Community Gardening as Revolutionary Praxis – The Argument for growing your own!

Community Gardening as Revolutionary Praxis

 Global Fair Trade’s mandate is to illuminate the connections between humans and the environment on the one hand, and the local and the global on the other. From our perspective, there is nothing finer than an initiative like community gardening for showing how this works and it is so essential for forging a future that is humane and sustainable. Community gardening and local green space initiatives have the potential to undermine the unstable and inhumane global food system while reducing our impact on climate change and forging necessary ties that bind us together in workable societies. That seems like a tall order for a window box of fresh herbs or some backyard tomatoes but here’s how it works.

 Some of you might have heard of the ‘world food crisis’ that erupted in many southern countries this past spring. There were riots in the streets and people were killed protesting unaffordable prices for staple foods like corn, rice and wheat. At home, every grocery bill seemed higher than the last. Popular media figures parroted one another in listing the causes for this tragic turn of events: high fuel prices driving up the price of agricultural inputs like fertilizer and pesticides and increasing transportation costs; ethanol production using up corn and converting wheat fields to fuel fields; climate change causing drought here and there; greedy middle class Indians and Chinese eating more meat; and, my personal favourite, population. Many of these factors play a role in the current crisis, but none of them is sufficient or even really key to understanding food politics and economics today. In fact, it could be argued that the seeds of the current disaster were sowed (pun intended) over 40 years ago and that recent economic policies including free trade and deregulation of financial markets have much more to do with what’s going on now than the factors above. One could even reasonably suggest that crisis has more to do with starving people and expensive food than population – which has, incidentally, been increasing at a lower rate than food production anyway.

Without boring ourselves with all the details, what we’ve witnessed over the past 40-50 years is the increasing commodification of food and food production. What that means is that more and more steps in the process of growing and raising edibles have become commodities that farmers have to buy rather than supply for themselves. To give a few examples of this, 75 years ago, most farmers around the world wouldn’t dream of buying seeds for next year’s crop – they simply saved some of this year’s to plant in spring. Now seeds are commodities covered by intellectual property rights regimes that cost a lot of money and if they are genetically modified, are often designed to produce sterile crops so that the farmer can’t save seed even if she wants to. Fertilizer is another commodified part of food production process. A hundred years ago, most farms were integrated meaning that they combined animal husbandry with crop production – they had to have both sides of the coin because the animals were needed to work on the farm in the absence of gas-powered equipment. These animals provided another essential service – they pooped and by pooping on land resting from crops, they re-fertilized the soil. Now, of course, farms are massive single product ‘factories’ where plants and animals never meet. The fields never get pooped on and the animals never see sunlight or fresh food. The consequence is that crop farmers must buy fertilizers. All along the process, things that were saved or nurtured before now have to be bought.

Food itself has also been commodified to the point that fewer and fewer family farmers anywhere in the world can survive by growing their own food and a little bit extra to trade with others. If they have survived the commodification of all their inputs, they have done so by turning to so-called ‘efficient’ production of single crops or species. They grow only alfalfa or soy or raise only chickens or pigs. That means that they can’t live from their farms and must do as fully 60% of us have to globally, they have to buy their food from some corporation or other. So food has become commodified for most humans because we are no longer growing our own.

It has also become a commodity at the exalted level of stock markets. Wheat, soy, corn, rice and other key foods are now tradable commodities like copper, diamonds, currencies or company stocks. At this level, there is a lot of money to be made, not from getting food to the hungry, but by hoarding shares in food commodities and even future production to drive up global prices. This is where the mortgage crisis is tied to the food crisis. As investments in unstable mortgages in theU.S.– themselves a product of deregulation of banking – started to sour, investors hauled their money out of mortgages and dumped it into commodities, including food commodities. They suspected that theUSpolicy on ethanol replacing foreign oil would make corn a good bet and since farmers saw the same potential and started planting corn on soy and wheat fields, these commodities would become rarer and therefore more valuable too. So investors bought food in the abstract and then hoarded it to await the inevitable increase in prices caused by scarcity. Now, if we hadn’t already deregulated food policy all over the world, governments could have responded by releasing grain stockpiles and thus lowering the price and forcing investors to give up their hoards of present and future food. But governments stopped doing that because the WTO and World Bank promised them that the market would ensure food supply so they needn’t spend money buying grain to do it themselves. That meant no one could stop the hoarding and price inflation of staple foods (as abstract tradable commodities) which meant prices went through the roof and people began to starve and to die.

So we live in a world where the majority of human beings do not have access to their own food or means for growing it; they have to buy farming inputs or food itself from a shrinking number of huge corporations making a killing sometimes by killing hungry people who lack the money to pay. What on earth can we do about it?

The one thing we can do at the local level is return food production to the local level. There are lots of ways of doing this including protecting the farms that ring our cities and protecting regulatory bodies like the dairy board and wheat board. But we can all also replace some commodified food with non-commodified food, with food that no corporation benefits from buying or selling. A few square feet of park or a potted tomato on the windowsill are powerful symbols of peoples’ will and ability to regain control of the stuff of life. While these small harvests won’t replace the weekly trip to the supermarket, they do undermine corporate control. And we shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of cities to produce their own food.Havana,Cubais a remarkable example of a city working toward food security. Using only organic methods,Havanaresidents have been able to produce 50% of their daily food intake by converting vacant lots, rooftops and patios into micro-farms.

Growing your own food has other advantages too. When we gift home grown food to friends and neighbours, we introduce a second channel of food access that cuts out corporate profit. At the same time, we build relationships with one another – nothing is more symbolic or significant than the act of feeding another person. Further, we reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by not having to travel very far to get food from our own gardens, and the more organic our methods, the lower the impact of food production on the environment as a whole. In short then, community gardening is a necessary first step toward guaranteeing access to food globally, breaking the corporate and investor stranglehold on food, and forging ties that will bind us together socially, emotionally, practically and politically in the future. It is quite simply revolutionary. Viva la revolucion and here’s to an early spring!

Copyright: GlobalFairTrade

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