In his book _African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South_, Richard Westmacott notes that a good bit of Southern African American agricultural practice derives from West African and Caribbean practices of "vegeculture" as opposed to European style-seed agriculture. The term, coined by D.B. Grigg in his classic _Agricultural Systems of the World_ is based primarily on root crops, including manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, arrowroot, and in cooler climates was adapted to potatoes as well.
Vegeculture has several advantages over grain culture. For example, you don't have to till up a lot of ground at once, since these crops are adapted to "patch" culture. They often can be stored in the ground and dug up as needed, and can tolerate being integrated with perennial tree plantings. The tradition of planting in patches and leaving grown fallow to restore fertility in West Africa translated well in slave garden in the US and Caribbean islands because such gardens often had to be hidden. Often slave and later share-croppers had only hilly or otherwise difficult to use land, which is best served by being kept in perennial or semi-perennial root crops. Because slaves and tenant farmers had very little time to work their land, they needed high yielding crops that could provide nutrition and caloric density together.
In her essay "They have Saturdays and Sundays to Feed Themselves: Slave Gardens in the Caribbean," Lydia Pulsipher observes that there is considerable evidence that islands that included many slave gardens didn't suffer the classic malnutrition of slavery. In fact, the available data on the history of produce sales by slaves (who sold their surpluses to both white and black customers), suggests that white people were considerably healthier on islands that had large numbers of slave gardens. The implication seems to be that the starchy, vegetable poor diet of Europeans on these islands was significantly inferior to the vegetable rich, nutrient rich diet of the slaves, and the influence of slave gardens improved the European seed diet enormously (probably to the less-than-total delight of the slaves themselves).
As I was reading these various sources, tracked back from Westmacott's fascinating book, I also read The Community Solution's latest bulletin, which among other things observes that only 2.5% of American agricultural land produces vegetables, fruits and nuts. The other 97.5% is largely devoted to the production of grains and seeds for things like feeding livestock, feeding cars (ethanol and biodiesel) and transformation into processed food.
What struck me about this is how small an impact we would on the industrial agricultural juggernaut even if we were able to replace every single vegetable, fruit and nut we eat with locally, sustainably produced produce. That is, if we are looking to home production to help end the tragic power of industrial food production with its heavy greenhouse gas outputs, water consumption and soil degradation, we need to start thinking in terms of producing more of our total calories at home. Growing our lettuce and tomatoes is a good start, but the next step is a return to home production of calorically dense foods, and to that, I am more and more convinced that vegeculture is part of the answer.
Now the majority of that 97.5% of agricultural land is producing feed for meat, so obviously, and as I've said before, we simply must stop eating feedlot animal products - period, no negotiation. All of us need to eat less meat altogether, but also must, if we continue to eat meat at all, choose better sources of grassfed local or home produced protein.
Now most of us, in our city lots and suburban yards, will not be raising a lot of animal products. That doesn't mean we can't grow some. But if we are to get more of our calories from our own yards and from local farmers wherever we are, we need to choose high-nutrition, calorically dense, satisfying foods. Right now, as Michael Pollan has documented, Americans eat mostly corn, either as meat or highly processed foods. And it is hurting us. Although our lifespans recently inched up to 78, that's still several years behind other rich nations, while costing us twice as much. Quality of life in later years has fallen steadily over the last few years.
We simply have to change our diets, and eat more whole foods. We also have no choice but to live off a much smaller amount of agricultural land. In a 1994 paper, David Pimmental and Mario Giampietro document the falling amount of available arable land in the US per person http://www.dieoff.org/page40.htm. Between desertification, the transformation of agricultural lands to housing and a rising population, by 2050, there will be less than half as much arable land available to feed each person in the US - a total of 0.6 acres, as opposed to the 1994 1.8 rate. The current American diet requires 1.2 acres. We cannot hope to continue deriving many of our calories from "shadow" acres in other nations, in part because it would be unethical, and in part because it is likely that China, which is right on the cusp of being unable to feed itself, will be able to outbid us. So while we may have the luxury of a considerable amount of land per person, our children will not. It would be unconscionable, however, for us not to begin to transition to living on a fair share.
