I am in the vegetable garden pulling weeds (it is always a good year for weeds.) I am glad to be away from the computer with my hands and feet in dirt. I am thinking: there is no such thing as a virtual vegetable garden. I uproot some mustard greens that are crowding out the peas. In an hour or so we will eat them for dinner. I am wishing everyone in the world could have a chance to eat something he or she has grown.
On this edible planet where we all eat (and/or are eaten), food connects all life. How we grow it, how we transport it, how we prepare it and how we share it matters. As a woman, I sometimes feel responsible (read guilty) for the invention of agriculture. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, being able to stay in one place with the babies, being able to store surplus food for winter or other difficult conditions, being able to feed more people.
As agriculture took hold, we needed more people to produce the food, and so we produced more people to feed, and needed more food. Though most of us no longer work in agriculture and many have been forced to sell family farms, global human population is still growing, projected to reach nine billion between 2040 and 2050. Modern commercial agribusiness has given us the ability to feed a burgeoning population—although many still go hungry, not because of local famines but because of a system that keeps them in poverty, including the very people that labor to grow commercial monocrops. Refrigeration and global food distribution must once have seemed like a good idea, too. (Who among us has never eaten vegetables and fruits out of season, grown in a faraway place?) Now most of us are dependent on this system—and the oil that fuels it.
Oil-driven food industry is a relatively new, post WWII phenomenon. My mother’s generation, the ones who spawned the baby boom, was the first to turn en masse to processed foods, instead of pickling or canning at home. (Again, an idea that looked good at the time, marketed as freedom from drudgery.) I married a vegetarian and learned to grow, cook and eat food I never dreamed existed in my hamburger-centered youth. My daughter, granddaughter of the woman who made everything from a mix, is an accomplished cook and baker who makes everything from scratch.
Things can change quickly. In my life time, family farms disappeared from the Hudson Valley, driven out by lower cost factory farms further west. Now farming is returning to the region in the form of Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)which sell vegetables, eggs and grass-fed meat directly to the local population. Many towns in the area host farmer’s markets. People are getting to know the provenance of their food, as well as the people who grow it. This change in our relationship to food has the potential to spur other changes—in the way we use land, develop housing, and connect with our neighbors, the way we structure our local and global economies.
It’s only a beginning. Local, organic food is not readily available or affordable to everyone, especially in economically depressed urban areas. We have a huge population to feed. We need visionaries; we need private and public investment in new ways to grow and equitably distribute food. Oil-dependent agribusiness is neither healthy nor sustainable, nor at all careful of preserving soil and ground water. Neither is car-centered suburban sprawl that has already consumed vast acres of arable land.
Food, a need and pleasure we all share, offers hope. Maybe the way forward is back to the garden, literally: in our back yards, on community-supported farms, on common lands around cluster housing, in lots on every city block. Let’s meet in the garden across generations and cultures. Let’s share vegetables, swap recipes. Let’s all come to the table. Let’s eat.
For books on this subject:
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered
by Woody Tasch