Friday, September 11, 2009

Digging for victory again

Interesting article in today's Guardian by Madeleine Bunting:

Madeleine Bunting

In an era of profound anxiety, the great claims made for home-grown veg are more convincing

Some praise her dress sense, others her warmth, and others celebrate her as a powerful role model; but perhaps the most astute move of America's first lady was to plough up the White House lawn for a vegetable garden. Now she has her first harvest, with 225lb of food grown so far, and over 50 varieties of vegetables.

The role of the wives of world leaders is all about symbolism. They are tightly constrained by what they can say and how they can intervene in public life, but what they can do is communicate by example. And Michelle Obama chose an intervention which, as they say, was absolutely on the money. It shows a canny knack of how to identify and ride a growing tide of public sentiment.

Because over the last two years, vegetable growing has gone from being a grandad's hobby to hip. The most unlikely gardeners now regularly discuss their runner bean crop, how to keep slugs off the courgettes, and their preferred type of chard. People with hectic lifestyles and tiny urban gardens are still eager to discuss tomato seeds. This has gone well beyond a rural fantasy of self-sufficiency. The results are evident in unprecedented waiting lists for allotments (estimated at 100,000 earlier this year) and the sales of vegetable seeds, with UK companies reporting increases of 30% in 2007 and another 40% in 2008. There are similar reports in the US.

It's easy to put this down to a straightforward response to tough times and the recession. But there's more to it than that, because – let's be realistic – by the time you've bought your seed, slug repellent and compost, you're unlikely to have saved that much money. This is not primarily driven by economic need.

The point at which this zeitgeist really struck me as curious was when an acquaintance – a successful property developer – told me she was keen to sell her home-grown cucumbers on her street with an honesty box. There is something much more interesting here than a search for cheap food.

Obama has linked her digging with the importance of healthy eating; a fifth of US children are reported to be obese. Can growing veg shift eating habits? Thousands of UK schools have developed vegetable gardens in the hope that growing a vegetable can encourage a child to eat one: a moot point, but probably worth a try. (My results have been mixed given my tendency to serve up a healthy portion of insect life in the veg.)

Great claims are made for home-grown veg: in particular, that it generates a better understanding of the food production process and the natural resources of soil fertility and water on which it depends. Under this rationale, a crop of leeks is a crash course in environmental awareness. Similarly, the considerable effort required to nurture a crop of tomatoes on to the dinner table brings a new dimension to food waste (the promises that growing veg is simple are wide of the mark, and one presumes Obama's success has been dependent on some expert advice). One has a much better sense of the effort and resources required to produce food and the horror of all that going to waste.

Also lurking in the background of this fashion is a profound anxiety that the future looks so uncertain that the produce of our window boxes may be all that stands between us and hunger. There are still plenty of people who remember digging for victory in the second world war, and their children and grandchildren now feel the need to make sure those gardening skills, once common, don't go to the grave. The example of Cuba is held up as the model: Havana managed to produce much of the food it needed within its city limits after its oil-based agricultural sector collapsed in the early 90s. Whenever oil prices edge up, it probably prompts another jump in the demand for seed potatoes at B&Q.