I love food. I love good food. I love eating good food with other people who love eating good food. It’s genetic, I think, Or maybe it was the countless three hour dinners that were the staple of my childhood – stuffed into my Baba’s dining room with my extended Ukrainian family around a long wooden table piled high with perogies, cabbage roles, fresh mushroom soup, pickles, warm bread, raspberry preserves, and apples pies.
Sooner or later, my cousins and I would sneak away from that table and slip out into the endless light of those exquisite Edmonton summer nights. My Baba’s yard was a childhood paradise – meandering pathways that ran through waist high rows of peas and beans, apples and plums hanging within reach, chicken coops that were easily converted into hide-outs and jail cells, countless flowers that could be picked and sold in hasty bouquets to neighbourhood ladies by cute little boys, and piles of rotting plant debris and animal manures that fascinated us despite our feigned disgust.
Of course, at the time, it all just seemed so utterly “normal.” Didn’t everyone’s grand parents grow and prepare their own food, and fill up half the basement with canned fruits and veggies, even if they lived in the heart of the city? Didn’t everybody’s grand kids fight over whose turn it was to go out and collect the eggs? Who’d have thought that my traditional, conservative grandparents would be considered icons of the trendy “locavore” tribe if they still lived today? I’m not sure my Baba would know quite what to do with that.
Ironically enough, some 40 years later, I find myself at the heart of this burgeoning movement of urban agriculture and permaculture that is sweeping across North America at a dizzying pace. It still strikes me as rather amusing that we need a “movement” today to accomplish something that was so simple and so natural for most of our relations just two generations back: connecting ourselves intimately to the growing and eating of healthy, sustainable local food.
Well, in the interim, there were a few things that got in the way. As my childhood in the 60’s drew to a close, my upwardly mobile parents moved us out to the suburbs where we could bask in the hard won affluence of sterile lawns, and manicured hedges, far from the vagaries of wild food gardens, and the “dirtiness” of chicken coops and compost piles. Food now came from the grocery store, mostly in very convenient disposable plastic, cardboard and metal containers. And so this too became “normal”, and the new so-called global food system appeared to have ushered in the “golden era” of abundance and plenty – or did it?
The past few decades have done nothing short of trade away centuries of local agricultural tradition and infrastructure for the complete corporatization of the global food system. The “mirage of plenty” can no longer hide the true and horrendous costs of how we are feeding ourselves today: millions of family farms lost to big industrial agriculture around the world (according to StatsCan,17,550 family farms disappeared in Canada alone from 2001-2006); the intense and widespread degradation of soil and water as a result of industrial farming approaches (the world loses 2 acres of farmland per minute, according to the American Farmland Trust), 925 million people on the planet who cannot meet their basic daily food needs despite ever increasing global food production, and an epidemic of diet related diseases such as obesity and diabetes sweeping across most of the world like the plague.^ A neighbourhood child forges for strawberries on the edge of a permaculture yard
To top it off, despite the sanctimonious voices of the Monsantos of the world pontificating that ”there is no other way to feed our world’s population”, todays industrial food system is incredibly inefficient (it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of food to your plate), wasteful (research from the University of Arizona determined that as much as 40% of the food grown in the USA is never eaten), and unhealthy (almost all major food crops have shown dramatic nutritional declines since the 1950’s).
OK – I know I am oversimplifying things here just a wee bit, but the point is – the global food system is not a system at all, it’s a catastrophe. It is an ailing patient whose days are numbered. And it will change tremendously in our lifetime. Therein lies the good news. And it is VERY good news. The hunger for a truly, sustainable and localized food system is creating some very interesting alternatives in the ever-growing cracks in the foundations of our world food fiasco.
Permaculture is one such alternative emerging out of Australia in the 1970’s – and now maturing into a global movement with unique expressions around the world. At the heart of the permaculture vision lies the assertion that by observing and understanding the natural world, we can create human habitat based on ecological principles that will meet our needs for food, water, energy, shelter, community, etc, while healing, not destroying, the broader eco-systems around us. Good news, for a change!
The term “permaculture” was originally conceived of as a “permanent agriculture” but later expanded to include the wider patterns of how we live, i.e. “permanent culture.” The practise of permaculture is based on three core ethical principles: care of the earth, care of people, and “fair share.” At first glance, this may seem like an overly idealistic, and “pie in the sky” place to begin, but if it is anything at all, permaculture is a highly practical set of strategies and tools for empowering individuals and communities to be able to meet their own food and other needs. The ethical principles serve to remind us that our social, ecological and economic well-being cannot be separated from each other, and that ultimately, we are all in this together.
The permaculture design approach invites us to consider our home, our yard, our community, our farm or even our whole city as a system. The system by definition includes elements like soil, water, plants and animals, simple and appropriate technologies, energy, and of course, people. If we design effectively, all of these and other elements will work synergistically together producing many useful “yields” (i.e. food) while at the same time, the system is fostering increasing bio-diversity (including human diversity), and surpluses that can be shared with others.
Not so different than my Baba’s home and yard, come to think of it. This was definitely a highly productive system that became a tremendous resource not just for our family, but for the wider community as well. No visitor or passer-by would ever leave without at least a few eggs, a jar of pickles or maybe a bit of advice or encouragement.
No matter where we live, we can begin to transform our private and public spaces into oases of food, beauty, bio-diversity and community. This is radical work, and work that is radically needed at this time. In the next few posts I will explore in more detail how permaculture can be a tremendous resource for undertaking this transformation. You are welcome to join us around the table – there is always enough good food for one more!