Sunday, April 24, 2011

Apples to Apples

Apples have been coming up a lot in my life recently. This has led to a dilemma that I will share with you. I am trying to reconcile this apple with this apple and in the process figure out what these two apples can tell me about the society that produced them both (of course both are amorphous--one apple is sliced and perhaps divided between sheets of plastic, whereas the other will not exist for another 2-3 years). But still, an apple is an apple, right? One is the same as any other...

Of course you know this is not true. The snackable apples we buy from Trader Joes are small, probably intentionally so to be cute and easily packed for lunch, and are practically inedibly bland within a few days of purchase. The Spartan and Macoun apples from Long Hill Orchards, across the street from my Dad's house in West Newbury, that I grew up eating vary in size and shape and taste delicious, tart and sweet with just the right amount of juicy without being runny. The Red "Delicious" apples, available in cafeterias and dining halls everywhere, have skin like leather and mealy lumpy flesh--Stay far away if you are looking for anything remotely resembling a tasty apple.

Furthermore, you may have heard that, as a result of technologies like chemical fertilization and irrigation, the nutritional content of many common fruits and vegetables has decreased over the past 50-100 years. This is called the environmental dilution effect (a process documented since the '80s, and even more reason to buy good organic food (not all 'Organic' is good--this is another post entirely)). Donald Davis and his colleagues at the Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas, Austin also document a genetic dilution effect on macronutrient content, a result of breeding only for yield instead of overall health of the whole plant. Davis says that “We should not assume that plant composition remains constant as we increase yield.” The problem is that the roots of these organisms, genetically modified to grow large and fast with high yield, are not necessarily able to acquire nutrients at a rate that matches that growth. [Impending concession and dubious-conclusion-drawing sentence] While the article I read and cited above (from, an admittedly biased source), by Vicki Godal, that describes Davis' study does not mention apples, and while I have not seen Davis' study, I think I can safely presume that commercial apples have suffered a similar environmental/genetic dilution effect.

So, in summary, no, an apple is not an apple.

Apples bred for long distance travel and uniform shape/color/size are not fruit, they are commodities. The tiny snackable apples, the Red Delugeofmealycrap-scious, those huge dull yellow orbs the size of a grapefruit that you buy in the supermarket, they are not the real thing.

However, these apple-look-a-likes are still a piece of food. Ignoring the breeding process, the chemicals required to grow them, and their dubious nutritional content, they are reliably whole, contained, demarcated. We have Nature and the evolutionary process to thank for that wholeness, for fruit are a brilliant package to carry and disseminate seeds. It is a tried and true plant survival method, enticing animals with delicious offerings full of reproductive material.

Motts thinks they can one up this pre-packaged whole food with their pre-sliced apples. It is a pound of apple entombed in plastic, 8 individually wrapped sacks ensconced in more plastic. I don't think I need to waste any words about how idiotic this product is, or how much faith it causes me to lose in my fellow man (assuming Mott's wouldn't offer this product if people don't want to buy it).

So on the one hand we have Mott's plasticized 'sliceaple' (patent pending). On the other hand is The Boston Tree Party, a campaign from Hybrid Vigor Projects, which is about way more than just apples growing in Boston (italics mine, bold theirs):
The Boston Tree Party is a collaborative campaign to plant 100 pairs of heirloom apple trees in civic spaces across Greater Boston. The tree plantings will take place in partnership with a diverse range of institutions, organizations, businesses, and communities.

Our motto is Frux Civilis, “Civic Fruit”—we call for the planting of fruit trees in civic space, and we promote the fruits of civic engagement!

As an urban agriculture project, the campaign will create vital gathering places, build community connections, and improve community health. As a conceptual art project, the Boston Tree Party engages with metaphor and symbolism, and playfully reimagines patriotic and political language, imagery, and forms of association.

Like the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Tree Party is a symbolic political act. The project takes a stand for universal access to fresh, healthy food; for greening our cities; cleaning our air and waterways; reducing our city’s carbon footprint; creating habitat for urban wildlife; and for protecting the biodiversity and heritage of our food. Collectively, the 200 apple trees will become a decentralized public urban orchard that crosses social, economic, political, and geographic boundaries.

Who knew that planting 100 apple trees could take on so many layers of meaning. This collaborative campaign of civic engagement/urban agriculture project/conceptual art project/symbolic political act/beginnings of a decentralized public urban orchard is great, and I love it, don't get me wrong. There is no denying the fact that cities need to become more resilient and more self sufficient in order to last, and producing food in urban areas is one crucial part (I would content the most-important and easiest-to-implement pillar) of serious efforts at sustainability and sustainable urban development. We NEED to grow more food in and around cities. People are doing it in different parts of the country, and many more people do it in urban areas around the world (I've read that 10-20 percent of the globe's food already comes from urban and peri-urban areas). There are urban farmers in Cuba who make a great living supplying their neighbors with fresh produce, and there is no serious impediment (oh, besides a lack of funding and political will) to implementing similar programs here in the U.S. There are over 800 acres of vacant land/lots within the City of Boston, and how many (thousands?) unemployed people?

