Reflections on Larry Lack’s beets


Every so often I wake up in terror thinking about the future. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve just had a bad dream or if it has to do with having kids, which seems to amplify things a bit. But, strangely, it also seems to have a lot to do with gasoline.

I think about gasoline way too much. Not like filling up the tank and watching those electronic digits whizzing up toward the $100 mark. More like thinking about the gasoline connection when I pick up a newspaper or drive by a farmer’s field or buy something new that’s made in China.

I also get tired thinking about on fossil fuel addiction and not being able to do much about it. But there I was doing some personal research on it again last night. Like, did you know that there are 36.6 kilowatt hours of energy in a gallon of gas? Or that we can distill about 19 gallons of gas from a 42-gallon barrel of crude? Or that we go through over 1.5 billion (billion!) U.S. gallons of gasoline a day, worldwide?

But what has any of that got to do with Larry’s beets? Well, nothing as it turns out. And that nothing is notable, because my neighbours, Larry and his partner Leanne, grow their food the old fashioned way—without any gas engines or chemical fertilizers.

I’ve mentioned Larry and Leanne’s beets before. We’d invited them over for dinner, and when I told them I wanted to make borscht they offered some beets from their garden. I had some store-bought beets, too, and there was no comparison. The commercial beets were nearly tasteless while the home-grown ones almost took the roof of my mouth off with flavour. And they made a huge difference to the soup.

Larry’s beets came to mind because I was making another borscht yesterday. I had some big, beautiful, fresh-looking supermarket beets sitting in the fridge. But when I diced them up and tasted a piece I was disappointed. Again. They were almost tasteless. So I went into creative mode to make a great borscht, including adding the “secret” ingredient to liven it up: brown sugar.

Imagine having to add sugar to beet soup. Beets, or at least some types of beets, have been a source of sugar for millennia. It’s sadly ironic that my store-bought beets should be so sugar deficient.

But of course we both know that I wasn’t cooking up real beets. I was cooking up the tail end of a massive modern fossil fuel experiment. Today’s beets are grown on fields prepared by diesel tractors, enriched with fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilizers, shipped on diesel trucks across the continent (or the world) and picked up from the high-tech, fossil-fuel heated supermarket by us in our gasoline powered cars.

That massive experiment was dubbed the Green Revolution and it got started just after the Second World War, which had advanced all that new fossil fuel-based technology.

According to Dale Allen Pfeiffer from his article, Eating Fossil Fuels, nearly 40 percent of earth’s land-based photosynthetic capacity has been appropriated by human beings, and that between 1950 and 1984 “world grain production increased by 250 percent.” He points out that this is an incredible increase in energy available for human consumption, and that the increase came directly through the wholesale use of fossil fuel in agriculture. He writes that by 1994 it took 400 gallons of fossil fuel a year to feed each American—a whopping 31 percent of it coming from fossil fuel-based fertilizers.

All this agricultural petro-chemistry definitely has side effects. On the positive side, we can produce more food more inexpensively and more food means more nutrition, which means generally better health and longer life spans. On the downside, with cheaper food we’re facing an epidemic of obesity and health issues. But that’s somewhat trivial compared to the environmental damage.

I won’t get into the obvious climate change and chemical pesticide issues, both of which have frightening implications for the future of life on the planet.

What caught my attention yesterday was the BBC story about wild boars dying on the Brittany coast beach in northern France. Apparently the boars died as a result of exposure to massive toxic algae blooms, similar to our red tides. As the algae washes up on the beach it rots, giving off lethal levels of toxic gas. Back in 2009 a horse and rider met a similar fate on the same beach. The rider passed out from the toxic gas but survived. His horse died. The cause? Environmentalists and government officials report that it was the result of nitrates in fertilizers running off the farm fields into the ocean.

If land-based animals are dying on the beach, one can only imagine the terror hiding under the ocean waves. But that’s another story.

The only good side of this story is we’re beginning to run out of cheap oil. The question becomes, what will we do instead? Do we stay on the same track and switch to coal and natural gas? Or do we recalibrate and return to a more local-regional agricultural economy?

Before deciding, maybe we should all make a pot of borscht and take Larry Lack’s beet taste test.


  1. Two thoughts on a smaller scale. First, we tried our own little organic garden this year. We aren't supposed to, according to the covenants of our neighborhood, but it's an old neighborhood and they didn't know twenty years ago that such a change was needed. The garden was a great success, we learned alot, and, as the last of those vegetables succumbs to exhaustion in this baking drought, we're thinking ahead to our fall and winter crops. Those were the best cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, squash, etc., I've ever eaten.

    Second, I thought of how much we are still paying for WWII. Even the size of my own age cohort is a direct result of that war. And, of course, advertising as we know it, the fossil fuel boom, modern food logistics, etc. Those were counted on the plus side for a long time, but the bill has come due and it is a bitch.

  2. The bill is coming due and payback will be a bitch. I worry that I worry too much about these things and that my fears are grossly over-inflated.

    As a fellow product of that war, I like this easy life; it's all I've known. But then there are all those nagging stories handed down from my parents and grandparents...

    Sad to say, like most of my generation I've gardened but never grown a serious food garden.


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