Our food systems are fragile, and the pandemic has exposed the cracks of a system already in disrepair. In communities across the country, how we address food insecurity today will determine its future resiliency. From factory farms to backyard gardens, there are changes we can all make now that can make a difference.
A Story of Disruption and Change
By: Andy Brownell
There’s an inescapable narrative emerging from the pandemic that deserves more attention. It is that we are part of, and inextricably bound to the natural world. We share a common and interconnected biology with both the living and non-living systems our lives are connected to. That includes everything from our microscopic DNA, to our outsized demands on natural resources. Even our personal consumption habits and the food we eat, everything comes with strings attached.
There’s a growing understanding that we are all part of a common biological community, a net of complex and interdependent connections draping over us and the rest of the natural world. Or, in more simplified pandemic-speak: “We’re all in this together.” (Cue the emotional piano music.) No matter how you phrase it, the reality is that this pandemic will have an outsized effect on the health of all living systems (biological and social) for generations to come.
Over the last half-century, much of society has shifted its focus from community-based connections to technology-driven connections. In our lifetimes we’ve seen the internet and increasingly efficient travel connect us throughout the planet, creating a way of life the generations before us could have only imagined. But along the way we’ve become distracted by the virtual world technology has enabled, and we’ve lost our appreciation for how the natural world truly works. How a seed becomes a plant and how a plant bears fruit. How the sun and rain feed the soil. How life moves through the world, dies, and begets life all over again. Now is the time to take biology more seriously and reevaluate our relationship with and understanding of the natural world.
We are nature. We are community. We are connected.
In a sense, we’ve been in a technology-induced quarantine from the rest of the natural world for quite a while. COVID-19 has shaken us awake to this fact, forcing many people to reevaluate their priorities. Some are changing personal/lifestyle habits or actively seeking deeper social relationships. And large portions of the workforce, those fortunate enough to still be working, have now shifted to a work-from-home mindset, with many even re-evaluating where that home should be.
On a larger scale, disruptions caused by the pandemic can make us question the very foundations of our social, economic, education, political and health systems. Today, each of these systems is now feeling the cumulative strain on its connective tissues — all from a microorganism that’s barely considered “alive” by most standards. The pandemic has caused a reevaluation of these systems and our relationship to them. But none of them are as crucial as our relationship, as a species, to the planet. So it’s time to more consciously reevaluate the health of those systems, as well — and our role in it.
Our Broken Food System: The pandemic within a pandemic
One major disconnect occurring between humans, biology and the natural world can be found in the extractive practices of modern agriculture. For example, the aggressive soil tilling that culminated in the 1930s Dust Bowl — as well as other agricultural calamities — has necessitated a complete and ongoing reevaluation of tilling and the disruptions it creates. Tilling has been found to reduce the overall long-term health of the soil and leave the land vulnerable to erosion. Other factors contributing to this broken system include the overuse of fertilizer and its dangerous run-off, the deployment of harmful pesticides and herbicides and the practice of single crop agriculture, which has a deleterious effect on our food and the natural systems needed to make our food grow in the first place.
The disruptions imposed by the pandemic have added a new set of challenges like food surpluses and unprecedented supply chain disruptions for American farmers. Tragically, their seasonal harvests are rotting on their farms or getting dumped along the way, never making it to our homes.
Over his decades of organic farming experience, American farmer and author Joel Salatin has grappled with the questions of sound, regenerative farming practices and the farmer’s relationship to the land. He offers a unique perspective on how our current industrial approach to agriculture — and our very relationship with food itself — is fundamentally opposed to how the natural world actually works. Many of these ideas are playing out in real time throughout our food systems as a result of the pandemic.
And while Salatin recognizes that each of us alone can’t change an entire system, he suggests there are ways of becoming a more active participant in our food system, collectively nudging us in the right direction. Salatin best summarizes it this way: “I mean there’s a million things anybody can do…but just participate in the awesome mystery of life, and realize that it doesn’t just happen.
Putting Salatin’s Advice Into Practice
Last Spring, I began to dig deeper into the roots of our food, and its connection to the natural world, by starting a vegetable garden. I started small. Being the student of the natural world that I am, I went to a garden building class offered by a local farm. A couple of back breaking weekends (and about $150 dollars) later, I started to grow my green thumb. Despite some of the challenges and commitment that come with growing your own food, it can be incredibly satisfying. It’s also a great excuse to get outside and away from the screens. Studies have actually shown that the activity of gardening results in more than just food — it can support our mental and physical wellbeing, as well. Think of it like a self-contained classroom and health class in your own backyard.
I also made a few small additions to our yard to help attract wildlife. I’m a furniture craftsman on the side, so of course I went a bit overboard with a couple of birdhouses, a classy squirrel picnic table and bird feeder for our backyard.
Now when I’m stuck working inside, I have another reason to take the time and glance out into nature — to appreciate the value of all living things while participating in the awesome mystery of life.
References / Further Reading
Many of the ideas in this story are based on research and writing from a wide range of sources. If you want to learn more, here are some recommendations you can find on Audible:
- You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin
- Folks, This Ain’t Normal, by Joel Salatin
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
- Life On Earth, by David Attenborough
- Buzz, Sting, Bite. Why we need insects, by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
- Dustbowl. The Southern Plains in the 1930’s, by Donald Worster
- Understanding Complexity, by Scott E. Page
- Connected, by Nicholas A. Christakis & James H. Fowler
- This View of Life, by David Sloan Wilson
- The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams