Thursday, December 5, 2019

There is always compromise: Eating well in a complex global food system

There have been quite a few articles circulating recently about orthorexia, about the desire to control ones diet to the extreme and eat perfectly. With this approach, too often your diet is a type of shorthand, a ticket into some kind of exclusive club. If you say you do or don’t eat x, you get to be in relationship. And that seems quasi-religious to me. I agree that it is good to eat well. I even attempt to treat illness with changes in diet. I’m sold on this— it’s the subject of much of my research and it’s a key reason we farm. 

I want to speak out against the moral dimension that creeps in all too quickly— that we become righteous by what we eat, by what we consume. If someone comes to my house, I want them to be equally valued whatever they bring with them— I want them to know they are valued and that I can never fully know their stories and I will never judge them based on their food choices. 

As much as I want to do right by what I eat, in perfectionism lies madness. I say this with the caveat that I know there are real food allergies where perfectionism is pretty important if one wants to stay out of hospital. The motivation for “clean” eating seems a little different. It’s along the lines of wanting to always be in perfect health, or to be along a uniquely sustainable pathway. It sometimes even sounds a little evangelical. 

We live in a world that is infinitely complex, where our choices are always difficult. They are choices between us and God, or between us and our conscience. 

For me and my family, there is always compromise: what food our children will enjoy in the long term, our desire to not control our children’s preferences, our desire to steward our money and land well, to manage our dreams and our goals, how we manage our time, how a specific food fits with our five-year farm plan. In this set of dreams and dreaming, we make food choices. And in the safety of conceding inevitable imperfection, we make tremendous progress. Our diet is indistinguishable from the diet that we consumed nine or ten years ago. Yet if I need to go back to that diet for a week or a month, because we are traveling, I am sort of ok with that. I am ok getting chips and ice-cream with the kids now and then, ok with consuming meat with friends and family. I’m not saying this way of being is another kind of perfect, just that it is peaceful, and I find that it’s only when I’m peaceful that I’m able to make genuine progress— progress that extends beyond myself, because peace (like violence) spreads.   

In recognizing the compromises I make, I am also ok with the compromises made by farmers, provided they are honest, there are ways for us to talk about these compromises, and they are not compromises that will lead me directly to a hospital, at least in the short term. 

In farming for my family, I am able to farm quite idealistically, because I have made compromises in other areas: I feel I have enough money that I don’t have to farm for maximum profit. When I fail, I can still buy good food. That feeling of having enough is really important and powerful. 

If one is able to eat, supporting only the very best local farms, there are still questions of the definitions of best, definitions of local, prioritizing planet or healthy people or trying to weigh the two. Vegan or paleo? How much do farm workers get paid? How sustainable is the packaging? What if something you’ve eaten for a long time is not grown locally: do you change your diet? Was using the money to buy this food better than giving it to a neighbour who is eating very poorly because of circumstances beyond their control? Why is it better? These are questions of values, and it is ok for people to have different values around food. For me, farming and spending a lot of time on food is about trying to live the value that returns us to the actions that connect us to the earth, physically and spiritually. 

So I think there is always compromise (visible or invisible), and compromise — literally “coming together”— is not a bad thing. Remaining cemented in our rightness means we often cannot meet another person where they are— and in food, there is always a mountain of ambiguity, uncertainty, and trade-offs that are specific to local context. In finding common ground, we can move forward together. And ultimately, it is only together that we can go far.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Philippi Horticultural Area: Preserving agricultural land is urgent

There’s been news recently about the PHA: about the need to protect the agricultural land of the PHA, for the vegetables it produces for the City of Cape Town. Nazeer and the PHA have been fighting for the PHA to be preserved as farmland, and I stand alongside them.

Some older commercial farmers have said: you don’t represent us! This may well be because they are old and need to retire, and have little to retire on— they have worked for themselves all their lives, and there is no pension plan or medical scheme to fall back onto. From the time I’ve spent in the PHA, I could imagine it a hard place to retire. I see them trying to cash in, or already having cashed in and sold to developers, who leave the land fallow as they wait eagerly for zoning to be approved. And I think: perhaps it is a luxury for me tie myself to the land I steward. It must hurt to move on.

