In his State of the Union address this winter, President Obama enumerated problems requiring his attention: health care, the economy, job creation, environmental issues and lack of renewable fuels. In doing so, he suggested that increasing agricultural exports would help solve some of these problems.
While export agriculture might indeed help some corporations, it is unlikely to resolve issues directly affecting the public. One thing that would, however, is urban agriculture. While not a panacea, urban agriculture can allay many of the concerns mentioned by the president, and it can do so in several critical ways.
Our country is now undeniably urban. According to recent demographics, 81 percent of us now live in cities or suburbs. And with so few of us living on farms or in rural areas, our familiarity with the production and source of our food is limited. As an urban organic farmer, I find it amazing that so many chefs, produce managers, restaurateurs and Americans in general remain blithely unaware of the sources of their food. Many have no idea what food looks like coming out of the soil, let alone have an awareness of seasonal fluctuations in fruit and vegetable production.
Implications of this lack of knowledge and involvement in our own food production are immense, affecting all aspects of our life.
Since the Dust Bowl era in the 1930s, and the end of World War II, there has been an effort by government and corporate America to industrialize American agriculture. There has been an emphasis on efficiency and quantity rather than on growing quality food and protecting natural resources. Agriculture is estimated to represent 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. annual energy budget, and as much as 40 percent of that energy goes toward producing artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical-based growth stimulants produce large quantities of food at the expense of the minerals, vitamins and trace elements that create flavor and nutrition. Evidence of the poor quality of our food can be seen in rising rates of obesity, vitamin deficiencies and food-borne illnesses.
Sadly, the major victim of industrial agriculture is the American public. We are subjected to more chemicals in food, more additives in food products and massive advertising campaigns for these products, and until recently were offered few healthy alternatives.
We Americans are in the early stages of reclaiming our food sovereignty. This is evidenced by the fast-growing organic sector in agriculture, the advent of urban agriculture initiatives and the increased numbers of farmers markets found in urban areas everywhere.
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Across America, urban farmers are growing crops on vacant lots, in abandoned fields, in greenhouses, on balconies, by schools, in prison yards, in nursing homes and in countless other creative and engaging places. These urban growing fields can be privately owned, formed as cooperatives, as neighborhood organizations, in collaboration with universities or as partners with city and county governments. Options are endless. Urban America is beginning to wake up and feed itself.
Urban agriculture can play a critical role in reversing many negative aspects of industrial agriculture. Urban farming enhances the health of metropolitan residents, creates "green" jobs, produces affordable locally grown organic fruits and vegetables; teaches people to grow their own foods; reconnects people to their food and the land; and strengthens the environment through reduced fossil fuel dependence and carbon sequestration.
The source of our food is an abstract concept for most of us. But this is changing. More and more people are exploring the supply chain that connects the production of their food to its final consumption. People are returning to the earth as they learn that urban gardens provide benefits beyond good food. This includes economic savings, environmental improvement, lifestyle enhancement, increased exercise and family and community bonding.
President Obama mentioned increasing agricultural exports but also said that first lady Michelle Obama would continue her work on problems associated with child obesity. Ironically, the industrial agriculture that the president supports is directly connected to child obesity. Industrial agriculture and the lack of personal involvement in food production are leading factors causing our people to become obese and less healthy.
The time has come for Americans to reclaim our agricultural heritage. Participating in urban agriculture would be a major step in that direction.