So I am all for planting 100 heirloom apple trees throughout Boston; I think it is a great idea. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now. I even would have attended the Tree Party's inauguration at the Rose Kennedy Greenway on April 10th if I wasn't working in the Greenside Out Garden that day, and helping to assemble some yard waste compost bins there, with the lovely volunteers and friends of Bountiful Brookline.

It is also true that public fruit trees have many potential benefits to society and the urban environment (beyond providing food), including the following ones listed on the Tree Party's website:
  • "Greater access to fresh, healthy food, which improves the health and well-being of all residents.
  • Improved air quality, which improves respiratory health for all residents.
  • Reduced flooding and water pollutants due to stormwater run-off, which improves water quality.
  • Increased shade and lower air temperatures, which reduces the need for energy intensive air conditioning.
  • Improved soil quality and decreased erosion.
  • New habitat for birds and bees.
  • Increased biodiversity in our food supply.
  • A stronger connection to the growing of our food.
  • The creation of inviting and memorable community gathering places.
  • A multitude of opportunities for experiential learning."
Okay, so despite all of these potential benefits and how much I support urban agriculture, I still can't help feeling cautiously optimistic about all of the fanfare around this project. I guess I am most skeptical of the overtly symbolic nature of the Tree Party, and how many shoes it is trying to fill. I will try to elaborate on this uneasy excitement.

Really, I just question the Party's status as an urban agriculture project, when in fact it is more of a public art project. Planting trees and growing fruit here is the means to an end. The main goal is civic engagement and community building, not growing food in urban areas to feed urban residents. This is fine, and I am not saying that the Tree Party is writing checks it can't cash about supplying the city with apples. But let's be clear, these trees have to get established and won't bear fruit for another 2-3 years. PLus the volume of edible apples they produce will not have any noticeable direct effect on the "health and well being of all residents."

The Boston Tree Party is a foray into civic engagement through urban agriculture, and it is a valuable first step towards the kind of edible landscapes we could create in our public places. This symbolic cultivation will make later efforts at viable and productive cultivation easier, and that kind of facilitation is crucial for urban agriculture to get legs and gain acceptance as a viable and important profession and pursuit. The success of the Boston Tree Party, who seem committed to seeing their work through in the long haul, is not guaranteed, but I am certainly rooting for them.

Okay, I feel better after articulating that. I still can't shake a bit of skepticism about the publicity and fanfare, and that is fine. It is a big project that requires coordination among many different institutions, organizations, and multiple levels and layers of government, no doubt, and all of that coordination requires communication. I know that cultivating a media presence is essential (or considered as such) these days, but I wish that cultivating healthy food in our cities was an imperative too.

I knew all along which apple I would prefer if forced to choose, so no real dilemma there. As for the larger implications for society and the sustainability of our agriculture and food systems, well these two apples represent very different parts of the spectrum. While I would rather see plasticized sliceaples over cheetos in vending machines, I would rather not see vending machines at all, so let's toss the Mott's sliceaples and pretend they don't exist for the time being (if only we could wish them out of existence). If you fall for that overpriced and overpackaged excuse for a healthy snack (they have 4 ingredients other than the only one apples should have, which is apple), then you are hopeless.

As for the sustainability of the Boston Tree Project, we will have to wait and see. In terms of food security and food access, well obviously a city can't feed itself with only a few symbolic fruit trees. Though I don't really want to make this comparison, I inevitably see a perverse similarity between the packaged nutritional claims of the sliceaples and the symbolism and publicity around the Tree Party. We would never get our apples if we had to go through all of this hullabaloo ceremony civic stakeholder engagement stuff every time a farm planted an apple tree--think about the very same 2 apple trees now standing on the Kennedy Greenway being planted in an orchard in Whately, MA or anywhere else. Same trees, less fanfare, more growing apples. I tentatively conclude that the sliceaples and the Tree Party are both unsustainable in certain very different ways, from the food production perspective.

Talk is important. Talk is cheap. Less talk, more doing. Less talk, more gardening. Less talk, more farming.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wholly Holy

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Everyone is self-interested.

Putting the collective before the individual.
Putting the whole before the parts.

I put the whole before the parts because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I put the whole before the parts because reductionist thinking is dangerous.

"Fuller said that the only way we can survive as a species is to have a design revolution...and it would have to be a comprehensive, anticipatory, science-based deign revolution."


I put a hole in the parts that contest the compatibility of the whole with my parts.
In my self-interest, I put the whole before the parts.
I put the whole before the parts because it makes me whole.
I put the whole before the parts because it gives me a chance to survive,
I put the whole before the parts to thrive.