To Achieve Sustainable Food, Move to “BiodiverCity”

by MaryBeth Radeck

Today, we are caught on a treadmill in a blind food experiment with no beginning or end, but plenty of downside. We manipulate genes and select for the most dangerous bacteria and release them into nature with little thought of the implications. As we play scientist, God must be laughing. Our best ideas infect the environment and food sources. Pesticides seep into the skin of our crops and into ground water unnoticed. Herbicides force the evolution of plants until super weeds smother them like kudzu. Antibiotics fed to animals kill weaker bacteria forcing superbugs to evolve, threatening medical science advancements from the last 100 years. With perceived omnipotence, we bioengineer plants, they spread their genes, displace natives and disrupt the fragile food chain of soil fertility, and all forms of life. And as soil health wanes, our ability to feed ourselves and our offspring is threatened, too.

In retrospect, disruptions created in one century are solved by the next century’s technology, which most likely will negatively affect the following century—or worse. We appear to be hopelessly caught in a pathetic, synthetic web. God must be laughing, indeed. In a world of industrialized, fast and processed foods with pesticides, herbicides, bioengineering and carbon-polluting transportation, how can one individual create a sustainable food supply which enriches life and doesn’t destroy it?

One can become aware, reduce consumption and foster life in our backyards—each of us can move toward “BiodiverCity.” The vision must include growing as much food as closely as possible to our homes, minimizing the middle-man and transportation needs, and reducing costs and carbon emissions in one simple decision. Small behavioral changes are relatively easy. We could import seasonings, not processed foods. Create international dishes at home or in a local restaurant. Participate in local food networks and an auction system to support a local food system. Create regulations which incentivize sustainable foods and food practices. But to achieve this, we must start with a change in mindset. We need to move to BiodiverCity. It’s not a place. It’s a state of mind that’s integrated, healthy, and life-supporting.

Rachel Carson galvanized the modern environmental movement when she documented the devastating ecological impacts of chemical pesticides and herbicides in 1962's "Silent Spring."

Rachel Carson galvanized the modern environmental movement when she documented the devastating ecological impacts of chemical pesticides and herbicides in her landmark 1962 book, “Silent Spring.”

The first step in moving to BiodiverCity is taking a hard look at one’s impact and the future of the life around us. We are in the midst of a “mass extinction of life” on this planet, according to the UN Environment Programme (August 17, 2010). It’s an unhealthy, unsustainable situation because eventually this chain of events will impact us all similarly. An easy way to take nature’s pulse, for example: if one cannot identify more than five bird species nearby, and insects have not found their way in one’s home at least four times per year, biodiversity has suffered, which means herbicides and pesticides and antibiotics have done their job all too well and have eliminated life.

Omnivore's DilemmaAs toxins accumulate, the environment becomes unhealthy for people, too. Clearly changes must be made. As Michael Pollan has so eloquently revealed in 2006’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the changes we need relate directly to the foods we eat and how we grow them. Integrating food production close to home in a natural way will support all types of insects and wild life. As a reflection on ourselves, the wildlife around us will tell us whether we live in BiodiverCity or just imagine it as we stroll through the supermarket.

The second step in the trek to BiodiverCity is to reduce our consumption in order to harmonize with our immediate resources. Too much consumption creates an excessive amount of toxic waste. Too much driving—excessive CO2 emissions. Too much food or drink—obesity and chronic illness. Too much manufacturing or building—landfill and pollution of our ground waters. Moderation is key to BiodiverCity. Reducing our personal consumption of animals, balancing it with plants, and limiting consumption to what we can grow within our city or trade nearby are excellent efforts toward harmony with nature. Growing food locally and organically, then raising and harvesting livestock with respect to the animals we consume would contribute to biodiversity for all, not just us. This approach has sustained us for millennia already.

However, recent trends indicate a dramatic reversal. As of 2010, two hundred plants and animals had become extinct daily, according to the UN Environment Programme. This trend will continue without our help. We must engage in ways to expand the different types of life around us by actively filling gaps in the animal and plant kingdoms which have been subjugated to our will for too long. To right this wrong, we could repopulate and provide ecosystems for prosperous unity with nature in our back yards to foster local biodiversity. The battle for survival between species will continue, but in a more sustainable manner. God would surely be laughing now. Not at us, but with us this time.

Private garden in a South Side backyard in Chicago  (photo: John Taylor)

Private garden in a South Side backyard in Chicago
(photo: John Taylor)

Once we become more aware, reduce consumption, and foster life in our back yards, each of us would find it much more satisfying to live healthier with all the modern conveniences, within a bio-diverse neighborhood. We could finally step off the treadmill and take a walk in a prairie instead. The ecosystem and healthy soils would support us and even our progeny. Scientific advancements in food technology would prod nature, not dominate it, and we’d maintain our position in the world. Foods would be convenient, fresh, flavorful and healthy; and we’d think twice about the idea of butchering the cow now, because she’s become our companion. Yes, one individual alone can create a sustainable food supply which enriches life and doesn’t destroy it. It just takes a few small changes on behalf of plant, animal and humankind.

Radeck MaryBethMaryBeth Radeck is a Sustainability Studies major at Roosevelt University, where she also works as an environmental sustainability associate at RU’s Schaumburg Campus and manages the university’s 2-year-old community garden. A longtime marketing/communications professional, she also has a Master Gardener’s certificate from the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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