There have been several excellent articles about the fight happening in the High Court, and I don’t know more than the authors of those articles about the status of the PHA. I speak as a middle-class academic heading slowly into full-time farm-related activities. I don't want to ignore the racial and class battles at play, but I want to explore the possibility that the needs of the poor and the needs of the middle-class, (and the needs of the city's residents more broadly), all overlap.

Protecting the PHA is a core responsibility of the City, firstly by retaining rural zoning.

At the same time, this is not the end of the City’s responsibility (and, perhaps only the beginning of the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture). Rural or even agricultural zoning is not enough. The divide between the commercial farmers (many of whom are selling and leaving) and the landless farmers (who do not have the money to buy up land) is a reflection of the core challenges faced by farmers. Farming, especially small scale farming, especially physical labour: that these are complex, difficult activities. There ARE still commercial farmers in the PHA who continue to farm despite not having made money for themselves for several years. If the city saw crime in the area as an issue, or the agricultural extension office appreciated and supported the types of capital inputs uniquely needed for urban organic agriculture (for chippers or fencing, for example).

The current battle over the PHA comes after many years of neglect of that area by the city. Commercial farmers— including a robust organic agricultural tradition in parts of the PHA— have been selling up and leaving because it is dangerous, hard work, with little money, and their children will not take on the baton. While the area is close to the centre of the city, and close to market, it is no longer a safe place to raise children. While it remains potentially viable as a livelihood for very poor farmers if they are given land, this does not mean that the small scale commercial farmers aren’t also worthy of our compassion. Those who want to make money by paving over the city and are making boardroom decisions— developers and politicians— are making a choice that cannot be undone. It is the decision to use the space that is resulting in a free-for-all, and this is ultimately the city’s responsibility. It is not easy to re-ruralise built up areas. And there is a massive moral weight to that choice, given both income inequality and food insecurity (lack of dietary diversity in particular) set to worsen with climate change.

To make farming work, the City has to see urban farming as viable, important work. The farms cannot be seen as simply bits of land in a free market economy, or worse, as opportunities for densification. The land cannot be judged by what is looks like when you drive by fallow bits, as that is as much the consequence of political action as the driver or it. Work done by small-scale farmers involves stewardship that is quite different from larger scale operations. It is in the City’s interest to build agricultural traditions— not wine grapes in 17th century vineyards— but the basics: fruits and vegetables to nourish the people of our city.  This should be viable as a living for the middle-class, as well as for the poor. If it is not viable for the middle-class (commercial farmers) it will never really be viable for the poor, even if it appears to be, for a time.

Climate change makes this urgent. Diversified urban farms are essential in an age of uncertainty— small-scale farmers can adapt and grow varieties that work in our climate, we are flexible. I have eight different types of granadillas growing, all suited to slightly different climates. Each year, I throw out pumpkin seed and harvest seed from the best pumpkins that needed the least work. For all this resilience, it takes time to build a farm. For the land once farmed organically in the PHA, it makes me shudder to think of the work undertaken covering that land with compost, year after year, only for builders rubble to be dumped on it: turning all their work to dust. Soil building takes at least five years, growing perennials takes 5-7 years of investment, growing a windbreak takes 10-20 years, learning how to farm well takes decades. If we wait until the problem is urgent and in our face (when fruits and vegetables become too expensive for the majority of our city), it will be too late. 

Our family is on the front end of a trend: there are plenty of young (ish) people looking to farm in the city: they need viable small plots where they feel safe. Far from undermining the goals of poor farmers or even the landless poor in townships, having a mixture of farmers changes the colonial and condescending tone that continues to plague conversations around “local” fruits and veg in Cape Town. That is, farmers don’t need your help in the sense that we’re needy nor do we want you to buy our food/plants out of charity, we need help in the sense that we present a clear, rational response to urban problems, and that response will continue to encounter roadblocks until a faceless economic system acknowledges that climate change is real, urgent, and caused by capitalist excesses. While the economy more broadly is anonymous and distant, our city officials are not. They are human and face difficult decisions. What we ask is that they do not let money or even self-preservation define their choices. The needs of the poor and the needs of a hot planet are aligned.

