Friday, February 22, 2013

Why Food Security Matters to You

I believe there are two aspects to food security, both of which should concern all of us. The first and probably less familiar aspect is that of security from contamination. Contamination can take many forms, from E. coli and other biological agents to pesticides to heavy metals to animal hormones to discarded pharmaceuticals. The reason I add this as a factor of food security is because contaminated food is as good as no food at all. The second aspect is simple access to fresh, healthy food. Some inner cities of our large metropolises like Chicago and Detroit contain food deserts where no grocery stores exist for many miles. The only options people in these areas have for sustenance are fast food restaurants and convenience stores that sell highly processed and packaged food products.

For those of use fortunate enough to not live in a food desert we also need to be concerned about the availability of healthy, fresh food. A quick look at how our food is produced and distributed will outline some areas for concern. In the US the average super market travel distance for fresh fruit and vegetables is between 1500 to 2500 miles. Think about this for a moment. That lettuce you are eating in your salad tonight probably traveled farther to get to your refrigerator than you did on your last vacation. So what does this have to do with food security? Since our food network is stretched so long and is so reliant on cheap fuel, the interstate highway system and an enormous fleet of trucks, it is susceptible to many kinds of disruptions.

This is most apparent during natural disasters such as hurricanes. Under normal circumstances the stock in most grocery stores becomes depleted in three days. This means three days without any truck deliveries and your local store has no more food for you to purchase. Fortunately, natural disasters are not normal circumstances. We have all seen footage of empty store shelves hours before a large hurricane is scheduled to make landfall in an area. Luckily, most truck service is restored only hours after a hurricane has passed and the stores can be restocked. Sometimes, however, that is not the case.

As most of us can remember, after hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans descended into anarchy and chaos within a few days without drinkable water, electricity or food supplies from the outside world. Shocked that a city in the US could fail so quickly (and appalled at the apparent lack of federal response), I drove from Chicago down to Baton Rouge, the largest nearby city where a relief effort was being staged, to help. Inside the gymnasium and sports arena at LSU the Red Cross (with no help from FEMA or any other federal agency) was staffing a small city of cots, medical services and a cafeteria to house and feed five to six thousand refugees from the flooded city 50 miles to the south. The biggest impression I took away from my experience is how fragile is our modern lifestyle.

So what does this have to do with food security? Unfortunately, hurricanes are not the only threats to our thin and delicate web of food production and distribution. Drought, spikes in fuel prices, labor disputes and strikes, failing infrastructure, economic panic (e.g. fall of 2008), resource shortages, terrorism and severe weather events can all disrupt our steady supply of fresh, healthy food. But even if none of these calamities occur, we still have to contend with the other aspect of food security, contamination.

I've been considering all of these issues for several years and the simple conclusion I can't escape is the best way to improve one's food security is to grow more of it yourself. And growing your own food has the added benefit of reducing green house gases due to current energy intensive, factory farming practices and long travel distance by truck. And can you get more fresh than eating something five minutes after it is picked from the ground?

Every home owner has some kind of yard with some amount of ornamental vegetation, depending in which area of the country you live. Most of us own a swath of grass, the stereotypical American lawn, upon which we spend an inordinate amount of our summer months to maintain. Wouldn't it be a better use of our time and resources if we replaced some of that grass to grow something we can actually eat? Now that's food for thought.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Get Closer to Your Food

No, I'm not suggesting that you snuggle up with some broccoli, a chicken breast or bag of flour. But how far did all of those items travel to your dinner table? How many gallons of diesel fuel were burned so you could eat your last meal? How much have all of us contributed to global climate change simply due to the travel cost of the food we eat? For those of us in the continental US, have you ever eaten an apple grown in New Zealand? Grapes from Chile? Strawberries from Mexico? All of these foods incur high fossil fuel emissions in order that we can eat fruit in the winter.

