Short Thoughts: Clean Technology in China


This week, I’m at SXSW Eco and it’s awesome. I would have loved to have gone last year but tickets were prohibitively expensive and, much as I hate to admit it, 3 months into my time in Austin, I was still floundering. This year, I was able to get a ticket through my work, so I’m a very happy bunny. I’ll be posting about a few of the sessions over the next two weeks or so.

Of the four sessions I went to on Day 1, the one I found most interesting and most inspiring was a surprising one. I decided to deviate from my norm and skip a session on Feeding 9 Billion (gasp! I know) and go to one on Cleantech in China. Maybe a strange choice for me, but I’m feeling so frustrated by the lack of any global progress on reducing GHG emissions that I was really looking for something hopeful.

Image from The Guardian

To an extent, that’s what I got. I also got a much greater understanding of the importance of focusing our attentions outward, rather than constantly inward. Trying to improve the situation in the US is great, trying to improve the situation globally by sharing and expanding technologies is greater. Consider: in the US, one new power plant is switched on each year. In China, one new power plant is switched on every 5 days. The best place to make a real impact is clear. But traditionally, that hasn’t been where we’ve focused. While we’ve pointed a judgemental finger at countries with developing economies, like China and India, shifting much of the blame for climate change in their direction, we haven’t done much in the way of engaging with them to improve the situation. And these countries are in a much better place to make rapid improvements – their infrastructure isn’t calcified, they are in the process of building from the ground up.  These countries now have the same opportunities to make the decisions that we made a century ago. In the 1900s, there were only 8000 cars on the roads in the US – around 50% were steam powered, with the other 50% split almost evenly between electric and petrol. We made a choice – and it was the wrong one. To get the number of electric cars on the road now that we’d like to, we will need to make huge changes, ripping out and replacing existing infrastructure. With the number of people just now able to afford cars in countries like China, we can help them to do things right from scratch. More companies are starting to do that now, but it’s still a slow process – most start ups (understandably) work within the familiar, known quantity of the US and are not immediately willing to take on the challenge of overseas, often complex markets.

While I don’t doubt that China is entirely capable of ‘greening’ its industry and infrastructure on its own, I do think that there’s an amazing opportunity open at the moment for real global cooperation to reduce our GHG emissions and have an impact on the whole world, not just our own backyards.

Food Friday: Fishy Business


I admit it. I am no longer a vegetarian. About six months after arriving in the US, I moved into the murky world of the pescetarian, where carnivores regard me with confusion and vegetarians with disdain.

Get in ma belly! From National Geographic. Click through for original

On the one hand, I’m unhappy with this shift. I do feel some guilt, like I sold out on my values, and worse, like I’m a terrible hypocrite who only cares about land animals that I can better relate to. On the other hand, I made an informed choice to expand my diet – in many restaurants around Austin and Texas more generally, vegetarian options are limited – and in many others, they are utterly abysmal. I have held to my commitment in one sense, as I still have a very limited intake of animal flesh, and every time I do choose to eat fish, it is with additional thought and questioning. I feel like I made a choice that I am comfortable with in the circumstances. Whether or not I return to full vegetarianism when I return home, I don’t know yet.

But for now, having made the choice to eat seafood, I’m also trying to be as ethical about this as possible – partly because I do actually care about fish and the like, and partly, I’ll admit, to assuage the guilt I feel about eating it in the first place. So many species of fish are endangered and so many fishing practices are deeply unethical. Additionally, there is the question of farmed fish – it may seem like a solution to overfishing and poor marine stewardship practices, but it comes with a range of other environmental problems – chemical and antibiotic treatments are often given to farmed sea creatures, which then run off into the ocean as a whole and hormones are given to other species – again, washing into the ocean.

Here are some of the best resources I’ve come across to help me to make the best choices:

1) Seafood Watch – an app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. A handy way to reduce supermarket Googling.

2) The NRDC has some great pages with good info about things to look out for including how the fish is caught and the best overall choices to make.

3) The Marine Stewardship Council has a certification logo that you can look out for – it looks like this:

Whole Foods Market is one of the most reliable places to find certified fish.

4) In Australia, Sustainable Seafood also has an app for both Android and iPhone

5) Worldwide, the World Wildlife Fun provides a comprehensive listing of guides for 18 countries

If you know of any other good resources, please share them in the comments!

