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Backyard Survivalism: The Global Politics of the Kitchen Garden


Abstract: This article looks at the backyard garden as a political space. Michael Mikulak draws on his own experiences with gardening and small scale organic agriculture to consider the different ways in which the politics of the everyday are being complicated by various food-centred movements such as Slow Food. The growth in popularity of food issues can be understood as a desire to reconnect with a narrative of production and consumption, a narrative that has been replaced by brands and story-less food that are forcibly disconnected from the land and people who produced it. He uses the example of heirloom seeds as a way of understanding how resistance to industrial agriculture requires a maintenance of cultural and biological diversity that begins with the simple act of eating, and which can link up issues as diverse as environmental justice, biodiversity, class, race, gender, and environmental degradation.

Keywords: Slow Food, Life-Politics, Gardening, Alienation, Sustainability, Ecocriticism

WENDALL BERRY HAS FAMOUSLY SAID THAT “eating is an agricultural act,” reminding us that even in the act of consumption, we are co-creators of a system of food production (Berry). Eating is not just personal, it connects us to the world in profound ways, and increasingly, as worries about global warming’s effects on food production begin to ripple through public consciousness, people around the world are taking up the question of food sovereignty and food security as central aspects of political struggles surrounding issues of poverty, environmental justice, gender equality, and class struggle. The United Nations recently released report on the Environmental Food Crisis paints an alarming picture of a world profoundly effected by climate change, peak oil, population growth, demographic shifts, and a greater demand for both meat and biofuels (cf United Nations Environmental Program UNEP). Food security is on the lips of military advisers, peasant groups, backyard homesteaders, and policy makers, because the realities of the situation are such that, within the next fifty years, the biopolitical injunction to “make live”, to provide for life, may shrivel in the heat of the sun. As Foucault has pointed out, biopower changes the sovereign right to take life or let live” into “the right to make live and let die” (Foucault Defended 241). Food security is in a sense thus the first biopolitical act, and the legitimacy of a government rests on the ability to make the population live. As the environmental crisis worsens, this basic pact is beginning to unravel. According to the Earth Policy Institute, six out of the last seven years have seen world grain harvest fall short of consumption, drawing down carryover stocks at the end of the crop year to 57 days , the smallest buffer in over 30 years (Earth Policy Institute). With a global system of commercial food production already at full capacity and based fundamentally on an energy deficit [1] that can only be sustained by the disasterous geopolitics of cheap fossil fuels, modern agriculture is on the brink of failure. For a small but growing group of people, these factors have motivated learning a set of agrarian and more broadly food-related skills their grandparents had, but which they no longer posses.

In Britain, the allotment system of community owned garden plots has become overburdened as people scramble to get a piece of land to grow their own food, spurred by the example of celebrity chefs like Jaimie Oliver and shows like the River Cottage Treatment, worries about climate change, and a desire for the unbeatable freshness of new peas and potatoes from the garden. Some places have waiting lists of ten years or more for an allotment as urbanites rush out to develop their green thumb and get a taste of the good life. In the same vein, movements like Slow Food, the 100 mile diet, school garden programs, and numerous other community initiatives that teach people how to garden, cook, preserve food, bake bread, and otherwise become more self-sufficient, are helping affluent consumers in the global North address a largely dysfunctional and ecologically destructive relationship with food. While many parts of the global South have never fully relinquished these skills, organizations like Slow Food are connecting consumers and producers in a form of “virtuous globalization” (cf Petrini) that helps preserve both cultural and natural diversity from the homogenizing effects of globalization. Events like Slow Food’s Terra Madre, a biannual meeting artesinal producers from around the world, has been hugely successful in linking up food communities and providing small scale producers with the resources necessary to maintain their way of life. Moreover, food issue  writers like Michael Pollan have become household names as people begin to realize the ways in which a simple task like eating connects them to the world and is emblematic of a whole host of economic, political, and environmental issues.

