Just Grow It Yourself is about promoting home / community gardens as a far more efficient and beneficial way to produce food than the industrial food system.
The bedrock claim of the industrial system is that it’s almost magically efficient. But here’s the truth: pound for pound of food production, home gardens are vastly—not just a little—but vastly, more efficient than mechanical food production. And therein lies a part of the solution to our food system troubles.
But first, how could home gardens be so much more efficient than the mighty industrial system?
External costs account most of the inefficiency, but it all really begins with the physical cultivation of food from plants. That’s because, not surprisingly, most people incorrectly assume that a farmer with a tractor can produce far more food per area than a gardener with a spade.
A home gardener can give much more intensive and individualized care and attention to cultivating plants than even the most optimized combination of machines. In addition, conventional agriculture has reduced the depth of our topsoil down to about its last 4-6 inches, has reduced organic matter in that remaining soil by 50%, and is losing it to erosion at least ten times as fast as it’s being replaced. By contrast, the average home garden, not having been subjected to conventional ag, has more topsoil containing more organic matter to work with. In addition, most gardening methods are designed to increase topsoil depth and organic matter rather than depleting it. The primary advantage of the garden mechanism thus lies in its superior care of the plant and soil. Home gardens are also able to make much greater use of succession planting, intercropping, and companion planting, giving them further mechanisms by which they can be more efficient than industrial production.
A mechanism’s efficiency is often measured by the amount of energy it takes to get a given amount of work done. If you measure food production efficiency by the amount of human energy exerted, then yes, you could say it’s more “efficient” to do it with machinery and synthethic chemicals. Yet per pound of food produced, the total energy a gardener expends is enormously less than the fossil fuel energy required by the industrial system. Just think of the average 1,500 miles between farm and fork with the industrial system; the energy it takes to pump, transport, and refine the required oil; the energy to build all the needed farm machinery, mine and manufacture all the chemical fertilizers and pesticides; the transport all the needed means of production as well as the transport of the food itself; the added road maintenance due to the fact that an 18-wheeler degrades roads as much as 6,000 cars; and so on. Now compare all that to the few feet between production and table with home garden. So to produce a pound of food, is it more efficient to use more home gardener energy, or to use enormously more fossil fuel energy? And yes, given a sunny plot, it’s feasible for the home gardener to produce their own food. See the next section.
Efficient Use of Land
Any mechanism of food production should consider land requirements. It takes three acres to feed an American for a year, but only half an acre to feed the average person on a global basis. Based on eating only from my garden for 30 days and the area it took to grow the food I ate, it would take me only 1/30th of an acre to feed myself for a year, or about 1% of the 3 acres it takes to feed the average American. The result: the “mechanism” of the home garden is still far more efficient in terms of land requirement.
Convenience VS External Costs
Most people would probably say that the “mechanism” of industrial food makes it more efficient to simply buy their food in a supermarket or restaurant than to grow it themselves. Yet what they’re really talking about is convenience, which as mentioned above comes at enormous overall health, social, economic, and environmental costs to the country as a whole. Although we don’t like to think about it, those costs simply cannot be sustained indefinitely. Think, for a sobering example, of the loss of topsoil at 10 times the rate it’s being replaced; the continued rise in the rates of obesity (currently at 40% of the population); and the fact that nearly 50% of us are either diabetic or pre-diabetic. So although the “mechanism” of food production begins with the physical methods used to grow crop plants, it extends far beyond cultivation to a whole range of parameters required for the industrial food system to do what it does to—as well as for—us. And contrary to the narrative we’re accustomed to, that overall mechanism is far less efficient and overall much less beneficial to society as a whole, than home gardens.