GreenWheaton’s February program meeting and Brookside Garden’s Green Matters Symposium both had great presentations and discussions that focused on food.
There was far more information than I can provide in this blog. I will, therefore, touch upon a few of the points discussed and the concept of urban agriculture, something relevant to Wheaton.
What are the issues driving this search for alternative food products? Food security is becoming a serious problem and a major reason why alternative forms of agriculture are being embraced. What is food security? According to Darrin Nordalh, one of the speakers at the Green Matters Symposium and author of Public Produce, food security is the daily access to adequate, safe, nutritious and affordable foods. Only one in four of us is getting the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of vegetables, and only one in three is getting their RDA for fruits.
As our nation’s food production becomes more and more concentrated and specialized, there have been some serious unintended consequences. Our conventional agriculture, unsustainable both economically and environmentally, is having a serious detrimental effect on our health. Outbreaks of food-borne illnesses caused by pathogen-contaminated foods (usually bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli) are becoming more serious as we centralize our food distribution. We are becoming very efficient not only in transporting food, but also in quickly dispersing diseases nationwide.
The environmental impacts of conventional agriculture have also been serious. Our nation’s conventional agriculture has become completely dependent on fossil fuels. Our fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are derived from natural gas. Diesel and gasoline are needed for transport and for the operation of mechanized equipment.
At the Green Matters Symposium, we learned that as food production becomes more and more centralized the number of “food miles” increases (our food now travels an average of 1,550 miles to get to our plate). As cheap sources of oil become depleted, the cost of fossil fuels goes up, as does the cost of food.
Runoff from crop lands is creating vast dead zones in our waterways, destroying aquatic habitat and creating economic hardships in many regions of the country that depend on harvesting resources from our rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Conventional agriculture is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The high cost of nutrient-dense fresh fruits and vegetables has caused people to depend more and more on highly processed foods, which are dense in calories and low in cost and nutrition. Obesity and all the associated diseases (type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and various cancers) have surged over the past twenty years. This surge is not natural, and all these diseases are avoidable. The result has been an explosion in health care costs.
Our country was once an agrarian society that understood food. Now we don’t know where our food comes from, how it is grown or how to tell if it is ripe. To tackle the problems noted above (there are more issues, but too many for this blog!), many people are now advocating bringing agriculture back into people’s lives through smaller more dispersed forms of agriculture.
One of these forms is urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is based on the premise that creative use of public space can increase livability and bring people together to create vibrant people places. One form of this is called “municipal agriculture,” which uses public spaces that showcases natural resources. Some municipalities have taken blighted areas and revitalized these areas using plants, shrubs and trees. These add texture and color, provide cooling and help manage stormwater.
Municipal agriculture can include the use of edible ornamental gardens or transformation of neglected medians into community gardens to create an urban oasis. Other forms of urban agriculture include community gardens and orchards on public and private lands.
No one thinks this cultural shift will be easy, but it is already happening. Experts note that we will need to first educate the public to increase our food literacy. My next blog will be focused on local urban agriculture solutions - solutions that are already working and showing promise in creating vibrant people places we all would like to see.