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Strategizing on the transition to organic agriculture

While I was off enjoying a couple of days of wine, husband and song, Richard Heinberg was publishing yet another essential paper on our food system http://www.energybulletin.net/38091.html. I recommend it to you all, mostly as useful clarification of the overarching goals of an agricultural transition. I was particularly struck by this quotation, which seems to me to be usefully striking and darkly clarifying,

Zafar Adeel, director of the International Network on Water, Environment and Health (INWEH), has calculated that more food will have to be produced during the next 50 years than during the last 10,000 years combined.

That is, not only must be deal with the problems we have created, but we must continue to raise food production levels.

Transforming our food system, of course, is the subject nearest and dearest to my heart. I write about other things all the time, of course, but how we will eat in the future strikes me as the most urgent question we face. Heinberg's excellent essay offers, I think a very clear primer to what the problems are and what to do.

I do, however, think that one [section] is a little misleading. Talks, by their very nature, leave as much out as they can put in, but I do think that something important is missing from this [section]:

Several agronomists at Cuban universities had for many years been advocating a transition to organic methods. Cuban authorities responded to the crisis by giving these ecological agronomists carte blanche to redesign the nation's food system.

Officials broke up large state-owned farms, offered land to farming families, and encouraged the formation of small agricultural co-ops. Cuban farmers began employing oxen as a replacement for the tractors they could no longer afford to fuel.

Cuban scientists began investigating biological methods of pest control and soil fertility enhancement. The government sponsored widespread education in organic food production, and the Cuban people adopted a mostly vegetarian diet out of necessity. Salaries for agricultural workers were raised, in many cases to above the levels of urban office workers.

Urban gardens were encouraged in parking lots and on public lands, and thousands of rooftop gardens appeared. Small food animals such as chickens and rabbits began to be raised on rooftops as well.

As a result of these efforts, Cuba was able to avoid what might otherwise have been a severe famine.

From my own reading, and from what I've learned from Pat Murphy and Faith Morgan who were in Cuba for the filming of "The Power of Community" there's a step here missing. Before the agronomists were given carte blanche (or perhaps before their influence was felt - I honestly don't know), before the government broke up large farms, people started growing gardens. That is, the government's intervention may have enabled more people to grow urban gardens and put rabbits on their roofs, but the idea and the need to eat came from ordinary Cubans. That is, this was not a top-down national strategy at first, but one enabled by government, rather than conceived by it. I think this bears some emphasis.

Does this distinction really matter so much? I think it does, because of where it locates the power to achieve something as basic as food security. I also think it matters, because of a principle I've been developing to analyze what and how solutions might actually work. The principle is this (you can call it "Astyk's law" - I've always wanted a law ;-) )

Top down strategies must be concurrent with and redundant to bottom up strategies

What does this mean? Well, I don't happen to trust my government to act in my interests. So while I support top down strategies, I believe that the top down strategies we advocate should be built upon bottom up strategies, created by the people.

What does that mean in practice? Well, let us imagine that America experienced an (unlikely) sudden shortage of fossil fuels on the order of Cuba's. Let us further imagine that our government actually decided to do something about it. Anyone want to take bets one what we would do?

They might break up corporate farms and hand them out to small scale organic farmers. Maybe. This would represent an enormous break with the past, however. It is possible that a crisis and a better government than our present one could precipitate such a move. But it is also possible that we would follow out a pattern that Naomi Klein has exhaustively documented in The Shock Doctrine of privatizing any resource that is worth anything. And in a food-straitened world, what could be worth more than arable land?

Just as the disaster in New Orleans led to a new, privatized school system, just as towns with too many poor people are now beginning to seceed and hire private corporations for security and governing purposes, imagine the value of a hideously mutated CSA system, in which affluent families sign up with "Cowaburton" to receive weekly deliveries of grain, produce and meat from their personally reserved 25 acres that can never be used to grow food for anyone else.

Don't mistake me here - I agree with Heinberg's stated goals. But I think that the idea that the leaders of the organic food movement will be able to make food policy anytime soon is probably mistaken. And while we must try to make these kinds of policies - we must also make our activism redundant to, and coherent with our personal actions. That is, we must fully integrate our activism with our practices.

