Sunday, October 16, 2005

Save Gas - Grow Some of Your Own Food

by Jim McCue , composter and biotech researcher
People all over the world are discovering that large-scale corporate factory agriculture, the kind that continues to cause the bankrupty of smaller, more diversified, often family-owned farming, does not always have in mind the health and happiness of those who increasingly have no choice but to buy their food from the factory-farm system.

As in other sectors of the economy, production, processing, and distribution of food has come to be increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. Because making money in the business world so often seems to necessitate closing one's heart as to destructive effects of one's business decisions, the most "successful" (that is, the ones who have accumulated the most money) are often the most hard-hearted.

Take fossil fuels such as oil, the gasoline that's made from it, and natural gas. It's now commonly understood that these things are: in limited supply; subject to increasing demand; and have numerous environmental side effects. The agricultural system - as presently structured - needs huge amounts of water, land, and fossil fuels to make fertilizer and provide transportation. Small organic food gardens and farms need less water and space to grow a certain amount of food. But large agribusinesses have used their increased lobbying power to structure our laws so that the taxpayer subsidizes cheaper (and lower quality) food. This is why "organic" has become associated with "high-muckety-muck"; people think only elites can afford the better quality. But the fact is, we're all paying for the mass-produced food that is lower quality - through our taxes.

Now that the price of gas has hit the fan, and as the predicted drastic increase in natural gas price also looms, it's time to start taking seriously those enviro "Chicken Littles" who knew these problems were coming and who know that the price of food - being connected to the price of fossil fuels - is also going to go through the roof. There is no sane reason to ship such a large part of our food such great distances. There is a place for food transportation, but not where we can more easily grow higher -quality food right here in the Pittsburgh region. We need much more locally grown food, much more organic food, and changes in our laws that have queered the situation so dangerously that large numbers of Americans are coming to find themselves short of money for necessities - food or rent, for instance.

The belief in chemical fertilizers and pesticides has come from overly focused points-of-view which externalize the side effects. Profit at the expense of your own health or you neighbors' is not a very good long-term investment. Sure, you might get a better yield on that particular crop this year if you sock the soil with nitrogen made from natural gas and pesticides synthesized from oil. But what about next year, when your garden's predator/prey balance is weakened and you, your family, and your neighbors' health is compromised by those toxins and your food's nutrient ratios are lower. And do you really want to escalate
our increasingly violent competition with other countries for the fossil resources to grow food that way?

The soil is not a machine. It is a vast living community which is harmed when we humans go to pot-shotting at the bugs while overdosing the soil with the major nutrients - nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous - ignoring all those micro-nutrients and enzymes and tiny living things - molds, bacteria, bugs, worms, etc. - that are vital to soil fertility. And the larger life forms - frogs, toads, "weeds", "groundhogs" (formerly called woodchucks in a less competitive time), minks, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, deer, bears, cougars, snakes, newts, salamanders - are also part of the soil (and which used to be abundant in what is now the Pittsburgh region).

A food security project is gearing up in the Garfield area. Effort is being made to secure land from the increasingly predatory real estate situation which is being exacerbated by the city's budget problems. What the Healcrest Urban Community Farm is starting should be a template for what happens county-wide.
The choice will be made whether to demonize the poor - and so rationalize their abandonment and allow the system failures to treat them more and more badly - or to recognize ourselves, our own family in those without the power to avoid direct consequences of the increasingly brutal business climate that is developing. Please look into what food security advocates such as these people are doing, and see that - just as we need the lowly earthworm and so-called "ugly" bugs and critters too small to see without a microscope - we also need those who we who may be a little better off have found it easier to marginalize.

The Healcrest Urban Community Farm is devoted to sustainable urban farming, is organizing gardens and gardeners to supply farmstands, and owns 1.7 acres near Penn Ave. at the corner of Shamrock Way, Hillcrest Street, and Pacific Ave. Their events are available via 412/362-1982, mothermoonbeam@aol.com, or http://www.thomasmertoncenter.org/calendar. The next is October 20th - an exploration of types of composting around the world - 6 to 8 p.m. at the Farm. Some of their other meeting are at the most interesting used-book shop I've ever seen, owned by one of the Farm's founders - Ricardo Robinson.

He had the unique idea to either sell or lend (for free) books, and specializes in what he judges to be "good" literature. The place has the nice laid-back come-on-in-and-talk atmosphere that could do something economic-development-wise for Hazelwood. It's called Yard Sale Books, and is at 5165 Penn (near Pacific.)

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