 

What is agroecology?


As we consider a world of 7 billion and counting, the same two questions are coming up over and over again – how will we ever have enough water? And how on earth can we feed that many people?

The issue of food is a controversial one – everyone has an opinion. They’re widely divergent opinions too – from those who believe that Big Ag and genetic modification is the solution to billions of hungry mouths, to those who promote an aggressively local and small-scale farming system as the only way to stave off global hunger.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not in that group of folk who think that GM and monoculture cropping are going to save the world. In fact, a future like that seems very bleak and dystopian to me – the idea of a handful of companies essentially owning our food and thus our bodies is abhorrent to me. Local and small-scale is wonderful, but not always realistic on its own – every city would have its challenges in producing clean and healthy food, other regions lack the fertility of soil and availability of good weather conditions to be able to fully sustain their populations. It’s a good start though, especially when it incorporates the principles of agroecology.

Image from agroecology.org

But what is agroecology? The word hasn’t yet acquired that buzz-word status, like ‘local’ or ‘organic’ (and, thankfully, hasn’t been diluted into a fuzzy meaninglessness like those words). And while agroecology can be seen as a relatively recent reaction to the shortfalls of industrial agriculture, it is based on farming techniques that are often hundreds of years old. Essentially, agroecology is a movement towards more sustainable farming methods, based on ‘time proven farming methods, new ecological science, and local farmer knowledge’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006). UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems describes it as the development of ‘sustainable food and agricultural systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable, socially responsible, nonexploitative, and that serve as a foundation for future generations.’

From the Union of Concerned Scientists. Click through to embiggen.

Agroecology is therefore the antithesis of Big Ag. That sounds pretty appealing, for sure. But does it work?

Yes. Plus, it kind of has to. The 2013 Trade and Environment Review from the UN Commission on Trade and Development concluded that major changes in agriculture are necessary, recommending a ‘rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.’ Our current systems are not resilient (monoculture cropping is by its nature more vulnerable than polycultures), nor are they sustainable – the extensive requirements for chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides contributes to degradation of soil, of water supplies and climate change. Business as usual will end up business-as-it-used-to-be.

Agroecology has the potential to stop this damage to our agricultural systems and ensure a lesser environmental impact in three ways:

1)  A variety of crops are usually planted on each farm, rather than monocultures.  This also reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.

2) Crop biodiversity is preserved.  As discussed earlier, in situ conservation is vital to the preservation of the wide variety of maize landraces

3) Less land is required to produce a similar amount of food, thus posing less of a threat to the local environment

We need to make a change and agroecology has a small but positive track record – at the very least, running more trials, replicating these on a large scale and thus collecting more evidence of its efficacy is worth a shot, as it may well provide us with a solution to an eventual crisis.

Why do our politicians keep listening to idiots, not scientists?


I’ve reached the point now where I try to avoid Australian political news as much as possible. From the distance I’m at, it’s difficult – I feel angry at so much that is happening, but also utterly impotent. There is nothing I can do to change things from Texas.

Of course, avoiding news is hard these days – especially with a government whose gaffes are so spectacular that they tend to go viral on Facebook. Then my curiosity gets the better of me…and then I end up reading articles like this oneHoly crap on a cracker. 

It concerns me that our Prime Minister is a man who has previously described climate change science as ‘absolute crap’, but I’ll give him the begrudging benefit of the doubt because he has at least distanced himself from that kind of language a little (even if it’s blindingly obvious that it’s what he still believes). The fact that one of our ministers is suggesting we should be living in fear of another Ice Age though is in another realm altogether. Again though, I did my due diligence – Mr Newman obviously hadn’t pulled the theory from thin air and I wanted to know more about David Archibald who had authored Twilight of Abundance: Why Life in the 21st Century will be Nasty, Brutish, and Short  – the book which inspired Newman’s opinion piece.

As it turns out, Archibald is a legit scientist. He has a BSc in Geology. Geology is a bit of a tenuous thread to claiming to be a climate scientist…but ok. What’s he worked in? Coal, oil and shale exploration…CEO of a mining company…operating 8.6 million acres of oil exploration permits in Australia…Right. So, there’s certainly some bias going on there. Still, that doesn’t preclude his having conducted some solid research with good evidence.

