I have just wrapped up the last course in a six-course certificate program on sustainability, so naturally, my thoughts are about how can we maintain what we have or create more sustainability? For the last three and a half years I’ve seen the ins and outs of our food sources, industrial agriculture, policies, government involvement, food deserts, all the aspects of a dysfunctional food system. At this point I’d like to start a discussion on what is changing, or not, as the case may be.
We’ve all seen some of the obvious results of conventional farming: Pollution of our water, soil and air by fertilizers and pesticides, a decline in quality of our products, indeed, an outright increase in the disease included with our food. Recalls have become a way of life, outbreaks with serious health consequences are now common. Our farmers have suffered, their income is no longer a living wage, and hasn’t been for some time now. Debt is a way of life. There’s always the issue of Genetically Modified whatevers and the constant threat from lawsuits or worse should these little beasties get loose. Huge quantities of oil are used to transport these “food items” from one end of the Earth to the other. Third World nations are having their knowledge, land, and lives stolen from them. Even our pets aren’t safe: First it was the melamine, with other recalls since then.
Society also has devalued its population, with fewer and few families having a meal together, and indeed, fewer and fewer people who know how to prepare that meal. This is a process that has been underway for decades: In England, most have forgotten how to cook in favour of “take away,” the boilable pouch, or something from the deli. I guess you could say at least the English still know how to boil water or use a microwave. Don’t get the idea we’re any better, we’re not. After the downturn of 2008/2009, the scramble to maintain one’s lifestyle, as in keeping your job, home and family intact, has become desperate for a lot a families. Cooking won’t be job one when you can’t afford food.
If you’re still with me in this litany of gloom and doom, is there any hope? Am I the only one who doesn’t enjoy Arctic Char genes with their cucumber? In short, yes and no. The concepts of sustainable, organic, green, whichever one you pursue, is becoming more mainstream. Genuine organically grown foods, and their demand, have risen over the last few years dramatically. I believe we are past the tipping point, that there is no going back now in organics. One sour note on this topic is that the big boys see green, as in dollars, and have jumped on the organic bandwagon. Of course, one always has to maintain one’s vigilance: Is it really organic? (Hint: Knowing your farmer helps. Or growing your own.) Local has also grown by leaps and bounds. While maybe not as far along the sustainable road as organics, it will be there. I hope that it too will soon reach the tipping point. And speaking of growing your own, many more people who never had gardens before, for all of the above reasons, are creating spaces in their yards, balconies, wherever a plant or two (or few) can be put in. Lawns are being turned into raised beds, herb gardens and veggies. Shades of Victory Gardens during WWII.
One often should turn to history for examples of what to do when times get tough, and none have been tougher in recent memory than the Great Depression, WWII, and the current recession (Depression?). This period gives many examples of folks turning to the land in order to survive. It wasn’t just the U.S. that did this but other countries as well: Canada, Germany, England, to name a few. The good thing out of all of this is that people will gain skills, they will learn how to garden, what works in their garden, the fun and healthy eating that all comes with the turf (or lack of). Community gardens are on the rise, as city dwellers are getting in on the act, as well as rooftop gardens.
We all have an opportunity, and that is the satisfaction of knowing that we can all exert control, and that control becomes power, on what we eat. I don’t care how small someone starts, even if it’s only a few pots of herbs on a windowsill or balcony, on up to a huge veggie garden, these are all within our powers. Get the kids involved (just watch though, like a friend of ours had happen, his toddler daughter helped Daddy by picking all his green tomatoes for him) as they love to get outside and help. My raised bed is already to go, and would like my son to make me another!
Photo by Bon Van Slooten