What do you think about the new ideas coming into urban planning and imagination about vertical farming, building structures that will move our agriculture upwards rather than across, as we need to sustain larger populations?
You know what? I think most of those structures are pie-in-the-sky. I think to grow things without soil, to grow things without wind and air isn’t realistic. In real-life situations, greenhouses typically have problems in three or four years, unless you have really significant cycles. These sci-fi things I’ve seen with high-rise greenhouse buildings and hydroponics and all of that we don’t control nature that cutely, and to think that we do is arrogance beyond belief. I think the guys that are designing those systems have spent too much time playing video games.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m such an advocate of gardening for children. When you spend all your life just playing video games, and you have your car race, and your car wrecks, you wait 10 seconds and the machine gives you a new one. You have your battle and the good guys are fighting the bad guy, and your good guy icon gets killed, you wait another 10 seconds, and the machine gives you a new one. But that’s not the way life is. You go out and wreck your car, you don’t sit by the side of the road for 10 seconds and get a new one. If somebody near to you dies, you don’t wait 10 seconds and they resurrect. I think there’s something about gardening and raising food for children that creates an awe, a mystery and a respect for the death and regenerative cycles of nature, and to the reality and the finality and responsibility of life, that young people coming—full of hubris—to ecology need to learn.
Let’s look at the question of scale from the side of consumption. The last study of nutrition in this country that I know of was 15 years ago, and it said that 5% of the respondent adults had, at some stage in the last year, not had enough money to feed their family a meal. If that’s the situation we’re facing at lower income levels, and if the food that is affordable is the nutritionally empty junk that leads to malnutrition—the quick food, the fast food, the food that can be bought for a dollar because of subsidies—how do you get your food, and food produced with your philosophies of production, into the mouths and stomachs of those people who need it the most?
A couple of responses. First of all, a very politically incorrect one. I would guess that many, many, many of the people in that statistic are drinking soda, alcohol, using tobacco, and spending their money on foolish things. They don’t need more money, they need budgeting, and I know this is very politically incorrect to say, but the fact is that many of the poor don’t need a hand-out, they need discipline. I’m not saying that they don’t have problems, but what I am suggesting is that the issue is not food production, it is food distribution, it is other things. Half the human-consumable food in the world spoils before it ever gets to a plate, because of long-term inventory spoilage, blemishing, sell-by, use-by, best-by confusion, and all sorts of other problems. That being said, what are the primary impediments to being able to get this food to, if we’re taking a broad brush, the impoverished? The largest impediments of course are that the food safety laws, the food regulations, I call them the food police, will not allow ready access of food entrepreneurism into communities. That even includes a commercial kitchen in a residential zone—we can’t have a business here because this is where houses are. If Aunt Matilda could make pickles in her sink and sell them next door without the intrusion of a bunch of food police, you can bet that the price of artisanally produced, high-quality pickles would drop to the floor. In fact, our side would spin circles around the industrial side, which enjoys corporate welfarism, subsidies and the economic benefit of scale in food police requirement and capricious regulations that are not achievable for small-scale producers. I’ve met tonnes of people already in New Zealand and Australia on this trip that are poised, they are ready, to do home-baked quiche, and pastured poultry, and all these things, but it’s illegal.
A lot of my vegetarian friends have opted out of the industrial meat-production-and-consumption system for a lot of the reasons we’ve been talking about. When I put forward a position that eating meat ethically, and with consideration for the wellbeing of the animals, can be a much more effective and sustainable way to attack the status quo, the response is that the consumption habits of one person don’t mean anything to a system so devoid of soul. Do we really get any kind of vote with our individual choices in consumption?
Oh, oh, absolutely. In fact I would suggest that the act of eating is one of the most empowering ecological acts you can undertake. On our little cooler bags, we have written “healing the planet one bite at a time”. I’m not saying you can never have a Coke or a Snickers bar. What I’m suggesting is, at the end of the week, when we look back on our food choices, which system did we feed? Did we feed one that builds soil, or did we feed one that reduces soil? Did we feed one that stimulates the hydrologic cycles and puts more water up on the land, or did we use one that drains water, drains aquifers and creates desertification? Abused animals, unabused animals. Respect workers, not respect workers. You can go on down this whole litany of things, there are certainly plenty of them, but which system did we patronise? The beauty of this to me is that we don’t have to wait until there’s an election, until there’s a bill in parliament, we can register that vote every single day, on our own volition, by the kind of food choices we make.