The Growing Power of Urban Agriculture


Chemical fertilizers, E.coli, mono-cropping, fast-food restaurants, unethical treatment of animals, high fructose corn syrup, natural, genetically modified, Monsanto, Tyson, exploitation of small farmers, obesity, diabetes, food safety… These are some of the words that accurately describe the current state of the food industry in the United States. There are a handful of big suppliers, who control the majority of the food system, who use highly mechanized processes to produce food that contains chemicals. Small scale farmers are forced to go out of business since they can’t compete with the massive multinational corporations, the dollar menu at McDonalds is cheaper than buying vegetables, and diabetes in the US is at an all-time high (Clemens). As more and more of the hidden costs of how agribusinesses work start to surface, the amount of people who question these methods start to increase. One of these people is Will Allen, who is the founder and owner of the non-profit organization Growing Power Inc. Allen is trying “to create an alternative to the nation’s centralized food system by teaching people how to grow food, cook food and embrace a way of living that’s sustainable.” (Allen, xiii) This paper will look at the actions of Growing Power Inc. through the lenses of consequentialism and evaluate this viewpoint in terms of its sufficiency to explain the situation.

Food Industry Now

Most of what we eat today is produced in industrial settings by only a few massive agribusinesses. In terms of industrial crop production, we see large fields filled with only one of the two crops: soybeans and corn. This method, also known as mono cropping, leads to the depletion of soil. Because the soil doesn’t have enough nutrients anymore there is also heavy use of chemical fertilizers. There is extensive use of pesticides and machinery, and even though the supporters of industrial agriculture say that these methods have “modernized and streamlined the production of food in the United States” it has negatively impacted the biodiversity, environmental sustainability, rural communities and the health of the individuals. Pesticides are used to kill the pests but they also kill the beneficial organisms that naturally help in fertilizing the soil (Gliessman).

The methods of producing animals have diverted from the traditional methods so much that nowadays these operations are called with names such as “Animal Feeding Operations”, “factory farms” etc. This raises problems both regarding environmental pollutions coming from animal’s urine and feces and regarding the ethical treatment of animals. Animals are being treated with antibiotics in order to protect them from the diseases that can arise from living in very confined settings, and as we consume the animals we consume the antibiotics with it, which causes diseases in humans also (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

Food production in the United States is heavily subsidized by the government, which means that taxpayer’s money that can be used elsewhere is instead being used to keep the crop prices low so that corporations can continue producing their foods cheaply (Bell & Field). 800,000 farmers and ranchers lost their jobs in the last 40 years, which is a true cost for the economy (United States Department of Agriculture) Consumers pay the price with their health and well-being, since levels of diabetes and heart diseases have risen, and there has been outbreaks of Listeria and E.coli (Planck).

True Costs of Industrial Agriculture:

farmbill_infographic_email_FINAL

Growing Power Inc.

Growing Power is a non-profit organization, which helps individuals, who don’t have access to “healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable foods”, gain access to these by providing education and technical assistance as well as through food production and distribution. In 1993 Will Allen partnered up with the Growing Power, which was an organization with teens that needed a place to work. What initially started as a partnership, soon developed into a nationally and globally recognized “food revolution”. Right now Growing Power operates under one simple goal: to grow food, to grow minds, and to grow community (Growing Power). A New York Times article that was written in about Will Allen and Growing Power, describes Allen as being the “go-to expert on urban farming”, because of his innovative thinking skills and his knowledge on how to grow food efficiently in small spaces in urban areas (Royte). Allen’s primary goal is to make farming an attractive profession by creating new models that are emotionally satisfying for younger generations and by making small-scale farming economically viable (Allen, 185).

Growing Power and Its Three Main Goals

Grow Food by Minimizing Cost:

For Will Allen minimizing cost means both minimizing the cost for Growing Power Inc. and minimizing the cost for the environment and individuals. He describes various techniques he uses that help him achieve this goal.

