Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Wednesday 24 September 2014

A different 'plant scientist' - Ron Finley, 'Gangsta Gardener'

The newly refurbished Sheffield Cathedral thrilled with anticipation as the packed crowd waited for the arrival of a speaker with a pioneering message about sustainability. On arrival however, it was clear that Ron Finley, dressed as a strawberry, was not about to deliver a moral, guilt- inducing lecture. Instead, the evening was an inspiring account of how one person can truly make a difference to their community, and ultimately the world.

A former fashion designer, Finley became exasperated at the impoverished state of the communities around his home in South Central, USA. Not that there was a lack of food - instead, streets of houses were shoehorned by fast- food outlets, supermarkets and diners. Nevertheless, there was a distinct lack of nutritious foodstuffs - fresh fruit and vegetables. To Finley's mind, this food imbalance was the key underlying cause of the rise in chronic 'Western' diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. He saw that he and his neighbours lived in a 'food prison' , allowing themselves to depend entirely on others for food. But how to escape?

Besides fast food eateries, South Central also has a lot of vacant lots, areas of wasteland neglected by local authorities. On one such strip outside his house, Finley daringly planted tomatoes, carrots, mustard greens, sunflowers and more, turning the street into a garden. Despite the beauty and bounty this provided, a complaint from a neighbour led to Finley being arrested. This prompted a successful campaign which changed the local law, allowing citizens to grow produce on their parkways.

Finley was evangelical in his message that this was more than about growing a few vegetables to enhance his own meals. Instead, he deliberately planned the street garden so that neighbours would be able to help themselves as they passed. His vision is for neighbourhoods to feed themselves, growing and sharing vegetables on community land. To him, this is the ultimate act of defiance - fighting back against the reliance on mass- produced, processed food.

Since then, Finley and his 'gangsta gardeners' have worked with various communities to set up new street gardens. It is clear that these have had effects beyond improving nutrition, especially in helping children to engage with nature. 'Gardens can teach so many lessons' Finley said 'everything in life happens in a garden'. Time and again, he has observed young people become 'seduced by the soil' and    his gardens have proved therapeutic for those suffering from substance abuse, mental and physical conditions and the pressures of gang warfare. Once children start growing healthier foods, they also become much more enthusiastic about incorporating them into their diets.

Finley distinguishes himself from guerrilla gardeners ( those that plant seeds / gardens at midnight then vanish before morning), instead styling himself as a 'gangsta gardener'. The key difference, he says, is stewardship. He only works with communities that are prepared to take ownership of their garden and maintain it. During the question period that followed, a representative of a Sheffield Council also made the point that it was no good for the council to 'do things at people' but that sustainable community initiatives had to be undertaken by the people themselves. The overriding message appeared to be that councils are more supportive than the public may think and are prepared to back ideas that people are committed to maintain themselves. In fact, a new 'urban garden' is being planned for Sheffield City centre, called 'the Love Square'. Fingers crossed it will have the same effects as Finley's Garden! ( see http://lovesquare.group.shef.ac.uk )

According to Finley, ' they are telling us a lie, that we need them to feed us'. As a plant scientist, I found this a little hard to stomach, having been brought up to believe that sustainable, mass agricultural systems are the most efficient way to feed the global population. However, I believe that the world would be a healthier and happier place if most people did grow their own food. Perhaps a community in the UK could sustain itself on produce grown and reared by its members? Nevertheless, there is also a compelling argument that the 'delegation of labour' frees other people to become inventors, medical researchers, technicians, artists, poets... Perhaps a mix of both approaches is best?

So what do people think? Is mass produced agriculture a glory of the modern world or leading many to an early grave? Comments below please!

Click hear for a Reader's Digest interview with Ron Finley and a video of his 'Gospel Message' http://www.rd.com/culture/ron-finley-gangsta-gardener/#.

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