Can a Santa Cruz author’s 2×2 Pledge stimulate the local economy and revolutionize our food system?
With the world population expected to top 9 billion in 2050, after decades of record growth (2.5 billion people shared the earth in the 1950s), the need to nurture a sustainable food system and preserve our natural resources has never been more urgent. Or daunting.
But what if a bright, abundant future was as easy as sautéing sweet peas in butter on a warm summer night?
That’s basically what local author and urban agriculturist Michael Olson promises in his “2×2 Pledge,” a food-based lifestyle change that mathematically demonstrates how local food can save the world. More specifically, he promises that we can eat our way to economic security and personal freedom. After all, Olson’s “first law of the food chain” is that agriculture is the foundation upon which we build our sandcastles—it provides us with surplus food, and is therefore the most important of all of our endeavors.
It goes like this: “Pledge to spend $2 a day on local food. And convince two other people to do the same,” says Olson, who wrote the book MetroFarm: The Guide to Growing for Profit In or Near the City and hosts the Saturday morning “Food Chain Radio” show on KSCO.
Olson, who published the 2×2 Pledge on his website, metrofarm.com, six months ago, defines “local food” not by mileage or organic certification, but as “food with your farmer’s face on it.”
“If you can look at food and see or know who the farmer is, and how he or she grows your food, you have food with its farmer’s face on it,” says Olson. “And your farmer, farm, and food are likely close to home.”
In Santa Cruz, that would be, say, a tomato from Happy Boy Farms, or a Mayan squash grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains, or purple bulbs of kohlrabi (a radish-like descendant of northern Europe wild cabbage) grown up the coast at Route 1 Farms, to name only a few.
The 2×2 Pledge figures that if there are 500,000 people in our metropolitan marketplace—an estimation based on Olson’s radio reach of Santa Cruz, Salinas and Monterey—and each were to take the 2×2 Pledge, it would translate into $1 million per day spent on local food, or $365 million per year.
“Now economists tell us that local money circulates seven times before disappearing, and thus we now have a $2.5 billion-a-year local food chain where none existed before,” says Olson.
The 2×2 concept was spurred, in part, by a local check campaign tested by Think Local First, in which five $100 checks were given to five different people by five different local banks—under the condition that the checks be spent (and re-spent) locally.
“After 30 days, the five $100 checks generated $8,000 in local business,” says Olson. “Now what would have happened had we given those checks to a big box store? Well, a little bit of that money would have stayed here, but not much, and in a very short period of time it would have all been gone.”
Such a significant economic boost would support a lot of farmers, who would hire a lot of farmworkers, who would support a lot of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, says Olson, who points to China’s agricultural revolution for real-life proof. “And with all of this activity, we will likely become hungry for even more local food, and soon start spending $10 per day on local food,” he says. Ten dollars a day on local food would mean a $12.5 billion-a-year local food chain.
Olson hasn’t tracked how many people have taken the 2×2 Pledge on his website, but he continues to shares the concept widely at conferences, and sees an enthusiastic show of hands for people willing to commit to it.
“And I think people, by and large, say ‘Oh that’s kind of a cool idea; and they forget it, but I think it works on them,” he says. “And I suspect that it’s something that works on them over a period of time.”
He may have a point. I put the Pledge to the test last week, and found that sourcing local food at the grocery store is not as easy as it seems, even if you shop at health-food stores. When it comes to produce, you have to look for it, and in some cases ask for it—an act that Olson says empowers the consumer with market control. It’s the difference between asking your grocer for strawberries and asking for Swanton strawberries, he says. And when it comes to processed organic food, well, that’s a future article altogether, but much of it is made from raw ingredients shipped from overseas.
Back to the Garden
Santa Cruz reawakened to the importance of biologically intense soil early. Sure, Alan Chadwick made an impact, says Olson, but Santa Cruz residents brought him here to do what he did: turn a steep hillside into a thriving organic garden that turned into a classroom back in the late ’60s.
“To me, the greatest breakthrough is reacquiring the knowledge of the soil that we once had,” says Olson. “And the importance of recycling life back into the soil, where it comes back to us. That is the fundamental key to sustainability.”
For Olson, who grew up on a farm in Montana, Santa Cruz is an epicenter for this soil rebirth, which is really the essence of the organic movement: one that piles compost, leaves, straw bales from down the street—all forms of vegetal detritus—on the soil, to let it cook down in a writhing stew of earthworms and healthy microbes.
“All you have to do is feed the soil, and all those bugs in the soil do the job of feeding the plants,” says Olson, who notes that biologically intense, hand-built soil is rich in not just the macro nutrients—nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, but also secondary minerals, like calcium, magnesium and sulfur, and tiny trace elements, like boron, chlorine, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, zinc.
“Most other elements have been found in plant tissue, too, we just don’t know why it’s there, what it does,” says Olson.
The industrial route is to turn soil into an inert medium, says Olson. “There’s no life left in it,” he says. “In fact, the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement [implemented shortly after a batch of spinach was contaminated by E. coli in 2006, infecting 212 Americans and killing three] put together by the California Fresh Produce industry, really, is taking farmers in that direction. Because they’re afraid of life, they’re afraid of bugs. And so really they’re asking farmers to take away all of the extraneous life. The bushes, the trees, the birds.”
Vegetables grown in inert soil have been proven to be depleted in minerals and nutrients, and large-scale industrial farms that depend on synthetic fertilizers continue to damage the environment, causing nitrification of water and die off of fish, aquifer contamination, and the destruction of our pollinators, or bees—responsible for about one-third of the food we eat, says Olson—due to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
“And so, going back to the soil, really is the hope for the future,” says Olson. “Once we take it upon ourselves to buy the kind of food that will be good for our bodies, we will be buying that sustainable world. They go hand in hand—the kind of food that is good for our bodies is the kind of food that is good for the environment.”