Well, no. He may have done some research, but he has no evidence for his theory. A better explanation than I could ever provide of just how scientifically lacking his theory is can be found on the Skeptical Science blog here, but if you don’t have time to read through all that, here’s a very short example:

From Skeptical Science

Yeeeeahhhhh.

Other work that he’s done focuses largely on a theory developed in a dendroclimatology study from 1979, which he claims was confirmed by a group of Finnish foresters in 2007. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, because while dendroclimatology has been useful for getting some idea of what temperatures were like before we started recording them about 150 years ago, it’s no longer accurately reflecting the actual temperatures that we are recording right now. So sure, the trees are telling us that the weather is cooling – but unfortunately, our much more accurate thermometers are telling us otherwise (a simple explanation for why this might be, and a good assessment of Climategate is here).

And yet, our politicians are listening to a man who is frankly failing seventh grade science, rather than to the 97 percent of actual climate scientists who are saying that climate change and warming are real and caused by humans (not the sun).

I honestly don’t understand.

On the upside though:

“The more carbon dioxide you put into the atmosphere, the more you are helping all living things on the planet and of course that makes you a better person.”David Archibald

Well, that’s a relief.

Food Friday: Rosemary Farro with Roast Carrot & Creminis


Every now and then, I make a meal which is exactly right for that particular moment. Then I eat far too much of it and spend the rest of the evening watching television and groaning, incapable of moving at all.

I made one of those meals last night. It was good the first time a few months ago, and even better last night. I’d been aiming for an earthy flavour and a meal that wasn’t too heavy and this delivered perfectly – until I ate two full portions of it. Oops.

Anyway, if you haven’t tried farro before, you really should. David’s not usually a huge fan of my experimentations with various grains and seeds (he tends to turn up his nose at quinoa and just doesn’t see the point in chia seeds) but we both love the nutty flavour and slightly chewy texture of farro. It’s really quite a lot like barley, but sort of like a brown arborio rice, but not…just try it. Trust me.

20140806_191228

{Ingredients}

3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped into large chunks

10 medium cremini mushrooms, rinsed and chopped into chunks

2 large leaves dinosaur kale, roughly chopped with stems removed (or equivalent of any other leafy green like baby spinach, chard, curly leafed kale)

3 small cloves garlic, crushed

1 large sprig rosemary

1 1/2 cups farro, cooked according to the packet

2 tbsp olive oil

crumbled feta to serve

{Preparation}

Lightly oil a baking pan with 1 tbsp of the olive oil and roast carrots at 450F until they are lightly browned around the edges and softened. Set aside.

In the meantime, cook farro to the directions on the packet. I recommend using a mix of vegetable stock and water – you want the extra flavour of the stock, but you don’t want the stock to overpower everything else.

While the farro cooks, add the other tbsp of olive oil to a fry pan. Heat the oil, then add the garlic and mushrooms, stirring frequently to avoid burning. Once the mushrooms start to soften, add the rosemary and the kale and saute until the kale is thoroughly wilted. Add the roast carrots to the fry pan and stir through. Once the farro is cooked, add to the pan as well. Stir thoroughly, making sure that the farro is evenly distributed through the vegetables.

Serve with a liberal sprinkling of crumbled feta.

{Serves 4 (or 2 ridiculously hungry folk)}

 

Updates


It’s been a long absence once again. Sometimes there’s not much to say, and sometimes there’s not enough time to say much. In the gap between writing, things have moved on and life has shifted as always. I started working with the Austin EcoNetwork, a great local organisation that connects and updates the local environmental community. I stopped working with Sustainable Food Center after more than six months of volunteering 10 or so hours a week – the work had stopped challenging me and I wanted that time to move back into more study and writing. I applied to go back to university for yet more study next year – a  Master of Research in Environmental Health, which would let me bridge to a PhD in future. I planted a garden that thrived briefly before becoming seemingly irrevocably miserable and fruitless. I went back to climbing again and enjoyed every second of the aching muscles that told me I was getting strong again.