Which means, if our children are to eat, we have to change the current American diet. One way we can do this by adding land to our stock of "arable" lands - that is, we can start growing food on lawns, in public parks and anywhere else we can fit it. There are millions of acres of lawn available to be transformed into food producing land, much of it in housing built on the planet's best farmlands. And if there is to be enough food to go around, those gardens will have to include our staple crops, not just the things we grow for pleasure and flavoring.
And our farms will have to grow more calorically dense foods, suited to our particular climates. I've written about this before, of course, but we simply can't go around with all Americans eating the same basic diet of french fries and soda. Not only do our diets have to become more nutritious, and not only do they have to be produced more locally, but they have to reflect local conditions, and produce as much food as possible in as small a space as possible. We have, for the last 60 years, concentrated on making land more efficient in the sense of reducing the amount of labor needed to produce food on it. It is now deeply urgent that we change our notion of efficiency, and think in terms of total calories, fiber and fertility per acre, investing more human energy, more attention to soil humus and more care into our choice of crops. We cannot simply go on growing continuous corn, and washing our remaining soil down into the Mississippi.
Traditional West African gardeners, growing food in hot, dry areas of comparatively low fertility emphasized perennial vegetable crops as their base food crops, as have many Latin American farmers. Indeed, despite their tendency to rely on grain crops, Northern Europe made much of its agricultural prosperity on the turnip, and later, the potato. Large scale root cultivation enabled the milk culture of northern Europe, and there is archaeological evidence that in areas where turnips were cultivated, people grew taller and healthier than in areas where wheat and barley were emphasized. Root crops were higher yielding than grain crops, particularly when grown on a small scale. Hot weather root crops like sweet potatoes were tremendously drought tolerant and could be grown on ground of low fertility.
A few centuries later, John Jeavons at Ecology Action would pioneer an intensively grown diet for a human being based largely on calorie and nutrient dense root crops. In his book _One Circle_ David Duhon documents his life on a diet that could average less than 700 square feet, and heavily based on parsnips, potatoes and sweet potatoes. By eating these in place of grains, one could get virtually all the nutrition needed, keep full and healthy and feed four people on a single yard.
Meanwhile in Cuba, as grain imports fell, Cubans were raising more vegetables, and replacing rice and beans with sweet potatoes. In Russia, when no one could figure out why the Russian people weren't starving to death, as wheat imports ceased, beets and potatoes provided the primary food sources to keep people alive.
While most of us would rather live on a diet slightly more varied than the one that Duhon describes in _One Circle_ what is remarkable about all of these agricultural systems is that they represent a high yielding, extremely nutritious, good tasting diet that can be produced easily by ordinary people on comparatively small pieces of land using hand tools. Hand production of potatoes, for example, outyielded corn well into the industrial age. Hand produced polycultures of one acre that emphasize roots integrated with perennial plantings a la permaculture or vegeculture and include animals to eat wastes and maintain fertility can dramatically outproduce existing monocultures of grains.
But this involves changing our diets to emphasize not seeds, but roots. That doesn't mean we won't eat bread or rice or other grains. But it means that most of us need to think in terms of the root crops we can easily grow as our household staples. And the perfect time to begin such a dietary adaptation is in the autumn, when roots are at their finest. Now is the time to think in terms of beets and tomatoes and carrots (where I am) and in terms of sweet potatoes and taro in hot places. By integrating vegetable proteins or very small quantities of meat with these roots, we can have sufficient protein, excellent nutrition, comparatively low levels of fat and a great deal of food satisfaction. These foods taste good.
In the spring, or in the winter for those in warm climates, we can begin to grow them as well. Of course, in most places, potatoes, onions and other roots are cheap and plentiful - it seems so much more sensible to focus in on high value vegetables like tomatoes and lettuces. But some potatoes on the ground, or sweet potatoes in the backyard not only are a source of security, they represent the beginnings of something important - an old new kind of agriculture, suited to a world in which fossil fuels must be replaced by human power, and old priorities must be replaced by the notion of a fair share.
I'll write more later this week about what such a diet actually looks like, and I invite people here to share their favorite root crop recipes.