Why practice urban agroecology?

In a nutshell, this website’s slogan of “good dirt, good food, good people” says it all. Let’s take this apart a little bit to better understand the importance of urban agroecology.

Good dirt

There’s dirt and there’s good dirt. Good dirt is called soil. It’s a maxim of all non-industrial agricultural practices that soil is key to growing healthy and productive plants. Soil is more than just the mineral content of the sand or clay or rocks that are in dirt. It is a complex, living ecosystem, made up of mineral content plus living and dead organic matter, air and water. These elements combine, using energy that enters or flows through the system, to produce a system of interacting parts that enhance plant growth. Good soil is necessary to grow disease resistant and productive plants over the long term. Thus, agroecological practices focus on building up and managing this “good dirt.” Industrial agricultural practices, in contrast, destroy soil by mining its nutrients, eroding it away or destroying it using poor irrigation practices.

In a larger context, good dirt also means soil that is not laden with the chemical poisons and fertilizers used by industrial agriculture that disrupt the natural balance of life in the soil. Soil, because it is filled with living organisms, is hurt by industrial poisons that destroy the living organisms necessary for healthy soil. Too often, these chemicals also leech into ground water or run off into waterways, disrupting natural ecosystems in other areas, often destroying the livelihood of other farmers and fishermen.

But, why is good dirt, that is, soil, important? Because healthy soil means healthy plants. And healthy plants mean better resistance to pests, better water retention, better nutrient release and, in the end, tastier and more nutritious food.

Good food

Locally produced food tastes better and is more nutritious. Foremost is that homegrown food almost always tastes better than store bought. Some of my food never makes it into the house, as it is consumed in the garden. Succulent berries, sweet crunchy beans, tasty tomatoes and tender brocolli buds are often sampled right in the garden. Fresh picked from your garden is as fresh and convenient as you can get. Of course, the fresher it is, the more nutritious it is, too. This is because it is picked when it is ripe, not when it is convenient to ship. Allowing food to ripen means it continues to develop, adding more nutrition while it grows. In addition, once harvested, nutritional value declines. Picking from your own garden means nutritional value has very little time to decline. These are all positive reasons pulling us to produce our own food, what we can call (groan!) the carrot for urban agriculture.

But, there is also a stick for urban agriculture, pushing us to produce at least some of our own food. Industrial agriculture as we now know it will likely be defunct in 20 years. This is for a variety of reasons, but the primary one stems from two facts. First, industrial agriculture is dependent on cheap oil for fuel and chemicals. Second, the world is now at peak oil. Worldwide oil production is now declining, which will reduce the long term supply at a time when demand for oil is increasing. The inevitable result is that oil prices will rise. While this has already begun, and food prices are beginning to show the effect of this increase, further increases are inevitable as the world uses up its remaining oil. Without cheap oil, food prices will skyrocket. It is not my nature to be alarmist, but it is also possible, perhaps even likely, that disruptions in the food “chain” from industrial farm to you will result in food shortages. Thus, it makes sense to learn to produce some of your own food for cost reasons as well as basic survival reasons.

If the fossil-based fuel and chemical issues aren’t enough to convince you of the importance of local urban agriculture, consider three other factors. Around the world, soil is being degraded at an astonishing rate. It is typical for civilizations to mine their good soils for nutrients and to build cities on them, then to move agriculture to poorer soils and hillsides. Erosion is the inevitable result. Even where flatlands are cultivated, modern agricultural practices cause tremendous amounts of erosion. Loss of soil puts modern civilization at risk of collapse, just as earlier civilizations collapsed from destroying their soils. A second factor is water. Again, around the world, clean water is becoming scarce, both from increased demands for it and from pollution, primarily from agriculture. Modern industrial agriculture is slowly changing its ways, but most of the time industrially produced foods are produced in ways that use water very inefficiently. Finally, global warming is upon us. It is uncertain what coming weather patterns will be, but it is certain that major changes in temperature and precipitation patterns will have significant effects upon food production. Industrially agriculture, because it lacks both intra- and inter-crop diversity, is at extreme risk.

Any one of the above reasons, or some combination of them, is likely to radically diminish industrial agricultural production in the next few decades. Intensive, diverse and efficient food production in urban areas will be needed to offset losses in industrial agriculture.

Good people

Under industrial agriculture, food has simply become a commodity, something that anonymous corporations (“producers”) market to “consumers”. Large agribusinesses, through a variety of practices, have driven family farms almost completely out of existence. Most people don’t know where their food comes from (industry works very hard to minimize labeling requirements) or who produces it. When you produce your own food, or buy it from a local producer, or trade something you produce for something someone else produces, you re-establish the human element in the food system. Growing your own food, as this website encourages, helps you to learn more about nature and to reconnect you with nature. Author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the lack of connection that most people, especially children, have with nature. Gardening, especially with children, provides one way to reconnect with and, equally important, learn about nature.

A greater connection with nature, frankly, makes for better people. Gardening, farming and artisan culinary crafts provide opportunities to make these connections. People who practice agroecology are also helping to improve the environment by using environmentally good practices. So, as you do these things, expect to learn and grow. Also expect to meet new friends and neighbors. It is through building such local communities that we will transition into a new era of good dirt, good food and good people.

There is an additional reason for some people to produce good food locally. As local food becomes not only popular but necessary, there are tremendous business opportunities. Running a local food business isn’t easy, as it takes a combination of technical skill and knowledge as well as business sense. Tens of thousands of people already make their living in this way and, if the entrepreneurial bug bites you, this website is also designed to help you get started on this path.

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