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Who Knew Vegetable Gardens Could Be So Revolutionary?

Vegetable Garden

Story at-a-glance -

  • In the 21st century, as increasing numbers of people are becoming fed up with industrial agriculture, dissenting from our monopolized food system by planting your own backyard garden may be the only path to good health and freedom
  • Growing your own food is the way of the future, ironically, by getting back to our foundational roots of self-sufficiency and oneness with nature
  • You can influence your health, biological diversity, and protect the environment by planting nutrient-dense foods in your yard (or in containers on your patio)
  • 2014 has been designated the International Year of Family Farming to bring attention and recognition to the family farmers that are helping to nourish the world
  • Initiatives are also underway around the globe to protect agricultural traditions, encourage youth to engage in sustainable farming, and reconnect people to the sources of their food

By Dr. Mercola

In the US, backyard vegetable gardens are still viewed mostly as a hobby – an activity that you can engage in to get away from your daily grind, get your hands dirty, and spend some time in nature.

But this is rapidly changing, thanks to a growing movement of people who are not only in love with the process of gardening but also the literal fruits of their labor.

Yes, homegrown food is fresher, tastier and, often, more nutritious than produce shipped from across the globe. But gardening is much grander than that, as it puts you in control of a commodity that is, at its very essence, survival, freedom, and health. Growing your own food is the way of the future, ironically, by getting back to our foundational roots of self-sufficiency and oneness with nature.

It's Time to Start Planting Your 21st Century Victory Garden

During World War II, many foods, including butter, eggs, coffee, meat, and sugar, were rationed by the government. There were also labor and transportation shortages that made it difficult for enough fresh produce to be brought to the market. And so the government called on Americans to plant "victory gardens" in order to supply their own fruits and vegetables.

It's inspiring to look back on now, as close to 20 million Americans planted produce in every nook and cranny they could find, from rooftops and empty lots to their own backyards and they grew 40 percent of the produce in the US. Neighbors began to work together, planting varying crops and forming food cooperatives to share their harvests with one another.

Unfortunately, when the war ended so, too, did many Americans' gardening efforts. Today, Americans largely tend to their lawns – all 35 million acres of them.1 New York Times author Michael Pollan was one of the first to tackle the absurdity of the pursuit of lush green lawns.

Pollan says these are a "symbol of everything that's wrong with our relationship to the land" – over environmentally friendly and productive landscapes like vegetable gardens, meadows, or orchards.

Unlike a vegetable garden, which gives back in the form of fresh produce and a symbiotic relationship with soil, insects, and wildlife, a lawn gives nothing, yet requires significant chemical treatments and meticulous mowing and watering to stay within society's confines of what a properly "manicured lawn" should be.

New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman has pointed out that if only 10 percent of Americans converted lawns into food-producing gardens, it would supply one-third of America's fresh produce.2 That's quite impressive… revolutionary even.

In the 21st century, as increasing numbers of people are growing fed up with industrial agriculture, dissenting from our monopolized food system by planting your own backyard garden may be the only path to good health… and freedom. As TreeHugger reported:3

"Thomas Jefferson was a gardening enthusiast, but his passion for growing food went beyond his own backyard. Apparently he believed that America was incapable of true democracy unless 20 percent of its citizens were self-sufficient on small farms. This would enable them to be real dissenters, free to voice opinions and beliefs, without any obligation to food producers who might hold their survival at stake.

During World War II, Americans rallied together to grow vast acres of victory gardens that ended up supplying 40 percent of the nation's wartime food supply – an astonishingly large quantity of produce in a relatively short period of time, when you stop to think about it.

Sadly, in 2014, we are further than ever from that self-sufficient ideal that Jefferson hoped for. By contrast, Americans now tend 35 million acres of lawn (approximately 54,000 square miles). Lawns are the biggest 'crop' in the U.S., covering an area three times greater than corn, and yet they are essentially horticultural deserts, with nothing for little pollinators to find but fatal pesticides."

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2014 Is the International Year of Family Farming

Growing your own garden or participating in a community garden is a great way to improve your health, help build a sustainable food system, and support our planet as it struggles to make room for increasing numbers of us. Food grown in your own garden is fresher, more nutritious, and tastes better than store-bought food—and you can't beat the price!

Urban gardens are key to saving energy, protecting water quality and topsoil, promoting biodiversity, and beautifying both densely populated communities and rural areas. Remember, plants are our richest source of natural medicine. You can become your family's own "farm" quite easily. Most people are shocked at how much produce can be harvested even from relatively small spaces.

