Last night Will Allen told us that our food system is broken. The industrial agricultural system that has been growing since the Industrial Revolution fails to provide us with healthy food, or feed our growing population enough at all. People around the country are trapped in “food deserts”- with no local farms, their only sources of nutrition are fast food restaurants or corner stores. In the face of these challenges, Allen encouraged innovation and advocacy from all in attendance, providing his own program, “Growing Power,” as an example.
Allen bought his first acres of land in an urban part of Milwaukee in 1993. After years of trial and error, he now runs 25 of these urban farms around America. At the center of his system are “hoop houses,” a type of greenhouse that can be cheaply constructed and is essential to providing the year round production urban communities need. Inside the houses are systems of vermicomposting and aquaponics. Vermicomposting is composting, breaking down nitrogen and carbon waste material into usable soil, aided by millions of worms, whose waste can be sold as fertilizer itself. Aquaponics is a system that recreates a natural river ecosystem, connecting a long barrel of fish to a long row of plants. The plants, hanging above the fish, are watered, and the water slowly trickles town and is absorbed by the plants. What is not absorbed rushes into the fish tank below to provide fresh water. The fish fill this water with waste and it is pumped back up to the top again, where the plants can use the chemicals that were toxic to the fish. Besides these farms, Allen also provides workshops to fledgling urban farmers, and works to create parks and urban green space around the world.
I think the most impressive thing about urban agriculture is that it offers solutions to so many of the big world problems we face today. I believe Will Allen sometimes exaggerates the necessity of everyone becoming connected with farming, as this is not an interest we all can or should share- however, his system truly does kill countless birds with one stone. In urban communities, Allen’s farms provide jobs for teenagers from low income families, which provides them with an income and an academic experience, as Allen requires they write about the things they learn and work on. His urban farms also improve the entirety of the communities they are in, because after he engages the community to work with him to provide them with food, they care more about their home, and more opposed to the ugly blight of crime. Large scale composting addresses the problem of waste and increasing landfill sizes. Allen has partnered with many restaurants and companies to divert compostable waste from landfills and incinerators. Compost, decomposing wood chips, and fish heat are all innovative ways Allen has discovered to save energy in our current energy crisis. And finally Allen argues that if we had access to healthy, nutritious food, we would be taking steps towards solving the healthcare crisis.
Here at GW, I don’t think anyone would say we live in a food desert; we have Whole Foods, Sweetgreen, etc, and the usual chain fast food places are hard to find. But the truly broken part of our system is the almost complete absence of composting. There are no composting barrels in the dorms, or at the J Street cafeteria, which means the 10,000 undergraduates here are generating an astounding amount of food waste. Composting is the next recycling, but it’s currently at the stage recycling was 15 years ago: accepted as a good idea but not widely implemented. But we don’t have time to wait. We need to shift our thinking and create a composting system today. As Will Allen says, “you can pay up front, or you can pay later,” a chilling reminder of the costs of inaction.