Thursday, February 24, 2011

Simple seeds

Will Allen embodies the aspirations and contradictions of the urban farming movement. Photo Growing Power, Inc.

THE GREAT ecological crisis – our generation's gift to the world which will ensure that our names live in infamy long after we are gone – can be boiled down to the fundamental division between town and country.

That old divide is one of environmentalist Derrick Jensen's central premises: civilization is an urban-centered culture based on the city's violent appropriation of resources from the surrounding land. It was also, long before him, a key point of Marx's critique of capitalism. As peasants are forced off the land and driven to the city to work in factories, the products of agriculture are also massively shipped to the city to feed its growing population. Soils, harvested bare and starved of organic nutrients, are unable to regenerate themselves. Like a drug addict, the land becomes dependent on regular supplies of chemical fertilizers produced in the cities. Marx called this starvation of the land to the benefit of the city the metabolic rift.

Such an imbalance is not meant to last. Even as the metabolic rift continues to deepen before our eyes at a frightful speed, the revolutionary response is already in motion. It does not, however, imply a nostalgic “return to the land” as some environmentalists offer simplistically. On the contrary, it consists of bringing the land into the city. It takes the form of an explosive urban farming movement which relies on new concepts such as vertical indoor farming, new technologies such as solar power and hydroponics, and rediscovered forms of political organization such as community-based participative democracy.

A few weeks ago, I met one of the movement's gurus, Will Allen. About seven hundred people packed the Croatian Cultural Centre on Vancouver's Commercial Drive to hear him tell how he had started Growing Power Inc., a community-based urban farm in Milwaukee's inner city.

Food is the number one tool in community development, Allen explained, because food is what connects everyone to the world. We have worked with the juvenile justice system with kids who did some pretty awful stuff. They would grow plants and give them to shelters as part of their healing. We took over vacant lots where there were drug dealers, and they left. We called those operations “flower explosions”.

Urban farming has gone from a movement to a revolution, he added. Five years ago, maybe 50 people would have been in this room. Now, I get crowds wherever I go. This is a below-the-ground movement, it has taken root, he concluded unable to resist the agricultural punt.

The crowd was cheering with enthusiasm. Half of the Drive's food growing community must have been in attendance that night, and they were roaring with pleasure, loving every part of it. I personally bumped into at least 20 people from my own rabble-rousing seed-loving network. It was clearly a night for radicals.

Will Allen, however, was also surrounded by a different group of friends. This event, the PA system announced at the start, is proudly sponsored by the Real Estate Foundation of BC. Tucked under every chair, a brown bag was filled with goodies courtesy of organic cereal maker Nature's Path. Half a dozen representatives of the City of Vancouver were on stage or among the crowd, including deputy mayor Andrea Reimer who gave a hearty speech. The event itself was moderated by former NPA (yes, the real estate party) city councilor and mayoral candidate Peter Ladner. The corporate and government establishment – at least, its more green-leaning faction – had come in force to express its active support to Will Allen.

This was not just a Vancouver oddity, either. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Allen “has become a darling of the foundation world”, raking over a million dollars in grants in recent years from corporate charity household names such as the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Kellogg Foundation. During his slide show presentation, Allen showed some of his farming projects situated in the financial districts of America's largest cities, with manicured urban gardens growing in the shade of 80-floor skyscrapers or on the front lawns of high-tech corporate campuses in wealthy suburbs, all paid for by their happy hosting sponsors. Corporate America has identified Will Allen as a high value asset and has solidly latched onto him.

Allen's personal history embodies some of the deeper contradictions which make the urban farming movement. The son of a South Carolina sharecropper and himself a long time inner-city activist, he is also a former professional basketball player and successful salesman for Procter & Gamble. Allen lives and works at the crossroads of worlds often at odds with one another, with very different understandings of the word “revolution”. In fairness, it is very tempting to accept those generous partnerships from such powerful and wealthy friends and, arguably, very foolish to reject them. But as hard as it may try, the urban farming movement will find that on the long run, it cannot reconcile its strategic goals with those of the industry. The best it can hope for is to establish tactical, short-lived alliances. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the movement faces potential liquidation if it fails to understand this reality.

To my right, the rock: the entrenched interests of America's corn belt, the Archer Daniels Midlands, Monsantos, and Tyson Foods of the world, who are the heirs, beneficiaries, and guarantors of the metabolic rift. They love the fact that crops and chemicals get shipped back and forth over long distances between country and city. They are outright pissed at the initiatives of Will Allen and other like-minded urban hipsters. Their philosophy is that feeding the world is a serious business which should be left to grown-ups of the sort that sit on the boards of, well, Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto and Tyson Foods. Initially dismissive of those awkward and smelly urban farmers, the industry is now getting slightly worried at the speed and magnitude of the revolution, and is gearing up for battle.

