Do You Have to Grow Food?

SUBHEAD: Hunger will begin for many of us as a slow grind, wearing us down, and we will find ourselves more and more in need of our gardens. Image above: Detail from "War Garden for Victory" WW2 era poster encouraging home food production. From ( By Sharon Astyk on 21 February 2010 in Casaubon's Book - (

Because of the enormous impact of agriculture on climate change, pick up any book about "green" solutions and you'll find the suggestions that you grow a vegetable garden. Bang into the "we can't go on as we are" end of the environmental movement (mine), and you'll see the general assumption that growing food is part of any process of adaptation to lower resource use.

This often then morphs into the assumption that all of us should be able to grow all of our food, or a vast majority of it - that sustainability means the country life for everyone. You might think that because I do produce a vast majority of my food, and because I wrote a book advocating for millions of additional farmers, I might fall into this category. In fact, I don't. At least in the short term, I think those farmers will mostly be amateurs, farming very small plots indeed, often land they don't own, rather than full-time professionals.

I think there will be no substitute for being involved with your food and your food system, and I think that for many people, food growing provides a measure of security not available even through sustainable purchasing from local farmers, but I don't believe that means that all of us are going, as the song goes, "Get behind the mule in the morning and plow." Indeed, I think the majority of local food production will probably occur on small scales in urban and suburban areas, by people who either previously owned their land, before the present crisis, or by those who do not own land. The "move to the country and buy land' model is unlikely to dominate the future.

(John Hammond Gets Behind the Mule, Awesomely)

Does that mean that I agree with Toby Hemenway that food is "the last thing to worry about?" I know Hemenway isn't trying to discourage gardening (after all, he's the author of _Gaia's Garden_, one of the single best gardening books ever written) , but attempting to add a degree of balance to what is often an overheated debate. I tend to agree with him that people respond to gardening and backyard small livestock by thinking "I can do that!" and thus tend to focus on this, often to the exclusion of things that need just as much attention, like health care or finance. I think this larger point is absolutely on target. Hemenway writes:

Yet in the developed world, especially the breadbasket nations such as the US, Canada, and other food-exporting countries, the food network may be one of the last systems to fail during energy descent. In developing a wise post-Peak strategy, assessing relative risks is critical. Devoting large amounts of time and resources to events that are less likely leaves us unprepared for more probable difficulties. I don't want to discourage anyone from growing food--I'm a serious gardener myself and could list dozens of excellent reasons for doing it. But I think there are many reasons not to be focusing primarily on food as the system most likely to fail. This isn't to say that industrial, oil-based agriculture is invulnerable, let alone sustainable. And we may see temporary shortages of specific foods. But there are many reasons why our fears of a food collapse--particularly when they lead us to a go-it-alone, grow-your-own response--may be distracting us from focusing on more immediate and likely risks.

First, two notes of clarification: This article is about net food-exporting nations such as the US, where I live. In the less-developed world, where food growing has been abandoned for export crops that are sold for cash to import commodity food, the food system is far more vulnerable. And by "food collapse" I mean a prolonged inability to produce essential foods, not brief or local shortages of certain items, or high prices while supplies are ample. Volatile commodities markets, weather, and the other gyrations of our uncertain era mean that temporary or local shortages can always occur.

Food gets a lot of attention in part because we need it to survive, but also because one solution to a food crisis--growing your own--seems doable. I suspect we focus on food in part because providing it appears much more possible than, say, keeping the financial, health care, or automotive industries running.

That said, I have some disagreements about how Hemenway frames the discussion - I think his focus on "food collapse" as the reasoning behind growing food misses the central point - that most hunger doesn't occur because of a food collapse, it occurs because people can't afford to buy food. This is an easy one to miss - many people, learning about peak oil and climate change become fixated on the idea of transportatioin or other system disruptions that cut food supplies. And this is possible - indeed, when food and gas costs rose to their highest point in 2008, end-of-supply-line regions like Alaskan Native Villages found themselves struggling to get supplies in. But the vast majority of the world's hungry live in places where there is sufficient food - but they can't buy it. It is credible, then, to assume that at least in the shorter term, our collective crisis is likely to play out as it has in the past - with more and more people unable to keep food on the table.

