These days, gardening is a subversive act. Food is more than just a form of energy. Food is the fuel our bodies run on, and it’s a form of power. When you learn how to grow your own food and you encourage others to do the same, you are taking power back into your hands — power over your diet, your health and your wallet.
What’s subversive about this is that power is a zero-sum game. If we’re giving power to one group in society, we’re taking it away from another. Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen food power become concentrated in fewer and fewer corporate hands. In the average grocery store, a shopper has access to nearly 30,000 products. The majority of these are produced by very large companies, often with help from their high-ranking regulatory friends.
Our Flawed Industrial Food System
The problem with this increasingly industrial food system is that it isn’t working out very well for people or the planet. Concentrating food power into fewer hands has resulted in increased food insecurity. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of hungry people in the world stands at nearly 1 billion, which is roughly 150 million more than were hungry about 20 years ago. In a parallel yet inverse universe, more than 1 billion people eat too much of the wrong foods, as evidenced by escalating rates of diabetes and obesity.
The challenge we face is not simply producing more and healthier food, but producing more food with less: less oil, less land, less water, less time and a less stable climate. Professor David Pimentel, a food and energy researcher at Cornell University, estimates that the United States burns 10 calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food energy produced. If the entire world were to eat in the same energy-hungry way as the United States, humanity would exhaust all known global fuel reserves in just over seven years.
Farmland is also in limited supply and faces multiple pressures, including suburban sprawl in rich countries, desertification in poor ones and price speculation everywhere. Less climate stability and less water are two faces of the same coin, with the number of extreme weather events — such as catastrophic droughts — up sharply over the past several years.
Not Enough Time
On the issue of time, we’ve taken a corporate approach to how we feed ourselves by outsourcing food production to Kraft and ConAgra and Burger King and Subway, to name but a few. The American family averages about 30 minutes a day for cooking and cleanup.
But this freedom, too, is a zero-sum game. In freeing ourselves and our schedules from the “chore” of food preparation, we’ve enslaved ourselves as a society by becoming dependent on a small group of big companies to feed us — companies that value their well-being more than ours.
I think we need to subvert the current food system and build a new one that will serve us better. Gardens will play an important role in this new way of eating, but only if we make them a priority. We can all be encouraged that there’s now a kitchen garden on the White House lawn, but we need more than just high-profile gardens.
While traveling in Europe last year, I learned that 26 percent of all trips taken in the Netherlands are by bicycle. It made me wonder, “What would it take to have 26 percent of all produce come from gardens?” Perhaps the most important thing required is a national garden strategy. The Dutch didn’t just wake up one misty morning with a dense network of bike paths. The network is the result of decades of planning and public investment.
A great place to start this planning and investment is in the federal Farm Bill, which currently subsidizes a model and scale of agriculture different from the one featured on the White House lawn (for more on the 2012 Farm Bill, read Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill). The federal government’s food and agriculture policy should subsidize home gardening instead of Big Ag. We already offer tax credits to promote green vehicles and green energy, so why not green food?
Grow Your Own Food and Find Your Freedom
To free ourselves from our agro-industrial food shackles, we need to free some other things, too. For urban and suburban dwellers, we need to free gardens from the backyard. In 2011, a Detroit-area mother faced a possible 90-day jail sentence for planting a vegetable garden in her front yard. Although gardening may be socially subversive in the context of today’s industrial food system, it shouldn’t be against the law.
Similarly, we need to free the next generation of farm and garden entrepreneurs through more enlightened legislation. A few towns in Maine are leading the way in this arena by putting in place local food sovereignty laws that allow residents to sell their produce and value-added products freely within their communities.
Ultimately, what’s needed is for more people to join the garden movement. Unlike other, less sanguine plots that rely on secrecy, this one can only succeed if it’s shared as broadly as possible. So, next season, don’t just grow your own food garden — commit to growing a new gardener as well. And even if you don’t have land of your own, you can still be part of the solution by sourcing your food from local growers. Together, we can reclaim power over our food and our health, one subversive plot at a time.
Roger Doiron is the founding director of the nonprofit Kitchen Gardeners International. This article is adapted from his 2011 TEDx talk.