Something we all have to swallow

When I was a kid we had an orchard behind our house and used to walk to a mixed small farm from our primary school. Our neighbours had goats, geese, ducks and chickens, and a home vegetable garden was pretty common. At the greengrocer we bought fruit and vegetables in season frozen and tinned food was treated with some suspicion. Our connection with food was pretty straightforward.

Our friend’s daughter won’t eat our hen’s eggs because they come out of a chook’s bottom store-bought eggs, on the other hand, are on the menu. Apparently store-bought eggs don’t come out of a chook’s bottom.

These stories are simply anecdotes underscoring the shift in our relationship with food in a generation. Alienation from food production also illustrates a disconnection from the realities of sustainable food production and from the environmental requirements of sustainable food production. The impacts are potentially (and actually) profound for individual, population and landscape health. The impacts for individual and population health are apparent in statistics for childhood obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes. The impacts for landscape health are apparent in the degradation of the Murray Darling River Basin. This is hardly a long bow to draw a direct connection between food producers and consumers reduces the intake of processed and manufactured foods and provides a line of sight to landscape conservation.

The continuing industrialisation of food production and “value-adding” has required a significant shift in our values and attitudes around food. The challenge for marketing was to break down our suspicion about, and build trust in, new forms of both traditional and manufactured foods. Health regulations have complemented this marketing to reinforce the safety of the new frontiers in food that reflected imperatives in cost, convenience, shelf-life and even taste. Each success pushed the food industry further to the point where foods have become an abstraction. Jamie Oliver has notably railed against these changes in the Northern Hemisphere his shows have made for compelling viewing and in some areas even delivered change.

From a health perspective this is an issue. Cheap, convenient, durable and seductive food doesn’t provide a healthy diet A healthy diet is a critical part of a healthy life. From an environmental perspective this is an issue. An understanding of the foundations for sustainable food production is critical for our future.

Of course there are signs of change. Terms like “food literacy” and “food security” are gaining currency. In South Australia some great things are happening, from farmer’s markets to the development of regional appellations for food (as well as wine), visible slow food advocates such as Maggie Beer and Simon Bryant, to significant shifts in public health and school programs. Even in the US, a bastion of processed food, there’s been some entertaining sub-editing with the Sisters of St Francis in Philadelphia resolved against McDonalds and the fast food industry in general, and doctors supporting Corporate Accountability International’s campaign against McDonalds linking toys with high fat, salt, sugar and carbohydrates.

There are institutions that have been in this arena for a long time. The Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society’s annual show has a serious purpose in connecting the city with it’s dependence on the country. The Botanic Gardens of Adelaide has spent 150 years connecting people with plants.

The Gardens is active in this space, supporting community gardens, researching the diverse needs of schools in creating kitchen gardens and staging events bringing together active groups such as Slow Food, Seed Savers, the Herb Society, Rare Fruits Society and beekeepers. In 2010, The Gardens published A Kitchen Garden: a beginner’s guide (with the support of Santos and the Department of Health). The design for a kitchen garden that will inspire, involve and educate has been completed to utilise the Gardens’ unique location, reputation and expertise to invest in community education in food literacy, food security and food production. There’s still more work to do to secure the funding!

The act of growing is critical. In this context a kitchen garden is more than simply a source of food. A kitchen garden, even a container planting, provides the opportunity to engage with plants, to experience the rewards of nurturing, to understand food and our relationship with food, to learn the challenges of food production and food security and to engage in productive physical exercise. Of course, there’s also joy in harvesting, cooking and sharing.

The connection between people and plants in terms of individual and landscape health is the main game, not a side show. Ultimately all life depends on plants – no plants, no people. As a truism this might be difficult for some people to digest but it is something we all have to swallow. A kitchen garden’s not a bad place to start the journey.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 June 2011.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.

@StephenJForbes
@BotGardensSA

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