The late Edward Abbey, personal hero and favorite author of mine, once said that the greatest mistake mankind ever made was giving up the life of hunting and gathering for agriculture. And in a way, he was right. For with that one evolutionary transition, humans began to alter their landscape forever. That, of course, was thousands of years ago and it took quite a while to get to a point where we really began to do some damage. By the time of the industrial revolution, machines began to do much of the work usually conducted by humans. Tractors plowed, harvesters harvested, cotton gins plucked seeds from cotton.
For roughly a half century, it was wonderful. We plowed more land, grew and harvested more, and made more money. But then came the Dust Bowl and we saw for the first time what our technology had wrought. Farmers fortunately survived, as did the land, and pushed on. But after WWII it all changed again. The end of the war brought new chemicals, technology, machinery, and more. In effect, farmers had much bigger hammers with which to solve their problems. For three decades, the harder farmers hit, the bigger the problems became. Until one day, the hammer simply didn’t work anymore [or it caused so much damage that society decided it just wasn’t worth it]. So, we put down the hammer and started figuring out ways to grow food that were less harmful to the land.
We can’t go back 50 or 100 years where small farms were widely spread across America, where more food was eaten by those that grew it than not. But we can choose our food future. What do I mean? We are at another of those evolutionary transitions. Hunter-gatherers didn’t decide to take up farming overnight. It took a long time. In similar fashion, there are many today that would like to take a step back and embrace a more thoughtful land and food ethic, but realize it won’t happen overnight. The simple fact is that we are in danger of having to import more food than we actually grow domestically, and we need this transition to happen faster rather than slower. There is a whole litany of reasons we’re moving away from a domestic food supply including development and economic pressures, to a reduced focus by our land grant universities on domestic food production, to a society-at-large that quite honestly doesn’t understand what’s going on and usually doesn’t care when it does. As luck would have it, the land-ethic pendulum is swinging back to an ethos that embraces the land and works with rather than against Nature. As it does, we capture a whole new audience of folks looking to get back to the land and reconnecting with their food supply. The question is whether it will swing back fast enough.
Society at large still needs to understand at an even deeper level where its food comes from. Food is grown on a farm; it doesn’t miraculously arrive on the back of truck every Tuesday and Friday from a factory. They need to understand that food grown thousands of miles away has incalculable negative impacts on global warming, open space [e.g., farms], clean air and water, and most importantly the human psyche. The more of our food production that we “outsource” to other countries the more open space and farms we lose.
There was a time when the eggs we had for breakfast came from chickens that we personally knew. We need to reconnect with our food supply, who grows it, how and where. We need to know our eggs. In the battle to protect who we are as human beings, the front lines will be fought on working farms by working farmers. Protecting working farms protects open space, food production, air and water, and protects against growing threats from global warming. We can’t go back to being hunter-gatherers [not that we would want to, necessarily] and likewise if we lose our working farms, we won’t be able to get them back either. The greenest thing anyone can do is make sure our working farms keep working.