During World Wars I and II, families on the home fronts in many countries were encouraged to plant victory gardens. Home food production was recognized as fundamental to national security, and victory gardens became a source of national pride and patriotism. Food grown at home provided critical relief from the death, famine, and destruction created by the wars. You see, in the end, it is food security, the foundation of economic security, that brings war to an end.
The end of World War II brought about a surplus of the nitrogenous chemicals which had been manufactured for weaponry. It was known that plants treated with ammonium nitrate grew more quickly, and widespread post-war famine needed to be addressed. There was, however, a problem. Plants treated with ammonium nitrate experienced toxicosis. Rapid growth produced leggy plants with elongated stems that could not support flower heads. Wheat plants toppled over in the field, ruining the grain.
In stepped innovation, backed with private and public funds alike, to support plant breeding efforts that improved wheat tolerance to ammonium nitrate. Groups like the Rockerfeller Foundation supported efforts of researchers like Dr. Norman Borlaug, the plant geneticist whose shuttle breeding program combined with “psychological factors” and political strategies ignited more industrialized agriculture in the US, and a movement dubbed the Green Revolution in Mexico, Pakistan, and India. The Green Revolution seemed an absolute miracle to many, and no doubt, the relief it provided was beneficial to some. But the top down approach which leveraged government price supports and incentives blinded many growers and regulators to the reality that fertilizers only worked well on soils that had already been depleted, or that the increased yields came with decreased resistance to pests and disease.
Today, 80% of the wheat grown worldwide comes from varieties Borlaug developed after World War II. One outcome of his efforts, and of other agricultural transformations initiated since then, is that entire generations have been raised with neither the need, nor the skills to grow food at home. Though most agree that at heart, Borlaug’s interests were humanitarian (He won a Nobel Peace Prize), the Green Revolution was not without critics. Many saw early on that the policies leveraged to make agrochemicals accessible provided disproportionate benefits to large growers and government interests. Over time, these contribued to the decline of local and organic farms while concentrating land among mega-farmers and putting grain reserves in the hands of governments. Increasingly, populations became dependent on ever more regulated and remotely controlled food systems. Many people around the world today have never even tasted fresh, local, organically grown produce. Very few of us know how to grow our food.
Other problems were also introduced by the Green Revolution. As early as 1968, Borlaug’s colleague in India, M S Swaminathan, was among the early leaders to speak against increased soil salinity and erosion, environmental effects, and other problems that were introduced with the new agricultural technologies. He predicted the era of agricultural disaster which we are observing today. Soon after the widespread adoption of fertilizers, chronic disease rates also began to increase in the very countries that had most benefitted from the new agricultural technologies. In the early 1960s, the average American spent $27.00 annually on healthcare. Today we consider ourselves lucky if $27 represents the co-payment for a single doctor visit. Half our adult population has been diagnosed with one or more chronic disease. Although our own CDC recognizes nutrition as a significant factor in this epidemic, and global experts define food security as access to enough safe, nutritious food to live a healthy lifestyle, we continue to define food security strictly in terms of caloric intake, and refuse to recognize our status as a food insecure nation.
For decades now, global debate over industrial agriculture has raged, with some leaders arguing that agrochemicals and biotechnology are the solution to food security and are necessary to address our booming global population, while others argue that industrialized agriculture causes food insecurity by depleting nutrients from soils and increasing disparity between large and subsistence farmers.
For decades, I have listened carefully to both sides of this debate with an open mind. I refuse to blame at industries who have leveraged existing innovations to create services that customers are free to choose. But I cringe at the many policies and regulations that both governments and industries leverage to restrict choices for growers and consumers, manipulate information, and define food needs for individuals. Increasingly I have come to believe that food insecurity and the poverty it creates are caused, less by the industrialization of agriculture and more by the absence of free markets and the growth of policies that regulate food, information, and other components essential to independence.
By 2010, new metagenomic tools began opening a Pandora’s box in that studies demonstrating negative secondary and tertiary effects of agrochemicals on soil microbiomes and the nutrients they provide to plants and soil began to parallel studies indicating the effects of pharmaceuticals and chemical hygiene and cosmetic products on human microbiomes. With these new studies, I grasped a new understanding about the unproven safety of the chemicals we use on the soil, on our food, and in our body. While most of our chemical safety tests look at direct effects of the chemical (on cells, on pests, on disease processes), it is rare to evaluate the effects on surrounding microbiomes. Yet these latter effects, like transformations in the species composition, can linger long after a chemical is gone. No wonder cause and effect are difficult to prove! Surprisingly, with a lifetime of battling my own autoimmune disorder, and a career spent looking at chemical and microbial interactions in the environment, it was not until I began looking deeply at metagenome data that I recognized how agrochemicals in our soil, the chronic illnesses affecting half of the adults in the United States, the ever increasing global food prices, and the increasing disparity in our economy are all connected, and that restoring the microbial diversity our chemicals disrupt could be the most powerful tool in our kit for ensuring our survival as a species. Simply shifting to truly organic growing methods, eating organic foods to restore microbes to our diets, and pursuing more natural health care that is less destructive to our microbiomes will catalyze restoration that improves the nutritional quality of our food.
Now, realistically, our commercial farming systems are both too big and too regulated to be quickly reversed or to move in a positive direction with the help of governments. Our governments themselves simply hold too large a stake in agroindustrial systems. The good news is, consumer demand has always been a more powerful influence on industry than even government. Those who are ready to eat healthy, restore their own health, and reduce their personal exposure to chemicals that deplete their microbiomes can become catalysts for change by simply choosing to buy and or grow as much organic food for themselves and others as they can. In doing so, they may find, as many have, such significant savings in health care that doing so becomes profitable.
December, 2014, we saw the longest war in American history come to an end. Throughout this war, I was aware of neither a national nor an international effort to promote victory gardens. So why now, after the war is finished, am I suggesting the launch of a victory garden initiative? Why have I planted my own victory garden? Because in the 21st century, the real war we face is quite unlike any 20th century war, and victory must also be differently defined.
Climate change, civil unrest, changing job markets, rising healthcare costs, rapidly inflating food and energy prices, and a population exceeding 7 billion, and global epidemics of poverty, hunger, and disease (including those diseases associated with diets rich in processed foods) are all signs that our society has strained resource availability. These are characteristics of insecure food systems, characteristics that drive economic failure.
Writers like Jarod Diamond and Gary Nabhan, or fictional dramas like The Hunger Games increasingly echo concerns of scientists and citizens all around the world who recognize we are close to a Malthusian catastrophe. You see, the real war we face this century is about access to healthy food, clean water, clean air, and access to natural resources. Until we win this war, other wars, poverty, and disease will simply resurface. The Evergreen Revolution can be won by accepting peaceful responsibility for personal choices that influence the surrounding food system. Victory gardens can be a tool in this war.
I propose a repurposing of the Victory Garden to address global needs of the 21st Century. I propose networks of home and community based organic 21st Century Victory Gardens—in cities, in suburbs, in rural areas-anywhere that has access to air, water, sunlight, and substrate. These gardens can serve to educate others offer access to whole, enzymatically active and diversified nutrition, and provide hotspots of biodiversity to support a healthy environment. They will create resiliance against invasions and natural disastors that cut of access to imported foods. They will teach and nurture future generations, while providing the fresh vegetables and herbs that reduce dependence on costly health care systems. When we plant a victory garden, we take a stand. We indicate to the world around us that we will not let the myopic vision of governments and distant corporations interfere with the long term sustainability of our families and our communities. Let’s make 2015 the year of the victory garden.