AFTER THE SCREENING of Vanishing of the Bees — a documentary discussing Colony Collapse Disorder — a local Nelson bee farmer took the stage to answer questions. I watched on as a lady stood up and asked, “since residents aren’t allowed to keep bee colonies in their yards, what can we do to help the situation?”
His answer was simple: “Plant a garden.” In the documentary, it was concluded that one of the main causes for the phenomenon of the mass disappearance of honeybee colonies is the use of pesticides in our current food system, namely for the agricultural practice of monoculture. As Michael Pollan says in the movie, “[Colony collapse] is one of the signs — a really unmistakable sign — that our food system is unsustainable.”
By planting gardens, we can help keep honeybee populations strong. Why is this important? Because insect-pollinated plants make up around one-third of the human diet, with honeybees responsible for 80% of that. The Guardian lists planting “bee-friendly” plants in the garden as one of 10 ways to help honeybees.
But besides helping out our friendly pollinators, I have a few other reasons why I wanted to learn how to garden.
Increasing food prices
Global food prices are at a record high, partly due to crop loss around the world from storms, flooding, and droughts. Rising oil prices and economic instability are also contributing to the high prices. Compound that with the fact that income isn’t going up at all. From the years 1998 to 2008, the median income in the US did not rise. In 1998, the median income was $51,295. In 2008? $50,303. It was even worse in 2009 at $49,777*.
In Canada, experts are predicting a 5-7% increase at the grocery checkout by the end of this year. Strong competition and a strong dollar (making imports cheaper) have kept the prices at bay so far, but a correction is expected. Oxfam predicts that the average price of staple foods will double by 2030:
The world is entering an era of permanent food crisis, which is likely to be accompanied by political unrest and will require radical reform of the international food system.
Sometimes gardens can take a season or two to produce, to get the soil healthy and to work out the bugs (pun intended), especially for a beginner. Start now.
Our food system is broken
It’s not hard to conclude that there’s something wrong with our current food system. Processed and engineered foods, unsustainable farming practices, rising diet-related illnesses, and polluted environments are some of the symptoms. In our never-ending search to get more for less, we’ve created a system that will eventually fail us.
I don’t take food lightly. For something that is so important to our health and livelihoods, everyone needs to get on board and become not only more aware of what’s going into our bodies, but what impact the food we’re getting has on the environment. Our quest to provide more food for less cost is a short-sighted one and the repercussions will eventually be felt, if not already.
Oran Hesterman, agriculture scientist and author of Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System For All, says in this article:
As individuals we can make different choices about what we purchase and what we eat. We can choose to support a more local and sustainable agriculture and can decide to eat in a way that keeps us healthier…We can plant backyard and community gardens. We can shop at farmers’ markets. All of these individual actions can and will make a difference in our own lives and in the food system…
I’ve found that starting in my backyard is an important first step in switching gears and raising awareness.
The Obamas are doing it
In 2008, Michelle Obama started the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden during WWII. She wanted to start the garden to teach children about eating healthy and to help in the battle with America’s obesity problem. Talking about their kids’ reaction to the garden, Mrs. Obama said, “They started schooling me and lecturing me about what I should be eating, and what a carrot does, and what broccoli does. And sometimes they look at my plate in disgust now.”
It’s proof that you don’t even need a lot of space to yield a good harvest. The White House garden is only 1100 square feet and has produced over 1000 pounds of veggies that have been used to feed the Obamas and their guests.
The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. ~ Michael Pollan
Given a choice, I am confident that everyone would prefer to eat organic vegetables. The price, of course, is another matter. I would love to eat only organic, but I can’t afford it. (Correction: I could afford it…at the expense of other things I like to do. It’s a conscious choice.) While I realize that the price of organic and fair trade produce better represents the “true” cost of food, when presented with items that are a fraction of the cost I usually can’t resist to go with the cheaper option.
The other day I picked some raspberries from a bush in my backyard. It filled a small bowl and I thought to myself, that would probably cost about $6 in the grocery store. When it comes time to harvest some of the other items in my garden — zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes — there will be a lot of money saved.
And while I know I can’t be fully self-sufficient yet, what I can grow in the summer does make the option to buy organic more realistic as I can supplement, lowering the average cost.
And I know that what I’m growing is truly organic. Last year the NY Times reported on an audit of the National Organic Program that showed they let companies continue selling products labeled organic that really weren’t. On average, it took them 15 months to enforce recommendations by the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service. In one case they let the company completely slide.
So how can you know if something is really organic? Grow it yourself.
Get children excited about eating vegetables
There is a program called Community Roots** in Boulder, Colorado. 13 front yards in a small neighbourhood full of ranchers have been converted into micro-farms. Homeowners have donated their useless grassy lawns to be turned into gardens and also provide the water for irrigation. Members plant and manage the gardens and in return receive a share of the harvest with extra produce sold in the Boulder County Farmer’s Market.
Member Camille Hook has a son who used to be “vegetable-challenged.” That is until he planted in the garden and invited friends over to help harvest. Said Camille, “Now the kids clamor to eat chard, kale, and grilled zucchini for dinner.”
We live in a hyper-fast world these days. We can get things done at lightning speed, usually meaning we cram more things into a single day. What I love about gardening is that it forces me to slow down, to get off the computer, and to interact with nature right in my backyard.
I find it amazing watching food grow in front of my eyes. It’s like standing at the top of a mountain. I appreciate the view and my surroundings a lot more when I hike up rather than take a gondola. The satisfaction of eating something that I grew from a seed is immeasurable.
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