Are school gardens the new environmental battleground?

I spent a couple of hours the other morning planting vegetable seedlings with kids at the school garden. It was one of those days, with the sun shining, parents, teachers and kids working together, when you feel good about the world. The kids were excited to plant the seedlings they’ve grown from seed in little newspaper pots that they made, closing their eyes and blowing good wishes to their cucumbers and peppers and tomatoes to grow big and strong. Thanks to the attention of their teachers, most of the kids knew quite a bit about what they were planting and what will go into ensuring we see healthy and delicious organic veggies emerge from our plot.

But even with this unmitigated good vibe—actually because of it— I couldn’t help thinking about the cynical move of a new organization purporting to create a new Canadian School Garden Network, while actually working in the interest of fertilizer companies. Nutrients for Life (N4L) is a charitable organization connected to the Canadian Fertilizer Institute that has created a website “network” with resources and curriculum links for teachers and schools interested in school gardening.

On the garden site, N4L talks the usual talk about the benefits of growing food at schools and how teachers can use their gardens as teaching resources. But, it seems, what they want teachers to teach is the benefits of chemical fertilizer. There’s also lots of talk about sustainable agriculture, but to this organization that doesn’t mean organic growing techniques—as most people do when they talk about sustainability—N4L means adding artificial fertilizer (phosphate, nitrogen and potash) to the soil to make the plants grow.

While N4L doesn’t hide its intimate connection to fertilizer interests, the new school garden network sub-site is a bit trickier. You have to read between the lines (a focus on “soil science,” “science-based learning,” lots of mentions of “nutrients” and no mention of organics) to understand that this “network” is actually a vehicle to promote the use of artificial fertilizers to children and educators.

And, it seems, it’s already been successful at infiltrating the conversation: the launch of the new website was heralded without any mention of the fertilizer connection in a recent Globe and Mail article.

From all appearances, fertilizer manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers are on the offensive because of fears that teachers and school gardens are promoting organic agriculture and growing techniques—putting a dent in the reputation of chemical fertilizer and (potentially) their bottom line. In the various videos and curriculum resources available on the sites, there are frequent mentions about making sure kids have all the “facts” about growing. They’re clearly fighting  for the hearts and minds of children, and school gardens are the new battleground.

Canada is very much in need of a School Garden Network—a place to share stories and information, ideas about what people can do, how teachers can use gardens to connect with curriculum, how we can all use such hands-on learning to promote real sustainability. (There’s even been talk from Sustain Ontario about initiating such a venture in this province.) What we don’t need is marketing propaganda for products that contaminate our soil and waterways—in the guise of education.

{Photographs by Andrea Curtis}


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