That means we need to assume that our activism will not work - while not slacking off, we need to accept that Cuba didn't give power to the agronomists before the famine, they did it afterwards. And other historical models suggest that this will be the case - in the Soviet Union, as far as I am aware, virtually no government measures supported the population, who fed themselves in large parts from their gardens. During the collapse of the SU, no one could figure out why it was that the Russian people were not starving to death - it turned out was small gardens and farms springing up everywhere.

In the US, the Victory Garden movement began in private garden clubs and remained there during World War I and well into the second world war. It was only after Eleanor Roosevelt put a Victory garden on the White House lawn that the government took over advocacy for Victory gardening. The simple truth is that the history of the food movement suggests that government support comes only after the crisis, and after public solutions have already been adopted.

While I agree with Heinberg that it is important that we have a plan and strategy to offer government when they finally move on this, and that there be organized activism to prevent corporations from stepping in with the CSA- from-hell model or something worse, that plan cannot be our highest priority - priority number one is preventing famine to begin with. While it would be easier to do this on the policy level, we must create redundant systems on the assumption that our attempts to make change will fail.

In For Hunger Proof Cities, Michael W. Hamm and Monique Baron have an essay asking whether the state of New Jersey could become food secure. Their answer is that it would require the existing agricultural land of New Jersey, along with either 115,000 additional acres of agricultural land, or 6.8 million gardens of 100 square feet or 3.4 million gardens of 200 square feet, or a balance between them. 100 or 200 square feet is a very small garden. In addition, were existing farms to be used more efficiently, using intensive organic agriculture, even more people could be fed - that is, there is excellent reason to believe that New Jersey could produce enough food to feed itself and a not-insignificant percentage of neighboring New York City - mostly by gardening.

So a national move to Victory gardening has the potential to act not only as a preventative to famine, but also as a model for the government to take up. That is, governments generally like universally applicable theories of how the world should work - if a Friedmanesque privatized model can be shown (manipulated) to work in limited situations, and no other useful model exists, the former will probably be adopted. Unless we have victory gardens feeding people and providing advocacy and training in large numbers, the odds are good that we may not get what we need when times get lean.

The other issue we must take up immediately, is the issue of training and transmission of land. At this point, the majority of all agricultural land is still in the hands of farm families. But the average US farmer is almost sixty years old, and the children of most farmers don't want to take up their parents' career. Over the next decade or so, we will probably engage in the largest land transfer in history in the US, as an older generation of farmers retires. If they cannot give their land to family members, or cannot find young people (or groups of young people) who want to farm the land, can farm the land and can offer them not just some money, but the idea that they will maintain a tradition, they will sell the land to the highest bidder. Any guesses on who *that* will be? We must develop strategies, and probably economic support mechanisms to make sure that land stays with the people.

That is, it is not merely enough to advocate for the deindustrialization of agriculture, we must put our hands in and take an active role in doing so. The two most immediate ways this will play out is in our buying, and also whether we ourselves are training to take over land and become farmers (and not just for our own subsistence in many cases) and whether we are training our children to do so.

The first matter is self-evident - corporate power depends on money - our money. If we cut the power lines, we can give ourselves a shot at being able to compete politically with corporations. If we keep shopping at the supermarket, we won't be able to do so - industrial agriculture will crush us. And if the millions of American acres that are currently in corporate hands, and the millions of American acres that could enter them over the next decades do, the odds are good that the poor will starve - and you and I may well be among the poor.

That second point is as urgent as the first two - we have to garden, we have to stop buying industrial food. But we also must enable the coming land transition to move into the hands of people who have the interest of the nation at heart - that is, the nation's people.

That means many of us, including people who were never trained to farm, must take on the role of learning how and farming land, and build relationships with aging farmers. And not just farmers - with people who have land - period. It is as essential that we grow food in cities and suburbs as it is we do it on farmland. Wealth, in the form of land and housing, is disproportionately concentrated in the hands of older people - who have compelling needs as well, mostly health and security related. We must build links between older people who have land and homes and younger ones who can provide care, security and energy. Otherwise, again, the biological wealth of good land will transfer hands, not to those who will steward it, but to those who will concentrate it in their own hands.

The answers to the public-private debate always come down to "both together" - that is, all of this will be better done with government support. Some things can only be done at the state or national level. BUT - and this is the big BUT, there is no essential place in our adaptation strategies where we can afford to leave anything to purely government level strategies - we must alway, always have full concurrence and redundancy - that is, whenever we face essential issues like food, health care, security, transportation, jobs, economy we must balance our advocacy with a plan and a model and a set of practices that we are implementing right now.


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