On a global scale, the United Nations has designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming to bring attention and recognition to the family farmers that are helping to nourish the world. There are more than 500 million family farmers worldwide. Such farms, which are less than two hectares (or about five acres) in size, amount to:4

  • 200 million farms in China
  • 117 million farms in India
  • 33 million farms in sub-Saharan Africa

The good news is that small farms are actually increasing around the globe, giving hope that our planet may begin to heal from the assault of industrial agriculture, which is water intensive, erodes soil far faster than it can be replenished, and creates an abundance of corn, wheat, and soy – not nutrient-dense, diverse crops.

Small farmers are unique also in that they adapt to work with the land and the conditions that nature gives them – something that is vital to growing food for the planet's population. According to a Food Tank report:5

"Whereas large commercial farms tend to be predominant in high potential yield areas, smallholder farmers and family farmers are often the stewards of marginal lands, and use their knowledge and abilities to sustain production under challenging circumstances.

Not only are smallholder farmers in a unique position to contribute to the global food supply, but empowering smallholder and family farmers is a vital step toward improving nutrition, increasing incomes, protecting and enhancing biodiversity, enhancing soil quality, conserving water, and mitigating and adapting to climate change."

You Can Single-Handedly Create a Healthier Diet for Your Family

As Food Tank put it, "all farmers can have a direct impact on nutrition through the crops that they choose to grow and consume," and this is true even if your "farming" extends only to a few containers on your patio.

Traditionally, women in many cultures have been in charge of maintaining family gardens, and through their choices of crops can directly impact their family's nutrition as well as support biological diversity in their communities. Of course, men, too, can take on this role – it doesn't matter what your gender is, only that you're willing to get your hands dirty.

You can be, in essence, your own "family farm" and in so doing help to protect indigenous crop varieties while boosting your health. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, about 75 percent of plant genetic resources have disappeared, and another third of crop biodiversity may be gone by 2050!6

It is therefore crucial that small farms take back control of crop variety and plant more nutrient-dense crops in lieu of the fields of corn, wheat, and soy. And in your own backyard, you can start to do this by replacing your lawn with food-producing, and other native, plants. It is becoming abundantly clear that farms embracing crop diversity and integrated systems of agriculture are the solution to sustainable farming of the future. Food Tank explained:7

"Studies from Bioversity International and FAO show that smallholder farmers utilize farming practices that preserve biodiversity -- not just for its own sake -- but also because cultivating a wide variety of species helps insulate farmers against the risk of plant disease, and crop diversity promotes soil health and increases yields.

In addition, utilizing integrated farming systems, in which a smallholder farmer produces grains, fruits and vegetables, and animal products, can be between four and ten times more productive than large-scale, monoculture operations. Yield advantages for polyculture operations — farms growing multiple crops in the same space — are between 20 and 60 percent."

10 Innovative Food Projects Connecting People with Their Food and Protecting Traditional Agriculture

There's no doubt that many Americans have lost touch with where their food comes from. Meanwhile, many farmers are aging and among younger generations, farming isn't exactly considered a viable career option. This could spell disaster for the future of food, but it seems the tide may be turning here as well. Interest in locally produced food is increasing, as are exciting programs that encourage youth to choose sustainable agriculture as a hobby, passion, and career. Ten such projects that do just that, while also helping to put people back in touch with where their food comes from, include:8

1. Developing Innovations in School and Community Cultivation (Uganda): This program teaches students about local food, traditional cooking, and how to improve their diets and agricultural techniques.

2. Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) (US): These local markets strengthen regional food systems, and help to give both new and experienced farmers opportunities for sales while teaching consumers about the origins of their food.

3. Tackling the Agriculture-Nutrition Disconnect (India): An information platform to share knowledge about nutrition, health, and agriculture with the long-term goal of building a nutrition knowledge and innovations network in India.

4. Fresh! From Finland: A campaign to encourage the use of local food in schools while teaching children about food origins and culinary traditions.

5. The Center for Foods of the Americas (Latin America): This effort travels through 21 countries to catalogue local ingredients, recipes, and street food to preserve Latin American cuisine.

6. Manna From Our Roof (Italy): This program teaches youth to growth their own food – from "field to fork" – including taking the product to market, using urban roof gardens.

7. The Prettiest Kitchen Gardens (Hungary): This initiative encourages Hungarians to grow food in lieu of flowers to revive the once-popular kitchen garden tradition.

8. The Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities (US): A group created by Oaxacan mothers to preserve and strengthen indigenous food culture through publishing recipes, workshops, classes, and more.

