It’s not so common these days to hear that what we need is more labor — humble manual labor and human intellectual labor — rather than more technology. It’s easy to get caught up in the big picture of progress, the one that fosters ever bigger, shinier and more automated systems to keep up with the exponential growth of the global population, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we face. After all, if a computer can whir away for a few seconds and do the work of ten men’s lifetimes (and even win at Jeopardy), what’s left for the brain and hands?
But this is precisely the idea that is beginning to bubble up under the surface, in widely varied fields. Olivier De Schutter’s recent report to the UN Human Rights Council promotes “agroecology,” a knowledge-intensive, human-scaled practice, as a sustainable and practical method to increase food production across the board, from large cities to the poorest countries:
“Industrial (or “conventional”) agriculture requires a great deal of resources, including disproportionate amounts of water and the fossil fuel that’s needed to make chemical fertilizer, mechanize working the land and its crops, running irrigation sources, heat buildings and crop dryers and, of course, transportation. This means it needs more in the way of resources than the earth can replenish.
“Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellectual — much research remains to be done — and physical: the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization.”Mark Bittman, “Sustainable Farming Can Feed The World?” New York Times
De Schutter says that “Agroecological practices are best adopted when they are not imposed top-down but shared from farmer to farmer,” and his report [pdf] illustrates several examples of small shifts in approach that have had far-reaching impact. He cautions, though, that “This will not happen by chance. It can only happen by design, through strategies and programmes backed by strong political will, and informed by a right-to-food approach.”
In Milwaukee, we have the opportunity to see these ideas play out firsthand at Growing Power and Sweet Water Organics, two local organizations dedicated to the idea that the green food movement is not just a luxury for the well-off, but a sustainable model for all of us. Growing Power began as a small urban greenhouse with the humble goals of providing fresh food to its low-income neighbors and a place to work for local teenagers, but the idea has caught on, and the organization now feeds more than 10,000 people each year through school kitchens, restaurants, affordable food baskets, and farmers’ markets. On an even wider scale, Growing Power and its founder Will Allen have become part of a national conversation about the future of vertical farming in urban areas.
It’s a beautiful concept — that form and progress emerge from the individual work of thousands of tiny parts — and a very accessible one, too. Global hunger and mass climate change are daunting problems, but a community farm? That, I can support. And so can a lot of other people: with recent news of a city grant for Growing Power’s groundbreaking new vertical farm facility and the Smarter Cities Challenge Grant awarded to Milwaukee, these small-scale ideas are poised to pave the way for a large-scale model of truly sustainable agricultural and economic development.