Good Food for All and The Healing of Ecosystems
Our work is cut out for us. If there is a future, it will be Green, so we can and must start spreading the news that by 2036 most of what we eat will be grown much closer to home, and much of that abundance will be the result of things we did to heal ecosystems.
I have used Rhode Island as an example for this article, though almost any other metro area in the eastern US would do. Rhode Island is a good example as Providence is the 12th most densely populated city in the United States with 10,000 people per square mile. Rhode Island is the 2nd most densely populated state with approximately 1000 people per square mile. And as Rhode Island is the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, its waters have been more damaged for longer than any other place in the United States. Providence is also exemplary of cities in which agriculture has almost completely disappeared, and if agriculture can be reborn here, it can be anywhere. Approximately 2% of the families in Providence had food gardens in 2006. This compares with nearly 40% of the families in Toronto, a vastly larger city, having some sort of food garden.
Prediction: By 2036 the people who live in the metropolitan area with Providence as its center will live in a much greener place than they live in today, and will produce a much greater percentage of their food. The increase in local food self reliance in southern New England, especially in its urban areas, will move much faster than it has since 1980, 28 years in the past. This trend will not only include more local farms, better local markets, a more diversified agriculture, and more organic agriculture, it will also include building healthy soils and growing food in places now paved, and it will also include rivers and estuaries returning to abundances not seen in 300 years, and therefore providing a more significant part of the local diet.
Soils, erosion, rivers, and productivity.
On Earth, where there is water, there is abundant life. The places where water and land meet, river banks, salt marshes, coral reefs, mangroves, eel grass beds, riverine forests, are the most productive ecosystems on earth. The civilizations at the beginnings of modern culture were all river dependent: Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, everywhere big cities sprang up. To irrigate crops and to transport grain and other goods. Rivers and estuaries were the heart of the economy for every human inhabitant of the Narragansett Bay watershed beginning with the first people who arrived after the retreat of the glaciers and continuing right up until Roger Williams arrived as a refugee. He too settled close to the water. It is only in very recent times that we have pretended that our rivers and bays were not critical to our daily survival.
It is hard to imagine just how abundant the life in New England’s rivers was 400 years ago. Fish dipped from the rivers were used to fertilize agricultural fields as well as feed people. Across coastal New England people could pick up lobsters along the shore and servants complained when forced to eat lobster too often. Cod supported thousands of jobs along the northwest Atlantic. When the salmon fishery in Pawtucket was destroyed by Slater’s Dam in 1793, the fishermen sued to maintain their livelihood and rioted when the courts ruled against them.
It is similarly hard to imagine the abundance of life in our forests and soils as they were before commercial agriculture and industrialization.
Prior to industrialization the high population densities in New England were always along the rivers and estuaries due to their abundant life and the fertile soils of their floodplains. Once industrialization began the population density was related most closely to how devoid of life the river had become, how much waste it was carrying away and how much power was being generated by the dams that were built, but people still lived close to the rivers so they could walk to work.
Ecosystems and the food system are falling apart
In 2008 there are a variety of trends coming together that make it seem likely that the people of Providence will be eating alot more local food in 2036 than they are today and that local food will be a much bigger part of our economy than it is today. The changes in where our food comes from between 1980 to 2008 will turn out to be much smaller than the changes between between now and 2036. Here are a few of the reasons why.
Global warming will have devastating effects on some of the world’s key agricultural systems, through rising temperatures, floods and droughts, and the loss of irrigation water, especially in those places where irrigation is fed by glacial melt water or the annual melting of winter snows over the course of the summer.
High energy prices/the depletion of oil. We have reached peak oil. The cost of shipping everything will increase as the oil runs out and the wars for oil get more desperate, even as we attempt to find some substitutes. It will make much more sense to grow something as bulky as food closer to where it will be eaten if at all possible. Even if we think we can afford monetarily to ship the food we want to buy, we may be reluctant to contribute to carbon emissions in this way knowing that it speeds disaster and there are alternatives. Replacing the rapidly depleting fuels for our transportation system with zero carbon emissions substitutes may or may not be possible, but at least for a while it will be a very expensive process. Then add in the petrochemical basis of the fertilizer industry and the food situation becomes even bleaker.
Deforestation. Globally deforestation is increasing. More forest products are being used, and tropical forest lands, despite their poor soils, are being torched so they can be used to grow all manner of crops for food and fuel. Deforestation displaces millions of people, leads to flooding, diminishes the amount of rainfall in continental interiors lead to devastating droughts, and contributes about 1/5th of the yearly emissions that drive global warming.