Much of the impetus behind these movements is based on a desire to shorten the foodchain and to regain some measure of connection with the land, the farmer, and ones own labour in ways that sustain, rather than destroy, the environment. In many ways, a shorter food chain is a literary experience, one driven by a demand for narrative. The alienating act of purchasing nameless, story-less food in the supermarket is at the root of the problem, especially as more and more companies use the words natural, organic, eco, and bio in their advertisements, attempting to seduce consumers into a false belief that their product is worth the markup. In an era of unprecedented greenwashing by governments and corporations, the only way to be sure the food you are eating is sustainable is to either meet the farmer or grow it yourself. The growth in popularity of urban chicken coops, backyard gardens, CSAs, and community gardening reveals a dissatisfaction with the current globalized food system. Most of the food we eat contains a brand rather than a story, and the narratives afforded to us by meeting the farmer or growing the food yourself, allows for a way around the bureaucratic mystifications of organic certification and commodification. There is a pleasure in the narrative of food because it connects us with the world in a single bite and helps to circumvent a system designed to mystify the origins of the food we eat.

But what is food sovereignty? Although this term speaks to many things, including neoliberalism, capitalist globalization, the industrialization of food, the enclosure of the commons, peasant land rights, biofuel production, the environmental crisis etc, the premise is quite simple. Food sovereignty is about people regaining control over their food at a time when consolidation, industrialization, and globalization are the organizing principles of the agricultural systems around most of the world. It is one of the key principles of what Vandana Shiva calls “Earth Democracy,” an idea that links up social justice, environmentalism, peasant rights, eco-feminism, and a critique of corporate globalization. Shiva contends that “by taking back control over our food systems, we can produce more food while using fewer resources, improve farmer’s incomes and strengthen their livelihoods, while solving the problem of hunger and obesity” (Shiva 152). By emphasizing local production and helping to change government regulations that favour and subsidize large scale producers, food sovereignty is attempting to build and maintain an infrastructure capable of feeding a population without externalizing environmental and human costs. Slow Food has been involved in many such campaigns. For example, the European Union employs health codes and laws that often make it impossible for traditional producers to pass regulations, even though many of the concerns over contamination are generated as a result of industrial production. Thus a traditional salami maker or raw milk cheese facility simply cannot afford to meet the requirements of a system of regulation skewed in favour of industrial producers. Slow Food has been involved in lobbying to get small producers exempt from these laws, making it possible to maintain traditional communities, products, and biodiversity (cf Petrini).

For many urban Canadians and Americans, encouraging food security is no easy task. We are used to spending very little time and money on our food. In Canada and the US, we spend roughly 10% of our income on food (cf Pollan Defense), and much of that is spent in restaurants and on convenience foods. Shockingly, 19% of meals in America are eaten in a car (Pollan Omnivores 110), a fact that speaks to the dysfunctional relationship people have with the Western diet, and has spurred countless books and articles on the topic. But what it fundamentally comes down to is alienation: as industrial agriculture has become the model for producing food around the world, and as convenience, cheapness, and speed has increasingly defined our relationship with eating, people have become disconnected from what Carlo Petrini refers to as the “gastronomic axis.” Our relationship with food in the West tends to be mediated by the commodity form and largely about consumption. What, how, when and where we eat determines, in a very basic and profound way, how we relate to nature and time, whether this means eating with attention to the natural rhythms of your body and the environment, or ignoring them completely. The ontologization of speed so characteristic of capitalism, inscribes our bodies from inside out, and the politics of food is where it all begins. Food connects us to the world and to each other, even though it is often used as a means of seperation. It is at this economic, political, ethical, and environmental transversality where “form of life” and “bare life” (Agamben) coalesce in the most basic and necessary activity; an activity that forms the base of all superstructures, even in a postmodern, informational economy—the cultivation, storage, transportation, preparation and consumption of food.

For the Slow Food movement, responsibility comes in the sustainable maintenance and creation of naturecultures (cf Haraway) in which both consumer and producer respect the local environment by learning to decode the language of a territory and celebrate its unique contribution to our shared biocultural life. Eating is something we all have in common and, as such, it provides a way to transform everyday life into life politics (cf Giddens). Like many institutions of modernity, agriculture has been transformed into an expert system, and eating has increasingly become an industrial act. The basic skills of planting, growing, tending, cooking from scratch, and preserving are quickly disappearing, and so to are the ontological and epistemological conditions necessary for food sovereignty. There are more prisoners in the United States than farmers, and even those farmers that are left are little more than factory workers, applying chemicals from giant air-conditioned combines onto fields treated like sponges for oil.