Outside of my own little bubble, the environmental news continued to be generally grim, especially out of Australia. The Carbon Tax was repealed  and replaced with…well, nothing as far as I can tell. Apparently people’s being pissy about their electricity costing a few dollars more was more important than the future of the planet. Canada is apparently not doing too much better on climate change at the moment, which meant that Prime Ministers Abbott and Harper got to get all chummy and united as the only two developed countries that apparently don’t give a damn. The Adani Group’s coal mine had the last major regulatory hurdle removed from its establishing itself in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. With the mine will come dredging, mining runoff, the potential for coal transport ships to run aground on the reef and of course, a new contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Here in the US, the drought in California continued to worsen. Rush Limbaugh claimed success for climate change deniers. The early cost of climate change to US taxpayers was established as fact. Congress continued to put their fingers in their ears while humming loudly. And Cheetos remained a legitimate ‘food’ on the school lunch menu.

On the other hand, French supermarket Intermarche swamped my Facebook news feed with its incredible ‘Eat Ugly’ campaign to use up those wonky fruits and veggies that would otherwise go to waste. It was awesome. John Oliver did the greatest demonstration of the scientific consensus on climate change that the world has ever seen. It was also pretty awesome. So it’s not all bad.

Plus, bad things lead to creativity, right?

From The Guardian

Overwhelmed & Discouraged: The latest IPCC report


I’m feeling pretty deflated this today, I’ll admit. Deflated and frustrated.

From Slate.com

From Slate.com

It’s taken me a while to write this today, partly because there’s so much to read through, partly because it makes for such depressing reading, and partly because I can’t help but listen to this negative little voice that’s telling me that it’s pointless to even bother. Because people and nation states are still not going to change. You look at the Australian government right now, and then you look me in the eye and tell me seriously that Australia is going to kick off some real, meaningful action to reduce our emissions. You drive through Texas and tell me that all these people are going to give up their trucks, reduce their air-conditioning usage. Look at mining and gas companies and tell me that they’re going to look at ways of shifting across to green energy. Look at China and India and tell that they’ll put their industrial and economic development on ice, because those of us in developed countries (which have caused the problems in the first place) are asking nicely.

It’s not going to happen. And if it ever does, I can’t help but feel it will be right at that tipping point, where it’s already too late.

I’m sorry for being such an enormously melodramatic negative Nelly, but the enormity of this problem is starting to overwhelm me. With each IPCC report that comes out, the outlook looks bleaker and bleaker. A few quotes from the latest report on what has already happened:

In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological
systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality

Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of
climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts…Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions and in the global aggregate.

Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods,
cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems
and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of
such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.

Of course, countries are trying to adapt to these new effects, but the description of these adaptations worldwide is just a half a page. Seriously. We are already feeling the effects of climate change worldwide, and our best efforts regarding adaptation can be summarised in a half page. The predictions for the future of climate change don’t offer us much promise unless we get ourselves into gear in terms of both prevention and adaptation though – again, some choice quotes:

Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger (medium confidence).

A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk
under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century, especially as climate
change interacts with other stressors, such as habitat modification, over-exploitation,
pollution, and invasive species (high confidence)

Until mid-century, projected climate change will impact human health mainly by
exacerbating health problems that already exist (very high confidence). Throughout the
21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions
and especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without
climate change (high confidence)

Reading through the report has left me overwhelmed. Eric Holthaus summarises my feelings beautifully in this paragraph from his article in Slate:

It’s difficult for me, as both a scientist and as a human, to emotionally process continued inaction on climate change. My characterization of this report may make it seem like the problem is hopeless. It’s not. There’s still time to stave off most of the worst effects if we all work together and realize that every single person’s actions, no matter how small, make a difference. But it will take massive action.

My greatest fear? We’re still not ready for the necessary ‘massive action.’

You can read the IPCC report for yourself here.

 

Food Friday: Grow your own


It’s the most glorious day here in Austin. Our garden has been gradually progressing over the last of winter as I’ve hauled out acres of weeds and started mulching with grass clippings, but I feel confident that it’s now warm enough to start actually planting and I’m really, really excited.

