Healthy Ecosystems, Healthy Food Systems, Healthy Communities: An Interview with Urban Grower Lorraine Johnson by Angela Gong

(Photo: Phil Wallis) 

Lorraine Johnson is a self-described cultivation activist and author of numerous books on environmental issues and growing. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in literary studies from the University of Toronto, Johnson worked for many years as a book editor before writing her first book, Green Future: How to Make a World of a Difference (Penguin Books, 1990). From there, Johnson became more and more interested growing, agriculture, native plants, and ecological restoration—the cultivation of land, and the activism surrounding it. In this interview with Angela Gong from Feeding the City, Johnson discusses pandemic-related trends in growing, the interconnectedness of environmental and social issues, and some steps that are ultimately needed to develop an equitable, sustainable, and resilient food system for the future. 

Angela Gong: What are some projects that you have been working on during the pandemic? 

Lorraine Johnson: At the beginning of the pandemic, I realized that there were going to be a lot of people wanting to start to grow food for the first time, and that there was a role to play in terms of creating a supportive network of people who could help each other in the growing of food. So, I started a Facebook group called Grow Food Toronto, and was immediately joined by Rhonda Teitel-Payne from Toronto Urban Growers, and Cheyenne Sundance from Sundance Harvest. We’ve worked as a team of co-administrators ever since then to provide this platform for the sharing of information and inspiration around food growing during the pandemic. But I’m really hopeful that it will extend beyond that and become part of a broadening of food growing within the city.  

Another project that I’ve been working on during the pandemic, but started before the pandemic, is a book co-written with Dr. Sheila Colla from York University, called A Flower Patch for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat Gardens for Native Pollinators in the Greater Toronto Area. I feel that project is very much related to the pandemic and to food growing, because it’s basically about the biodiversity crisis, and how we can mitigate the loss of declining pollinator species. By enhancing habitat for pollinators, we in turn support and enhance yields of food production.  

Gong: You mentioned this increased interest in growing. Have you noticed any other trends in local growing movements?  

Johnson: I guess the obvious thing is that in the pandemic, there has been a surge of interest in growing food specifically. But I think what we’re also seeing is that there’s a growing awareness of the connections between all issues. There’s a surge of interest in food growing, and that leads to issues around access to land and food security. Who doesn’t have access to land? Who doesn’t have access to resources? And why? I’m seeing a growing recognition of how all these things are connected, from social justice to urban growing, biodiversity, climate change, economic disparities and marginalization, just on and on.  

Gong: Definitely. The connections between urban food growing and food security have come to the forefront during the pandemic, especially with discussions surrounding the resilience of food supply chainsBut with this focus on food security, we run the risk of leaving behind the issues of healthy ecosystems and ecological farming. So how do you see those issues balancing out, and what strategies are there for highlighting the intersectionality of them? 

Johnson: One of the ways I approach it is definitely through linking food production with pollinators and healthy diverse ecosystems. There is a tendency to separate them and say, well, we just have to plow down these forests to grow food. But that would be really counterproductive because food crops need those forests. At every opportunity, we need to stress that everything is connected, and we depend in every way on healthy thriving biodiverse ecosystems.  

Speaking personally about what I’ve observed, some first-time food growers are really concerned when they see an insect or they see a few small holes on a leaf they’re growing, and the immediate impulse is, what can I do to treat this problem? So, it’s important to emphasize the message that, 99% of the insects that are visiting your plants are beneficial, and that food crops can tolerate a little bit of damage. The aphid that’s doing a little bit of damage is food for the lady beetle who’s actually doing all kinds of good things for your food growing. And that powdery mildew (it’s a tough year for that)… Is it going to totally destroy your plant? No. Is it going to reduce the vigor of your plant a little bit? Yeah, but your plant can take it. Some first-time growers just need that reassurance around these issues. These are systems of production and you have to support a biodiverse landscape. And in the long run that’s going to lead to healthier plants, and healthier communities.  

Gong: And how do you see native plants and edibles fitting into that biodiverse landscape, and the future of food systems and urban growing systems? 

Johnson: In terms of native plants and urban agriculture, there’s just so much research out there now around the importance of wild landscapes in supporting the life and the insects that support agriculture. These large agricultural systems are better at producing food when they are surrounded by wild landscapes. And wild landscapes of native plants, in particular. So that’s the large-scale picture in the way that I see native plants connecting with agriculture.  

But in terms of native plants that are edible, I certainly think there’s growing interest in this, and planting edible native plants provides all of these wonderful ecological benefits at the same time as they’re feeding us. Just because of the scale that’s possible, I don’t think that they will ever be a huge component of the agricultural system and the food system. But I do try to do a lot of work around encouraging people to grow edible native plants, because I think they are a really important way to connect us to the food system and to the ecology of our place. People get excited about native plants when they can also get food from them. So, by growing native edibles, you learn these connections at your fingertips, literally. 

Gong: Have you read Braiding Sweetgrass? 

Johnson: Oh, I love that book. Yes, it’s one of my favourites. 

Gong: In the book, Kimmerer highlights how humans perceive any relationship with the land as negative just because of all the negative impacts of anthropogenic disturbances, when really, the giveandtake relationship highlighted in Indigenous teachings is what helps both humans and the land to thrive. And the way you describe native edibles seems like a very concrete way of manifesting that relationship. Do you draw inspiration from any Indigenous growing practices or philosophies that may be important for sustainable growing and a resilient food system? 