Soils. Soil erosion is a major problem everywhere. The best agricultural soils are being paved over for automobiles and to build housing. The only places being brought into agricultural production are in tropical regions with very poor soils and at the cost of the world’s forests. Runoff from farms is responsible for much of the damage to the productivity of rivers and bays and huge deadzones such as those found in the Gulf of Mexico, are becoming more and more common around the world.
Global grasslands, the source of much of the animal protein we eat, are also severely damaged, over grazed, subject to drought, and being sprawled. The feedlots we use as a substitute for grasslands use massive quantities of grain, directly competing with low income people for grain supplies, driving low income people further into poverty and hunger while creating massive pollution problems and fostering drug resistant strains of bacteria.
The empty ocean. Every major fishery on the planet is being over fished, fishing pressures continue to rise, and the demand for fish is mostly being met by oceans with fewer fish.
The food crisis.
Today the headlines are about food riots in Haiti and other countries enmeshed in poverty. Here is what a recent article said about the global food situation.
Eric Reguly 4/12/08 Daily Globe and Mail
For the first time in decades, the spectre of widespread hunger for millions looms as food prices explode. Two words not in common currency in recent years – famine and starvation – are now being raised as distinct possibilities in the poorest, food-importing countries.
Unlike past food crises, solved largely by throwing aid at hungry stomachs and boosting agricultural productivity, this one won’t go away quickly, experts say. Prices are soaring and stand every chance of staying high because this crisis is different.
A swelling global population, soaring energy prices, the clamoring for meat from the rising Asian middle class, competition from biofuels and hot money pouring into the commodity markets are all factors that make this crisis unique and potentially calamitous. Even with concerted global action, such as rushing more land into cultivation, it will take years to fix the problem.
The price increases and food shortages have been nothing short of shocking. In February, stockpiles of wheat hit a 60-year low in the United States as prices soared. Almost all other commodities, from rice and soybeans to sugar and corn, have posted triple-digit price increases in the past year or two.”
RI also has more hungry people than ever, food stamp use is at record levels, food kitchens and pantries can not meet the need. And prices are skyrocketing.
The RI Economy.
Everyone thinks the RI economy is sort of stuck . Mostly we get tossed on the currents of the global system, but we have problems uniquely our own as well. The current system is based on the practice of continuos growth, focusing on this hot industry or that one, a concept of limited utility as we reach ecological limits. Clearly their are major problems with the current system. Maybe a different model of prosperity, one based on ecological healing and enough might suit Rhode Island better. A truly sustainable approach to producing for material needs has to be on the agenda, and starting this process in a big way better prepares us for the hard times ahead no matter what happens.
Green jobs will help the transition, but you can not make more and more of them infinitely. Mass transit will help, more farming will help. But we are also going to need to reevaluate the growth ideology and what it gives us.
Another world is envisioned.
If an economic visionary had come up to you in 1980 and said that by 2008 many of the major cities of the United States would be focusing their economic development plans on bringing rivers back to life, and that many of the restaurants serving the people drawn to the revitalized rivers would be emphasizing locally grown foods, you might have thought them a bit daft. It is not as if no one was talking about these things, by 1980 New Alchemy and a whole host of others were demonstrating Green technologies and community activists were reinventing greener neighborhoods from the most remote to the most urban, but it was not exactly a mainstream idea. It was not on the agenda of the RI Economic Policy Council or whatever they called it back then, or being debated in the General Assembly.
But in 2008 the greening of American cities has gone further, in fits and starts and with some interesting twists, than most of the public expected in 1980, while failing to meet the expectations of those with the most interest in the subject (note the collapsing ecosystems on the planet).
Current trends and extrapolating into the future
Fewer carbon emissions are on everyone’s mind, which means windmills, solar panels, cleaner cars. Peak oil means ethanol and high speed rail. There is general community support for cleaning up and reusing brownfields, building fish ladders, developing community gardens, and saving the rainforest. But it still seems we are not taking our transformation seriously enough and that it will take something more dramatic than most are ready to imagine if we want our communities to thrive.
Here is one example of the trajectory of transformation. Plastic Bags. 10 years ago only the most radical were seriously talking about banning them and replacing them with reusable bags. Now it is a world wide movement and even in RI we are contemplating laws to radically reduce their use. And supermarkets sell reusable bags even as they oppose banning or taxing plastic bags.
