Is your breakfast sustainable?

Hobbit meal times are breakfasting at 7 am, second breakfast at 9 am, elevenses, luncheon at 1 pm, then afternoon tea at 3 pm. What have Middle-Earth meal times got to do with sustainability?

Back in the day, there was no intermittent fasting for me. I was a Hobbit when it came to the day’s first meal. 

I needed to eat breakfast. So imagine my delight in this situation.

Each morning I pass the local McDonald’s, and there’s a one-dollar special, McMuffin and a coffee. It’s a miracle that food can be so cheap. 

Back at home, I have a stash of dollars, a thousand of them, making my breakfast need easy to satisfy.

I pick up a dollar bill each morning, put it in my pocket, and hand it over to the polite teenager behind the Macca’s counter. She passes back my breakfast, and off I go to work. 

The wheat and caffeine kick in, and I feel great until coffee time.

Is this a sustainable breakfast? 

I have a thousand dollar bills sitting in my apartment. 

My stash will last a long time. No doubt the special will continue given the way fast food outlets operate. So there is no need to worry. Breakfast is a given. 

A thousand days is beyond anything I’m prepared to imagine. 

Several years of breakfast is secure. 

After a couple of years of tasty McMuffins, I realise that the pile of dollars I once had looked as though it would last forever, well, it is considerably smaller than it used to be. 

I did not replenish the stash, so I’m looking at my last few months of breakfast. 

I dither and worry but do nothing to add funds. 

And sure enough, before long, I’m down to my last dollar. 

As I hand it over at McDonald’s, where the special is now a bacon burger, I have no idea where tomorrow’s breakfast will come from. 

Despite the dubious nutritional credentials of breakfast from a fast food outlet, the story here is a simple one. 

Vast resources at the beginning are not sustainable… unless they are renewed

Apples on a tree

Money is not automatically renewable unless you happen to be a central bank. Normal folk must replenish any stashes of cash from earnings, so it is not a sustainability question. Money is too fickle a resource.

Let’s think about apples instead.

Suppose I eat apples from an apple tree. 

As long as I’m looking after the tree, pruning, applying fertiliser, keeping the birds away, then in theory, that tree will produce apples until it reaches the end of its expected life. 

And if I replace that tree before it gets too old and tired, then I can, in principle, consume apples in season indefinitely. 

My sustainability assumption is that the nutrients I’m applying to the soil replenish those nutrients that the plant removes. 

The addition of fertiliser, water and the occasional pesticide application must not affect soil properties. If the soil compacts or becomes saline or loses organic matter, then even the addition of nutrients may not be enough to maintain fruit production. These changes are likely subtle and take many decades to affect the tree. 

Indeed the orchard may persist for generations of farmers but not indefinitely. At some point, conditions become different enough for another crop to be more profitable than apples. 

Even the apple tree that grows for decades and fruits each year may not be sustainable.

And those of you still thinking about sustainability will have observed that my apple orchard received nutrient inputs via fertilisers that had to come from somewhere. Was that supply sustainable?

And so it is with open systems. The inputs have to come from somewhere.

Bright red apple still on the tree
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Deciding on sustainability

Sustainability — meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs — is a slippery concept. 

  • What is sustainable? 
  • What are the processes?  
  • What timeframe should we consider anything to be sustainable? 

The breakfast and the apple anecdotes are helpful. They suggest that sustainability requires knowledge of the resource, whether it’s renewable and how much is used, and then to balance renewal with use.

The neoliberal paradigm of endless growth does not apply this approach because it relies on the premise that resources are endless renewable or, if not, then transferable. That is another resource that will appear to replace the one used up.

The next hundred years or so will decide if humanity can shift from mining natural capital to the use of resources in a way that maintains their performance for as long as possible. 

Presumably, this is what we mean by sustainability. A clue that elevenses may not be secure into the future that forces us to be more frugal.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Sustainability is not about trying for the absolute, for it is impossible. 

Nature cannot maintain human use of natural capital indefinitely. Even the apple orchard has a finite lifetime no matter how well it is managed.  

Sustainability is about maintaining natural capital to feed off its dividends for as long as possible. At least long enough to invent supportive systems independent of that natural capital base. 

Sustainability needs knowledge of how the natural system works. And then understanding how resource use changes nature—the E for ecology in FED. 

As for the stash of dollars for fast food.

The best way to have sustainable breakfasts is to fast and not break your fast until lunchtime.

Hero image modified from photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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