Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Edible landscaping helps us live our ethics

Food ethics have become big factor in shoppers' decision-making. What they buy is informed by how land and animals are cared for, how farm laborers are treated, and if companies profit off of questionable technologies such as Genetic Engineering. As Michael Pollen and other food writers have hit bestsellers lists, these habits are increasingly a part of the American lifestyle.

This month's article about food ethics is the third in a series this summer about the motivations behind edible landscaping. Food ethics not only determines my three meals a day but also has helped shape my edible landscaping business. While I'm delving into a heavy subject that influenced my life's direction, I rarely feel the weight of it now that my daily routines address it. My hope is that my business will help others do the same.
Organic sweet corn at M R Gardens
In one article, I can barely scratch the surface of the myriad of issues entailed in the agricultural system or the complexity of what it takes to improve it. Nor can I properly depict the plight of well-intentioned farmers who have gone into massive debt for equipment and land to keep up with the changes in agriculture, making a solution to the modern food dilemma even more complicated. It's not unheard of for large farms to owe a million dollars or more. They are heavily invested in the way agriculture is as it is today.

I'll attempt a brief synopsis of how we got here. After War World II, farmers were pushed to get bigger and more efficient in an effort to make food inexpensive. They were promised this route was the best way for them to turn a profit, support their families, and keep their land farmland. This strategy also tended to benefit the agricultural supply companies.

However, "going big" came with sacrifices—often to the quality, nutrition and safety of food, to the treatment of animals, to environmental health, and to workplace standards. Genetic Engineering is the latest offshoot of the go-big strategy, as the aim is to manipulate plants so they can better survive in a monocrop system when in fact plants need a diverse ecosystem to thrive without pests and diseases.

While affordable food is an important goal, I have concluded, in my 15 years of studying and working in agriculture and my lifetime of exposure to farms, that the numbers don't add up. The cost of infrastructure, labor, and resources entailed in food production, not to mention distribution, rarely gets lower than the price we want food to be.

If we want a sustainable and just system, we need to be prepared to pay for the true cost of food, or we need to find other ways to make food affordable. The main reason why we have cheap food is because something or someone is exploited in the process. On some of the larger farms, the weight may fall on migrant workers. On smaller farms, owners exploit their own labor. Perhaps their compensation is in other forms than monetary, but it still doesn't seem right that the people doing the most important jobs are paid the least.

Photo of M R Gardens by Vickie Burick
With my hands in the soil and among veggies, flowers and pollinators, I often wonder, how did we transform food production so that such an enjoyable activity became one of the most avoided? In the large field, farm work may be monotonous and laborious, but in the garden, the activities are diverse and ever-changing and the motion is therapeutic. Why do we designate only a small percentage of people to do this work when if we all do a little, our system is not only more fair and less taxing on a few but also actually fun and supportive of our health?

This thought was one of the inspirations for my garden coaching program. If more people are involved with growing their own food, then perhaps there'll be less strain to produce food cheaply. While I always aim to make the landscape low maintenance, and to create a realistic plan that beginner gardeners can implement over time, edible landscaping will always require at least some knowledge and work on the part of the homeowner. They are continually interacting with the land because they are eating from it.

In fact, this interaction often ends up being the most important piece. In changing our surroundings, we end up changing ourselves. Learning about plants and the ecosystem, and playing a part in its restoration, transforms the way people live. The product—the food—is often the side benefit.

It's great to have a vision shaped by what we think is most fair or sustainable or harmonious. As we move forward on realizing that vision, we can continually review our actions and see if we're getting closer to that original goal. Eventually we don't have to include ethics in our daily decision-making. Our lifestyle is the solution. It's nice to not have to think about who or what was hurt every time we put food in our mouths.

It's also nice to wake up and do what we do simply because we like the work of it, the beauty of it, the challenge of it, the taste of it and the way it makes us feel. This is how edible landscaping is for me and I hope it can be that way for you.

I started working in sustainable agriculture because it was a hands-on, practical way to help heal an ailing Earth. But I stick with it because gardening gives so much back to me.

This article was originally printed in the August issue of WNC Woman.