Welcome to the 20s. Let’s Roar.

A century ago, the Roaring 20s ushered in an era of innovation, prosperity, cultural and societal change. These movements were not a choreographed affair, heading neatly in one direction. They surged this way and that, pushing against the boundaries of how life had been before the First World War. At the Non-GMO Project, we welcome the new decade with optimism, with the belief that diversity of thought and purpose can shake us loose from an agricultural system born from the Second World War. With that in mind, let’s start with the basics.

Part Two – to read Part One Click here

Earlier this month, we looked at GMO produce engineered for shelf life and portability. These hard-living traits hold a distinct benefit for wholesalers and the foodservice industry, while the consumer sees little, if any, of that value. They may be unaware that their apple, potato, or lettuce was genetically engineered. Some of these products can sustain damage and not show signs of it. Produce engineered for longer shelf life might have been harvested so long ago, leaving its nutritional value severely depleted. We looked at the importance of access to truly fresh food, and the often-overlooked role that farmers, seeds and soil play in our daily lives.

But if we prioritize proximity to food over the durability and shelf life of food, what other strategies become available to fix our food system?

Winston Churchhill displaying a "V" with handsV for Vegetables

Local farmers growing seasonally and regionally appropriate produce are a fantastic source of fresh, healthy food. Growing some things ourselves is also a viable option — there are shallow-rooted leafy greens like spinach and mustards which can even be grown in trays on sunny windowsills. We don’t need to operate our own personal homestead. Still, the practice of growing some of our food — from a few pots of herbs to a dedicated vegetable plot — is not only fun and tasty but also brings knowledge and skills to those who practice it.

I’m a big fan of Green America’s Climate Victory Garden initiative, a campaign to support Americans to grow food using regenerative methods. The original victory gardens were built during both world wars on residential and communally-held land. They were enthusiastically encouraged by the government, both as a useful food source in a war-time economy and as a way to boost public morale. Green America has adapted this idea: the “enemy” is not a foreign army but climate change, and growing food using regenerative methods is one of humanity’s staunchest allies. At scale, regenerative practices can facilitate the drawing down of carbon from the atmosphere, mitigating and even reversing the effects of climate change. Why not utilize the millions of acres that collectively make up our yards and gardens? Already, as many as 1 in 3 American households grow at least some of their food — that’s some serious growing power!

The Washington Post ran an op-ed last summer that was critical of victory gardens as a climate solution. I think they missed the point: Each person growing all their food and sequestering all their carbon, one backyard at a time, isn’t the silver bullet solution to climate change. During the Second World War, victory gardens were one part of a coordinated and far-reaching effort, involving industry and market forces as well as diverse social and economic groups. Victory gardens gave people a tangible way to contribute in the face of an unimaginable hurdle, working towards a goal no one could achieve alone. That is the kind of movement that can shift our agricultural systems towards a healthy and regenerative model, and that can move the needle on climate change. Because there is no single thing that’s going to counteract climate change, adapting and, ultimately, drawing carbon down from the atmosphere will take all the people doing all of the things. 

The Power to Grow

Something magical happens when people move closer to their food sources, and it goes far beyond pastoral hipsterdom. People get outside; they get dirty. They learn about everything that goes into the food they produce: their time and effort, the water, soil and seed. They try stuff, get stuff wrong, and look for answers on how to get it right. They share knowledge, seeds and food with their neighbors (zucchini, anyone?). Hopefully, they think long and hard before they reach for a chemical solution to a biological problem. As Ron Finley says: “Ditch the chemicals….If you don’t want it in your body, don’t put it in your food.” 

At the Non-GMO Project, we believe that collectively we have the power to change our food systems. We believe that learning about food can change our perspective and our actions. That knowledge inspires gratitude to everyone who works to create the reliable bounty at our local grocery store. We believe that calls for change from the bottom up are ultimately answered from the top down. What better places to start than our own cupboards and shopping carts, on our window sills and in our yards?

War Gardens for Victory poster
War gardens for victory–Grow vitamins at your kitchen door / lithographed by the Stecher-Traung Lithograph Corporation, Rochester, New York. United States, None. [Between 1939 and 1945] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/96507418/.

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