As spring slowly creeps across the Midwest, farmers get that almost uncontrollable urge to put seeds in the ground. That same urge comes over gardeners. From rural homesteads to suburban backyards to urban empty lots, soil is being tilled and seeds are being planted. The reason and intensity with which people garden varies. Some are casual gardeners who enjoy the emotional satisfaction planting a few rows of tomatoes or strawberries brings. Others want their own supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and want to save money by growing their own food. Then there are the garden zealots, who are not happy until every inch of land they can get their hands on is cultivated and producing edible plants. Recently, one of members of this latter group suggested to me that the expanse of grass that surrounds the Indiana State Capitol building should be tilled up and planted as a garden. Then the governor and lawmakers would be required to spend time weeding this garden. While I found the concept quite humorous, I did have to admit that there was enough organic fertilizer around the Capitol that a bumper crop would surely be produced.
But on the edge of sanity lurk those who suggest, in all seriousness, that the modern agricultural system of food and fiber production should be scrapped and that everyone should just plant a garden and share their produce with their neighbors. A group that calls themselves “Occupy the FDA” recently suggested this as part of their rant against biotechnology. These eco-nuts, who are against almost everything, boldly stated that biotechnology would not feed the world but only gardening was the answer. “A network of gardens and small to midsized farms offers far greater food security than a centralized globalised system.” This was part of “Five Reasons GMO is a Recipe for Global Famine.” This is a truly laughable assertion since biotechnology has proven and will continue to prove that it is the only hope for food security much of the world has.
This idea that we can garden our way to food security is not actually a new idea but is one of the age old arguments that back to the land lunatics like to trot out as they advocate a return to the agrarian society of two centuries ago. What is interesting is now many people who are not members of the lunatic fringe like to barrow this concept, without really thinking it through. While it may be romantic, nostalgic, and emotionally satisfying to long for a world that is slower and simpler, the social and economic reality we all live in demands a much different response. This is something that has not dawned on First Lady Michelle Obama. For the past several years, Ms. Obama has been touting her White House garden and using it as a platform to promote her healthy eating campaign. In a well orchestrated and publicized event, the First Lady and a handpicked group of 5th graders planted this year’s garden. The garden is regularly tended to and harvested by White House staff and the National Park Service. US tax payers also pay for the materials used to plant and maintain the garden.
The economics of gardening is often overlooked when touting it as a solution to world hunger. For most home gardeners, by the time you figure in the cost of seed, fertilizer, tools, and time, it is much cheaper for you to go to the grocery store or farm stand or farmers market to buy your produce. This is not an argument against having a garden, as gardening has a variety of advantages, but advocating it is a world food production system is ludicrous.
The “think global, eat local,” crowd likes to spout off about their grand vision of a world where everybody has access to locally grown food from small (preferably organic) farms. They conveniently ignore the undeniable fact that this planet does not have the land mass or labor force to provide enough food with this system to feed our population today, let alone in the future. The irony here is that the only thing that offers a way to feed our world today and 50 years from now is technology. Modern agriculture offers the ability to produce more food on less land and with fewer resources. Yet, this is what the “let’s feed the world with a garden” crowd is so opposed to.
So as spring brings new life back to the land, grab your shovel and plant your garden. Just keep in mind that though your plot of ground may provide your family and perhaps your neighbors with great tasting food and self satisfaction, it is not the answer to the world food challenge. Growing some of your own food in a garden is great, and seeking out locally produced products is fantastic and should be promoted and encouraged in all communities. Yet when the radical greens say we can feed the world one garden at a time, just toss them in with the rest of your compost and let them rot.
By Gary Truitt