9. The European Council for Young Farmers (Europe): A program to support young farmers, strengthen rural areas, and protect agricultural and cultural traditions.

10. USAID Kenya Dairy Sector Competitiveness Program: A program that aims to transfer knowledge from Kenya's older retiring farmers to the youth in order to preserve and develop dairy skills.

'Permanent Agriculture' Is Sustainable Agriculture: Wendell Berry

Farmer, activist, and writer Wendell Berry has spoken out about the importance of local farming and environmental preservation for decades. In 1977, his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture spoke out against industrial agriculture before local farming was all the rage. Last month, in an interview with Yale Environment 360, he once again spoke about the importance of maintaining our ties with nature and how, so far, the US has done little in the way of truly sustainable farming. He speaks about Kentucky, but his words could easily apply to much of the US:9

"By the time settlement reached Kentucky it was 1775, and the industrial revolution was already underway. So we've been 238 years in Kentucky, we Old World people. And what we have done there in that time has not been sustainable. In fact, it has been the opposite. There's less now of everything in the way of natural gifts, less of everything than what was there when we came. Sometimes we have radically reduced the original gift. And so for Americans to talk about sustainability is a bit of a joke, because we haven't sustained anything very long — and a lot of things we haven't sustained at all.

The acreage that is now under the influence of the local food effort or the sustainable agriculture effort is at present tiny, and industrial agriculture is blasting ahead at a great rate. For instance, in the last two years, the high price of corn and soybeans has driven that kind of agriculture into the highly vulnerable uplands of my home country. I can show you farms that in my lifetime have been mostly in grass that are now suddenly covered, line fence to line fence, with monocultures of corn or beans… So we have these two things, a promising start on what we call, loosely, sustainable land use, and we have a still far larger industrial extractive agriculture operating, really, against the land."

Berry, along with Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, has offered a solution in the form of a 50-year farm bill. Unlike the typical US Farm Bill, which favors industrial farming and monocultures of corn, soy, and grains, the 50-year farm bill proposes a gradual transition from annual crops (corn, beans, etc.) to "permanent" perennial crops and cover – a necessity to stop soil erosion and protect diversity. He explains: 10

"…the 50-Year Farm Bill attempts to address the real and ongoing problems of agriculture: erosion, toxicity, loss of genetic and species diversity, and the destruction of rural communities, or the destruction, where it still survives, of the culture of husbandry. It begins with the fact that at present, 80 percent of the land is planted annually in annual crops such as corn and beans, and 20 percent in perennials.

It proposes a 50-year program for the gradual inversion of that ratio to 80 percent perennial cover and 20 percent annuals. It's pretty clear that annual plants are nature's emergency service. They're the plants that come in after, say, a landslide, after the land has been exposed, and they give it a temporary cover while the perennials are getting started. So our predominantly annual agriculture keeps the land in a state of emergency …It's hard to make a permanent agriculture on the basis of an emergency strategy."

Bringing a Bit of Farming to Your Own Backyard

Virtually everyone can bring out their own inner farmer by starting a garden. It may seem like an inconsequential move in the grand scheme of things, but if even a minority of people begin to produce some of their own food, it can make a drastic difference for the environment and your health (not to mention freeing you from reliance on a broken food system).

You don't need vast amounts of space either. Even apartment dwellers can create a well-stocked edible garden, as you can use virtually every square foot of your space to grow food, including your lateral space. Hanging baskets are ideal for a wide variety of crops, such as strawberries, leafy greens, runner beans, pea shoots, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. And instead of flowers, window boxes can hold herbs, greens, radishes, scallions, bush beans, strawberries, chard, and chiles, for example.

Just start small, and as you get the hang of it, add another container of something else. To learn more, please see my previous article on creating edible gardens in small spaces. Before you know it, large portions of your meals could come straight from your own edible garden. I recommend getting your feet wet by growing sprouts. If you want to jump right in outdoors, Better Homes & Gardens has a free All-American Vegetable Garden Plan that can be put into a 6x6 area. It's a great starting point for beginners.

You can also visit a few local plant nurseries around your home, especially those that specialize in organic gardening. The employees are likely to be a great resource for natural planting tips that will help your garden thrive. If you prefer not to garden, for whatever reason, then you can still jump on board the sustainable agriculture movement by frequenting farmer's markets and small farms in your area. The idea is to get as most food as you can from your family farms or your own backyard, as every meal that comes from a sustainable source is one less produced by the destructive force of industrial agriculture.