Composting

Allen believes that “everything starts with healthy soil” therefore he uses composting as much as possible in order to create high quality soil. Growing power created dozen partnerships with local businesses in Milwaukee in order to collect their waste and turn it into soil. This is a mutually beneficial relationship for both sides since now businesses didn’t have to pay hauling companies for picking up their waste, and since Growing Power was using the waste in order to create the end product of fresh produce (Allen, 187)

Vertical Space

Growing Power concentrates on making the most out of small spaces, in other words concentrating on efficiency. Allen realized the presence of vertical spaces in his greenhouses and after doing some measurements, he calculated that he can triple or quadruple the amount he was growing. The greenhouses of Growing Power also used the ceiling in order to hang pots and grow salad greens in them. Since it is more costly to grow food in urban areas due to the higher energy costs and higher costs for land, it was important to “maximize the income generated per square foot.” (Allen, 190)

Example of vertical space where pots are hanging from the ceiling:

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Aquaponics

Aquaponics is the “practice of growing fish and fresh vegetables for market in the same linked system.” The water from the fish tank is pumped into a sand bed planted by vegetables and the dirty water coming from the fish tank is filtered with the help of the sand and the roots of the vegetables. The bacteria in the sand converted ammonia from the water to nitrogen, and the plants used this as a fertilizer, while the clean water went back to the fish tank. Allen liked this practice because one, it used space efficiently, and two, because it recycled the water without using additional resources. The large aquaponics system Allen built into his greenhouse only cost Growing Power $2,000, while a commercial system like this would have cost nearly $50,000 (Allen, 194).

Aquaponics_at_Growing_Power,_Milwaukee

Grow Minds by Education:

Training Programs

Allen and five other people got up in a small green van in order to educate other small farmers around Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana on aquaponics and intensive growing techniques. (Allen, 209) The educational spirit that started with this small green van turned into regional outreach training centers extending from Louisville, Kentucky to Lynchburg, Virginia. In 2008, Growing Power inaugurated the “commercial urban agriculture” program, which offered courses over the course of five months. The goal for this program was to teach the farmers all they need to know about urban agriculture, so that they can create their own Growing Powers in their backyards and communities (Allen, 215)

Grow Community by Helping the Ones in Need:

Market Baskets

Since the food options in most inner cities consisted of pre-packaged foods from corner stores and fast-food restaurants, the poor didn’t have access to any healthy food options (Allen, 143). In order to increase the access to affordable and healthy food, Allen “modified the community-supported agriculture model to make it work for people with little income”. He asked farmers to give him their excess crops at a sharp discount, combined these products in what he called “market baskets”, and made sure the food in these market baskets were food stamp eligible (Allen, 116). With the “market baskets” program, Growing Power delivers approximately 300 baskets of food to more than 20 agencies, community centers and other sited around Milwaukee. (Bybee).

Source of Employment

Apart from providing healthy food to the community Growing Power also provides “35 good-paying jobs in an area of high unemployment” (Bybee). Growing Power pays its employees $15 per hour and it hires people with a history of incarceration. Allen mentions that it’s expensive to hire these people due to the tests and medical costs but he highlights that these people need to be given a second chance in order to improve themselves (Grillo).

Helping the young

With the help of the State of Wisconsin’s Division of Juvenile Corrections, Growing Power began a program “for youth offenders transitioning out of the detention system.” Allen went to different neighborhoods with these young men and participated in different activities such as planting, creating raised beds, tilting the soil etc. in order to help them reach the understanding that they can have a positive impact in the society, where they were once seen as criminals (Allen, 127).

Looking at Growing Power From the Viewpoint of Consequentialism:

What is Consequentialism?

Consequentialism is described as “of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences” (Haines). In other words the morally right action is the one that maximizes the benefit of the consequences. Consequentialist view looks at the outcomes of events and judges the actions based on the consequences.

