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Beyond Earth (Earth Primer #5)

(Red and Green Tomato Plants on Train Rail, photo by Markus Spiske)

(Earth Primer #4)

For some time now, tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers and strawberries and raspberries and other plants have been grown in tiny containers, often small plastic jars filled with peat, usually in plastic greenhouses that manage partially or fully to slip the snag of the seasons. Peat, used one time, then thrown out. Peat, little by little used up, because it took thousands of years to form. Peat comes from bogs, environments with an unusually diverse variety of lifeforms that are dug up and cut off, often leaving behind holes filled with water. No one knows what should be done with them.

It's called soilless horticulture, and it’s very fashionable. It is said to be cutting-edge—the future of agriculture.

From a nakedly utilitarian point of view, using peat or other inert substances is advantageous, since they’re less demanding—they don’t have the temper, bad moods, or carry the grudges of soil. And once used, they can be thrown out, as nonchalantly as turning a page. You start each time from scratch, without worrying about weeds or packed-down, impoverished soils, or the equilibrium of microorganisms and other organisms, without a single thought about the future. You finally transform agriculture into a truly proper industrial process, forever freed of useless complications from the earth—that big ballbuster—or from that unpredictable, presumptuous, capricious soul we call nature.

The Dutch are always at the vanguard in agriculture. They somehow manage—on that slice of next-to-nothing of theirs (which is already, for that matter, packed with pig, tulip, and other sorts of farms)—to be the second-largest exporter of vegetables. It’s hard to believe. In their super-technologized greenhouses, tomatoes and other plants are encouraged to grow vertically, higher and higher still, in a way that saves space, following the logic of bunk beds. To nourish the seedlings, they provide the exact quantity of chemical fertilizers necessary, diluted in water, and here their model is found in hospitals—the intravenous drip. Even the water, which is delivered counting every drop, recycling any excess: nothing goes to waste.

Rather than Dutch sunlight (not particularly abundant during their gray winter days), which also throws a fit or two each summer, they use LED illumination. Plants are fine with that too; we too can live off freeze-dried food, if we want to. Such light consumes little energy, it is said, and it may also come from clean sources. Trumpeting the savings in water and fertilizers, as well as the possibility of clean energy, we are told this is the most rational and ecological method in the world, the only one to eliminate waste and lead to savings. We ought to grow everything this way, they say. Engineers dream of such things (they love to have everything under control), and of course the transhumanists, allergic to natural limits, love it even more.

Such a shame, then, that it takes enormous quantities of petroleum to produce chemical fertilizers. A shame as well to do all this without sunlight, which is free, and to manufacture tomatoes and peppers using subsoils, which require energy for their production or extraction, and to do it with lightbulbs, or, in other words, energy. In chilly climates the greenhouses also have to be heated during winter; for that too you need a lot of energy. But let’s be clear about it: the Dutch are by no means alone in this; a lot of the produce in our supermarkets comes this way.

Then, if you do the math (which almost nobody does), you will find that, in order to have the kilocalories contained in a kilogram of tomatoes, you need to have the kilocalories contained in a kilogram and a half, if not two, kilograms of tomatoes. The yield of energy is negative. Put in another way, you transform petroleum (yes, that stuff again) into red gold, into tomatoes. As is well known, a manufacturing process can be very advantageous economically even if, in terms of energy expenditure, it is a disaster: that’s precisely how the alchemy of our economy works.

Last year, however, it became clear that something wasn’t working; with the inflated price for gas, the Dutch greenhouses, which had been very profitable, entered an economic black hole. But for now prices have stabilized, and we’re off again like before, down the well-paved highways of our short-sighted economy in partnership with ecological lip service.

Of course, there is always so-called clean energy—assuming there really is such a thing, if you take into consideration the costs of building the devices which produce it as well as the cost for their disposal. This cycle is greatly insisted upon, as if it managed to square the circle. Still, perhaps it would be better to use that clean energy for something else, where it’s truly necessary, and where we couldn’t do without it—and continue to let the sun make our tomatoes, the old-fashioned way: with the sun, which is free, and with the earth, even if it is dirty. Without petroleum for chemical fertilizers, petroleum for LED lightbulbs, petroleum for heating greenhouses all winter, petroleum for pesticides to fight against the fungi that love damp greenhouses, and petroleum for building and disposing of those devices that give us our so-called clean energy.

Maybe it would be better to root our tomatoes in the earth, which also goes about its work for free. And which even, when it’s well looked after (since it’s there already), helps to fertilize the plants and keep parasites and various other spoilers under control. Agriculture is the sole productive human activity that yields more energy than it requires: thanks to the miracle of photosynthesis, utilizing building blocks of carbon dioxide that the plants take from the air, rays of sunlight are converted into vegetable matter. Leaves and stalks and fruit. With no need for solar panels or wind turbines or anything. Just with earth.

In fact, the returns on our energy expenditures can be downright fantastic, if only the earth itself does its level best and slaves away at savings, to the point of furnishing us with raw materials and limiting external assaults. Forms of agriculture that we consider most backward, from this point of view, can perform miracles—even local practices, when they pay serious attention to minimizing energy consumption, without pretence or cheating. Even in full-on, sinister, globalized capitalism, there are still processes that give gifts without expecting returns, and that have no need for a globalized market. It’s a shame so many methods that claim to be the height of efficiency—usually under the aegis of high tech, which these days we place so much faith in—have often lost the habit of noticing, accepting, and taking into account the gifts from sun and earth.

GIACOMO SARTORI is a novelist, poet, dramatist, and agronomist. His most recent novel in English, Bug (Restless Books, 2020), was translated by Frederika Randall. His novel I Am God (Restless Books, 2019), also translated by Randall, won the 2020 Italian Prose in Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.

Translated by JIM HICKS

(Earth Primer #6)




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