We tried to grow some vegetables last summer when we first arrived. I took such good care of the tomatoes, peppers and basil for a handful of atrocious, 100-plus degree days before the plants suddenly started disappearing. One day there was a thriving tomato plant, the next day there was a thriving half of a tomato plant and the day after, there was no evidence that there had ever been a tomato plant at all. It took a while, but I eventually discovered the culprit. Squirrels. I was heartbroken. I love squirrels! I didn’t want to think ill of them! But the evidence pointed fairly and squarely at squirrels, and as a dumb Australian, I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

This is what we’ve done:

You can barely see the netting - it's really fine, which means it's not the eyesore we'd anticipated.

You can barely see the netting – it’s really fine, which means it’s not the eyesore we’d anticipated.

We’re still not 100% sure how well it will work, but it feels relatively squirrel-proof. Basically, we went down to Home Depot last weekend and bought a bunch of tall stakes and deer-proof netting. We’ve wrapped three sides in the netting, with the fourth attached to an additional stake, which we can lift out as needed, kind of like a gate. We’ve also covered over the top of the garden, because if you’re going to do a job, you may as well do it properly. Now we just need to create some tent-peg-style things to hold down the netting at the bottom – and once that’s done, we can get everything into the ground.

So, what’s everything? Well, this season we’ve got two different types of heirloom tomatoes, one hot and one mild red pepper, the tiniest wee snow pea (a gift from Ronin Cooking at Foodways), lots of sweet basil and an Italian parsley (already planted, since it’s less appealing to squirrels). We’ve still got crazy thickets of oregano and mint left from last season too – somehow they survived the intense heat of August and September, and then the severe frosts of December and January (I’m pretty sure they could handle the apocalypse at this stage). We should hopefully have everything in the garden and thriving by the end of the weekend.

Please excuse our insanely lush grass - we only mowed two weeks ago! It's crazy!

Please excuse our insanely lush grass – we only mowed two weeks ago! It’s crazy!

I really can’t wait until harvest time. Leaving behind our garden in Sydney was one of the tough parts of moving overseas. Making basil pesto is one of my favourite things, and there’s a certain special pleasure that comes from growing, harvesting, prepping and cooking things from your own garden. Not only does it usually taste a thousand-fold better, I love that sense of connection to the earth, and that sense of achievement when you’ve done something yourself, right from the start.

What are you planning to grow this spring? Those of you in the southern hemisphere, what did you grow over summer?

Foodways Texas: Rice and Water


Happy Monday everyone! I’m back from spending some time at the Foodways Texas ‘Farm to Market’ symposium on Friday and Saturday in College Station – a few days of great food, lots of learning and meeting loads of intelligent, interesting and fun people.

We heard talks about organic vs. local food, Texas wine (surprisingly delicious!), growing olives and grapefruits in Texas, the history of rice in the region and the issues rice farmers are currently facing because of drought conditions, and about the supply chain involved in feeding Houston (the paper that I’d worked on with my wonderful mentor at UT, Dr Robyn Metcalfe). We also went to explore a local farm, Ronin Cooking where we toured around at sunset with wine and saw possibly the cutest piglet ever to piglet. Seriously.

IMG_20140321_191714

 

One of the most interesting sessions for me was the one about rice growing in Texas and the difficulties that come with such a water-dependent crop in a drought-crippled state. I’m no stranger to hearing stories like this – for years, I’ve wondered about how and why a drought-prone continent like Australia would grow a crop rice. In fact, it’s something I even did a short paper on, back in the first year of my MSc.

In the case of Australia, what I found was extensive innovation and efforts towards ensuring maximum efficiency from minimum input. To make the most of the water used to flood the rice fields, other crops that can utilise subsoil moisture are planted, like barley or wheat. Additionally, water use per hectare has dropped 30% in the past decade, while rice production has increased by 60% (savewater.com.au). I’m still dubious about rice-growing being viable in Australia in the long-term, (as well as feeling that the water used could perhaps be better utilised elsewhere), but for now, improvements like these have made rice a profitable and competitive industry.