Growing Power, Stakeholders and Consequentialism

Growing Power’s first goal is to “grow food”. He succeeds in this goal by reducing the cost of his production and reducing the cost he puts on the environment by minimizing his waste and increasing recycling. His use of waste from businesses to create compost, as I have mentioned above, benefits the businesses by eliminating their expenses towards hauling companies, and benefits the environment by reducing the amount of waste that goes into dumping sites. It also benefits Growing Power, by supplying it with quality soil to grow its products on. Growing Powers use of vertical space and acquaponics systems, which increase the efficiency of the production process and leads to more dollars per square feet. Additionally acquaponics reduces the cost of installation for Growing Power and decreases the amount of waste by recycling the water used in the fish tanks. All of these actions are beneficial to the community surrounding Growing Power and its various stakeholders; therefore by the view of consequentialism, what Growing Power is doing is morally right and ethical.

The second goal of Growing Power is to “grow minds” and it does so by providing training programs to small farmers and individuals. The main consequence of this practice is the increased knowledge of small farmers, and their potential to apply what they have learned to their own communities and gardens in order to expand the “good food revolution.” This consequence also is beneficial for the society since its improving the level of education of a community and increasing individuals level of expertise in the area of urban agriculture. Hence once, again by the consequentialist point of view, Green Power’s actions are justified as being ethical.

The last goal of Growing Power is to “grow community” and it does so by creating Market Baskets, providing employment opportunities and by helping the troubled youth get back on their feet. All of the programs that Growing Power offer, help improve the community by increasing the income level, provide affordable access to healthy food and help integrate the youth who were once regarded as “criminals” into the society, therefore all have beneficial consequences for all the stakeholders involved. Since their consequences are beneficial, the actions Growing Power takes are ethical from the consequentialist perspective.

Is Consequentialism Enough?

Consequentialism works well to explain how the consequences that the actions Growing Power took are beneficial for the community it surrounds, and therefore how Growing Power is an ethical company, but consequentialism is insufficient in explaining how the actions of Growing Power are going to affect the future generations. As John Dobson states “consequentialism makes little sense in the context of future generations: we cannot monitor consequences in the future, and so from a consequential point of view we can never strictly know whether we have done justice by it” (Carter). If we apply this to Growing Power, we can see that Growing Power educates the small farmers, but whether they will apply this to their own communities we can’t immediately know, therefore we can’t tell if the actions of Growing Power were morally right or wrong until we know that its consequences are beneficial. Looking at it from a larger perspective, the actions of Growing Power leads to beneficial consequences right now, but we don’t yet know how sustainable urban agriculture is and if it will be beneficial or not 50-100 years from now. Plain consequentialism helps to justify most of the actions of Growing Power as ethical, but still fails to encompass the consequences in the distant future. Maybe if there was a type of consequentialism that included the expected outcomes and the immediate outcomes, then that would serve better to justify the actions of Growing Power as morally right.

Works Cited

  1. Allen, Will. The Good Food Revolution. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.
  2. Bell, Beverly & Field, Tory. “The True Cost of Industrialized Food.” Huffington Post. March 31, 2015.
  3. Bybee, Roger. “Growing Power in an Urban Food Desert.” Yes! Magazine. YES! Magazine, Spring 2009. Web. March 31, 2015.
  4. Carter, Alan. “Distributive Justice and Enviromental Sustainability.” The Heythrop Journal4 (2000): 449-460.
  5. Gliessman, S.R. (1998). Agroecology: Ecological processes in sustainable agriculture. Chelsea, MI: Ann Arbor Press.
  6. Grillo, Christine. “The Will Allen Index: Growing Power to the People.” Center for a Livable Future. Web. March 31, 2015.
  7. Growing Power, Inc. Growing Power. Growing Power Inc. Web. March 31, 2015.
  8. Haines, William. “Consequentialism.” Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy.d. The Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy. Web. March 31, 2015.
  9. Planck, Nina. “Leafy Green Sewage.” The New York Times. September 26, 2006. Web.
  10. Royte, Elizabeth. “Street Farmer.” The New York Times. July 1, 2009. Web.
  11. S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2008). Animal feeding operations. Retrieved August 23, 2012. Web.
  12. United States. Department of Agriculture. Workshop on Agriculture and Antitrust Enforcement Issues in Our 21st Century Economy. GPO, December 8, 2010. Print.
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