Gardening for food is not just about saving the world, although that is one compelling outcome
The case for gardening for food is simply this: turning your lawn into vegetables saves money, saves the planet, tastes good, and is good for you.
This is trite, well-trodden ground. It’s also the latest fad. We’re a long way from an “accidental revolution”, Cuban-style. But in 2008 fruit tree sales reportedly doubled, vegetable seed and seedling turnover was up 25 percent, with a 100 percent increase in sales of seed potatoes. On 1 January last year NZ Gardener editor Lynda Hallinan launched a campaign to encourage us all to “get growing”. By December, 14,196 people had joined—on average, about 40 a day.
In England the trend is the same. Waiting lists for allotments are at an all-time high, and sales of vegetable seed to householders have increased by 31 percent—spurred on, perhaps, by Jamie Oliver and, less glamorously, Prince Charles (“Prince Charles implores the nation to Dig for Victory”, reported The Telegraph, elaborating on the Prince’s slightly blander encouragement). On the other side of the Atlantic, President Obama is being lobbied to establish an organic “victory garden” on the White House Lawn.
Growing food can be cheaper than buying it, and is one possible response to grim economic times. Spend $25 on a young fruit tree, plant it carefully, water it well, and in a few years, year after year, watch it yield a small fortune. The recession, or depression, might have lifted by then. Or, for more instant gratification, you might try vegetable seedlings, and feast all summer for the price of one restaurant meal. There will be other costs, of course: your time, compost to enrich the soil, liquid tea for hungry pumpkins, stakes for the tomatoes, and so on. Expressed in terms of dollars and convenience, the benefits are marginal.
But dollars and convenience are not everything, and Michael Pollan has demonstrated that the ready economy of supermarket food masks its full cost. Growing food is one of the most effective steps you can take to secure the future of the planet, and your own, by reducing your ecological footprint. All mass-produced and marketed food comprises industrial quantities of fossil fuel, electricity, water, fertiliser, and packaging. It should be the product of sunshine.
Of course, you might say this is middle-class angst. Anyone earning less than the average wage, and some earning substantially more, can’t afford to worry about these things. Not everyone has the spare $25 to invest in a fruit tree, the land to plant it on, the money to buy the spade to dig the hole, and so on. Frankly, not everyone cares.
But this is why it matters, to every single one of us, and the poorest most of all. If the oil runs out, and the climate changes, what will happen to our food?
To read George Monbiot lately, or even watch the news, is to believe we are living in apocalyptic times. His interview with Faith Birol, author of the International Energy Agency’s latest energy outlook, elicited a projected peak oil date of 2020. Monbiot has been writing, too, about “runaway” climate change, which may be happening already. He is not alone. Yesterday an emergency summit of climate scientists was announced, to take place next month in Copenhagen. Its express purpose is to warn politicians that they are being too timid in their response to climate change, and publish new evidence questioning whether it is still possible to limit average global temperature rise to 2 degrees (the level defined as dangerous). Latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predictions have suggested that if current levels of pollution continue, warming of up to 6 degrees is possible within this century.
New Zealanders have learned to be complacent about food security. Most of us never think about it. New Zealand is a temperate, wet, fertile, sparsely populated little country with variable terrain and climate and huge agricultural expertise. Yet we import roughly half our food. We are devoting prime land to feeding cows, and the world, and paying several times over for the environmental and economic side effects. There have been some recent rumblings from the Ministry for the Environment about the dairy-related strain on our environment; the implications for food security are as alarming, yet only the Green Party seems concerned.
New Zealand’s approach is consistent with its free trade stance, which historically has served us well. But it exposes us to the global market, and global demand for food exceeds supply. Gwynne Dyer believes that the post-World War II cheap food era is ending, driven, in part, by climate change. For every half-degree hotter, crop yields are tipped to fall between 3 and 5 percent: a 12 to 20 percent drop in food production, if warming can be constrained to 2 degrees, and at 6 degrees, unthinkable. There are some signs too that the global mood is shifting to protectionism. Will we be hungry and friendless?
When Cuba’s circumstances changed, in ways that seem familiar, a very different agricultural strategy was required to survive. Pre-1989, Cuban agriculture was largely mono-cultural and export-directed, farming sugar in exchange for agricultural “inputs” such as fertiliser, pesticides, fuel, and machinery that were supplied by the Soviet Union (along with philosophical inputs). When the eastern bloc collapsed, Cuba faced instant economic crisis; the country was neither geared to feed itself nor pay for imported food. To survive, Cubans had to cultivate their own food, manually and organically. Without fuel to transport the food to cities from rural areas, it had to be grown in sufficient quantities wherever there were people, utilising public land, vacant lots, school playgrounds, people’s back yards.
Cuba, you’ll be relieved to hear, isn’t the only example: the World War II “Dig for Victory” campaign is another.
Our government seems to have other things on its mind. One might think food security and rescuing the planet would rate quite highly against salvaging capitalism. One might think they were preconditions for it. But ultimately, insurance isn’t the government’s job: it’s ours. It takes time and trial and error to establish a productive garden. Certainly you can stick stuff in the ground and it will grow, but there is lore in the garden and generations under the age of 60 have lost those skills. If we’re ultimately going to be forced to change, we’d better not leave it too late.
There’s a carrot in the garden, under the sticks. To be honest, saving the world isn’t really my thing. But eating well is, and genuinely fresh fruit and vegetables, picked and eaten within the hour, are a revelation. Perhaps appetite and philanthropy can find some common ground beneath the table.