Urban agriculture: It’s sustainable, and it tastes so good

THE OLYMPIANApril 25, 2012 

In my experience, no salad tastes as good as the one you grow yourself. Yet many of us would still prefer to purchase our greens from the local supermarket or big box store than invest the time and energy into growing our own. This is one of the most fundamental problems we face as a community: how to overcome modern convenience to build a truly sustainable lifestyle that doesn’t rely on destructive agriculture, fossil fuels, and willful ignorance about the immense harm caused by our eating habits and lifestyle choices.

It’s no secret that Americans suffer from a wide range of health problems related to our diets. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity top the list, but if we counted the correlation between diet and other ailments, such as food allergies, we might start thinking of our food less as sustenance and more as toxin. But the deteriorating health of our society is only part of the problem. The real danger is in how disconnected we are from the true cost of our food supply and the damage inflicted on our environment.

Consider for a moment a study by the Center for Sustainable Systems that found it takes 7.3 units of energy (mostly fossil fuels) to produce 1 unit of food energy in this country. Not only is our food system woefully inefficient and wasteful, it is also incredibly detrimental to our planet. Even with modern farming techniques, topsoil continues to erode, water tables are increasingly depleted, and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has been linked to a range of problems including toxic runoff in the Gulf of Mexico and colony collapse disorder in honeybee hives.

Despite the negative consequences of our current lifestyle as it relates to the food supply, most people are content to do little about it. Indeed there is often little incentive to transition from a culture of cheap, fast and easy food to growing and raising your own. But many people are beginning to recognize the need for change, and progress is being made.

The City of Boise, Idaho, recently addressed this issue head on as part of a new ordinance designed to promote urban agriculture. Along with increasing the number of chickens allowed within city limits from three to six, the city also relaxed zoning requirements and made it easier to operate local produce stands. In striking a balance between urban growth management and the necessity to build self-sustaining communities, Boise is on track to developing a workable model of urban agriculture worth emulating.

Such reforms would certainly benefit Olympia as well. By actively promoting home food production and simultaneously relaxing restrictions on urban farming, the city could help spur a revolution in our local food system. Of course individuals should take action as well. Consider converting a corner of that well-watered lawn into a garden bed, compost pile, rabbit pen or chicken coop. If space is limited, check out one of the many community gardens in the area.

For my part, our household has several raised garden beds, three chickens, and a variety of berries and herbs, and we save money by buying in bulk from the food co-op (mostly rice, flour, and sugar). By no means are we completely self-sufficient, but practicing sustainability is certainly more satisfying and cost-effective than the alternative.

In the end it boils down to how we choose to live. By making some simple but substantive changes to how and what we eat, it may be possible to slowly reverse some of the most extreme side-effects of our current lifestyle.

Our community already has a head start in sustainability, so we are in a good position to become a leader in urban agriculture. It’s just a matter of deciding to take action.

Casey Dunivan, a northeast Olympia resident and member of The Olympian Board of Contributors, is author of the bully pulpit, a news and opinion blog. Reach him at cjdolyne@gmail.com.

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