IN THE BEGINNING
The Bible claims that Cain killed Abel because he was jealous of God’s favor with his brother’s blood sacrifice. Cain, a farmer, made an offering of grain, while Abel, a shepherd, sacrificed a lamb. Why God preferred one gift over the other is uncertain, but, if we consider this story to be true, then the family of Cain (that’s you and I and everyone else on the planet) were cast out of the Garden of Eden and are destined to struggle in our efforts to grow food. Read as a metaphor, the story illustrates that moment in prehistory when agriculture effectively killed off the hunting and gathering way of life.
Either way, it is farming that got us here.
JARED DIAMOND SAYS
Evidence points to a time approximately 11,000 years ago when men and women first undertook farming as a radical lifestyle change. Early farming was a learn-as-you-go venture and it was 5,000 years before the first permanent irrigation system was built. Another 1,000 years to develop a plow. And another 1,000 years to tether the plow to a horse. Someone, somewhere rotated their crops. Someone else planted seeds inside over the winter. Someone staked up her first tomato plant. Aided by ever-expanding trade routes, the storehouse of agricultural knowledge was dispersed worldwide.
Vast stores of food. Population explosions. Eventually, an Industrial Revolution. Food. Population. Technology. To this day they remain locked in an ever-expanding struggle for more of everything.
- 1840 – Chemist Justus von Liebig argues there is no chemical distinction between the organic and inorganic. He promotes the use of chemical ammonia to accelerate plant growth as a replacement for nitrogen in soil.
- 1866 – Gregor Mendel outlines the primary tenets of how hereditary characteristics are transmitted from generation to generation. His work becomes the basis of much of modern genetics.
- 1892 – the first practical gasoline-powered tractor is built in Clayton County, Iowa; the design is, later, successfully developed by the Twin City Traction Engine Company in 1911.
- 1909 – Nobel prize-winning chemist Fritz Haber developes the process to cheaply synthesize ammonia using natural gas and air – the process is immediately purchased by German chemical giant BASF and to this day accounts for the artificial fertilization of up to 50% of the world’s produce.
- 1930 – the first plant patent is granted to Henry F. Bosenberg for an ornamental climbing rose.
- After World War II, DDT is made available for use as an agricultural insecticide but after its use is linked to the genetic mutation and death of birds and fish, it is banned worldwide in 1972.
- 1970 – Monsanto chemist John Franz develops the herbicide, glyphosate which Monsanto brought to market in 1974 under the trade name “Roundup”.
- 1982 – the first genetically modified plant was produced; an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant.
- 1996 – Monsanto introduces genetically-modified Roundup Ready® Soybeans, followed by alfalfa, corn, cotton, spring canola, sugarbeets and winter canola – all of which contain an in-plant tolerance to Roundup® agricultural herbicides.
One game-changing advance after another. More, bigger, better, faster. No rational farmer can afford to ignore the promise of greater yields with less work and, so, Progress rolls right over them.
“GET BIG OR GET OUT!”
The latest male enhancement ad? No, it was a directive to American farmers from Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson. 20 years later, in 1971, then Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz beefed up the threat, “get bigger, get better or get out”.
The U.S.D.A. and corporate agricultural concerns continue to bully American farmers into the business of industrialized farming. It is not a good fit for many farmers – since 1963, over 4 million U.S. farms have closed their doors, many bought out by larger, industrialized farms. Others simply failed. On our journey I saw hundreds of farmsteads sitting vacant, their land barren or reclaimed by nature. The farmers, families, farm workers and communities are simply gone.
The forced institutionalization of these industrial methods have put consumers in a real spot as well – conventionally-grown foods have become inorganic/organic mutations. It is truly hybrid food. It is artificially cheap, lacking in nutrition, chemically- and genetically-altered and it is on the shelves of every grocery store in America.
Conventional farming prefers quantity over quality. Conventional farming extracts the maximum dollars per acre. Conventional farming treats soil as if it were merely an inert strata into which the appropriate mixture of petrochemicals and minerals could be added to force a plant to grow. Conventional farming is strip mining. Conventional farming promises more of the same environmentally expensive and unsustainable practices. Conventional farming looks the other way…and obliges you, the consumer, to do likewise.
END DON’T ASK. DON’T TELL.
It is without question that our agricultural advances have lead to increases in population growth and overall health and longevity but we must begin to question the sustainability of these practices. We must ask questions that have nothing to do with short-term and short-minded profits. We must ask questions that future generations can live with.
Answering these questions will change our lives:
- Can we move away from conventional and industrialized farming and grow enough food to feed our population sustainably?
- Can we produce enough sustainably-grown foods in smaller, regional and local farms to feed our communities?
- Do current production methods keep pace with population?
- Do current production methods have an environmental limit?
- What is the current measure of inorganic chemical compounds in our food?
- What are the health consequences of life-long consumption of the chemical compounds found in fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides?
Not interested in loosening its global stranglehold, Big Ag passes over these issues and prefers to ask but one question which, seemingly, can only be answered by conventional industrialized farming: How are we to feed 7 billion people?
IT’S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL
Personally, I think the scope of that question is problematic in that it insists upon an industrial-sized answer. The fact is, we do not have to feed 7 billion people…you only have to feed yourself. And your family. And, if you choose, parts of your community. That is something which could be a very sustainable situation for every person living on even a very small plot of land.
I am not suggesting that we should all grow wheat and rice and fruit trees and vegetables and raise our own cattle and hogs and dairy cows but, rather, that many of us, literally, billions of us, could grow enough fruits and vegetables to partially feed our families. And many people could raise a few hens to keep their families and friends flush with fresh eggs. Thankfully, loads of people already do.
Listen, I know growing your own food is not the answer. The truth is, there is no one answer…there are many answers. There are a set of answers for people living in Los Angeles, CA and completely different answers for Springfield, MO. Different answers for Istanbul and Lagos and Beijing, too. But one thing is certain, all of the answers need to be smaller, regional fixes. And some of the answers may be as small as your own backyard.
But, you say…this all sounds like work.
Yes, it is. It is real, good work, but growing small amounts of food is not in the least bit difficult. Nor is it time consuming – it is the equivalent of running to the market three or four times a month or sitting in a drive-thru several times a week. And it doesn’t take much in the way of technology – a shovel, a watering can and a source of water. Anyone who has ever eaten produce grown in real soil knows the sumptuous difference in the taste and texture of truly organically-grown food…it is a worthwhile venture on so many levels.
CASTING OUT THE DEMONS
Some claim that it was the spilling of Abel’s blood that spoiled the earth and made the growing of food so arduous – it was God’s curse upon the family of Cain – but, clearly, it is time to stop thinking of agriculture as a curse. Or as a burden. Or as an industry. The truth is, the production of food is a necessity. It is that simple – food is vital to our survival and unless we begin to produce food in truly sustainable ways, we may forever be plagued by an abundance of seemingly inexpensive but nutritionally-empty foods which have been produced utilizing practices that are harmful to the health of ourselves, our families and our planet.
That would be a real curse.
Next up…A Simple Plan