Just as I've argued for some years that the most likely reason for any of my readers to have to live without heat or utilities is because growing poverty makes it impossible for them to pay utility bills, and thus, they get shut off or because they become homeless, the most likely reason for anyone reading this to encounter a food crisis is because of a growing poverty. And in both the Global North and South, this is the norm of hunger. As Amartya Sen has documented, most hunger and starvation worldwide occur in nations with adequate food tor their populations - the central problems are of equity and distribution.

This is obviously the pattern occurring in the United States. We are seeing a steady rise in hunger - how much is hard to establish. We know that food stamps are at their highest level of use ever - that one in nine American households, and one in four American children now needs food stamps. But that doesn't tell the whole story - food stamps are a fairly good measure of food insecurity, in which people don't know whether there will always be food or not, but not of hunger. But statistics on hunger are hard to collect. We know that it is rising rapidly - that food pantries in regions are seeing tripling and quadrupling of needs. We know the situations are more dire, and more acute. But again, this can't tell the whole story - there are families in crisis who do receive food stamps. Many agencies don't track information about demand or recipients, because they either lack the capacity or fear to drive them away.

Moreover, as Professors Sharon Panter and Karl Smith write in the News and Observer, measuring recipients of food aid the US doesn't give you an accurate picture of the need for food aid:

We have been tracking the history of food assistance in central and Eastern North Carolina. After five years of research, it is clear that nonprofit food assistance is a supply-driven good. That is, usage has increased primarily as a function of capacity of supply, not of increases in demand.

In traditional markets, businesses increase supply in order to meet demand. If you want to buy a box of your favorite cereal, it's rare that you would walk into your local supermarket and find it missing from the shelves. As a result, if 2,000 boxes of cereal are sold at a given store, researchers and government officials can confidently say that this represents the demand for cereal at that location.

At nonprofit food assistance centers, however, the demand is rarely if ever met. As a result, it's impossible to use food distributed as a measure of demand. The true demand far exceeds what it is ever given out. Statistics that use food distributed are consistently underestimating the need.

Two examples illustrate this pattern. Monthly client records for a small pantry in rural North Carolina show a steady number of clients for years - about 35 people each week. When we visited to observe the pantry in action, a volunteer counted up to 35 people and then closed the door. That was all the pantry could support. No other people were helped until the next week. That pattern repeats every time the door is opened.

In Eastern North Carolina, emergency pantries were opened in several towns in response to Hurricane Floyd in 1999. They have never closed. One now reports feeding up to 500 people a week.

Like many small community nonprofits, food pantries have been constrained by lack of trained staff, computers, space and equipment, but they are facing a much larger problem: lack of product. They are running out of food to give away, on a national scale.

The rise of hunger in the US in the last few years is astonishing - and it is occurring in times of wild food surplus. There are no shortages in the US, and yet, people are going hungry. As seen in the previous article, food stamps are not a simple solution - with the gutting of other social welfare programs, food stamps are often the only source of supplemental income the very poor have, and often don't go for food. Many of the working poor don't get food stamps, or receive them minimally.

Americans spend less on food than almost any other national population in the world, so hunger in the US often doesn't make sense to people - why aren't we at least buying food? The answer is that food is generally a somewhat fungible expense for people, while things like housing, medications and transportation are not always. Consider a working-poor single parent household with a job. They live in one area, and the job is 45 minutes away by car, in an area where there is no public transportation (the norm). The job has no standard shifts, like much low paying employment, which makes it nearly impossible to provide stable childcare - if you have to be at work at 4 am one day and until 10pm the next this is impossible.

The largest fixed expenses are housing and transportation - usually a car loan and disproportionately high rent or mortgage. It would be easy to say that people should abandon their car and get a job somewhere else - but this is often not viable. It would be easy to say they should move to a lower cost area, but they are often pinned by family obligations, employment, or even the inability to produce first months and last months rent. Incomes are often unstable, and depend on whether overtime is offered or not. Most of the jobs have no benefits, so a single illness or a car breakdown and a sudden expense is enough to force families to move into the few areas of their lives that are fungible - and food is the big fungible expense.

Now I realize that some of my readers will point out that the poor often make poor choices - this is absolutely true. The rich do too - but they are not penalized for their inability to cook or their deciding to buy a luxury item before they realized that there would be no overtime that month. Moreover, I think it is safe to say that as more of us become poor, more or us will make some bad choices too. Many of us have already, and may be asked to pay a high price for them. In fact, in the case of the poor, those paying the biggest prices are generally those who have choices at all - children.

