Monday, May 12, 2008

Hoes: Tools of the revolution

Do the words "revolution" and "agriculture" seem about as connected as "economical" and "gas prices"? If you think so, you're not alone. Agriculture in the U.S. has the reputation of dull, dumb labor: overalls, sweat, conventionality. Certainly, many of the so-called innovations in recent years have taken a lot of the wisdom out of cultivation. Genetically-modified seeds, chemical additives, and gas-powered machinery have slayed the delicate art of coaxing healthy plants from them soil. But if you've ever helplessly watched your houseplant wither, or stuck some seeds in the ground to no avail, you probably know that growing things is trickier than it seems.

What's more, as corporations buy up the rights to our food supply, the know-how of growing your own food is becoming a revolutionary weapon. Seed companies like Monsanto are taking over the rights not only to seeds themselves, but to time-honored farming practices such as saving seed. Heirloom seeds, the old strains that give us magical produce like purple potatoes and blue corn, are going exctinct as farmers are forced to buy corporate seed. [This recent article in Vanity Fair gives a good overview of the situation. Our new book, Going Green, explores this issue in depth.]

Not only does this diminish the diversity of foods available for us to eat, but it threatens our food supply - with fewer varieties of a certain crop, that crop is more susceptible disease or climate change. The creation of a new seed bank in Norway shows how serious scientists consider this problem.

My local paper reported last week that in the past year, egg prices are up 30%, milk and cheese 13%, and wheat, corn and soybeans 60-80%. As gas prices steadily climb, these price hikes are not likely to decline any time soon. Americans now spend a record high 57 cents out of every dollar on survival essentials - food, housing and transportation. As food costs claim more of our budget, there are two options: buying lower quality food to save money, or getting food from another source. Learning to grow our own food is a way to feed our families high quality, nutritious food at very low cost. When supper comes from the back yard, the grocery shelf fluctuations are a lot less scary. Check out this short video about a Pasadena family who has taken this approach to heart.

This isn't as revolutionary as it seems. Folks in their 60s and older remember "victory gardens" from World Wars I and II. "Victory gardens," says Wikipedia, "were vegetable, fruit and herb gardens planted at private residences… to reduce the pressure on the public food supply brought on by the war effort. In addition to indirectly aiding the war effort these gardens were also considered a civil "morale booster" — in that gardeners could feel empowered by their contribution of labor and rewarded by the produce grown. Making victory gardens became a part of daily life on the home front."

Reread the same paragraph, replacing "war effort" with "impending economic and environmental crisis." Victory gardens revolutionized American morale at the beginning of the last century. It's high time victory agriculture does the same thing now.

For more information, these longer documentaries are fascinating:
The Real Dirt on Farmer John - The hilarious true story of a midwestern farmer adapting to difficult times.
The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil - A fascinating look at how one country survived the unimaginable: the loss of gasoline. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds. And that's just the beginning…
The Greenhorns - A documentary about the new generation of young farmers changing the face of American agriculture.

by Sadie Kneidel


a said...

I can't agree more with Sadie's cry to arms for everybody to take up the hoe as a weapon against the crass and insipid commercialization and corporate profiteering of our palates and diets. But having a victory garden is in some degree a bourgeoisie palliative to a food crisis that has global and dark consequences that is paradoxically exploding the diabetes rate while simultaneously fanning the flames of famine. The solution goes far beyond shopping organically and growing your own vegetables (both of which are beneficial measures), but we need to see there is an endemic and systemic corruption in the global food distribution paradigm that simple consumer awareness or free market economics cannot readily alleviate. I can't recommend enough Raj Patel's Stuffed & Starved, which clearly connects the dots in the global food production chain, and illustrates that fierce activism and government action are needed to create a healthy and sustainable food system. First I say Long Live the Victory garden, it is an effective and rewarding alternative, but please also be aware that it is a component in a complex web of measures necessary to obtain the healthy and fair trade economics of food. Look at Raj’s website for more info,

Sadie said...

I agree with you Alexander, I don't think by any means that victory gardens are a total solution to the crisis of our food industry. I do however admire the fundamental idea, of reminding people that growing food is not magic; that they themselves can do it, and thus ensure themselves a bit more security than the grocery store can provide. These days having the time or space to garden is a bit of a luxury, but not long ago it was ordinary for even humble families to keep a kitchen garden... I know that that doesn't fix the messed up ways that agribusiness operates, but it does take some demand off the corporate system, and that's very crucial. I hear you though, there's a lot more to it.