Food security in the backyard

Published May 14, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

As spring’s annual rebirth transforms our yard, my son is no doubt starting to wonder about that perennial chore, mowing the lawn.  I, on the other hand, find myself wondering about a larger issue: how generously will the Earth’s soil yield this cropping year, and will it provide enough for humankind’s needs? 

Perhaps there is a bit of serendipity in how we view spring through different lenses.

The food issue
In a lucky country like ours, it’s easy to be oblivious to the larger issue of the global food supply.  We shop at supermarkets that are always fully stocked with every product imaginable, and typically spend a relatively small portion of our incomes on groceries.  It’s automatic. 

But for most of the world, the food supply isn’t nearly as automatic – or secure.  And the global horizon is swirling with clouds that some have referred to as the making of a perfect storm: increases in demand and pressures on supply.

On the demand side, there are now more than 7 billion human mouths to feed – double the number there were fifty years ago.  The UN estimates that 925 million of these mouths would like more food than they currently get.  Consumer tastes in some developing countries like China are shifting toward more meat, which means more crops must be produced to feed more animals.  The use of ethanol and biodiesel is increasing as more countries adopt minimum biofuel content standards, so more and more corn, wheat and oilseeds are diverted from the global food chain.

On the supply side, the UN estimates that 12% of the planet’s land is presently used for crop production.  There is little room for expansion because of the need to conserve forests, a lack of water for irrigation and urban sprawl.  (It’s disconcerting to note that much of Canada’s very best agricultural land lies beneath the asphalt and concrete of metropolitan Toronto.)  As well, our entire food production system is highly dependent upon fossil fuels, and therefore is very sensitive to changes in energy prices.

Climate change impacts
And then there are the ominous impacts of weird weather brought on by climate change.  In 2010, Russia – the world’s third largest wheat exporter – shut down grain exports after experiencing a devastating drought, and instantly food prices shot up the world over.  At the same time, devastating floods washed over 32,000 square kilometers of food crops in Pakistan, further destabilizing an already impoverished country. 

Closer to home, northwestern NB received nearly twice its normal rainfall last summer, causing potato yields to plummet by 30%.  And just this month in southern Ontario, fruit trees coaxed into early blossoming by record spring temperatures were hit by a devastating late frost.  No blossoms, no fruit.  “This is the worst disaster fruit growers have ever, ever experienced,” said one grower.  80% of the crop has been lost, at an estimated cost of $100 million.

Late last summer, the World Bank speculated that the world’s food reserves were tumbling into a “danger zone” of low supplies and high prices.

Lawn or garden?
In light of such reality, maybe concerns about food security aren’t totally out of place – and maybe our best response is right in our backyard, in the form of a home vegetable garden.  Beyond yielding the freshest food one can get, home gardens offer many more advantages:

• Cost savings and a buffer against rising food prices
• Complete confidence in the quality and purity of the food produced
• The lowest possible carbon footprint for your food
• A modest degree of food independence
• The satisfaction of being resourceful enough to meet at least part of your own needs

All this probably explains why I look at that morsel of land around my house through a different lens than my son does.  And why the lawn gets a bit smaller and the veggie garden gets a bit bigger each year.  Which makes both of us happy.

It’s springtime – happy gardening, and eat well.