Urban farming and self-sufficiency
By Lalitanatha Dasa, Copenhagen, Denmark
One of the goals of The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is ”teaching a simpler and more natural way of life,” as Srila Prabhupada stated it in his seven purposes of ISKCON. This is generally understood to refer to a self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle based on land and cows.
In the latest GBC-resolutions (res. 310 and 311, 2009) the GBC asks its members to, as far as possible, commit themselves to spend 10% of their time helping to develop farm projects. The reasons are obvious. Although some farm projects have had their successes, ”there has been a decline in the development of ISKCON farms and most remaining farms are struggling.”
Srila Prabhupada saw farming and cow-protection not only as self-sustaining but as a means of generating prosperity for the rest of the society. This has not happened. Many farm communities have evolved into suburban country dwellings with devotees commuting to nearby towns to make their living and farming and cow-protection only continuing to exist due to subsidies from donors.
Unsettling is also the fact that ”a simpler and more natural way of life” at present bears no practical meaning for the majority of ISKCON’s members. Probably 99 percent or more live urban lives, providing for themselves not by tilling land and caring for cows but mainly by earning salaries at non-devotional jobs. Of course, no one is to be blamed for maintaining himself and his dependents in an honest and upright way, but if Srila Prabhupada intended the ”simpler and more natural way of life” to be for everyone, then there is still a long way to realize that.
The failure is also apparent in terms of influencing the world if this is what Srila Prabhupada meant by ”teaching a simpler and more natural way of life.” Although we may on occasion show guests and newcomers a slide of bulls plowing at a Krishna conscious farm project, our actual influence among those in the greater society working to establish natural, sustainable living is negligible.
All this is also damaging our good name and our preaching. Everyone who gets in touch with Krishna consciousness and reads Srila Prabhupada’s books understands that we are promoting a different, more natural life style. When people see that our ideals have no bearing on the way we live, they may lose faith in the Krishna consciousness movement as being able to make a difference in the world.
Thus the GBC has plenty of good reasons to want to bring more life into exisiting as well as new farm projects. But, although commendable, I am left with a feeling that more is required than just directing more energy into the same model so far tried in regard to natural living. Srila Prabhupada was undoubtedly right about the viability of natural living, but perhaps a new kind of thinking is needed to actually implement this. In fact, I propose as a first step that we radically urge everyone, and not just a few ”farm devotees,” to give up the urban life style and embrace ”a simpler and more natural way of life.”
At this you are probably thinking that I am proposing a mass exodus from the cities. ”Let us all leave our congested dwellings and settle on farm communities in unspoiled natural settings, without modern amenities, electricity, running water, and the Internet.”
Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I think this idea is precisely what is hampering our attempts at natural living; i.e., the idea that natural living can only happen in some places and not in others. So I have something else in mind. Instead of us all moving into the country, I believe it should be the other way around. If the ISKCON natural way of life shall be anything more than a few open-air museums with no actual relevance to the way most of us live, we’ll have to let the farms and the natural life style move into the cities and become an integral part of the urban life of each and every one of us. We city slickers must become active and involved urban farmers, if we want to see ”a simpler and more natural way of life” ever happen.
Rural life and industrial specialization
You may still be unclear about what I mean. Let me therefore take you back to a time when most people lived rural lives. Let’s imagine a small village from before the industrial revolution. Almost everyone made their living on farms or smallholdings, growing and producing most of their own needs. What they couldn’t produce themselves was generally bought or bartered from other local producers; only few things had to be brought in from far away.
Since they had to make most things themselves, most people were all-round experts as farmers, gardeners, carpenters, craftsmen, etc. Only few were highly specialized in a particular trade. Most families had a few cows, made their own milk products, grew grains and beans, vegetables, fruits and nuts, kept sheep for wool, grew seeds and herbs, ground their own flour, even built and repaired their own houses, etc.
The village was ecologically a closed unit. Dung from cows was fertilizer for grains and vegetables, and waste from vegetables and grains was fodder for cows and sheep. Only what came as a natural surplus from this ecological cycle was sold to markets outside the village. This made for a stable economy. One kind of crop failing was almost always compensated by other things not failing; hardly ever did everything fail at one time.
