Back to the 'Old Normal' of Domesticity

This year I decided to learn how to garden.

My resolve wasn't just a notion for a new pastime or a move toward hip liberalism. Rather, it was my response to global warming and in particular, the depletion of fossil fuels, which has a direct effect on our food system.

The crops we grow and the way we grow them is determined by oil and oil by-products. Artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides are made from oil just as farm equipment and irrigation systems are powered by it. Trucks transport our food an average 1,500 miles while fruit and other perishables travel in airplanes. Refrigeration provides storage for dairy, meat and produce that require electricity made from fossil fuels. Processed foods, which account for three-quarters of global food sales by price, are manufactured with oil.

The industrial food system consumes ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every calorie of food energy produced ( Such inefficiency hasn't mattered before because cheap fuel has freed us from the "drudgery" of growing and cooking our own food. Nevertheless, the pervasive use of oil not only makes life on earth unsustainable, its low-cost, convenience and accessibility have led us to assume that someone is always there to feed us. This is the height of dependency, which disconnects us from our food, says Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton in their new book, A Nation of Farmers.

The days of high-priced oil appear to be dormant right now, considering that it was almost thrice the cost last summer. Oil prices are down now because the world economy is stalled. But prices are bound to go back up as the cheap easy-to-get oil becomes more difficult and more expensive to extract. Prices will also rise because less oil is being produced.

Consider that 54 out of 65 oil-producing nations and 400 of the largest oil fields are in decline. Indonesia withdrew its membership from OPEC in 2008 because it became a net importer of oil; Mexico is expected to stop exporting its oil by 2014 (Association for the Study of Peak Oil and the International Energy Agency).

Oil price increases have occurred for many reasons: drought in many grain-producing countries; biofuels have depleted grain stockpiles; increased demand for oil from Asia's expanding middle class; and the cost of the global industrial agriculture system.

The high cost of oil is affecting world food prices and availability. Last year U.S. prices increased 20-30 percent with several other consequences:

* Costco rationed flour, rice, cooking oil and other staples so that supplies would not run out
* One out of 11 Americans need food stamps while in Michigan and Washington, D.C. the rate is one out of seven
* Seasonal malnutrition appeared among lower class families in the northern United States in 2007 because they spent money on heating oil in winter rather than on food
* 30 million Americans can't afford a basic, nutritious diet while more than 8 million children know hunger and 20 million are in danger of it.

High oil prices affected the rest of the world as well:

* Haiti's food prices increased 65 percent
* Food riots took place in Bangladesh, Mexico, Ivory Coast, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, Peru, Indonesia, Bolivia, Ethiopia
* The United Nations reported that food shortages were in danger of destabilizing 33 nations (including nuclear-Pakistan, Mexico, nuclear-North Korea, nuclear-India,
Egypt, South Africa)
* Middle class people in many nations opted for food rather than medical care
* Elderly women in Paris fought over discarded produce.

But what's to come is dire.

"Soaring food prices and their impact on hunger, malnutrition and development threaten to push 100 million people further into poverty," said Robert B. Zoellick president of the World Bank Group. "For more than 2 billion people, high food prices are now a matter of daily struggle."

To address these problems, Astyk and Newton advocate the return to small, sustainable farms, which was Thomas Jefferson's idea long ago. They are calling for "100 million farmers and 200 million cooks."

This seems a severe and incomprehensible scenario given that farmers comprise only 2 percent of our population and many people don't cook anymore. However, household gardens can be a good start toward a new way of life that can not only provide a bounty of free food but encourage the desire to cook and eat it.

This year I planted three tomato plants, one pepper, one eggplant and four different herbs in a couple big pots on my patio. To learn how to grow and harvest vegetables, I'm volunteering at a local, subsistence farm once a week. Our neighborhood is planting an herb garden and later this summer we'll hold a couple canning parties.

These are small steps but what I'm discovering at the outset of my gardening venture is my changing relationship to food. It truly takes a different kind of effort and conviction to get down in the dirt on my hands and knees to plant and weed, especially when it involves new aches and pains in my aging body. I also feel a new sense of accomplishment and joy in seeing newly-planted rows upon rows of raspberry bushes and mulched potato plants-with more vegetables to come! Caring for my seedlings before they are transplanted is bringing out my nurturing side.

In less than a month, gardening is also connecting me to Nature in a more intense way compared to enjoying walks in the woods in L.L. Bean wear. My thinking is being transformed at the visceral level about where food comes from, how it's produced and what it means to me.

Meanwhile, my relationship with neighbors and fellow locavores is taking a turn back into the "old normal" of domesticity that focuses on care of the home front-the original Greek meaning of the word, economics. Domesticity was something I had always avoided because of my ambition to pursue a professional career and urban lifestyle. However, as the era of cheap energy gradually becomes a thing of the past-regardless of the promises of the alternative energy proponents-it is obvious to me that growing food will become an imperative to survival and not just an experiment in sustainability or the opportunity to eat fresh, good-tasting, local produce.

As new endeavors go, gardening has filled me with excitement, curiosity and a new sense of optimism that I can impact my own future, assert my independence from food megacorporations and get closer to Nature.

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