Sustainable agriculture is a knowledge intensive industry: it takes years of study and observation and requires that farmers intelligently manage the ecosystems they intentionally manipulate in ways that are both respectful and generative. Industrial agriculture simplifies food systems into vast monocultures and applies an input-output paradigm that inevitably leads to the degradation of soil. In many ways, the health of soil is a cultural question, requiring that humans reinvest time and effort in learning how to support diversity in the soil and on the farm, a task that first requires a broad cultural shift. The culture of agriculture is quickly disappearing, as is the potential for a sustainable food culture. As Anthony Giddens points out, modernity relies on a general deskilling of day-to-day life, a process which is “an alienating and fragmenting phenomenon so far as the self is concerned” (Giddens 137). The institutions of bureaucratic modernity rely on expert systems that displace local control, as is the case with the disappearance of the local, diverse, organic farm, or the decline in cooking ability and the concomitant reliance on processed food.

The personal and political coalesce in the daily act of eating, but in general “ecological problems highlight the new and accelerating interdependence of global systems and bring home to everyone the depth of the connections between personal activity and planetary problems” (Giddens 221). The ecological crisis is simultaneously a personal issue involving individual choices and lifestyle politics, and one of profound global consequences that will be solved on levels far beyond the reach of individuals. In this sense it is perhaps the quintessential crisis of modernity. Food becomes a convenient site for considering many of these interconnected issues and also a moment for pedagogical intervention. The focus on school garden programs in Slow Food USA, where teachers teach kids how to grow vegetables and incorporating them into healthy lunches, is but one example of how taste education can link up personal and political issues in complicated and yet accessible ways. Because food is such a basic commonality, it can provide a convenient way of discussing numerous issues of environmental justice, consumerism, labour relations, and globalization.

For the rest of the paper I will consider the growing popularity of heritage seeds and the politics of the kitchen garden. One of the most important aspects of the Slow Food movement is the emphasis on biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.  For example, The Ark of Taste is a Slow Food initiative that tries to catalogue plant and animal varieties and provide resources to maintain them. It is a “protective receptacle for quality produce that should be saved from the deluge of standardization and world-wide distribution” (Parkins 23). It is estimated that 30,000 vegetable varieties, and 33% of livestock have become extinct in the last century (Parkins 23). This represent the destruction of a significant cultural heritage, since most of these plants and animals are also intimately tied into traditional ways of life. Moreover, as global warming shifts the climactic contours and conditions of bioregions around the world, our collective survival depends on the ability of agriculture to adapt, and the means of doing so lies in the seeds we sow. Industrial agriculture has shaped the food we eat very literally: by breeding plants for yield, synchronized ripening, the ability to withstand long distance transport, and visual uniformity, many modern day cultivars have sacrificed taste, nutrition, disease resistance, and adaptability on the altar of efficiency (cf Roberts, Pawlick, Belasco, Nestle). Corn, rice, soy, and wheat now provide most of our calories and much of that is limited to a small group of cultivars, many of which are quite sensitive to climactic variations (Shiva). For example, the pollination of both rice and corn is significantly effected by temperature: a few degrees increase during pollination and both crops have a tendency to fail dramatically. In the relentless drive for cheap and abundant calories we are very literally putting all our eggs in one basket.

Among the most important ways to resist the agricultural-industrial complex is a process of re-skilling and the time-honoured but increasingly corporatized and privatized act of saving seeds. For the last three years I have been trying to come into my foodshed more completely. As part of the research process for my PhD thesis, and a general life-politics, I have tried to re-skill myself by planting a heritage garden, working on an organic farm that runs a Community Support Agriculture initiative (CSA), learning how to preserve foods, foraging for wild edibles, and in general learning how to eat outside the industrial-agricultural complex as much as possible. This has been a fascinating and, at times, difficult journey, but one that is infinitely rewarding and illuminating. But I want to specifically discuss heritage seeds here, as I think some of the most pressing issues of food sovereignty come down to the seeds we plant. As I have already mentioned, most of the plants and animals we are accustomed to purchasing in the supermarket are products of an astonishing constriction of biodiversity. Although a typical store may contain 45,000 items, many of them are the result of scienctific and industrial  engineering and based on recombinations of corn, soy, wheat and rice. As Michael Pollan has documented in The Omnivores Dilemma and In Defense of Food, the abundance and diversity of the supermarket is largely an illusion: “There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more that a quarter of them now contain corn” (Pollan Omnivores 19).