The industrial revolution changed that. Industry meant to bring different raw materials from different places far away together at one place and process them to a finished, specialized product. Next the product was shipped out and sold at markets, and with the returns the industrialist and his workers could buy their necessities of life (which they previously used to make themselves).
The industrial life style was attractive, for in good times one could make fantastic profits. Of course, it also had its downsides. In times of a low market one could also lose a lot. And everyone lost their independence because now their means of livelihood depended not only on themselves but also on economical and political factors beyond their control.
But this is not so much the issue. The real point is that, whether we like it or not, the industrial revolution changed the life style. From being all-round, self-sufficient farmers and smallholders, people become onesided specialists, often highly trained, in one field. Instead of growing and producing their own needs they now earned a wage through their particular expertise which enabled them to buy all their needs on the market. Today this is the regular life style of almost everyone. Many are not even aware that things have not always been like that, or that it is still possible to exist in some other way.
Today’s urban life is the outcome of the industrial revolution with its armies of specialized producers and consumers. “Giving up our urban life style” therefore means nothing but to give up the idea that the only way to exist is by selling one’s particular expertise in exchange for the power to purchase all of one’s basic needs. If we actually want to exemplify and lead others toward ”a simpler and more natural way of life,” then we’ll have to return to a pre-industrial concept of living, even in the midst of modern urban life. This is at least my claim. In particular, whether living in cities or not, we should, as far as possible, strive to produce as many of our own basic needs as possible, in particular our food. Anything else is not “simple” or “natural.”
As I see it, this is where the above GBC resolutions fail. For instance, one of the GBC’s recommendations is that all ISKCON projects and devotees should purchase ”produce, flowers, and milk products from ISKCON farms.” Of course, not considering that most ISKCON projects and devotees don’t live in a realistic proximity of any ISKCON farm, the real problem is the word ”purchase.” Doesn’t it convey the very idea of the industrial paradigm of onesided specialization and buying all of one’s basic needs? Since this very concept is what undermined the “simple and natural life” everyone was living, isn’t that also what we now have to change?
I would much rather have had the GBC recommend something like this: ”All ISKCON projects and devotees should as far as possible grow their own produce, flowers, and milk products. To the degree this is not possible, they should purchase these from other ISKCON projects or devotees, and as the last resort they may buy from the general market what cannot be procured in any of the above two ways.”
Some of you may object, ”Wait a minute! We are living in big, polluted cities. There is no way we can grow our own food here.” However, this is not true. Plenty of things grow in cities. Indeed, big cities are where one the world’s largest, if not the largest, agricultural crops are grown. Although written in 1988, the following observations from Bill Mollison are more true than ever (quoted from Bill Mollison, Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual, Tagari Publications, Australia 1988, p. 434-435):
”The singlest largest crop system in the USA, requiring 573 kilocalories per square meter to maintain – more than the energy used in the producion of corn or vegetables – is…” – have a guess!
”In the USA, it is estimated that 16 million acres were devoted to lawn by 1978…and a vast expansion of lawns has taken place in recent years.”
”By 1978, lawns used 15%-20% of the annual fertilizer production in the USA; equal to that used on the total food agriculture of India. As for water use, 44% of domestic water consumption in California is used for lawns, which is another enourmous public cost of lawns, as well as longterm groundwater, atmospheric, and soil pollution costs.”
The astounding fact is that any one the modern societies ”that grow extensive lawns could produce all its food on the same area, using the same ressources.” Think about that. All the land now wasted to grow lawns could easily produce all the vegetables, fruits and flowers that we need!
What more is, ”the yields of this agriculture create a massive public disposal problem, consisting as they are of poisoned grass waste, rich in Dieldrin, DDT, biocides, and nitrogen.” Mollison laments, ”The lawn has become the curse of modern town landscapes as sugar cane is the curse of the lowland coastal tropics, and cattle the curse of the semi-arid and arid rangelands.”
