Jeffrey Hou, chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Washington-Seattle, was on campus on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010 to present a public lecture on his work on Seattle’s community gardens. His presentation expanded upon his 2009 co-authored study, Greening Cities, Growing Communities: Learning from Seattle’s Community Gardens. Dr. Hou began by noting the rapid development of community gardens, nationally and internationally, in the last decade. He began to pointing to Vancouver, BC as one of the leaders in this trend, then focused on Seattle, where the formal community garden program, called the P-Patch Program, was instituted in 1974 and has grown today to 73 garden sites. He related the expansion of community gardens as a public project to the growth in farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, and urban agriculture, and argued that these developments are embedded in larger social movements around food systems, food security, food justice, food sovereignty, food democracy, healthy eating, local food, and urban sustainability.
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The Center for Food in Community and Culture sponsored a panel discussion on Community Gardens in Brown County on Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 7 pm in the Central Library in Green Bay. The panel discussion was to support the One Book, One Community reading selection of Seedfolks, a novel for young adults by Paul Fleishman.
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Vicki Medland, biologist and Associate Director of the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity, spoke on Agrobiodiversity with a focus on the biological diversity of potatoes. Dr. Medland noted that although there may be as many as 5000 varieties of potato concentrated in its original area of domestication in the Andean region of South America where the varieties are adapted to diverse micro-environmental zones. In the United States, however, we rely on only a few commercial varieties. The Russet Burbank constitutes 80% of U.S. potato production and dominates because of its preferred qualities for processing into French fries for fast food restaurants, particularly for McDonald’s. U.S. production is concentrated in the state of Idaho where potatoes are typically grown as monocultures using industrialized agricultural practices, including extensive irrigation and repeated applications of pesticides in an attempt to control pests like the Colorado potato beetle and late blight fungus. Over-use of pesticides has led to a decline in the biodiversity of beneficial species and has contributed to pesticide resistance in both Colorado potato beetles and late blight. However, recognition of these problems has resulted in innovative opportunities for farmers to increase production while maintaining biodiversity. In Wisconsin, some farmers are using precision agriculture and integrated pest management to reduce the use of the most toxic pesticides and have instituted requirements for restoring surrounding habitats. Significantly, McDonald’s has also committed itself to reducing pesticide residues as their shareholders apply pressure on management. Finally, the International Potato Center in Peru has received grants for local farmers to preserve the biodiversity of potatoes and the cultural diversity of growers.
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The impact of agricultural practices on the nutrient qualities of food was the subject of Debra Pearson’s presentation. Dr. Pearson, who is Co-Director of the Center for Food in Community and Culture and Associate Professor of Human Biology and Nutritional Sciences, compared the pre-harvest nutrient profiles of foods produced using conventional industrial agriculture with those grown using sustainable farming practices. She cited a study that shows a decline in nutrients—protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins A, B2, B3, and C–in 43 crops from 1950 to 1999. One theory about why this decline has occurred is that growing crops for maximum yield per acre tends to dilute the levels of nutrient in these crops. Another theory is that industrial agriculture has selected varieties for qualities like size, uniformity, machine harvestability, and shelf life that do not necessarily provide the most nutrients. Also, extensive use of energy, water, fertilizers and pesticides inputs may make “life easier for the plants” such that they do not have to produce the same level of phytochemicals to protect themselves from oxidative stress or pest attack. The net result for humans are produce with lower levels of important health-promoting phytochemicals.