For some reason, at every mayoral forum I’ve been to — and I’ve been to pretty much all of them — there is a question about “food security.” And invariably the answers all seem to revolve around more gardens.
I don’t know which bus load of hippies made this an issue in 2012 (nor whether they were driving to a Grateful Dead or a Phish concert) but I could really live without hearing this one again.
Because, you know what? I hate gardening. I really, really do. And it’s not like I haven’t tried it. I’ve been brainwashed with all the usual bucolic nonsense that makes me think I too would be happier were I a little more like Sam Gamgee, content to toil in the loam among the earthworms. But it isn’t really like that, is it? Full of contentment, I mean. Gardening, I’ve found, is mostly sweat, dirt, frustration and dead things. And woefully undersized, weirdly-acidic produce.
Case in point: I built a greenhouse this spring in which to grow cucumbers. I read up on them. Got them planted and growing. Then the goddamn things got the goddamn blight and now I basically have a glass box full of dormant fungus.
If the health and well being of this city depended on my ability to grow food, we’d all starve.
And you know what? I’m pretty sure I’m not alone out there in my distaste and incompetence where agriculture is concerned. That’s why so many of us have gathered together here. In the CITY. Which is, by definition, not a farm. It should not come as a surprise if most of us are, on balance, more adept and more content with iGadgets, game controllers and screaming fast WiFi. Many (or, I suspect, most) city dwellers lack the skills to produce their own food and don’t want to learn them.
So I don’t see why there’s all this pressure on, say, me to throw on some overalls, pick up a trowel, and start planting turnips in my narrow inner-city lot that’s been used mainly as a car park for the last five decades.
But hey, I concede, this is a to-each-his-own thing. Maybe you’re a regular Laura Ingalls Wilder* living on your very own Little House On The Prairie On A Suburban Lot. Great!
What I object to is this idea that seeing every square inch of green space in the city as a potential agricultural site somehow addresses the issue of food security.
And I find especially obnoxious this idea that’s been bandied about of late that the hundreds of acres of land the city has recently purchased to the south east should be turned into an urban farm that churns out produce for local consumption.
I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but we’re kind of already surrounded by agricultural land. The problem of food security in Regina isn’t related to its proximity but rather its distribution. But more on that later.
First, I have to get his off my chest: The south east lands are supposed to exist as a solution to the housing problem. Not the food security one. As that land is developed, the money earned is supposed to go to support the Social Development Reserve, which pays for all of our housing programs. What’s more, we get to decide how that land is developed which means we can decide what mix of housing types will go there. We can set the percentages of affordable, attainable and social housing that get built. If this city is going to have greenfield development — and as much as I dislike greenfield development, I’m realistic enough to accept that it’s inevitable — this is best way for it to happen.
Anyway, so yeah, I’m suspicious of any plan for food security that revolves around community gardens and high-intensity backyard agriculture. I seriously doubt that a city will find that to be an efficient solution to the problem. In fact, I doubt very much that urban food security has anything at all to do with food production. Instead, I’m reminded of something John Kenneth Galbraith, the Canadian economist, said it in an interview in 1994,
“the thoughts crossed my mind that there wasn’t a hell of a lot of use producing better crops and better livestock if you couldn’t sell them, that the real problem of agriculture was not efficiency in production but the problem of whether you could make money after you produced the stuff.”
In this context, that means grocery stores. (And, yeah, maybe farmers markets. But mostly, grocery stores.) Grocery stores of every size and shape in every neighbourhood. We need to find clever zoning and bonusing solutions to the fact that most of North Central doesn’t have access to one of those within a convenient, walkable distance. And we need to find ways to guarantee that the grocery stores we do have stay as grocery stores and don’t get shut down, left idle for years, then reopened as office parks, as happened with the Superstore on Albert. And as Safeway basically threatened to do with their store on 13th if their redevelopment plans weren’t approved.***
And as for all those urban agriculture enthusiasts, hey, fill your boots. I think growing food is great just so long as somebody else is doing it. And as for what a city council can do on that front, removing impediments to starting community gardens is a good place to start, I suppose. Community gardens are nice. From a distance.
And yeah, maybe we should revisit the whole urban chicken thing. (This post has gone on too long already I’m not going to recap that whole controversy. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s Google.) But I think the limiting factor on that won’t be the warrantless concern about roosters crowing at all hours (urban chicken farmers don’t typically have roosters) but the fact that chickens are miserable creatures and most people, wisely, don’t want to bother with raising them.
There. I’ve blown off all the steam I’d built up over this food security question. I feel much better. And I think I can deal with hearing it again when it inevitably comes up at the Cathedral Area Community Association mayoral forum tonight. Which starts at 7pm. And, I hear, is being moderated by the very excellent Pat Book of CJME.
Hope to see you there. Just don’t ask me about chickens.
* Laura Ingalls-Wilder and family, by the way, spent most of their lives as farmers in abject poverty, often near starvation, until she started writing stories and selling them to publishers in the city.** Just sayin’.
** Actually, the story is more complicated than that. Laura Ingalls-Wilder was encouraged to write about her life on the farm by her daughter Rose, who had moved to the city and become a journalist and one of America’s leading proto-Libertarians, writing lengthy screeds on how much better off everyone would be if they were self-reliant and living off the land and their own labour just like Ma and Pa Ingalls. Of course, Rose, like Laura, tended to gloss over just how miserable, bloody and surrounded by death and insanity life on a 19th century farm was. In the background of the Little House books hangs a tapestry of human suffering. The real tale of the American West ought to have been told by Mary Ingalls, Laura’s sister who was blinded by measles, a disease government-sponsored vaccination programs have since nearly eradicated. Her story can be summed up: “Life is toil, loneliness, darkness.” That it was cities, civilization and big government that elevated the Wilders from scrabbling in the dirt is an irony that never seemed to appear in their writing.
*** Although, Safeway didn’t threaten to put an office park there so much as sell the building to a carpet store or something. We need to pass laws to stop that shit.
Follow all of our online election coverage — including interviews, analysis and podcasts — on our Regina City Election 2012 page. And you can read about everyone running in this election on our Candidate Profiles page.