We face a similar battle in our little set of smallholdings, one that is less public. Raising the possibility of densification and development in a place like ours leads us on an inevitable path that ends with our soil, our work, the connections we have cultivated in our neighbourhood, and even our land itself, all disappearing. It also leads to transience and lack of stewardship: a willingness to do with the land whatever they want, as the whims of the economy and the pressing political priorities shift. Yet the soil is central to our life, our wellbeing, and our future, even in the city. And so, we farm as though all this were not happening, as stewards. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

How to think about biodiversity and food production simultaneously

Wendell Berry has written over the years about the divide between the desire to preserve nature preserves/parks and the agricultural sector: between nature as something to be preserved and … well… consumed by the hiker or the watcher or the tourist… whilst food is almost beside the point. He describes the ways in which nature gets turned into agricultural land, and how that agricultural land is used up, consumed. Farmers and rangers end up at opposite sides of an impassable crevasse. 
Yet these two groups are actually well-poised to be partners. The farmer understands the natural world from making a living carefully harvesting life and livelihoods out of the soil: life that they pass onto you. In a world of runaway consumption, many farmers have also lost touch with biodiversity and wildness. 

For those of us pursuing urban agriculture in Cape Town, engaging in this tension seems really important. Not to find the perfect answers, but to acknowledge the complicated reality. To choose engagement rather than being right. 

In Cape Town, much of our income revolves around tourism, and much of our tourism is centred around our fynbos biome. We have this really unique biome, and we need to preserve it. And that is not in question: fynbos is special and important.

I think what is up for debate is how much food a city can grow. And if there are ways to integrate many kinds of plants into the urban environment. By doing so, to take pressure off the edges of the city, the National Parks. 

What I wish for is a way to actively understand our biome— to preserve the open space, the endangered species, and so on, without ignoring the fact that each time we eat we engage in the natural world, and there are better and worse ways to do this. So that all those people who passionately talk about indigenous plants, become equally competent in the art of growing food.  

At times, one’s vocal hatred of pines and gums and port Jackson has become synonymous with a certain right way of being in Cape Town, and I feel this shorthand is lazy and unhelpful. Our world is too complex a place to operate using these markers as symbols of our rightness. Port Jackson (Acacia saligna) stabilized the sand of the Cape flats. Gums gave wood and forage for bees, pines gave us wood. There are times when when declaring something an invasive is a way of saying you know ecology. Yet even the official invasive list is often nuanced: often there are exceptions if you using a tree for firewood, or fruit. There are exceptions for urban environments, where no-one can really assert what is “natural” or “native:” we have paved over too much to call our environment natural, and the question that remains is whether we can make it simultaneously abundant for humans, for birds, for insects, for bacteria and fungus. I am convinced we can.

The problem seems to be when plants are grown with maximum profit in mind, particularly when there are monocultures (pine plantations) without attention to the ecosystem, or when someone owns too much land to actively manage and care for the land they have (port Jackson takes over). To me, these are both problems of neoliberal capitalism running rampant, not the species themselves.

For our space, our goal is to make it as biodiverse, resilient, water secure, and productive (for us, for others and for wildlife), and to actively support this biodiversity as best we can. At times this means leaving the native soil so that it can continue to grow proteas, at other times it means leaving the much hated port-jackson as nurse trees for our fruit trees, so that somewhere else fruit trees do not have to replace native habitat to provide our fruit. Later, port Jackson will become a key food for our goats, so that we do not need to ship in hay from far afield. In a space with intense wind and no water, the pioneer species that may be invasive elsewhere often barely eek out their survival. Our bees forage the gum trees in our neighborhood. We collect mushrooms under the pine trees, and enjoy their shade on walks. To be clear, we occupy marginal land, and our choices might be quite different if we had a property for sale on the mountain, adjoining the national park. 

Rather than valuing neatness and a preconceived idea of beauty, we need to be creating resilient households, and we need every tool in the book to make that possible. The solution to so many unbalanced ecosystems is to observe, and gradually make changes, and to actively make use of whatever contribution provided by the pioneer species. For example, with Port Jackson the solution is to actively use the wood and leaves to improve the soil, and to gradually reduce the number of trees. Gums, apart from preserving our bee population by providing forage, also show promise for use growing shiitake mushrooms, and imagine the amount of native habitat that could be preserved if mushrooms were grown on waste wood? That is, when we cut something down, let us do carefully, slowly, and with multiple purposes in mind, and a plan for what will be there once the pioneer is gone.