Comment | 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 needed to eat breakfast. I was a Hobbit when it came to the day’s first meal. 

 So imagine my delight as I pass the local McDonald’s advertising 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 needs easy to satisfy.

I pick up a dollar bill each morning, put it in my pocket, and hand it 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 breakfast sustainable? 

I have a thousand one 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 that was so tall it 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, I’m down to my last dollar before long. 

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 simple. 

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

Here is another example.

Apples on a tree

Money is not automatically renewable unless you are a central bank. Normal folk must replenish any stashes of cash from earnings or interest on investments, so it is not a sustainability question. Money is too fickle a resource.

Instead, let’s think about apples.

Suppose I eat apples from an apple tree. 

If I’m looking after the tree, pruning, applying fertiliser, and 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. 

 When I eat the apple some of the energy I burn in my cells and the nutrients might make their way into my tissues. The bulk of the apple is not fully digested and ends up in the toilet where it is flushed into the sewer. My sustainability assumption is that the nutrients I’m applying to the soil replenish those nutrients that the plant removes to make the apples that I consume and send out to the ocean.

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 adding 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 requires the addition of nutrients as fertilizer and not treating the soil like a factory. And those of you still thinking about sustainability will have observed that my apple orchard receives these 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

What sustainably FED suggests…

Just as my stash of one-dollar bills declines to nothing, so too the apple orchard has a finite lifetime, no matter how well it is managed. My breakfast is not sustainable even if I eat apples. 

Nature cannot maintain human use of natural capital indefinitely if that use erodes the natural capital. Except that is exactly what happens. Sustainability—meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs—cannot be about trying for the absolute, for it is impossible

So here is our solution to the sustainable breakfast conundrum.

The best way to have a sustainable breakfast 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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