Our food system is broken and profit-driven corporations are to blame. With no magic bullet in sight to such a complex problem, urban organic agriculture will have to be part of the solution. So argues Rhona McAdam in her compelling book, Digging the City: An Urban Agriculture Manifesto.
As McAdam points out, the issue of local food security is especially pressing in urban areas, where most of Canada’s population lives, where residents are dependent on others for their food, and where soil is polluted, compacted or simply paved over.
The writer does an admirable job of presenting the many issues relating to our toxic food system, from food safety scandals to nutrient-deficient foods to our reliance on polluting fossil fuels for basic sustenance, and she challenges urbanites to wake up to the impact their food choices have on the world. For example, did you know that 20% of Canada’s CO2 emissions derive from food transportation?
A passion for food led McAdam to Italy where she studied a Master’s in food culture and communication, and the influence of the Slow Food movement is clear. Other approaches gaining traction here and overseas are also noted: permaculture, the Transition movement’s re-skilling efforts, fair trade. On a local level, McAdam sees community gardens as one of the best ways to acquire gardening skills and community-building as “the most important construct of any successful future”. She argues that the power of people working together, not more technology, will be an affordable and sustainable source of our solutions.
These solutions range from the simple to the complex: we need to learn how to cook, grow, harvest and preserve food instead of relying on supermarket chains for all of our staple nutrients. We need to close the loop by redistributing surplus through gleaning programs like Ottawa’s Hidden Harvest; end supermarkets’ dumping of edible food in landfills and instead distribute it to food banks or convert it into animal food, fuel or compost; and even make composting programs mandatory in cities, distributing the finished product to urban growers. We need to conserve essential resources such as water and soil, change the way our cities are developed and assign greater value to the profession of farming.
At times McAdam’s conviction is inspiring. The issues are clearly stated and the need to face those issues eloquently expressed. But with its A-Z glossary of terms, including everything from allotments to vertical gardening, the book sometimes feels like more of a primer than a manifesto. A manifesto in my mind is more than a call to change – it presents a plan for where we want to go with solutions that feel doable. Unfortunately, solutions in Digging the City are presented with less fervour than they deserve, and here the power of the book wavers. The discursive nature of certain chapters, with their back-and-forth presentation of various alternatives, is actually disempowering for anyone wanting to make real change. The book would benefit from more concrete examples of successful early adopters, explaining how they did it and the impact of their efforts.
If we must be convinced to change, then we need to be convinced that change is possible. As it stands, the reader risks feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the threats to our food or, worse, discouraged by lines like: “Humans have proven throughout history to be a short-sighted and self-interested species, fickle in their interests, and the urban specimen is accustomed neither to sharing nor to planning for an uncertain future.”
You can’t inspire people by hammering on their weaknesses.
Nevertheless, the message of this book will become increasingly urgent as two large realities bear down on us: climate change and the impending end of the cheap, abundant oil that makes supermarkets and their huge distribution networks possible.
One key barrier, as McAdam sees it, is that we’re not desperate enough to change. It took a World War for North America to start Victory Gardens; it took Cuba a fuel crisis to spur a nation into small-scale growing. What will it take us to start implementing the solutions that we will inevitably need? Given that it takes time to build healthy, fertile soil and to develop gardening and any other self-sufficiency skill, one thing is certain. We need to act now.