I think it is fair to say, however, that we can expect patterns of increasing hunger and food insecurity to increase even among people in net-food-exporting nations that would never have thought they too could be hungry. We can say this because it has been happening - and occurring quite dramatically. Those most immediately affected will be those who have always lived closest to the margins of food insecurity, or who were already food insecure - the rural, urban and suburban (there are now more poor people living in the suburbs than in cities in the US) poor and working class.

These people will not, generally speaking, be "getting land" - credit has already tightened dramatically for low income people, and they also rely heavily on the informal economy to support them already - including community networks and existing family and social structures. Most of the poor can't afford a mortgage, they can't afford first and last and security to move, they can't move away from their sister who watches the kids while they work third shift, they can't move to a new city where they don't know anyone who can help translate, they can't afford to move to a place where there are no bus lines.... Some may be pushed into rural areas because of low cost of living, and a few will choose to relocate there, but most of the US poor have fairly limited mobility, and won't be buying land to grow all their food anytime soon.

Meanwhile, for those of us in the middle class, there is likely to be a gradual decline in wealth and security - a slide from two incomes to one plus unemployment, then one plus nothing, the erosion of benefits, pay cuts (in the Great Depression real earnings fell by more than 40%, so that even the 75% of the working population that still had a job was earning dramatically less), etc... Some will join the abjectly poor, but that's likely to be a more gradual process. What we will see is a great deal more instability.

If the US were to shift its focus from bailing out the financial community to providing for the basic needs of the most vulnerable, and if programs like food stamps and unemployment benefit extensions could continue expanding indefinitely, we would still see real and serious hunger in the US. The odds are, however, that they will not. Most American state unemployment funds are functionally bankrupt, relying on federal subsidies to keep them paying out. States are already slashing aid to education, social welfare programs and support programs for children, the elderly and the disabled.

The question becomes how much can and will the federal government do? It is certainly in the interest of the US government to keep food riots down - but we've seen in recent posts the way that American attitudes towards the poor pit them against one another, and naturalize a hatred and fear of the poor - in order for there to be riots, large numbers of hungry Americans would have to achieve some kind of solidarity with one another. With plenty of affluent people testing to see how well a rich person with a car, house and plenty of person hygeine items and gas in the tank can survive on programs like food stamps reassuring us that the food stamps budget is more than plenty for the poor, it seems like there's more fuel for this fire. If we view the present as an experiment in how many people can go hungry or food insecure before anyone recognizes a fundamental social failure, the answer seems to be "a lot."

What we do know is that the subsidies are insufficient for a majority of people who live on them. The high costs of housing and health care mean that even those receiving maximum subsidies are often struggling just to get along.

Moreover, there are real questions about how long governments in the Global North will be able to keep up their subsidies. We know that tax revenues have declined substantially, and that local and state governments are increasingly overwhelmed - and turning to the Federal Government. We know there are signs, like the announcement that Britain is in as shaky financial a situation as Greece, that governments in the North are having a tough time holding on. The structure of neo-liberal capitalist economies has been to focus on "growing the economy" rather than providing supports for its people - that pattern seems unlikely to change in the short term without a great shift in social values.

All of which leads us to this conclusion - that the places where hunger is likely to be most prevalent in the near term, where people most need more food, and better nutrition, are among people least able to go out and buy land and move to the country. This pretty much supports what I've been saying for many years, that "we most need to grow food where people already are." For rural dwellers, many of whom are land rich but poor in most other respects (although not all own land), the answer is a new way of viewing the land they own - after decades of farming not paying, it may start - not well, but enough to keep people off the margins.

We're often dismissive, however, of suburban and urban agriculture. How can someone's windowbox, their community garden plot, their rooftop garden or their 30x20 backyard really make a difference in food security? But in fact, we know that in much of the world, urban and suburban food growing makes an enormous difference in food security. For people in cities and the suburbs, the answer is not "get land" but "make the best possible use of what you have." The aggregate of urban and suburban systems that integrate food production into local systems is potentially substantial - no, they will not entirely feed themselves. But at least at present, that's not what's required - what's required is that we make a critical difference in household food security - and city and suburban gardens can do that.

