Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unintended Consequences

Some emails and lots of postings this week about the death at 95 of Norman Borlaug, father of the "green revolution".

The National Academy of Sciences credits him with saving millions of lives, and those with whom he worked and lots of Iowans, apparently, revere him. As one plows through the coverage, it seems pretty clear that he was a deeply compassionate, humble man. And he was a competent scientist.

What has distressed me, though, is that this has provided an opportunity to silence or diminish critics of the green revolution - despite what we now know about its lack of sustainability.

We should not be surprised that The News Hour did this, greenwashing the green revolution.
After all, look at their sponsors: agrichemical companies.

But we need to be honest about the fact that yesterday's best science is not necessarily the greatest hope for the future. High tech agriculture that relies on fossil fuel inputs and synthetic pesticides is not sustainable for most of the world's population - either economically or ecologically.

There will be those of an older generation, like Borlaug, who see such high tech solutions as GMOs, the key to the "new green revolution" ("green revolution 2"? "son of the green revolution"?) as the way forward, and condemn their critics as elitists, immune to the plight of the hungry.

And there will be those like John Jeavons, in South Africa right now, working with folks who want to support small scale local farmers in sustainable growing techniques.

And there will continue to be a place for science, but working with local culture and biodiversity to find the most appropriate strains of seeds, searching for best biological practices to manage plant and animal pests and build soil fertility, and helping share knowledge among different locales as climate change brings about shifts in temperature and rainfall patterns.

The era of better living through chemistry, of the magic bullet, is over. But its saints are still on our calendar, in spite of the unintended consequences, as a reminder that we all strive to do the best we can to respond with compassion to our world in our times.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Susanne sent this article about Darrin Nordahl, a city planner in Davenport, Iowa who is committed to public produce.

Island Press is publishing his book about it.

Cultivating Food Entrepreneurs

is the slogan of La Cocina in San Francisco. Caleb Zigas, operations manager, spoke to our food systems group here yesterday. There's local interest in Sonoma County in a food business incubator, and this is certainly a model, though I think it would take a bigger and richer population base to sustain such a thing. Caleb suggested we could do it without additional infrasctructure by using under-used kitchens, in churches and community centers.

I wish I had gone to the San Francisco street food festival.

I wish we could do that here!

Church based community gardens secrets for success

Early this week I finished my article for Episcopal Life on community gardens around the church. As I revisted some of the gardens I got photos from last year, and contacted some new ones, I got another look at what makes them go.

The most important factor seems to be seeing the garden as a way of living for others, of being a good neighbor, of giving. I don't mean that all the produce has to go to the food bank. But I do mean that if people think a garden will bring new church members and pledges, they should think again. This is the wrong reason for doing the right thing, and leads to diminishing ownership and support of the garden project by church members. Gardeners become "those people" who don't come to church.

Another factor is that a key church leader needs to be involved with the garden -with genuine encouragement, and preferably with clogs, sun hat and rolled up sleeves. This need not be the rector or vicar, though that's not a bad idea. Deacons can do it. And in family-sized congregations a matriarch or patriarch with good organizing skills. S/he doesn't need to have all the vision - that can emerge from those working on the project - but does need to have energy and commitment.

Which leads me to a third observation. If there is any question about the buy in of the congregation to a community garden project, start small. I've seen a few gardens where folks went gangbusters - building beds, readying lots of plots, doing a y'all come - only to find that they didn't have the volunteers to sustain it, or that some of the gardeners they recruited in haste proved irresponsible, and need to be uninvited next season.

Real gardeners know that there is no such thing as an instant garden. Community gardens evolve, too - and the best ones I've talked with are always learning from experience and leaning into the future, adding on, improving, changing with the neighborhood's needs.

As I look back at these three factors, I wonder if they aren't necessary ingredients for any successful congregation-based community ministry:
do it for others, without ulterior institution-serving motives
enlist authentic support from key leaders
start small and evolve, working with those you serve

Still, when you think about it, a community garden is one of the least expensive ways for a congregation to steward its resources for the good of others - to make a difference, make friends, make a little beauty in the world.