Re-localising agriculture, economies and community
It seems crazy that in these times we have to struggle so hard to safeguard the simple, wonderful things in life that are so valuable. Things such as clean water, nature places in our cities, fresh organic food, and an enjoyment and celebration of diverse cultures and ways of being. I never cease to marvel at the ‘best creations’ of humanity – a firm antidote to what I see is a grave loss of common sense – and a definitive amnesia when it comes to the potential of the human spirit.
From this short introduction, you may have gleaned a taste of what nourishes me – indeed nourishes my work and passions. I work in the area of urban agriculture, Permaculture education and the arts.
This diverse palette allows me to express and champion all the things that, for me, constitute ‘the good life’. This rich nexus of culture and nature is endlessly fascinating and inspiring. I am particularly interested in the culture of food and how food forms the basis of culture. For a ritual that we require and participate in daily, so little thought is given to where our food comes from, the earth that has provided this bounty or the many hands that have coaxed this abundance from the soil and brought it (almost) to our door. Indian activist Vandana Shiva writes: “The time has come to reclaim the stolen harvest, and celebrate the growing and giving of good food as the highest gift and most revolutionary act.” I am also reminded of the wonderful link between ourselves and our ancestors, those folk who understood the sacred connection between the land and those who live from it, selecting plant varieties and saving seeds for generations. This ongoing, patient and crucial endeavour now provides us with the wealth of food varieties that we have the pleasure of eating. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that we have significantly eroded this diversity that has taken millennia to achieve.
Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation and a passionate advocate of the tradition in many cultures of food preparation and preservation, writes: “Cultures around the world have evolved as specific localised phenomena. This is true of both microbial cultures and human cultures. Cultural practices such as languages, beliefs, and food (including fermentation), are incredibly diverse. But that rich diversity is threatened by the expansion of trade into a unified global market. Local identity, culture and taste are subsumed by the ever-diminishing lowest common denominator.” He continues with a lamentation of our urbanised society, cut off from the process of growing food and accustomed to buying food that has already been processed in a factory. He quotes farmer, poet and philosopher Wendell Berry: “Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality, and the result is a kind of solitude, unprecedented in human experience, in which the eater may think of eating as first a purely commercial transaction between him and a supplier, and then as a purely appetitive transaction between him and his food.”
As important as preserving genetic diversity and organic farming practices are, even more important is the cultivation of local food and its complement, local economies. Many sources now acknowledge that agriculture in its industrial form is the single most destructive human activity to the environment. When you take into consideration not only petroleum-based fertilisers and industrial machinery, but market forces that determine it is cheaper to export raw produce to another country and ship it back as a product, the inherent environmental consequences are alarming. We now talk about ‘food miles’, the distance it takes for food to reach your plate, including all those convoluted journeys. Alas, long gone are the days where local villages were self-reliant, and a wide agricultural belt surrounded the village where a cornucopia of seasonal delights awaited the cooks’ hands and taste buds. However, the whole local and slow food movements are gaining ground as the price of oil continues to rise, and discussion of ‘peak oil’ has begun to circulate.
Maybe this year, maybe last or the next, the total amount of oil that can be extracted and utilised will have reached its maximum. From this time forward, we will have less and less oil available to us. This descent in cheap energy availability will most likely be haphazard – it could be gradual, or abrupt. The impact on our way of life will become more apparent, as we learn to adapt to a life that is not based on oil. Hard to imagine really – we’ve become so accustomed to having what we want, when we want it – provided we have the income to pay. When I think about what the consequences of this are, I see the whole of Western industrial society unravelling. Our economy, food system, communications, transport and medicines will all be affected. The speed of our interactions will slow down, and for many people this will be welcome, though initially this will disrupt ‘business as usual’. In truth, we don’t know how we will manage the transition from a high-energy society, to one that will once again be defined by natural limits. Permaculture, the now-international philosophy and movement developed by Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, has, since its inception, been an advocate of sustainable systems. The term ‘Permaculture’ is a contraction of two words: permanent agriculture, and its inherent relation ‘permanent culture’. Indeed, many of the concepts that are fundamental to Permaculture stem from and enhance pre-existing ways of life that indigenous societies have developed over millennia. It seems that after decades of work and development in the field of Permaculture, it is now an area that is well-poised to make a valuable contribution that informs our future way of life – one that once more understands our dependence on the earth for all of our needs, and works in symbiotic relationship rather than dominance and exploitation. David Holmgren writes: “…Permaculture defines a creative response…that I call ‘Earth stewardship’ – a ‘creative descent’ in which we progressively reduce our energy demands until we are living within the natural energy and production budget of the land we occupy. I believe this represents the only truly sustainable future. It’s a scenario in which human society creatively descends the energy demand slope essentially as a ‘mirror image’ of the creative energy ascent that began with the industrial revolution and has led to the present day.”
In an affluent Western country such as Australia, it is difficult to imagine that food security is an issue. The car-dominated planning of our suburban settlements gives rise to a plethora of issues, including isolation from key facilities such as shops and services, with inadequate public transport networks. This lack of integration between the built form, planning and basic human needs most affects those who are socially and financially disadvantaged. According to consultant dietician and food security advisor Dr Beverley Wood, between 30% and 50% of the population do not have ready access to food outlets depending on locality, and between 5% and 10% of the population do not have enough to eat. Responsibility in these situations is often shifted to the individual, regardless of their ability to respond. Australia also currently grows the majority of its food for export, and a lot of energy goes into creating value-add products. The ready answer to many of these issues is local production and distribution of food that is organic, affordable and fresh.
As food is so important, and lack of it or unfair distribution the cause of so much strife, I would argue that establishing sustainable local food production is paramount. The rise in the success and popularity of farmers’ markets is a great sign that people understand the importance of supporting local growers, and enjoy the non-homogenised experience and appreciation of diverse seasonal produce. Growing food in community and suburban gardens is on the rise, as is the ‘school kitchen garden movement’ championed by Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation. These proliferating seminal urban agricultural enterprises are the first step towards reclaiming our place in nature and valuing the importance of food production in our cities. What is also needed is a concerted effort by all levels of government in collaboration with business, industry, community groups and individuals to shift the cultural landscape. What would this look like? More urban farms, support and markets for local growers, community and market gardens planned into any new and existing housing developments. Curtailing the urban growth boundary and putting agricultural land in trust for generations to come. Edible gardens in all schools, public housing, community centres and suburban homes. A pendant food forest at every corner! And organic practices of course.
There are many examples worldwide of societies that are reclaiming the importance of local food production, from Cuba to Denmark. As farmer, educator and founder of the Centre for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta, California, Michael Ableman writes: “…I strongly encourage each of you to make friends with a farmer – you’re going to need them. For I am certain that as the current global industrial experiment comes apart, our society will once again have agriculture at its centre.”
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