Bill Mollison points out that in the USA, ”The average suburban lawn is about 650-900 square meters.” Compare this with Srila Prabhupada’s statement: ”One can cultivate a garden. Anyone who has land—in India, at least, any poor man has a certain amount of land—can utilize that for Krishna by growing flowers to offer Him.” (Bg. 11.55 purp.)
How many have thought when reading this passage, ”Well, maybe it is like that in India, but where I live, not every poor man has a certain amount of land.” But the fact is, there is plenty of land everywhere, including most big cities; we just don’t see the forest for trees, or, rather, we don’t see the land for lawns.
Do you still believe that urban farming is not possible?
Practical urban self-sufficiency
Many are not aware how little land is actually needed to easily grow more food than one family, or one temple community of devotees, can use. Of course, keeping cows may not be possible in many of the world’s cities – mainly for legal reasons – but to fully supply one family with fruits and vegetables every day of the year can easily be done with 100-200 square meters of garden in most parts of the world. This includes northern places such as Scandinavia where my wife and I for almost ten years not even once have had to buy fruits or vegetables in the shops. Of course, we are obsessed with gardening so we cultivate more than 500 square meters in our back garden, supplying not only ourselves but also many of our devotee friends and neighbours with first class, organic vegetables and fruits of a quality and freshness never to be found on the shelves of the supermarkets.
If one doesn’t have one’s own garden, it may still be possible to lease a patch of land from someone who has. Even a few square meters can be utilized. Indeed, in some ways one is better off with too little than too much land, because that forces one to learn the art of growing a lot on a very small area. Once you get started you’ll be surprised how much yield you can get.
If even that is not possible, one must at least possess a balcony or some windows in one’s apartment. There one can grow herbs, tomatoes, chilies, etc., along with Srimati Tulasidevi. Thus no one is barred from growing at least something.
Now, cities are polluted, so it goes without saying that one should never cultivate a vegetable garden next to a highway or other source of pollution (but one can still grow flowers there, or even have a small nursery with trees and bushes which can be sold at a good price). Still, by looking around one will find that there are plenty of patches in every city where one can safely grow vegetables for human consumption. Maybe it is not perfect, but it is in any case as good as, and often better, than what one would buy at the supermarkets.
The problem is not that urban farming is not possible. The real difficulty is that most of us have become so removed from Mother Nature that we don’t have a clue even how to grow a few potatoes or flowers. The good news is that it is not difficult. Everyone who wants to can become a self-sufficient urban vegetable farmer by learning it from some who already knows it, by reading relevant books on the subject, and – most important – simply by doing it. There will be failures at first but also successes, and gradually, over the years, one will gain experience and become a very expert urban farmer.
What more is, being an urban farmer doesn’t require any great investment except one’s time. One doesn’t have to wait to get the support of one’s leaders in the community. No one has to step forward and start up a costly farm project that one can hope to fit into. Urban farming is extremely grass-root friendly. Anyone can do it by simply starting with whatever is available where one is.
It is also not a losing business; rather, it is surprisingly profitable and doesn’t need to be artificially subsidized. It is unaffected by good and bad times and can continue indefinitely and spread to others, once someone catches on to the idea.
It is very good that the GBC is concerned about the decline in the development of ISKCON farms. But the problem goes deeper than just not enough money and time put into our existing model of what simple and natural living implies. More than anything, it is a conceptual problem, going back to the roots of the industrial mentality, which now defines our life style and how it is feasible to maintain oneself. It is necessary, in particular, to give up the industrial concept of specialization, at least in regard to “a simpler and more natural way of life.” Just like we don’t hand over our eating to specialists, we also cannot hand over our life-style to specialists. A natural life-style is not meant only to be practiced by a few specialist “farm devotees” on behalf of everyone else who in turn have their own specialized services to take care of. Natural living will never happen, and our agrarian programme will continue to decline, until this industrial mentality is rooted out.
Once this is understood, the solution is not complicated or costly. What I call “urban farming” can be encouraged and implemented by devotees everywhere. Simply creating awareness through training and examples can change everything to the better and initiate what in the end may become a second wave – the urban wave – in ISKCON’s agrarian revolution, thus actually ”teaching everone a simpler and more natural way of life.”