The simplification of the food chain has profound effects on the availability of alternative cultivars with the result that anyone wanting them must go outside the typical pathways of corporate agriculture by finding a farmers’ market with progressive farmers, or by growing the food themselves. Many seed catalogues and seed groups are emerging that are struggling to save our common agricultural heritage. Since seeds need to be grown every few years in order to be maintained, it is vital that people actually plant them. Groups like Seeds of Diversity in Canada provide a forum for members to exchange heritage, open-pollinated cultivars and thus the opportunity to transform the space of the backyard into a site of political, ecological and social transformation. It all comes down to regaining a measure of sovereignty over the skills, time, and land required to live a dignified, healthy, and sustainable life. Nature is a relationship and sustainability is about figuring out how to live well, to get along with the world around you. Although time and space is often an issue, the resources are available to almost anyone. While questions of race and gender obviously need to be addressed, the concept of food communities and projects like Terra Madre are starting to make connections between the global South and North in ways that are sensitive to the politics of inequality. By linking up food communities and trying to support traditional ways of life, groups like Slow Food are trying to connect people of various socio-economic classes in a shared struggle.

When I first started my forays into food production, I lived in an apartment and so I rented a small patch of land in a community garden. For less than a 100 dollars a year, I had land, access to shared tools, and a ready community of individuals all interested in the same thing and eager to help. Now I have turned my small 40 by 60 foot backyard into about 250 square feet of raised-bed gardens which I intensively crop using a variety of techniques that mimic natural relationships by growing plants in families and taking advantage of their unique properties and needs. Through this system, I have grown hundreds of pounds of vegetables from a very small area. I grow mostly heritage varieties of plants, all of which are open-pollinated [2], so I can save their seeds and continue the rich legacy of natureculture hybrids embodied in each plant. Plants like Ronde de Nice, a round French heirloom variety of zucchini with succulent, almost watermelon-like fruit that are excellent for stuffing but would never make it to the market because they bruise very easily. Or Dragon’s Tongue, a Dutch heirloom bush bean with beautiful purple stripes and a buttery flavor.  Each seed has a story: a history of time, place, and people that is embodied in the careful coevolution of humans and plants – an evolution lost to us in the world of high-yield hybrid seeds controlled by corporate patents and which cannot be saved because their traits do not manifest in the second generation. To pick up a heritage seed catalogue is to engage in an act of historical preservation and to participate in a long narrative of naturecultures; it speaks to a desire to know where a plant or animal comes from. For me, spring begins in January when my seed catalogue arrives in the mail and I begin to imagine the wonderful new varieties I will grow this year. I feel connected to a whole new world as I read up on each cultivar and how it came to be.

It also gives you the opportunity to adjust to the climate in helpful ways. Because Hamilton, a city on the Western bank of Lake Ontario where I live, has been getting relatively hot summers recently, I will try out a new cucumber this year. The Armenian Cucumis melo var. Flexuosus is actually a melon, but the flesh of the fruit is shaped and tastes like a cucumber and it is capable of growing vigorously in the summer heat. With global warming effecting regions all around the world, access to various open-pollinated seeds is vital for the success of agricultural production. Without the aide of backyard gardeners and organizations that help people save and trade seeds, many of these varieties would simply disappear, and so to would the legacy they embody. Because many of these cultivars bruise easily, do not ripen at the same time, cannot be picked by machines, or are not uniformly shaped, most cannot be incorporated into an industrial foodchain. The growth of food-based movements and projects like Seeds of Diversity and the Ark of Taste are hopeful signs in the ongoing struggle against neoliberalism and corporatization. The backyard garden is quickly becoming a site of struggle and victory as more people take up the simple, life affirming act of growing food.


[1] Studies have shown that industrial agriculture takes on average 10 calories of oil to produce one calorie of food (cf Pfeiffer). In addition to this energy deficit, long distance transport, processing, and vastly unsustainable water usage is threatening the basic viability of the system in profound ways.

[2] Hybrid seeds are the result to two dissimilar plants bred together, often producing a plant that has high disease resistance and yields. However, the offspring of two hybrid plants produces a plant with unpredictable characteristics and thus in order to receive the same yields, one must purchase the seeds once again. Open pollinated seeds pass on their traits to the next generation and more easily adapt to their environment and are central to food security issues because they undermine the monopoly that companies like Monsanto have over growers.

Work Cited

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Author biography: Michael Mikulak is a PhD candidate in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario. He is currently in the final years of his dissertation which looks at the greening of capitalism and its relationship to issues of food security. His work looks at the rhetoric of green growth and the green collar economy and situates it within a historical context of capitalist development in order to better understand some of the ways in which recent food-centred movements resist and are incorporated by capitalist modes of production.

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