Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)
In the United States, unlike the integrated and managed infrastructure of Western Europe, the accident of massive geography and cheap oil has created a landscape of distance and isolation. We shop once a week, not daily, in vast, nondescript warehouses. We eat in faceless restaurants that each serve the same overprocessed food. We exist in cars, not in the social mix of public transport. Geography and oil may have played a part in the making of our modern predicament, but so have lack of imagination and foresight. Imagine if our cities had set aside suburban land for allotment gardens and farm belts instead of shopping malls. Now we find ourselves—before we’ve had the time to transition to a more sustainable model—one oil or climate shock away from oblivion.
The 2,000-mile salad from Salinas, California, or the long-distance avocado or kiwifruit from Chile in mid-December will one day become a relic of cheap oil, as will petroleum-based pesticides, fertilizers, and industrial farms. Oil created the world we know, particularly in America, and the dwindling supply will undo it.
In his alarming dirge to our present lifestyle, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, dystopian futurist James Howard Kunstler argues that the end of cheap and available oil will radically alter our lives, that Walmart and suburbs and globalism are not long for this world, and that the landscape of the future will be shaped by walkable, interdependent communities centered around local food production. “Fifty years ago, 30 percent of us were farmers and now only 1.6 percent of us are. This will reverse as growing food locally will become the most important job around.” This is a long emergency, mind you, and if we’re fortunate, we’ll find a way through, but we owe it to the future to start reordering our priorities now.
Up until the end of the 19th century, all farms were local and organic, and everyone was a locavore. Before Atkins or South Beach or Sonoma, there was no philosophy of food—people just ate. Unless you lived in cities, you either grew your own or knew the farmer who did. Farming and growing food used to be everywhere, and everyone took part, without chemical fertilizers, genetic modification, irradiation, or food additives. For most people, the relationship between a meal and its source was immediate. In my part of the country, any hike through the second- and third-growth forests of the Hudson Highlands leads me over what was once cultivated land, cleared and farmed for generations until industrial agribusiness made the very rational small farm model untenable. Secondary forests reclaimed the fields as farms were abandoned and left to lie fallow. Now, toppled fieldstone walls and empty foundations are all that remain, and one can only imagine the lives that were lived there and what the land produced.
Agriculture, in its various permutations, has been around for at least 12,000 years, beginning in the mountains of Mesopotamia, now the Middle East, in an area often called the Fertile Crescent for its abundance of rich, arable land. Wild grains were first collected and cultivated there and irrigation was invented, but it was the ancient Sumerians who created what we now think of as agriculture. Around 5500 BC, on lands that are today part of southern Iraq, they began to develop brilliant systems of irrigation, enhancement of soil fertility, seed saving, and the use of granaries for food storage that changed civilization. The massive, stepped ziggurat at the center of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur (which still stands, although it was almost destroyed by coalition forces during the Gulf War) was a kind of temple to agriculture, where citizens of Ur would bring their vast food surpluses to the gods and receive their allotments. The Sumerians got so good at feeding their citizens through efficient agriculture, in fact, that their population exploded. At one point, Ur was feeding a population of 6,000 on about 3,000 cultivated acres of land. With barley and wheat as the primary crops, supplemented by flax, dates, apples, plums, grapes, and about 10,000 head of cattle and sheep, Ur was a kind of agritopia of the ancient world. Intensive overuse of land and water resources, lack of long-term soil fertility, and population pressure ultimately did them in, however; a fate not too far removed from our own predicament if we don’t have the foresight to act.
The development of agriculture steadily allowed settlement and population growth across the planet for thousands of years, with global crop yields peaking in the 13th century and staying steady until the late 18th century and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Before then, most humans worked in agriculture, usually on subsistence plots to feed their own families or on cooperative farms. Just like the rest of creation, we spent our days securing food—planting, growing, harvesting, and saving seed. And thousands of years of seed saving is the reason we have any agriculture at all today. In fact, vast seed banks such as the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg (the largest seed bank in the world) are preserving genetic diversity as a hedge against the collapse of any of the world’s major crops and the mass starvation that would result. Of the quarter-million known plant species in the world, most of the human diet comes from only 20 cultivated crops, so a massive crop failure compounded by lack of diversity and a perilously narrow genetic window is a sobering possibility.
Historically, agricultural methods were consistent and remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. (The ancient Romans had plows that were more efficient than those used in George Washington’s day almost 2000 years later.) But the Industrial Revolution changed all that. Rapid innovations in agricultural machinery—where sickles and plows were replaced by mechanical reapers and massive combines—have meant labor-saving, yield-boosting advances in agriculture that served humanity well in the short term. But we’re now hearing from nature’s own “repo man,” who’s come around and let us know we’ve overstepped, and there will be consequences. It’s Newton’s third law, an absolute that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. Today, we find ourselves so efficiently and mechanically removed from our own food that we’ve not only upset the equilibrium of our home planet but the balance of our own lives, as well.