The Really Existing Necessity of the Kitchen Garden

Peppers and Pumpkin in Older Chinese Building's Courtyard

A little garden plot of vegetables and herbs, maybe even created as a high-tech/high-touch vertical window farm, seems one of those strange indulgences of the most avant-garde circles. Whoever else could possibly care about heirloom white carrots and purple potatoes?

In fact, though, one need not look speculatively far ahead to see the misunderstanding.

Peppers and Pumpkin in Older Chinese Building's Courtyard

From Detroit’s urban poor to Chinese lower-tier-city dwellers, from victory gardens to “emergency foods”, from countries in crisis to indigenous peoples and peasants everywhere, having some source of food at hand has often been the last line between survival and famine.

All through the 20th century, not least in Europe, those who went into business and saw their wealth increase laughed about their relatives who stayed in the countryside and kept farming a plot of land – and then survived depression and crisis only because grandma still grew food to eat and trade.

Who Needs Farming Anymore?

The “modern” attitude, however, once again seems to be that we don’t live from agriculture, we industrialize or even go beyond. We work online, possibly “location independent” from anywhere we want, preferably somewhere warm and exotic. And we just know that the future lies with that. (It well may, but in a different way…)

Farming is only for those who like producing their boutique products, or, predominantly, for… well, basically no one. Food just appears on the shelves of the supermarkets and in the restaurants; and if you care about the ways it’s made, just go to Whole Foods.

For work, though, design the next iPhone or better still the product that will replace it, go into social media marketing, become a global phenomenon – that’s the way to the good life of fame and fortune (and being able to afford shopping at Whole Foods).

Meanwhile, in the real world, agriculture is both more necessary and, indeed, more in trouble – and in worse ways than often realized:

For one, it simply doesn’t pay.

Subsidy structures and global markets are such that it’s only viable as a business when it gets industrially efficient, large-scale, high-volume, or maybe, when it produces niche boutique products from organic agriculture, etc. – However, those latter “won’t feed the world,” and the examples of great businesses and entrepreneurs to aspire to are not farms that keep working, but the CEOs, inventors and brokers who get super-rich.

Also, given the trend towards more affluent lifestyles, meaning that more meat needs to be produced (along with biofuels, etc.) and the growing world population, it is said that agriculture is in need of a new green revolution of yet-again-increased production and efficiency.

Even the very (purported) efficiency of modern industrial agriculture is not truly efficient, though: it depends on an input of fossil fuel energy and oil-derived fertilizers and pesticides that has been getting more expensive with rising oil prices already.

That’s still not all, though, for industrial agriculture also gets more unstable with climate change and peak oil (and loses out to the “higher-value” economic sectors creating the wealth of electronic gadgets and modern conveniences), it cannot function as now when even just transport costs rise, and it has been breaking the limits of what humanity can do within safe planetary boundaries already.

Finally, while it produces the plenty to be found in the big-box stores, it really creates less. There’s more calories and junk, but less health and pleasure; more food products, but less real eating; larger fields, but fewer and fewer breeds and varieties, and thus, there is higher production when things go well, but lower productivity and resilience.

You want to live, you eat.

The future of humanity, though, will still run on food, first of all.

Arche Noah (Noah's Ark, Austria's "Native Seeds")So, chances are that ensuring a future depends on an agriculture that fits into the ecological workings of this our home planet better, so that it can go on even with disruptions. More knowledge and observation, and more human and animal power (nothing is more renewable a resource than a draft horse…), will work better for that than more machines that need more resources and energy.

Thus, a resource-constrained, insecure future will need even more localization and adaptation. Both imply that agriculture will become more dominant a way of (making a) living again.

It is still not possible or, hopefully, necessary for everyone to grow their own food (and not everyone would want to or should). Yet, to remember that kitchen gardens have been around forever, for a good reason, would be very helpful in remembering the importance of agri-culture.
After all, it is not only kitchen gardens: a tight mesh of small farms surrounding cities and producing a surplus for the urban areas channeling their inhabitants’  powers into arts, science, and technology – that has been the way humanity created cultures and civilizations.

There is tremendous potential for better in not forgetting about the pivotal role of smaller-scale, diverse, local, food production, especially given all the ways we could now create it (even if their fit into/as ecological systems needed to be considered more strongly than some futurist suggestions do): from urban agriculture to vertical window gardens, from (more unlikely) vertical farm skyscrapers to food forests and permaculture fields.

It nourishes communities.

By taking local situations and  their challenges into account, working with the creativity of limits, it creates the diversity of foodways and cultures, as well as greater biodiversity. Through greater agricultural biodiversity and experimentation with what can be grown and how, with as few external inputs other than the farmer’s skill and what nature provides, as possible, it truly develops, traditionally and inventively.
(Lots can be learned about that from “poor” indigenous communities.)

This is radical entrepreneurship, at the root of life itself, working in line with ecological connections, for human needs and happiness.

In the balance between what can be produced and what better ways of eating are like (with more greens, more real food, and fewer empty calories and “food products,” at the very least), it can even provide better for our health, well-being, and pleasure.

And for your own #ecohappy living, it can all start with a few seeds, pots of soil, and a windowsill.


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