tonne Challenge” to its citizens, urging each Canadian to reduce carbon emissions by one metric ton per year. A pamphlet offered constructive suggestions of how to achieve this goal. I was surprised to learn that one effective strategy was to buy locally grown organic food.
I have always liked to buy what I didn’t grow myself at the local farmers market….because it is friendly, organic and fresh making it delicious and nutritious. I never realized the extent to which I was participating in good ecological citizenship until I began to follow the story of food production. Several excellent books including Harvest of Hope by Jane Goodall and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen helped me to understand the farm-to-table story.
Until very recently, the human species had always fed itself with a well rounded, nutritionally complete diet of locally grown and seasonally available foods. Over the last 60 years or so our diet has been revolutionized by the promise of industrialized farming….cheap food, variety and food security. While providing us, the most privileged of the planet, with once undreamed of convenience, industrially farmed food is neither optimally nutritious nor ecologically sustainable. The Standard American diet now originates on huge monoculture factory farms where genetically modified seed stock is grown in sterilized soils, fertilized with petrochemical based fertilizers, doused with pesticides, transported great distances and “value enhanced” with questionable food extracts and a variety of chemical additives. It comes to our super-market seductively presented in wasteful packaging. Jane Goodall tells us that our food travels on average 2,000 miles from field to fork with an environmentally devastating cost of, on average, ten calories of energy expended for every calorie of food value on to the typical American dinner plate.
The art of meeting our nutritional needs locally and sustainably has been all but lost in our rush towards the industrialization and mass production of food. I don’t know if it is still possible to feed ourselves through a network of small farms but I do know that every time I forgo the fancy packaging, compost, buy locally or grow my own organic garden and then prepare simple and wholesome meals from scratch, I am engaged in a win-win situation. By doing this I am casting a vote for a sustainable future for me and for the planet.
Next column…From Authentic Food to Authentic Home.
Paula Baker-Laporte, FAIA, is an architect and a certified building biology practitioner. She is the principle of Baker-Laporte and Associates and EcoNest Design. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber”. She can be reached through the website www.econest.com.