Work on improving river quality and restoring the productivity of watery ecosystems is already underway. Combined Sewer Overflows and road runoff are being dealt with across the continent. Unused dams are being removed, fish ladders, including in Providence, are being built, revegetation of river banks is the rage. We have new standards for dealing with rain water runoff from roads and parking lots. The National Park Service supports workshops on swimmable and fishable rivers.
Local foods and farmers markets are on everyone’s mind. Rhody Fresh, winter farmers markets, local food restaurants, and agri tourism have impressed even those who only see the bottom line. Awards are given to communities that preserve the most farmland, comprehensive plans include community gardens, and funding is available for the occasional demonstration project, though only the most visionary are focused on reassembling our local food system.
A hard transition.
The combination of peak oil,global warming, and rising prices are already making it more difficult for RI to rely on distant lands for food. We can as a society afford to buy food right now, but we still have hungry people. The situation seems primed for getting worse, with rising prices, using food for the production of ethanol, and water problems. We are also seeing major problems with the state economy so we have to ask, what will many of us eat? The answer seems to be local food. If we are to produce more it will require fully stocked and diverse ecosystems, better farming techniques, healthier soils, more forests. The flip side is that better land use will create healthier waters. which means more productivity there as well.
Here is an example of how a systematic approach to ecosystem restoration can help move us forward on a variety of societal fronts.
When was the last time your neighborhood river clean up did not produce huge numbers of fast food wrappers? You know the kind of foods that while cheap causes heart attacks and are a uniform product shipped around the world and served by underpaid workers. Can we afford the energy and carbon intensiveness of a big mac, what do we eat without the mega feedlots that poison the land and waters? Scratch the surface a bit, dig a bit deeper. The trash is just a symptom of a deeper issue, one we are having to confront. An economy that requires 15 planets to produce the resources it wants when it only has one planet to exploit.
Rhode Island 2036
There is no doubt Rhode Island will have a much cleaner electricity supply in 2036. There will be windmills and solar power installations all over the place. The degree of certainty that RI will produce a much greater percentage of its food in 2036 is probably a bit lower, but the until very recently anyone pointing out how much more important local agriculture will be in the future was looked at in the same way those talking about other forms of ecological restoration were looked at in the 1980’s. But think about how far we have come since the 80’s. In 28 years we have moved through 4 or 5 stages of river restoration. We started in the 1970’s closing off factory drain pipes and putting in treatment systems, and now the rivers are clean enough that the next step is landscaping the watershed to reduce erosion.
Then consider the ever greater local food consciousness and reality in our communities; farmers markets that are sprouting up all over, CSA’s delivering to our neighborhoods, community gardens that are springing up. Then toss in significantly higher food prices,shipping problems, carbon footprint issues, and the irrigation water problems that will influence the global food markets, and it seems quite reasonable to figure RI will HAVE to produce more food by 2036 or there will be even more hungry people than their are now.
This is not to say the transformations will be complete in 2036, there are no final transitions except death on this planet. But the speed of change towards sustainable communities will continue to increase even as some trends go the other way. The collapse of ecosystems is going faster and faster, and the collision between what we want and what the Earth can support grows ever closer. Our work is cut out for us.
If there is a future, it will be Green, and we must take a lead in spreading the news that in 2036 most of what we eat in Providence and elsewhere will be grown much closer to home, and much of that abundance will be the result of things we did to heal ecosystems. Our rivers and estuaries will be much more productive as a result, so local fisheries will be a normal part of our diet to a greater extent than they are today as well. So celebrate and support your neighbors starting farms, building gardens and installing fish ladders, its your future – and mine too.
Greg Gerritt has been a Green activist for 40 years. He built a solar powered homestead in Maine in the early 1980’s, was the first Green Party candidate for state legislature in the United States, and currently serves on the Urban Agriculture Task Force in Providence, RI as well as co chair of the Green Party Presidential Campaign Suport Committee. His most recent book is “Green Party Tempest” about the 2004 presidential campaign, and he has contributed to publications on global warming and water issues in Rhode Island as well as “Urban Agriculture in Providence”. His day job is with the Environment Council of Rhode Island.
By 2036 the people who live in the metropolitan area with Providence as its center will live in a much greener place than they live in today, and will produce a much greater percentage of their food.
The combination of peak oil,global warming, and rising prices are already making it more difficult for RI to rely on distant lands for food. We can as a society afford to buy food right now, but we still have hungry people.
in 2008 the greening of American cities has gone further, in fits and starts and with some interesting twists, than most of the public expected in 1980
consider the ever greater local food consciousness and reality in our communities; farmers markets that are sprouting up all over, CSA’s delivering to our neighborhoods, community gardens that are springing up.