How do we know? Because growing food has been doing that for poor people for a very long time. In Lusaka, among poor and landless households, as A.W. Drescher shows in his article "Urban agriculture in the Seasonal Tropics", households that garden, usually on land they do not own, often by squatting, show substantially better nutrition by every measure, while also producing more food per acre, and using water more sparingly than agricultural production in the surrounding countryside. In Moscow, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, 65 percent of economically struggling households grew food. In Kampala, a UN report on urban agriculture found that children in families that grew food crops were as healthy as far wealthier families, according to _Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs, Sustainable Cities_ by Jac Smit, Annu Ratta and Joe Nasr.

Ninety percent of produce grown in China in the early 1990s was grown within cities. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, up to 20% of all calories consumed are produced in cities. in 1981, Hong Kong had 5 million people and 1,060 km2, and was using 10% of that land to produce 45% of the fresh vegetables, 15% of the pigs and 68% of the live chickens eaten in the city, according to I. Wade's essay "Fertile Cities." In 2002, the city had 6.3 million people in it, and had seen much of its good land developed (for example, between 1981 and 2000, all rice farming, even on the outer islands, ceased) but they were still producing 33% of the produce, 14% of the pigs, 36% of the chickens and farming 20% of the fish consumed within the city. The animals were raised for the most part on 160,000 *tons* annually of food waste were being recycled into meat and egg production.

We know that small scale gardening can make a critical difference for the poor - both the chronically poor and the newly-becoming poor. The difference is not that it magically provides all food, but that it provides access to high value, high protein and high nutrition food stuffs that are expensive or hard to access in rural and urban "food deserts." They allow poor people to turn low-cost resources like seeds into high cost items like healthy food. They also allow people to turn food wastes into high quality protein, if combined with small scale animal husbandry. Because gardening can often be done almost entirely outside the cash economy, it is particularly valuable for those with minimal or tied up cash incomes, who have little leeway.

Just as importantly, community gardens and other local food production exercises have political implications as well - they tie communities together in ways that other activities don't seem to. In a fascinating study by SUNY Albany Professor Donna Armstrong, she finds,

The most commonly expressed reasons for participating in gardens were access to fresh foods, to enjoy nature, and health benefits. Gardens in low-income neighborhoods (46%) were four times as likely as non low-income gardens to lead to other issues in the neighborhood being addressed; reportedly due to organizing facilitated through the community gardens

This mirrors what urban dwellers in places as diverse as Zimbabwe, Russia and China report - that the value of gardening is that it is never a wholly private activity, but one with profound communal, political and social implications.

It would be easily to trivialize the impact of small gardens in suburbs and cities - but their aggregate is enormous. As Michael W. Hamm and Monique Baron write in their case study "Developing an Integrated, Sustainable, Urban Food System: The Case of New Jersey, United States" published in _For Hunger-Proof Cities_ ed. Koc, MacRae, Mugeot and Welsh, the entire produce needs of residents of New Jersey could be met by large numbers of small household gardens or by new acreage brought into production, but given the high level of development, the small household garden model might be more feasible.

There may come a time when we face immediate, pressing and absolute shortages of food, but we aren't there yet, and that doesn't seem to be the most pressing reality for most of us. What's more likely is that we will struggle economically to buy food, be pressed into purchasing it at unaffordable prices due to lack of good access, and be forced to take money out of our food budgets and put it to meeting other needs. What's most likely is that hunger will begin for many of us (has begun for many of us) as a slow grind, wearing us down, and as safety net after safety net begins to slip, we will find ourselves more and more in need of our gardens - and every other mechanism we have to support ourselves.

Do you have to grow food? No, and some people never will, from lack of ability or because they are doing other, equally important work. But for most us, the world is no respecter of persons or importance. I would say you do not have to grow food as long as you have faith that you yourself will never become poor - will never lose your job, never struggle to make ends meet, never through the increasingly shaky safety nets. But that is, of course, precisely the most likely thing to happen to all of us in the near term of our ecological crisis. Most of us fear that outcome, often fear it so much that we deny that it could happen to us - and thus deny ourselves a chance to learn useful lessons from the 85% of the world population who has already navigated this territory before us, who have already shown us the deep urgency of growing what we can.


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