A common message to reduce this burden on our global climate is "eat local, eat seasonal". This is a great idea for several reasons. Not only does it reduce fossil fuel emissions but you get fresher and most of the time better tasting produce with higher vitamin content and nutritional value. But can you get more local than your backyard? Is it really possible to reduce your fossil fuel emission burden for the food you eat to nearly zero? Let's see what that might look like.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that our food is produced via biological systems. Plants do not grow in isolation. They are dependent upon a host of beneficial organisms and nutrients from nitrogen in the air to the bacteria that converts it into ammonia (nitrogen fixation) in symbiosis with some plant roots (primarily legumes), to the nitrifying soil bacteria which convert the ammonia into nitrates and nitrites which are absorbed by plants as natural fertilizer. The cycle continues as plants die and decay with the help of more kinds of bacteria and fungi which create more ammonia, nitrates and nitrites to start the cycle again. In addition, animals that eat and digest the plants (again with the help of beneficial bacteria in their digestive tract) produce more ammonia in their droppings (manure) which in turn adds to this never ending cycle.

The reason for the detailed lesson in the nitrogen cycle is to reinforce the notion that whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we and the food we eat are part of this cycle. In order for us to produce food in the most efficient manner (e.g. with the least amount of resources) we have to be both cognizant of this fact and take advantage of it to the fullest extent possible.

So what might this look like in a home garden? First, it means committing to a fully organic gardening philosophy. This is important for two reasons. First, because our goal is to reduce our reliance upon and consumption of fossil fuels. This is not possible if we buy and consume man-made fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, most of which are either direct petroleum products or require large amounts of energy (derived from some fossil fuel) for production and transportation. Secondly, if our goal is to produce healthy food, why would we contaminate it with chemicals which in the very least have unknown health effects and in the worst case are known carcinogens or toxins (for a scare, read the label of any pesticide in your garage or garden shed).

Keeping in mind all the parts of the nitrogen cycle and our commitment to fully organic practices, a small kitchen garden should have the following components:
  • Compost pile - made up of all vegetative matter collected on your property. Be wary of taking in compost or vegetative matter from other sources due to the possible contamination of persistent herbicides. Keep a small bucket under your sink and throw in all fruit and vegetable scrapes (no meat products) and add to the compost when full.
  • Cover crops - nitrogen fixing plants such as clovers or hairy vetch to suppress weeds, improve soil quality and used as in-place compost when it is tilled under before planting edible crops.
  • Rich soil - created by use of compost, cover crops and ample use of mulch to both hold in moisture and deter weed growth.
  • Chickens - OK, this is probably optional, but consider this. Four laying hens will produce about a dozen eggs a week. In addition, let them into your garden before planting and after harvesting to eat bugs, till the soil and add fresh manure. Taking care of four hens is no more work than a dog, and few of us hesitate bringing one of them into our lives.
  • Crop rotation - use a three session rotation, planting your veggies in a different bed to reduce disease and recurring pests. When selecting a crop to plant make sure it is from a different plant family than the previous crop in the same bed (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are all in the family Brassica and should not be rotated in the same bed as common pests and disease afflict them all).
  • Beneficial predators - encouraging or adding beneficial insects, spiders and other pest predators (e.g. birds and bats) is a low cost and low maintenance way to suppress pest species
  • Pollinators - encouraging pollinators (insects, birds and bats) by planting inviting flowering plants (which don't have to be edible and add color and beauty to the garden), creating nesting sites and planting shrubs and other perennials for shelter as well as another source of food.
  • Food storage - when a harvest is ready, you will probably have more to pick than you and your family can eat before the produce goes bad. Learn how to preserve fruits and veggies via canning, drying, or low energy cold storage such as a root cellar.
  • Mindfulness - walk your garden daily and simply observe. Is the soil too wet or dry in some areas? How do the leaves of the different plants look as they grow? Do you notice indications of any pests or disease? Are certain plants thriving or suffering? Research problems before they become to difficult to remedy.

Don't fall into the trap that unless you grow a big garden, you won't be doing enough to make any difference. Even if you live in an apartment or condo you can grow in a window box, on a patio or even a rooftop. Start small, a few tomato plants or a few red peppers. Follow all the techniques and increase your plot over several seasons. Let your garden grow with your experience and you will see it as a source of joy and relaxation, not one of toil and labor. Anything that you grow on your own, no matter how small, will bring you closer to your food. And that is good for all of us.