How often, when we buy food from the store, do we stop and think about how it got there? For those of us who shop exclusively in supermarkets, probably not very often. But food is essential for survival and arguably one of life’s greatest pleasures, so how we manage it matters.
Currently, our food system is dominated by corporate control. We have moved away from the food we eat – physically, mentally and emotionally. Our relationship with food parallels a larger and troubling trend in our relationship with the environment. In other words, we see ourselves as separate from nature rather than a part of it. And as industrialization has solidified this commodification of nature, we have lost sight of one of the most fundamental and important systems: gardening.
Our food system has lost its taste for local products, leading to the deterioration of biodiversity, negative health impacts and greater societal separation from ecological values. While it is important not to disrupt the important food trade, we must tackle the ugly underbelly of agribusiness. As a form of resistance, and for the collective well-being, we need to reconnect with the food we eat. Local gardening can help us do this.
Current state of our food system
Although industrial agriculture has increased crop yields, it has also had many negative consequences. Since agribusiness boomed, it has continued to devastate family farmers and rural communities. These smaller-scale farms typically practice farming practices that are much more sustainable than those used by corporate production. Namely, big business relies too heavily on monoculture, growing one crop species in one field at a time.
Monoculture relies on the use of chemicals that remove essential nutrients from the soil. The homogeneity of a species on a plot makes the plants more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Thus, even more fertilizers and pesticides are needed to combat yield losses. These widespread applications of chemical treatments have resulted in the contamination of many freshwater ecosystems.
Monoculture also reduces crop biodiversity. While there are around 7,000 species of agricultural plants, only the top 30 “feed the world”. The drastic decrease in the foods that feed our diet has led scientists to freeze seed varieties in gene banks to prevent the extinction of cultivated species. Maintaining crop diversity is vital because crop varieties can better withstand challenges such as climate change. It also helps provide a greater variety of beneficial nutrients that we desperately need, considering how processed grains from depleted soils have diminished the nutritional value of our foods.
The foods we grow also experience excessive transportation. CUESA estimates that we put almost 10 kcal of fossil energy into our food system for every kcal of energy we get from food. Likewise, the Worldwatch Institute found that the average full plate of food on an American table traveled 1,500 miles before it got there. Throughout the production chain, hired agricultural and transport workers are exploited and underpaid.
Resisting commodification by reconnecting
The many dysfunctions of our food system can be corrected by reconnecting with our environment. Disaster becomes inevitable as long as we maintain a poor agricultural culture. In 2017, 40% of fourth through sixth graders in California didn’t even know hamburgers came from cows. And today, as the Washington Post wrote, “many Americans see food only as an industrial product that bears little resemblance to the animal or plant of origin.” We should therefore encourage alternative ways of experiencing food and, in doing so, resist further environmental commodification.
A good way to introduce ecological values could be to integrate gardening into education. Safeguarding ecological prospects requires that we raise a generation that is more familiar with the environment. I can say, as someone who spent part of my childhood on a family farm, that kind of exposure is invaluable. The integration of gardening programs into primary education has produced amazing results in institutions. Children, as young as toddlers, who participate in gardening develop greater curiosity, love and connection with nature. It also provides a valuable way to increase physical activity and learn about biological processes.
Resisting the commodification of the environment goes beyond introducing gardening into education. By directly participating in local gardening and buying more from local sources, we can help reduce the demand for unsustainable processes. When we have plots of land, small or large, we could consider cultivating various crop landscapes. In addition to the environmental benefits, working directly with the earth brings major mental, physical, and emotional benefits. For example, people who garden have better moods, greater exposure to vitamin D, and a reduced risk of dementia.
We cannot continue to disconnect from nature. We have seen how damaging this has been for people and the planet. Reconnecting with our food systems is an essential part of reconnecting with our environment as a whole. By doing so, we can resist the expansion of a dysfunctional system.