Anthropological and linguistics articles from University of Western Australia

Monday, January 15, 2007

Veggie on Verges...Australian Research Council Proposal / Marcia Helene Hewitt

Marcia Helene Hewitt
University of Western Australia

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

Brundtland, 1987, World Commission on Environment and Development

E 1 Veggies on Verges

Growing food in urban shared spaces.


Vegetable gardens occupy a universal space in the psyche of people cross-culturally and through time. All over the world people maintain vegetable gardens. But in today’s world we rely heavily on commercial growers and distributors to provide our daily fresh food requirements. What has created this shift from the home garden and shared allotment to relying on industrial farming to meet our needs? And what has been the effect of this reliance on the environment in the light of conservation issues in the present? (Kimbrall, 2002). Is industrial farming sustainable? Is there a re-emergence of the shared space garden and home garden for the new middle class of health conscious vegetarians ?(Gaynor 2006). These are issues that I will explore in this project.

This project is to investigate food growing in public shared spaces such as verges and areas like City Farm and Earthwise in Perth. I ask questions such as is there cultural benefit for those who walk by these spaces? How does the aesthetic aspect of the vegetable garden affect people? Do children benefit by seeing vegetables growing? Is there an ‘every day sense of well being’ for people who pass by as they walk home from work? In a pilot study of fifteen, 14 people had parents who had grown food in their back garden, and all informants remarked that they enjoyed seeing the vegetable garden when they came home from work or passed by our house.

Building on other studies and experiments in other areas of the world I will create a study that will add to our knowledge of environmentalism as an intrinsically cultural phenomenon. (Milton, 1996.) Is the vegetable garden an intrinsic part of Western Australian culture, and urban cultures in other places? As Angela Gaynor states “home food production has long been a source of food valued for its freshness, purity and health-giving qualities.” (p.3). So it isn’t a new idea to grow food at home. Why then is there this ‘raised –eyebrow’ from people when you say “I’m growing my own food on the front verge”? Do only hippies grow food at home, or strange Christian cults such as Mennonites?
And so in creating gardens on verges and public spaces is there not an aesthetic and even more deeply rooted significance that contributes to a general sense of well being and “connectedness” for those who walk by these gardens? (Scott, 1978). Are we multidimensional beings who need to see and experience the food we eat? I will be also working with anorexics who have benefited from actively growing their own food.

In addition to cultural and psychological benefits of seeing and actively participating in urban food growing, there are sustainability arguments, as illustrated in the Brundtland Report (1987)

1. All human beings have the fundamental right to an environment adequate for their health and well-being. (Brundtland 1987)
Sustainable agriculture is a term used interchangeably with ‘traditional agriculture.” (Goldsmith 2003) and therefore falls into the category of ethnoecology, whether Indigenous or not..( Rhodes, 1979.) There are alternative and “counter culture” agricultural methods that meet the criteria of “traditional agriculture” such as Steiner’s biodynamic farming and permaculture. (Mollison, 1991). Traditional agriculture is the answer to many ecological problems such as the problem with nitrous oxide which is generated through the action of denitrifying bacteria in the soil when land is converted to agriculture.( Bunyard, 1998). But there is a resistance on the part of international agencies to allow traditional forms of agriculture in the Third World and to substitute modern industrial agriculture in its place. (Ashton. J. 1999). The answer is that traditional agriculture is not compatible with the developmental process that we are imposing on the people of the Third World, still less with the global economy and less still with the immediate interests of the transnational corporations that control it all. (Payer 1982)

Whether we like it or not, modern industrial agriculture may be on its way out. It is proving ever less effective. For instance we are now encountering diminishing returns on fertilizers. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) admitted in 1997 that wheat yields in both Mexico and the USA had shown no increase in 13 years. In 1999 Global wheat production actually fell for the second consecutive year to about 589 million tons, down 2 percent from 1998. Fertilisers are too expensive and as McKenney puts it: “the biological health of soils has been driven into such an impoverished state in the interests of quick easy fertility, that productivity is now compromised, and fertilizers are less and less effective. (McKenney, 2004.)

These things being true, there is an increasing argument towards suburban shared space gardening in the form of allotments, which now exist in many of the world’s major cities, from London to New York. In the Netherlands there are more than 300 city farms, which are visited by over 15 million people each year. In Australia there are community gardens in Perth, Darwin, Brisbane and Melbourne. Here in Perth
such gardens include City Farm East Perth, Earthwise Subiaco and Hillside Farm. (Strange, 2004).

