During World Wars I and II, Americans were encouraged to plant “victory gardens” – backyard or community vegetable patches intended to replenish supplies of produce being shipped to feed soldiers overseas. The gardens united communities, and allowed each home gardener to feel that he or she was contributing to the war effort. More recently, First Lady Michelle Obama has renewed national interest in home gardens, by planting a “kitchen garden” on White House grounds.
Today’s victory gardens have taken on a new enemy: GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and pesticides. In a surging “grow your own food” movement, more and more Americans are planting their own victory gardens, and ensuring that at least some of the food that comes to their table is neither genetically engineered nor tainted with chemicals.
What are GMOs?
Much of the concern over food safety comes from the proliferation of GMOs in commercially grown food crops. Though most prevalent in grains such as alfalfa, corn and soy, GMOs are used in a huge variety of fruits and vegetables, and the seeds used to grow them. “Genetically modified” means that the genetic structure of the seed or plant is altered in a laboratory. The goal may be to create a more abundant harvest, increase resistance to frost or heat, increase shelf life after harvest, or even to improve color, texture and taste.
Monsanto – Public Enemy #1 for the anti-GMO movement – was the first to introduce an herbicide resistant variety of soy, called Roundup Ready. This meant that the soy fields could be sprayed with herbicide (weed killer Roundup is also a Monsanto product) to kill undesirable weeds, but the soy plants would not be affected. Today, 93% of all soy grown in the U.S. is GMO, as is 86% of corn, and 93% of canola.
GMO technology creates organisms that would not develop in nature – for example, the DNA that keeps Arctic char (a fish) from freezing might be combined with DNA from a tomato, to produce a freeze-resistant tomato. Monsanto has recently released a GMO corn that, when eaten by insects, makes their stomachs explode.
What’s wrong with GMOs?
Opposition to GMOs, first and foremost, stems from the fact that GMOs are not natural. They are a pairing of often unrelated species, and we all know that a tomato and a fish would probably never produce offspring together. Or, they are a result of introducing bacteria or pesticides (like the kind that make bugs’ stomachs explode) into the DNA of plants. And whatever is in the DNA of plants goes into the mouths of consumers.
Opponents of GMOs cite laboratory studies where animals that consumed GMO crops produced deformed offspring, developed cancers or other diseases, and human studies showing that pesticides in GMO foods were detectable in the fetuses of pregnant women who consumed them.
There are also a host of environmental concerns related to GMOs, as seed drift is affecting wild populations of food plants. Monsanto, in particular, has been aggressive about buying up small farms and seed producers, halting production of non-GMO seeds, and pursuing litigation when its own seeds drift into neighboring, non-GMO fields.
Victory gardens for healthy eating
In response to the proliferation of GMO foods in supermarkets, and, as a money-saving option in tough economic times, home and community gardens are popping up all over the U.S. In fact, a 2009 study found that 38 percent of U.S. households planted vegetable gardens – and even if that was only a couple of tomato plants or a row of zucchini, that’s a whole lot of home gardens.
With a little planning, victory gardens can produce organic, GMO free produce. But home gardeners must first start with non-GMO seeds – tough to find when a few agriculture giants control most seed production in the U.S. The Council for Responsible Genetics provides a list of certified non-GMO seed producers. The seeds may cost a little more than the varieties found at “big box” home and garden stores, but if the purpose of the garden is to grow clean, organic, non-genetically modified food, it has to start with clean seeds.
The internet has a vast amount of resources for keeping your garden organic. From natural pesticides to attracting beneficial insects, Mother Earth News’ organic gardening section offers step by step guidance to grow a healthy, abundant organic vegetable garden.
My first victory garden
I decided to plant a small vegetable garden mostly because of my infant daughter, who is just now starting on solid foods. We live in Italy, where organic food (called “biologica” here) is just starting to make its way into supermarkets. That means that organic baby food is scarce, with just a few varieties and flavors for her.
So I decided the best approach was to grow my own vegetables, from which I can make homemade baby food for her. I got the idea a bit late in the planting season, and since I am a novice gardener, I started out small – just a plot of zucchini and carrots. I found non-GMO seeds at our local farm/garden store, and set in a few rows of each, along with some herbs for us grown-ups.
Suffice to say, Naomi is going to be eating a lot of pureed zucchini! Those plants are going gangbusters, while the carrot greens are just starting to peek out of the ground. Fortunately, I’ve put the word out that I want Naomi to eat organic, so our neighbors, uncles and friends bring me fresh produce from their own pesticide-free gardens.
Lettuce, strawberries, zucchini and fava beans are ripe now, and we can’t help but marvel at how much better the fresh-picked produce tastes. Just knowing that it’s come directly from the earth to our plates makes us feel like we’re doing something good for us, and good for the planet.
It will be another month or two before I pick my first home-grown zucchini, but I have to admit, I’m excited by the prospect. As a former city-girl, planting my victory garden and watching it grow has been a surprisingly rewarding experience. Aside from the direct benefits for us, it’s a way of feeling like I’m doing my small part for the planet.
Now I just need to start researching recipes for zucchini bread, zucchini pie, pasta with zucchini…
You may follow Elizabeth Heath on Twitter