Russian Gardeners Produce 40% of Their Nation’s Food – Why Can’t We?

Russia vs USA Agriculture

One of the things I’ve missed since we moved to California is gardening. I didn’t grow a lot, but I enjoyed getting my hands dirty and enjoying the fresh vegetables. It gave me a sense of accomplishment.

This article talks about the amount of food that is produced in the Dacha* gardens in Russia.

While many in the world are completely dependent on large scale agriculture, the Russian people feed themselves. Their agricultural economy is small scale, predominantly organic and in the capable hands of the nation’s people. Russians have something built into their DNA that creates the desire to grow their own food. It’s a habit that has fed the Russian nation for centuries. It’s not just a hobby but a massive contribution to Russia’s agriculture.

The results are impressive

in 2011, dacha gardens produced over 80% of the countries fruit and berries, over 66% of the vegetables, almost 80% of the potatoes and nearly 50% of the nations milk, much of it consumed raw.

The image above gives some comparisons between the US and Russia in how we spend our time and money. If more Americans had gardens – more specifically, organic gardens – they would spend less on food, but also they would learn to appreciate the taste of fresh fruits and vegetables. This would increase demand for food from small organic farms and farmers’ markets, and force the large agriculture conglomerates to provide better, healthier products.

Another side effect would be improvements in health from the exercise you get while gardening and eating healthier foods.

Victory GardensDuring World Wars I and II, Americans planted Victory Gardens.

The United States Department of Agriculture encouraged the planting of victory gardens during the course of World War II. Around one third of the vegetables produced by the United States came from victory gardens. It was emphasized to American home front urbanites and suburbanites that the produce from their gardens would help to lower the price of vegetables needed by the US War Department to feed the troops, thus saving money that could be spent elsewhere on the military: “Our food is fighting,” one US poster read. By May 1943 there were 18 million victory gardens in the United States – 12 million in cities and 6 million on farms.

Today, we need victory gardens to win back our health from an industrial agriculture industry that is literally killing us. It’s time to get off our couches and go play in the dirt. (Those of you in northern regions of the country might have to wait until Spring – so request some seed catalogues and start planning.)

* The word “dacha” originated in the 17th century from the verb “davat’” (to give), in reference to plots of land distributed by the Tsar.

Michael Pollan on Food Policy

photo Alia Malley

photo Alia Malley

You need to align your agricultural policies with your health and environmental policies, and you can’t have them at cross-purposes. Otherwise, you have a situation where the government is, as it is now, essentially underwriting both sides in the war on Type 2 diabetes.

This is from a fascinating interview with Michael Pollan from Earth Island Journal that includes information about his new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, the “unknowable wildness” of microbes, the continued growth of gardening and the broader food movement, and why it’s OK to have a point of view as a journalist.

Regarding public food policy, Pollan has two thoughts. The quote above continues:

We spend a fortune as a society – and we’ll spend more now with Obamacare – dealing with the cost of Type 2 diabetes when it hits teenagers and kids. Very, very expensive to treat, and the government’s on the hook and insurance industry’s on the hook, because they have to insure everybody. At the same time, we’re subsidizing the production of high fructose corn syrup and making sugar unreasonably cheap, and underwriting the calories that are causing Type 2 diabetes. That’s insane. So how do you adjust your farm policies to support your health policies?

To counter these policies, we need to re-solarize agriculture.

One way you do that is to diversify your crops, because you need to use plants to synthesize nitrogen. You need legumes, and you need more and different crops in your rotation. You need to capture more sunlight, so you need more perennials. Corn is incredibly productive, but if you fly over a cornfield, it’s only green three or four months of the year. All that solar energy is wasted when you see that black ground, which is what you do see all spring and most of the fall. So you need either cover crops, or you need to put it back to pasture, and then let animals harvest that solar-created energy. And suddenly, as you diversify the farm to deal with this input, the energy flows, you will diversify our diet, so that you can solve for the problem of environment and energy and health at the same time, if you keep that as your North Star.

Pollan believes we can make this happen by getting political and pushing Congress and state legislatures to change policies; and using our dollars to support non-GMO and organic food products.

What you have asserted is that the public wants a say in these very important decisions about how their food is produced, and want transparency. The story of how food is produced is of keen interest to people now. And, as Chipotle is learning, people will pay for meat that they can feel good about now. To the extent that companies now have to grapple with that, that the consumer cares not just about the attributes of a food, but the story behind it, that represents a real change, and you’ll see a lot of changes in animal agriculture as a result.

The entire interview is worth reading it captures his passion for food, gardening and how we move forward to a sustainable future.