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'Food Not Lawns': Organic Gardens vs. Chem-Fed Lawns

Enrique Gili

SAN DIEGO - Sandalistas are on the march here to create a homegrown organic food movement, encouraging gardeners to tear up their lawns for healthier, more natural alternatives.

In doing so, they're advocating the re-greening of the urban landscape for the sake of food security and social justice.

About 400 people attended a recent conference titled "Cultivating Justice" under the aegis of "Food Not Lawns", a grassroots organization that combines gardening with political action. On a sunny Saturday, the guerrilla gardening wing of the social justice movement broke bread with foodies to network and share information with other like-minded people who are concerned not just with what people eat, but how they go about procuring food.

The participants belong a growing demographic of Californians dubbed "cultural creatives" who are focused on putting progressive ideals into action not only through social change but by dedicating themselves to healing the planet. Many believe the road to ecological restoration begins with changing their own personal habits.

"People are hungry for information," said Kate Hughes, one of the event organizers. With workshops on a wide range of topics, the well-attended conference attracted a broad cross-section of San Diego county residents from back-to-the-land hippie types to young campus activists who see a connection between U.S. oil dependence and factory farming.

The San Diego chapter of Food Not Lawns is an offshoot of similar groups based in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, a region that is home to much of the organic foods movement gaining popularity around the U.S.

Paul Maschka is a local gardening guru, having spent much of his adult life working as a horticulturalist caring for and cultivating thousands of varieties of plants for the San Diego Zoo. The self-styled "dirt cheap gardener" is an enthusiastic proponent of locally raised produce, and grows a wide variety of edible plants in his own backyard, ranging from artichokes to sunflowers.

Maschka's lecture on organic gardening included a heavy dose of social commentary. "Organic gardening techniques and methods are not taught in Southern California," he said. To obtain first-hand knowledge, he has sought guidance at demonstration gardens in Santa Cruz and San Louis Obispo, where organic farming practices are far more prevalent.

According to Maschka, the average lawn is a flat, featureless, artificially maintained environment heavily dependent on synthetic chemicals. The chemicals used in lawn care also have a seedy history. Pesticides, for example, are little more than nerve agents derived from stockpiled toxins developed during World War Two, he says.

Lawns are holdovers dating from the Middle Ages when the French aristocracy began converting otherwise productive fields into pleasure grounds, he says. In gardening-mad England, later generations of the bourgeoisie displayed their newfound wealth in similar fashion, planting rose beds and establishing luxuriant green lawns.


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This historical trend would have far-reaching repercussions for middle-class home owners in the 21St century who are willing to spend hundreds of dollars every year on the upkeep and maintenance of their lawns. According to a 2002 economic impact study published by the University of Florida, the lawn care and turf industry generated a staggering 57 billion dollars annually and employed 800,000-plus people.

Using satellite and aerial imagery, research scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have calculated that approximately 162,000 square kilometers of the United States is covered in turf -- an area roughly three times larger than any irrigated crop currently under cultivation. And lawns are thirsty, consuming approximately 270 billion gallons of water a week in the U.S. -- enough to irrigate 327,000 square kilometers of organic vegetables.

For Maschka, lawns represent a paradox, having the outward appearance of vitality when in fact most of the microorganisms that support plant growth have been killed off. Lawns are fed something on the order of 10 times more pesticides and herbicides than commercial crops, he adds.

"Things have got to change," agreed Issa Esperanza. The daughter of missionary parents, she grew up running wild in Latin America, climbing trees and harvesting her own fruits and vegetables. Upon returning to the United States, she was shocked to discover the lack of fresh produce. She now has come to rely upon her green-thumbed friends and local farmers' markets to obtain her greens.

That it doesn't have to be this way was a sentiment echoed throughout the day. Chef Ron Oliver is a bona fide foodie. As chef de cuisine at the Marine Room, one of San Diego's preeminent dining establishments, his business is based on pleasing people. The restaurant relies heavily on locally grown produce and the organic output of the 40-acre Blue Sky Ranch, where food and New Age mysticism go hand-in-hand.

"We're lucky," Oliver said. At Blue Sky, full-time residents and volunteers consider themselves to be caretakers of the land. Fruits and vegetables are grown according to the season and without the use of synthetic chemicals for the benefit of the Blue Sky community and paying clients.

Oliver says he had own "whole foods" epiphany when his own children reached school age. School lunch programs follow strict federal guidelines based on caloric intake rather than nutritional value, he says. He decided to participate in the conference to enlist the support of other like-minded people in the hope of building a kitchen garden for the Chula Vista elementary school, where his kids aged 8 and 10 attend.

"If anything, gardening will teach them patience," he says.

Oliver sees a close connection between the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy and nutrition. He believes people vote with their forks, and if given the opportunity, they would prefer organic. "We're empowering the companies damaging the planet," he lamented.

This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists.

Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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