In this project I intend to extend the public space allotment concept to verges in front of individual homes. At this point there is nothing preventing people from growing food on the verge but there is a possibility of making this illegal in the future. I write this proposal from the perspective of advocate anthropologist and hope to influence legislation so that human beings are free to grow food in shared urban spaces in the event that councils take this basic right away from people.

There is another vital and pragmatic aspect to this study, and that is the area of age care; the obvious issue of mobility with ageing people, as well as the percentage of ageing people who have downsized their living environments and may not have access to individual garden and growing space. (Newman, Kenworthy, 1999). Therefore using verges for food growing has a very practical application for senior citizens.
The chief aims of this research proposal are as follows:

1) To provide the council with clear ethnographic data including photos, interviews and tape recordings of community voice in regards to shared space
food growing.

2) To look at and research other community projects in other countries as well as
Australia to see the weaknesses and strengths of these projects.

3) To make these findings public through academic journals, environmental
publications and community newspapers.

4) To interpret the data collected and analyse its impact upon general and individual well being, various areas of health care, biodiversity, seed exchanges, pest control, more ecologically sound fertilizer use and further impact on future urban planning.

Significance and innovation E3

Sustainability and increasing oil prices

The fact that three million people starved to death in North Korea in the last few years was partly due to the collapse of the Russian market. It could no longer afford to import the vast amount of oil on which its highly mechanized, Soviet inspired agricultural system had become so totally dependent that its “farmers” had simply forgotten how to wield a hoe or push a wheelbarrow. (Campbell, 2003).

The transport strike of 2000 in the UK could have created a similar effect if it had lasted a few more weeks. In an industrial society oil is required to transport essential food imports, to build tractors and to produce fertilizers and pesticides. It is also required to package and transport food to supermarkets. The reality is that we are destined to face a steady decline in the availability of oil. As this occurs oil will become increasingly more expensive until it will be affordable to only a minority of corporations, probably US corporations. (Goldsmith, 2003).

Food prices and availability are clearly linked to oil availability and transport costs. It may in fact become imperative for people on low incomes to grow their own food, and in the absence of back gardens need other spaces for independent growing. Therefore keeping verge gardening legal may become in the near future not just a cultural indulgence but a means of survival for entire neighbourhoods.

Potential ethical dilemmas.

There are potentially ethical dilemmas for the future of independent food growing, those of genetically modified seed and seedlings becoming copyright material thus preventing individuals from becoming self sufficient. This is an issue that we as a community and species cannot afford to overlook in order to safeguard the quality of life that people in previous generations have enjoyed.
Today we are witnessing the forced introduction of genetically modified crops by international agencies in collusion with national governments, as the result of the massive lobbying being carried out by an increasingly powerful biotechnology industry. (Goldsmith, 2003).

In the pilot ethnographic study that I have done, of 15 people , one person thought that verge vegetable gardening could get “out of control”. The ethical dilemma here could be one of community aesthetic, ie that some suburbs do not want the ‘hippy fringe’ or Green left marker, but are associated with something which is more upwardly mobile and in some sense, sterile.

The home garden (including the verge garden) is much more likely to include diversity of species. (Heaton, 2001). There is much evidence that certain plants have an affinity for one another and in fact improve not only the vigour and resistance of each other, but even the flavour. (Pfeiffer 1970). It is another well researched fact that many plants protect others from pests. For example garlic can be planted anywhere in the garden, flower bed, rose bed or orchard. A mulched bed of roses will very rarely get aphis (green fly), nasturtium repels Wooley aphis from trees, chives grown around apple trees protect against scab. (Mollison, 1991).

Hidden Costs in Industrial Food Production

Politicians, business leaders and the media continue to reassure consumers in the USA that their food is the cheapest in the world, repeating a mantra over and over that the more chemicals and technology applied to agriculture, the more food will be produced, lowering the cost for the consumer. However under closer analysis, the United States’ supposedly cheap food supply becomes monumentally expensive. Conventional analyses of the cost of food completely ignore the exponentially increasing social and environmental costs customers are currently paying and will have to pay in the future. Americans spend tens of billions of dollars in taxes, medical care, toxic clean ups, insurance premiums and other pass-along costs to subsidise industrial food producers. (Jacobs, J. 1961) Given the ever increasing health, environmental and social destruction involved in industrial agriculture, the real price of this food production for future generations is incalculable.

