Food: Arable Land, Local Food, and Social Evolution

Until recent discussions about food security, we rarely thought about agriculture — the soil, the water needed, the sun, the farmer. Our thinking has been something like this: It’s not necessary for me to worry about food since I have a paying job that allows me to buy my food. Just as I do my thing, agriculture is best left for others to do.

However, many are seeing that growing food is a global imperative, and that more people need to be doing it. Although wealthy countries have enjoyed cheap and plentiful food for decades, there are several critical factors that are likely to change that unsustainable reality. Fresh water sources are becoming more scarce, whether from industrial run-off that pollutes local water, or from long-dependable aquifers drying up. Weather patterns are unstable, with unpredictable weather becoming global in scope, causing havoc for farmers. And modern agriculture, which has often been described as using soil to turn non-renewable petroleum resources into food, is a system profoundly vulnerable to fuel shortages.

Simultaneously, there is an alarming threat to agriculture from the use of large areas of land for growing biofuels. People are starving so that others may drive.

Author Richard Heinberg, in his book Peak Everything, has written a sobering paragraph:

“There was a time when famine was an expected, even accepted, part of life. Until the 19th century — whether in China, France, India or Britain — food came almost exclusively from local sources and harvests were variable. In good years, there was plenty — enough for seasonal feasts and for storage in anticipation of winter and hard times to come. In bad years, starvation cut down the poorest and the weakest — the very young, the old and the sickly. Sometimes bad years followed one upon another, reducing the size of the population by several percent. This was the normal condition of life in pre-industrialized societies, and it persisted for thousands of years.”

Ultimately, everything is pointing to more of us getting our hands in the dirt. Simply put, we need more farmers. In the days before petroleum-dependent, industrial agriculture, more people farmed. After the so-called Green Revolution (ironically a system of food production using toxic chemicals, the opposite of what ‘green’ refers to today), far less human work was required to produce food. Consequently today, at least in North America, so few people farm and amongst those who do, the average age is over 55! When these older farmers can no longer do the demanding physical work, who will replace them? Plus, we desperately need them to pass on their vital knowledge on how to farm! All this points to the urgent need for a revitalization of farming values and communities.

As food prices rise, as farm inputs decrease, as farm land is depleted of its nutrients from years of chemical farming, more of us will take agriculture, and backyard gardening, more seriously. And this is already happening. However, not everyone owns land where they can grow some food. And relying on food banks and lovely neighbours to help feed us does not create more food.

But community gardens do. “Guerilla gardening” is now an international phenomenon. It’s about liberating any land (perhaps a vacant lot, or land owned by the community) that gets some sun and has water sources nearby, and using it to grow food. Besides providing food, these gardens create additional social benefits such as pride and satisfaction to the local gardeners. A group called Reclaim the Fields does direct actions to fight for land for growing food, something they see as an appropriate political alternative to capitalism. They agree with the declaration by La Via Campesina, the international agrarian peasant movement, that the primary use of arable land must be for growing food.

Author Peter Ladner, in his new book, The Urban Food Revolution, says that people are now being confronted with a gnawing perspective, one in which we see “the most primal element of personal survival put into the hands of underpaid foreign workers, a few large corporations, and distant mega-farms and processors dependent on diminishing supplies of cheap oil and water.”

What will it take to endanger this disturbingly insane food system? Perhaps a long-time dependable aquifer will dry up. Freak storms or natural disasters will destroy entire crops. Or fuel prices suddenly increase. Industrial agriculture is precarious business.

As writer and farmer Wendell Berry has said, “eating is an agricultural act.” Agriculture is now rightfully everyone’s business; and we know: local and sustainable food production is the way to proceed.

So let’s use our local, arable land for growing food. This means landowners teaming up with growers. We may know generous elders who would be happy to share their good fortune, meaning the perfect agricultural land they purchased many years ago for very little. Such a sharing of resources, in this case, land and labour, can be seen as an essential, modern, social experiment… a more evolved, non-hierarchical re-invention of the feudal system.

Connecting an aspiring horticulturalist with some land is something any of us can participate in doing. A useful practice is to keep our eyes and ears open for both growers and for good land.

It’s important to point out that a farmer or gardener does not need many acres and expensive machinery. Some of our favourite local farmers work on less than 3 acres. One family living in an urban area coaxed 6,000 pounds of produce from just a quarter of an acre!

On a social level, such a practical strategy is a beautiful sharing of resources from both parties — land and water, with labour. Each party will gain a fuller appreciation for the work and resources needed to feed people. An elder opening up his property toward the end of his life may take vicarious pleasure in the eagerness and joy of the young farmer. A young farmer and his partner or even family would be grateful for their good fortune to have connected with generous people so they can be employed doing what is needed. And for being willing to release control over their accustomed privacy for a greater cause, the landowner may experience a profound sense of what it means to give, and thus derive great satisfaction in seeing idle land be transformed into sustenance. Such compassion is revolutionary, and very fitting for the times we live in.

Besides networking aspiring horticulturalists with landowners willing to share their land, there are other ways of being proactive in encouraging more people to become farmers. Let’s plant this idea in young children by encouraging teachers to create gardens at school, because kids love to watch things grow. If we know physically energetic teenage youth, they may find satisfaction in putting their energies to purposeful use by taking part in sustainable farming. As for those already feeding us, a practical appreciation of our farmers’ gift of commitment to feeding people is to pay more for responsibly grown food.

As we participate in the evolution of human consciousness, a potent gesture anyone can make is to thank those who feed us. And while we’re at it, let’s send out a blessing of hope to future generations of farmers.

Tsiporah Grignon is a Gabriolan of 38 years, and considers herself “an old foodie”. She is a keen observer of our times, through looking at geo-politics, and through her study of Evolutionary Astrology, which offers in-depth insights into our potential as compassionate human beings.