To my left, the hard place: green capitalism. What's not to love about them? They channel the forces of the market, reform the system from the inside in order to make the world a better place. They are the Nature's Paths and Happy Planets which line the organic shelves of our supermarkets, and the hi-tech start-ups which invent every day new bleeding edge technologies and intensive processes to grow food inside high-rise downtown buildings. Their CEOs drive electric cars, establish partnerships with community heroes such as Will Allen, and run successfully for mayor in large cities like our own. Just like the “brown” capitalists of the American corn belt, green capitalists understand the magnitude of the urban farming revolution. Unlike their less forward-thinking friends however, they don’t plan to fight it but rather take its lead.

Both shades of that industry, whether green or brown, operate according to the same general principles of the capitalist class. Strict division of labor between manual and mental tasks. Enclosure of the means of production, whether those means are land, seeds, technology, or know-how. The enclosure of the land is pretty straightforward and happened some time ago, through the combination of a forceful dispossession of the peasantry by the state, and a re-foundation of the legal apparatus with the effect of elevating private property to an inviolable principle. During this initial phase of capitalism, the commons were successfully outlawed.

The enclosure of the seeds is more recent and required a certain level of scientific mastery, as well as a higher degree of legal sophistication in order to secure patent rights over something so inherently “public domain” as a seed. But that revolution is now accomplished, thanks to the combined efforts of Monsanto and governments worldwide which coerced their rural populations into accepting this transformation, with often tragic consequences as in India's ill-named “green revolution”.

The enclosure of technology and know-how is a bit trickier and still very much a work in progress. Indeed, how does one suppress popular know-how over something as simple as growing food? The technology involved in growth is complex beyond comprehension, don't get me wrong. But it's already embedded in plants in the form of photosynthesis and other miracles of life, and provided at no charge to anyone who cares to throw a seed in the ground. To enclose and privatize such a free gift of nature, one needs to bury it behind layers of privately owned complexity which can then be unlocked in return for compensation.

Have you noticed how vertical farming solutions offered by corporate start-ups are always ridiculously complex, even though those offered by community groups or your average Joe Doe in his basement tend to be simple as pie? Check out for example the following sales pitch by an average start-up which sells (pardon the mouthful) “eco-technology growing solutions”:

The rotating hydroponic technology enables high-density vertical growing – more plants can be grown in less space producing crop yields of up to 20 times more than conventional farming methods. With the use of organic nutrients, VertiCrop™ and AlphaCrop™ can also be fully utilised for organic growing”

Got it? Well, that is sort of the point of the ad. We know, you don't, if you buy this then you won't have to understand it. Simplicity usually does not make for very good patents, and vertical agriculture tends unfortunately to be rather simple. Bad business. Let me give you a silly but real example: in my apartment's second bathroom, I grow lettuce year-round in a bookcase. The technology and cost involved in that project are close to zero: a timer and a bunch of CFL lamps. I had to resolve a few hurdles, such as how to adjust the distance between the containers and the lamps as my lettuces grew larger. I needed surfaces that could move up and down, and Ikea's Billy bookcase came to my rescue to solve that problem. Well folks, it works! I can grow up to 12 lettuces at a time, and tonight we're having delicious, crunchy salad for dinner. It will feed my family, but it won't make me rich because a casual look at my system will allow you to build the same one in your home, and probably improve it dramatically. From my basic bookcase to more sophisticated hydroponics vertical farms, it's just a matter of degrees.

With the help of people like Will Allen who unlock knowledge and set it free, it won't take very long for people to read through the vertical farm technology bullshit and use only those toys that they really need (a solar panel would be one of them), and therefore for the brilliant inventors of VertiCrop and AlphaCrop to file for bankruptcy. Moving forward, the only viable long term option that will remain for the industry is good old repression against those pesky urban farmers. We will see the industry invoke property rights to deny growers access to land, lobby governments to enact more stringent “food safety” regulations and bury growers under red tape, and demand that authorities crack down on “illegal” and “unsafe” operations such as my little Ikea bookcase lettuce grow-op.

You think I'm out to lunch? Case in point. Mission, BC this past January. A house was raided by the RCMP and its owner fined $5,200 for ahem growing cucumbers in his basement. A stark warning of times to come. Like every other revolution, the urban farming revolution will involve the use of force, violent struggle, loss of livelihood, and at times loss of freedom. No point pretending that corporate sponsors will always be our friends, because they won't. Time for us growers to grow up, and to understand what we are dealing with. Let's harden off a little in preparation for colder days.