Here in Texas though, the situation seems even more dire. It’s also much more emotionally driven, with large urban populations depending on the same water supply as rice farmers, i.e. the Colorado River. The Highland Lakes (just a little way north of Austin) are currently at only 38% of their capacity, which has a huge impact on those farmers in the Lower Colorado Rive area, where most rice in Texas is farmed. Furthermore, as Neena Satija, one of the panelists for the talk pointed out, this is unlikely to ever increase to levels which will allow for water restrictions in Austin to be removed – which obviously means that the challenges for Texas rice growers aren’t going away any time soon. Complicating matters further, they are unable to supplement their income as Australian growers can, through the planting and harvesting of other crops. While nights in Australia’s Riverina region where rice is grown tend to get quite cool, they remain warm, even hot here in Texas. This means that rice grows more slowly, not allowing for that extra window to grow other things.

All of this begs the question: how on earth do we deal with this? You can’t tell someone whose family has farmed rice for generations to ‘just stop.’ And as far as I can tell, you’ll take the lush green lawns of Austinites from their cold, dead hands. I honestly saw sprinklers running outside Sam’s Club at 2pm on a 100 degree afternoon. The situation is emotive enough that at Foodways, there was even a disagreement on what should be a hard, cold fact: the price of water for farmers. Neena contended that this was $6.50 per acre foot, but this was immediately disputed by another panelist, Ted Wilson from the Agrilife Research Center in Beaumont, who provided the figure $920-$960 per acre foot. This is a difference of over $900! Where on earth does the truth lie in all this?

While all of these arguments are going on, the drought still hasn’t broken, Austinites are still living with water restrictions (albeit, not terribly strict ones IMHO) and rice farmers downstream still don’t know if they’ll be able to plant a crop this year, or for that matter, next year. I’m not sure what the solution to all this is, but drawing attention to it is important. Urban Texans need to know what the implications of their desires for green lawns and clean cars are.  Texas’ future as a rice growing state is facing a greater threat than ever before, and the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers’ are in the hands of rain clouds and water lawmakers.

TEDx Manhattan: Food, Race, Class


Once again, I’ve been terrible at getting to blogging lately. Life can be so distracting, especially when the chaos of SXSW is on all around you and it’s your first time with your entire city turned inside out and upside down by music and people and then more music.

About two weeks ago though, I went to a viewing of the TEDx Manhattan conference at the Sustainable Food Center. It was a really relaxed afternoon, but it was also an opportunity for me to really stretch my own understanding of food systems and food justice in America in particular. Hearing about day to day life as a Black woman living in New York and the food challenges associated with race and class in that area that was something entirely new to me, and really thought-provoking. The talk I’m mainly referring to here was by Dr. Regina Bernard-Carreno (although another really noteworthy and fantastic talk on race and food was by Nikki Silvestri who did one of my favourite talks of the day).

You can watch Dr Bernard-Carreno’s talk here (NB: It seems to be incorrectly named, but this is definitely the talk!):

Part of what I found so fascinating about Dr Bernard-Carreno’s talk was the divide that also exists, not just in food access, but between those working to ensure food access.

‘Everyone here too, was young [and] white’

Dr Bernard-Carreno describes her journey around New York with her students, trying to find a good, local, city-gardening model that they could replicate on their own small plot in Queens. The first three or so gardens that they visited sound as though they were run by young-white-hipster types with absolutely zero idea of how to engage with and understand their local community. To be honest, some sounded like they weren’t even that interested in working with their neighbours either, charging exorbitant fees for tours and/or setting visitors to work hard in their garden while sitting down to enjoy their own lunch. There was a social gulf between the farmers and the visitors that should not have been there. Hearing this story really bothered me. On the one level, it bothered me because to me, urban gardening is about community and sharing and engagement and equality.  On another level, it bothered me because food access isn’t just about food on shelves, it’s about sharing the knowledge and skills to grow and provide food. None of these things were provided by these young urban farmers and this concerns me. Changing our food system to ensure equitable food access cannot be an exclusive venture. It can’t be the privileged handing out food to the underprivileged. It needs to be an inclusive action, a sharing of ideas, a development of the strengths of the whole community, whatever their circumstances.

The good thing is, there are groups who recognise this. Eventually, Dr Bernard-Carreno and her students found an urban farm that operated on those principles. This article on NPR’s website about JuJu Harris was absolutely inspirational – a real joy to read. It also shows what is so, so important: that sharing of knowledge and skill with everyone, no matter their race or socioeconomic status.

We can change the food system for the better, but not if we’re letting our social circumstances divide us.