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Urban farmers sow the seeds of local sustainability

 Street Roots (USA) 25 May 2019

Climate change and political instability pose a very real danger for the ability of states to feed their growing populations. Urban farmers represent the most direct transition link between a food system that provides lots of calories but relatively little nutrition, or with significant drawbacks like tomatoes containing fish genes, to a more local, energy-efficient and independent production and distribution of organic and nutritious food.  - By Alejandro Queral

A few years back, an old friend mentioned that he and his wife were looking to buy some land in Iowa where they would build a self-sufficient farming community. Their rough calculations told them that between climate change and war, a catastrophic change would soon ensue and advance preparation was necessary to continue as a species. I don't know if they were also thinking about economic collapse, but the near-failure of the world financial system earlier this year made me wonder about my own self-sufficiency. I realized that, other than tomatoes, beans and lettuce, I haven't the slightest idea of what's growing in my housemate Mark DeMaret's garden.


I suppose that if pressed to survive I would manage to grow some beans, corn and chiles and go back to my ancestral Aztec roots (the imagined ones). But that certainly would leave me - and anyone dependent on my abilities - badly malnourished and prone to illness.


Now, if you buy most of your food at the grocery store, you may not be convinced that my horticultural ignorance is all that problematic. And in Portland, it's difficult not to run into a farmers' market almost any day of the week, so I could get as much local fresh produce as my budget - and my limited cooking experience - would allow. There's been no shortage of food in this country since World War II, so why worry about gardening if it's not your hobby, right?


But the reality for many Americans is very different. To take an extreme example, consider Detroit, where there are no grocery stores within the city limits. If you want to get fresh fruits and vegetables, you have to travel more than 30 miles to get to a real grocery store. Your options otherwise are the corner store or starting a small garden, if you're lucky enough to have access to land. And this is not confined to the battered state of Michigan: I am told that parts of eastern rural Oregon are also severely limited in the quality of food they have access to, mostly because it is not profitable for food companies.


In Oregon, like in most of the country, organic produce is still prohibitively expensive for most low-income people, and not all farmers and merchants at farmers' markets can process Oregon Trail card transactions. And in a depressed economy with still-rising unemployment claims, the number of people in need of healthy and affordable food is rising.


The options that remain, whether you're in Detroit or in rural Oregon, are scary: mostly processed or fast foods full of sugar, salt, fats - all contributors to the obesity crisis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases and overall poor health.


This is where urban farmers like Mark, and thousands of others in the metro area and other urban conglomerations throughout the state come in. These folks are the fundamental building blocks to re-creating local, organic food systems that provide nutritious and affordable food to our communities, rather than solely relying on what industrial agriculture has provided since the 1950s.


In a sense, urban farmers represent the most direct transition link between a food system that provides lots of calories but relatively little nutrition, or with significant drawbacks like tomatoes containing fish genes, to a more local, energy-efficient and independent production and distribution of organic and nutritious food. Of course, small family farms in rural areas will also play a significant role in this revolution, but the daily connection between city folk and our food will be in parcels like Mark's North Portland farm.


Mark spends a significant amount of time at the farm and tends to seedlings continuously growing in a small greenhouse, along with several garden plots scattered throughout the city, including our own backyard. Garlic, spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, arugula, broccoli … all organic, all local and, when done by an experienced horticulturist like Mark, abundant. (The basement serves as storage for several varieties of dried garlic, barley, and all sorts of grains and beans.)


But in addition to farming, Mark has also spent a significant amount of his time educating Portlanders about the impact of genetically modified plants and animals on humans and nature.  As a founding member of the group Northwest Resistance Against Genetic Engineering (, Mark is worried about the long-lasting consequences of releasing genetically engineered mutants into the environment, and about the increased power of corporate agribusiness and the biotech industry over their regulators.


"Companies like Monsanto, Dupont, and Bayer have blocked independent testing of their products through patent laws," Mark tells me. Millions of taco shells that were recalled after a number of people reported allergic reactions to a protein produced by a foreign gene in corn used to make the shells, he says.


Mark is not alone in his worries.  The Union of Concerned Scientists, The Center for Food Safety, and many independent scientists have raised serious concerns about the impact of GMOs on human health and the environment. A recent editorial in Scientific American raised questions about industry practice - with government support - of blocking access to GMOs for independent studies and rightly concluded that "food safety and environmental protection depend on making plant products available to regular scientific scrutiny."

"The truth is that we really don't know what impact these untested products will have on the environment, on our health," Mark continues. And as consumers, we have been given little choice when it comes to GMOs in our food, particularly corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and a few other crops.  From seed contamination to cross-pollination, human-made or human-inserted genes are making their way into our food supply, threatening organic producers and native plants and ecosystems.  (A recent article in the Corvallis Post-Gazette raised concerns about GMO beets contaminating the organic beet supply in the Willamette Valley.)


Farmers, urban or rural, have probably the most at stake. In India, Mexico and other heavily agricultural countries, the agrichemical industry is displacing traditional farming and hybridizing techniques with false promises of greater yield and reliability. This, and a healthy dose of lawsuits against farmers whose fields are contaminated by GMO pollen (for violating patent and intellectual property law) discourage any seed-saving and encourage full dependence on biotech products.


But published studies suggest that genetically modified crops fall well short of the promised yield, while traditional techniques continuously have greater crop yields. Other studies suggest organic foods have greater concentrations of key nutrients and anti-oxidants, though the research is inconclusive.


For Mark, these are more than enough reasons to fight the biotech industry - with tactics as varied as collecting and storing seeds, educating consumers in the aisles of grocery stores, and mobilizing people to pressure businesses to drop GMO products from their shelves.  The goal is simply to ban all GMOs from ever reaching the fields, much less the consumer.


As I begin to understand the nature of food and the vital importance of producing organic grains and fresh fruits and vegetables that are accessible and affordable, it is clear that urban farmers like Mark will not only help pass the farming knowledge to newcomers like me. They can also play a key role in educating the unenlightened about the threats of biotech to our food supply, to our health, and to our gardens and forests. And, hopefully, spur on a political movement that is vital to our survival.


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