Johnson: As a non-indigenous person from settler stock, I wouldn’t want to speak for Indigenous people or speak about Indigenous growing practices, other than to say, I feel that I have learned so much about what you just mentioned in terms of conceiving of everything as being in relationship. And that way of thinking about and talking about everything has been a really powerful lesson for me. I’m interested in cultivation as a conversation. It’s a conversation with the conditions, with the land, it’s an inner conversation, and it’s relationship.  

But for such a long time the dominant tradition in cultivation has been, in fact, dominance and control. And that’s just not working. We have to somehow get into relationship, and I think growing plants can be a doorway into that. It can actually be a negative doorway, where you perpetuate those dominant practices of, “there’s a bug, kill it!” Or, as another example, the trend of monoculture is an expression of dominance on the land. But we can learn another approach of, “There’s a bug; what is it doing? What is it saying to me? What is it teaching me? How can I have a relationship with this insect who is visiting my plant?” 

Gong: And that whole idea of dominance and control is so connected to the root of societal injustice, as welljust to bring it back to your points about the connections between everything. To synthesize that, along with everything else we’ve discussed so far, what do you think are some lessons from the pandemic for the future of the food system or the movement towards sustainable ecological growing?  

Johnson: I think the strongest lesson for me has been this heightened awareness of how everything is connected and how food growing is connected with everything. Everything in terms of the ecology of the place, and the social systems of a place. Another lesson specific to the pandemic is just the power of mutual aid and people helping each other, rather than just depending on power structures, hierarchies, and political leaders. The power of mutual aid, and the importance of demanding that power structures help facilitate it, remove barriers to it, and recognize the power within community.  

And again, just speaking personally about something I’ve seen happening in the Grow Food Toronto group, Cheyenne started this weekly thread called Plant Trade. And whenever I am feeling negative or depressed about things in the world, I just look at the Plant Trade and see all of these people sharing and offering the resources that they have to others. It’s just an incredible generosity and reciprocity and mutual aid that is happening on this small scale. It’s so uplifting.  

Gong: And you mention that it’s a small thing but change definitely starts with small things. The community is where it starts. But governments and institutions certainly have a role to play as well, and what do you think are some of the key changes that these higher organizational levels need to implement, particularly when working towards an equitable, resilient, and sustainable urban growing system 

Johnson: I think land access is a major issue that has to change. We need systems of abundant access, especially for those who have been excluded and marginalized. We need BIPOC priority for land access. We need to be promoting careers in urban growing. We need greenhouses and raised beds everywhere. We need pollinator habitat. We need corridors of native plants along boulevards and in parks and in school grounds and libraries and civic centers.  

I think there is also a very large aesthetic barrier to improving the urban growing system that is not talked about a lot. Because the dominant aesthetic around urban landscapes is that everything has to be neat and tidy and clipped to the ground, with big swaths of colourful flowers at all times. I think those are actually barriers to change around food production and habitat creation and preservation within the urban environment. I think we have to massively change, and demand more of development so that those landscapes within development all have components of native plant habitat and food growing possibilities. And those urban growing spaces should be the defaults rather than just placing sod.  

Gong: Yeah, I know that the City of Toronto has certain aesthetic standards for community gardeners in the city parks, where the grass needs to be clipped and the garden should look aesthetically pleasing. Whereas for the gardeners, who might be hobbyists or growing for food security, they now have to put in extra time and maintain a certain look, in order to have continued access to that growing space. 

Johnson: Yes, and people rarely acknowledge that this notion of ‘aesthetically pleasing’ is completely constructed, with huge ecological costs. So how do we shift from that idea of aesthetically pleasing to beauty in function? Ecological function, social function, function in the broadest sense, how do we shift to the beauty of that? And I think the first step is to acknowledge that these notions of aesthetically pleasing are completely constructed. And they’re part of what’s destroying the world.  

Gong: That’s a really great way to put it, about prioritizing beauty in function. There’s a common concept in conservation biology of ‘ecosystem functions and services’ as a way to measure human impact, quantify economic benefits of ecosystem functions, and motivate political will. But in many ways, that concept focuses on what humans can get out of an ecosystem rather than simply wanting it to be healthy. So, I think it’s important to emphasize beauty in function as a prioritization of what the land can do not only for yourself, but in general. 

Johnson: Yeah. In going outside and experiencing a cloud of insects, and that being an aesthetic experience of health and function, and a sign of a healthy relationship. 

Gong: Absolutely. You have previously talked about permaculture as an inspiration for your work. Can you describe what you mean by that, and how your perspectives have changed through the years? 

Johnson: Yeah, over the years I have seen different terminology used to describe basically the same notion, being that we’re all a part of a system. And it’s the relationships within that big system of connection that are important. Whether you call it permaculture or whatever, it’s all grounded in a similar idea that we need to think about all the ties, and it just comes back to the idea that everything is connected. All of us, as in all living and all inanimate beings, are connected. So how do we make these relationships healthy, reciprocal, mutual, and beneficial for all? That seems to me to be the central question and the central challenge moving forward. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Special thanks to Lorraine Johnson, for taking the time to speak with me. 

Join the Grow Food Toronto Facebook group to learn more about growing in the city. 

Get a free copy of A Flower Patch for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee and Other Native Pollinators in the Greater Toronto Area, written by Lorraine Johnson and Dr. Sheila Colla. 

To learn more about growing native plants in Canada, read 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens, written by Lorraine Johnson. 

To learn more about growing native edibles, watch a recent discussion from WWF Canada featuring Lorraine Johnson and botanist Ryan Godfrey – Garden for Wildlife: Edible Native Plants. 

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