August 20, 2008 | General

Climate Change Connections: Stop To Smell The Pizza Flower

BioCycle August 2008, Vol. 49, No. 8, p. 21
Sally Brown

WALL E, the new Pixar movie, tells the story of a robot whose task is to compact waste, mountains of waste, into neat, dense rectangles. He works on Earth, after our mountains of waste have made the planet uninhabitable. Romance (with another robot) takes him to a giant spaceship, akin to a modern day cruise ship. This spaceship is home to all of the people that had to evacuate earth generations back. Living on this space/cruise ship, people have come to depend on robots and have lost touch with most of what have traditionally been considered essential functions.
Aside from being a beautiful love story, there are two main points in the film that relate to organics and climate change (sometimes I wish that I could just enjoy a movie and not relate it to work). One connection is the premise of the movie, which is that piles of waste will do us in. But that will be the subject for another column. The other point – and the subject of this column – is the joy and wonder that the ship’s captain experiences when he sees a real, live plant. This is a sign that he can go back to earth and start to farm. And what is he most excited about growing? A pizza plant.
Now, this is far enough out there that everybody in the audience (even those that weren’t master gardeners) got a big laugh. But is it really so far out there? Twenty years ago I had a local produce business in New York City, and came to realize that most people don’t have a clue about what grows or how or where. I sold locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers on Long Island. The business ran from June (strawberries) through to the first hard frost (tomatoes, winter squash, broccoli and cauliflower), and you wouldn’t believe how many chefs tried to order lemons and pineapples. Even with climate change, pineapples on Long Island are highly unlikely. I started providing introductory tutorials about growing, and provided lists of what was in season. I would also bring fun stuff to the chefs, like a head of bolted lettuce, or yellow raspberries. They loved this. Granted, it probably didn’t hurt that I was younger and thinner and that my coworker was an aspiring dancer.
Growing up in New York City, I knew something about growing things because we lived in Queens, not Manhattan, and had a backyard. In the yard we grew currants and figs. We had a peach tree that never produced fruit. I also learned from my grandmother who was from Germany. She had a wide range of things growing in her yard, including apricots and Swiss chard. That was a while ago, and now a lot of people don’t understand on a basic level how things grow. Part of this is because stuff is always available in the store.
If you grow things, you understand the importance of taking care of your soil. If you take care of your soil, you put your hands in it, see how things decompose and know what it smells like. If you take care of the soil – the rest is cake. Tomato plants are not sickly looking yellow and purple plants; they are lush green bushes.
We are starting to see a resurgence in gardening, with barren urban soils turned into small farms. In an article in the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan says that home vegetable gardens, just like the victory gardens in World War II, are perhaps our single best tool on a household-by-household basis to fight climate change (“Why Bother,” April 20, 2008). Cauliflower and climate change may not seem instantly like closely related topics. What Pollan gets at, in addition to the fewer miles traveled to get the cauliflower to the table, is that growing plants is a time honored proven means to sequester CO2. Pollan says that, “in a thoughtfully organized vegetable garden (one planted from seed, nourished by compost from the kitchen and involving not too many drives to the garden center), you can grow the proverbial free lunch – CO2-free and dollar-free.” Note here that key phrase, “compost from the kitchen.” Pollan points out that in counting carbon, you should count the scraps from your kitchen that are making compost instead of methane in the landfill.
The local food movement, the desire to get one’s hands dirty again, is something that those who work with organic residuals need to capitalize on. Once you are playing in the dirt, you start to develop an appreciation for it as well as an understanding that it needs to be nurtured. With proper education and marketing, this interest in local food is a market for organics recycling. When a municipality is considering landfill diversion of food or yard wastes, or moving to a Class A biosolids program, they need to start looking in their own backyards for a solid customer base. State Agricultural Extension agents and master gardeners can work with municipalities to educate all of those potential gardeners. Cities can include provisions for gardeners in their planning process – providing rain barrels for example, backyard compost bins or compost on demand, educational materials and classes on how to grow things.
For most of my years, farms have been moving further and further away from cities. Agriculture has become an industry, not a bucolic pastime. These changes in agriculture lead people to believe in things like pizza plants. But, as Pollan points out, Victory Gardens grew 40 percent of the produce that was consumed in the US during WWII. The current resurgence in gardening is two things: part of a solution for climate change and a new market for organics. These two things go hand in hand.
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and authors this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. Email Dr. Brown at

Sign up