Pesticides and fertilizers

One of the most significant costs is the intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers that seriously pollute water soil and air. The US has lost half its topsoil since 1960 and continues to lose topsoil 17 times faster than nature can create it. (Kimbrell, 2002). The US Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that 75 percent of genetic diversity in agriculture disappeared in this past century. There is also large scale downstream pollution caused by long distance transport of industrial food. Food on an average Westerner’s plate travels at least 2000km from field to dinner table. Vehicles moving food around the world burn massive amounts of fossil fuels, exacerbating air and water pollution problems. Currently consumers pay billions of dollars annually in environmental costs directly attributed to industrial food production. (Seedsavers, 2005)

Public policy and home gardens

With figures like those staring us in the face, how can we allow Australian policy to take us down the same path? Encouraging home gardens, verge gardens and allotments should be part of urban planning and public policy, as well as campaigns to put colourful signs in the streets of Subiaco and other councils with slogans such as ‘grow food at home’ or ‘vegetables are beautiful’. Slogans are often catchy for children and teenagers and can be part of healthy eating public
policy also and for work with anorexics.(class participation Health and Medicine 2006).

E 4 Approach

There are many aspects of urban living that will come under scrutiny in this project. These are: sizes of urban blocks, age care, collective community involvement, primary and secondary awareness projects, car dependency in urban spaces, vegetarianism and awareness about pesticides in our food supply. In each of these areas we will interview key people and send out questionnaires to collect data about community attitudes, and will approach organisations who will help us to compile further data.

I will conduct interviews with people in age care organisations such as Silver Chain and Independent Living Centre to collect data about mobility in the garden and food buying. I will also speak with primary school teachers about garden projects, and interview the staff of City Farm in Perth to collect data about who buys food from them and why.

The space around vegetable gardens is an important one. It was very common for me to hear people on the way home from work comment on my garden and say things like “it looks so nice to see a vegetable garden” or ‘it reminds me of the garden my parents had” or ‘your silver beet is growing so quickly isn’t it?” As such, ethnographic data will be collected around verge gardens, interviews will be
undertaken with back yard gardeners also to ascertain the extent to which they garden, why they garden, and how much pesticides come into the picture.

I will seek to interview government agencies, Perth City Farm, and local commercial growers to investigate what types of pesticides are being used and what the regulations of Organic Growers Association are.

Participant observation and ethnographic interviewing activities will be the primary way of collecting data as well as photographic studies of verge gardens,
home gardens and allotments such as Earthwise in Subiaco.

E 5 National Benefit

The value of social research in the area of shared urban growing spaces is central to urban planning for the future, and as such, is of value for public debate about small farms, care for the aged, car dependency, increased transport prices, studies on anorexia and enhanced quality of life. Human beings are collective by nature and when isolated often become depressed. (Durkheim. 1951) Throughout this work I will continue to liaise with government members and academics to inform them on my findings.

E 6 Communication of Results

The findings in this study will be published in a volume to be written by Marcia and Kathy. We will also submit articles for Grassroots magazine, Seed Savers network, Vermont collective of biodynamic gardening, various South American publications, and the West Leederville Growers association. In addition to these publications we will submit papers for publication in national anthropology and interdisciplinary journals such as The American Journal of Anthropology and Ecumene. Articles will also be submitted to Australian gardening magazines and
American gardening magazines.

We have already constructed a web page in order to reach a broad spectrum of people in Australia and overseas with our findings, and will attend several gardening conferences both here and in Europe. We will also be interviewed by Phillip Adams on Late Night Live.

E 7 Description of personnel

The research and writing of this project will be undertaken by Marcia Helene Hewitt. Marcia owned a goat farm in 1971, and was involved with animal husbandry, horticultural care of over 30 fruit bearing trees and a sustainable garden project that fed several people for two years with little supply from supermarket produce. In addition to that she grew back yard vegetables in Perth for the 27 years of raising a family and now is employed as a full time horticulturalist around Perth, caring for many gardens including the garden of Justin Langer and family. Her son Gabriel is also a professional horticulturalist working in Perth, and will assist her in more verge planting in order to obtain ethnographic data for the council. Marcia is also a third year Anthropology student at UWA. Her upbringing in Puerto Rico gave her the necessary cross cultural understanding to create a comprehensive anthropological study in the field of sustainable and traditional food growing techniques.

Marcia will be assisted by a Green chemist from UWA, Kathy Smith, who will take measurements of the air and soil to correlate data.

We are requesting two years for the research and collaboration of this project, the first year being for interviews and travel, and the second year for writing and publishing results.

E 8 References

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Application to the Australian Research Council for Discovery Project funding.
Section E.


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