Creative minds fill food gap
How soon could you double the current food production from your home garden? If you haven't heard, doubling food production to feed the world's burgeoning population is just one of the issues we face as a species.
While some live only in a digital world, I admit to still loving newspapers and books. Having grown up on a never-ending supply of National Geographic magazines arriving by the now old-fashioned but hopefully never obsolete system of snail mail, I still love the smell and excitement of opening a freshly printed edition - and this month is no exception.
In keeping with the current endless obsession with food, the cover story is how we might feed the 9 billion people expected on the planet by 2050.
But rather than another disheartening story about starving millions, crop-crippling droughts, pests, diseases and food wars, it provides an inspirational read about a plan to double the availability of food while simultaneously reducing the environmental harm caused by agriculture.
If it sounds too far-fetched to be true, think again.
The first step in the five-point plan is to stop deforestation and freeze the global agricultural footprint, to maintain what biodiversity we have left.
The second is to grow more on the agricultural land we already have in production, including land that is under-utilised, by combining high-tech and precision farming with organic approaches.
The third step is a proposal to use resources more efficiently, again combining conventional and organic farming to produce more "crop per drop" from our water and nutrients.
The fourth step is to change our diets to reduce our protein intake via pasture animals that graze vast areas of arable land and, instead, eat more crops and vegetables.
Step five is to reduce waste by, among other things, the absurdly obvious idea of serving and eating less - and thus, perhaps, curbing the developed world's obesity epidemic.
The authors of the Rockefeller Foundation and National Geographic Society-funded research project, called The Future of Food, predict that we could "more than double" the world's food supplies and reduce the impacts of agriculture on the environment by 2050.
But they also warn that it won't be easy, because it requires what is probably the biggest ask of all: changing our attitudes to just about everything.
All five steps seem incredibly sensible and imminently doable.
The most glaringly obvious way of making better use of the land we already have in cultivation is through what most call home gardening, but I suggest we re-label it micro-agriculture.
I'm one of those who thinks we don't value our land and resources enough in New Zealand. Instead of keeping productive soils for crops, we allow them to be subdivided for lifestyle living and ride-on mowing. And in town, we pour valuable, A-grade water on endless borders and manicured lawns, relentlessly mown with precious fossil fuel.
And why? Because we can. We've grown up with a largesse of land and resources. But to me, it's always telling to note the gardens of those who've come here from a different paradigm, particularly the gardens of migrants and refugees.
Rather than lavender and lawns, their gardens are more often filled with beds of onions and bok choy, or beans and broccoli. They know of and value the opportunity to grow their own food and feed their families.
What intrigued me about China when I visited more than a decade ago was how every inch of land, along railway lines and roadsides and next to paddy fields, was growing something productive, instead of just rank grass, as we do. And, in the way of efficient, two-tier production, free-ranging ducks and future dinners wandered the paddy fields, keeping pests under control.
The Chinese may have problems with pollution, erosion, dodgy agrichemical use, loss of biodiversity and misguided mega hydroelectric projects (think the massive Three Gorges dams), but they can certainly teach us about micro-agriculture and how to optimise food production from available arable land.
I'm not suggesting that we give up lawns, lavender or ornamental gardens altogether but, moving on in the 21st century, I suggest that in New Zealand, where sections are still relatively big and water plentiful, each of us can make more of an effort to grow our own food at home.
That's what I mean by micro-agriculture. If you take the net total of sections and urban land available for growing food in Nelson city alone, we could double our homegrown production in just one year.
And by using micro-irrigation systems, collecting rainwater in storage tanks, we can similarly reduce consumption of costly, treated water from the council supply.
Normally, I buy pumpkins, because the plants take up so much space, but this year I boosted production eightfold by growing a crop of the magnificent Italian variety Tonda padana on a pile of topsoil waiting to be spread later in the year. Left to their own devices, the plants yielded enough to keep us in homegrown roasties throughout winter.
We've also made a resolution to have desserts only of fruit we've grown ourselves. It's our satisfying way of staying seasonal or eating only that which we've frozen or preserved. Right now there are the first of the tamarillos and the last of the pears, apples and feijoas, and there are always loads of raspberries and blackcurrants in the freezer.
And, in keeping with the theme of making better use of resources, Chelsea Flower Show 2014 opened this week in London, featuring, among other ideas, designs focused on global water issues, showing how urban dwellers can harness and maximise rainwater runoff to cool and water their gardens in an aesthetically pleasing way.
It's a recurring theme in an environmentally challenged world, but not a new one. Micro-managing water to cool and water a garden was elegantly mastered by India's Mughal emperors, reaching its ultimate expression with the Taj Mahal.
It is an interpretation of the earlier Persian charbagh (quadripartite water) gardens, also replicated in Moorish gardens, like that at the Alhambra in Spain, which evolved as aesthetic interpretations of ancient Egyptian gardens, where water was revered for its life-giving, plant-nourishing properties as much as it was for its ability to nourish the soul.
They may not have had the internet, and only the beginnings of paper, but the Egyptians knew the value of water and arable soil.
Check out the latest in garden designs, horticultural issues and plants at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, www.rhs.org.uk/Shows-Events/RHS-Chelsea-Flower-Show.
Chelsea Flower Show plant of the year is Hydrangra Miss Saori, a rose-pink picotee, double-petalled mophead-type flower. Check it out at rhs.org.uk/shows-events/rhs-chelsea-flower-show/2014-stories/Plant-of-the-Year-2014.
Read more about the National Geographic Future of Food project at natgeofood.com.
The Nelson Mail