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Sowing Knowledge

March 26, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Ecology, Evaggelos Vallianatos

What I Tell My Students…

by Evaggelos Vallianatos

I have taught sporadically at several universities. My latest teaching is at Pitzer College that prides itself for its liberal and environmental values.

I focus on the politics of agriculture, shedding light on an invisible giant making America on its image.

This is not the agriculture of Thomas Jefferson with the small family farmer all over the country. Rather this is the agriculture of big business. This is the agriculture that has sent rural America to oblivion, industrializing the countryside and, along with it, farming and food. And, yet, it remains out there, unspoken, beyond the daily discourse.

The consumers of food, including most college students and faculty, rarely know where their food comes from. In addition, city folk look at agriculture with the disdain that comes from both ignorance and class bias.

However, Americans, much like the rest of the people of the world, have rural roots. If not their parents, then their grandparents were part of a vast rural exodus that made America almost entirely an urban society.

The driver for this vast urbanization has been industrialized agriculture, which during the 20th century rearranged the country, giving most of the best land to large farmers. Small family farmers inherited the crumbs.

Large farmers no longer mix crops and animals. They are specialists in monoculture, producing one “commodity.” They own land by the thousands of acres. They grow immense amounts of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat, and fruits and vegetables.

Large farmers also “produce” chicken, hogs, and cattle by the millions in factory-like farms. They crowd animals together, feed them mostly fattening food and hormones, and drug them to minimize death from disease. The impact of these animal farms is enormous. Their stench and chemical air pollution makes people sick; their vast amounts of untreated manure contaminate the land, rivers and groundwater. Livestock is also a major source for Earth-warming gases. Farm animals emit from 18 to 51 percent of the chief global greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

Large mechanized agriculture turns the world up side down — abolishing rural societies and disrupting nature.

Small family farmers and peasants unable to compete with large “growers” or plantations go bankrupt and are evicted from the land. This means small towns and villages shatter, becoming ghosts haunting the empires of large agribusiness.

Large farmers are large because of government subsidies, big machines and, especially, pesticides. These petrochemicals allow them to dominate the natural world. But the price for such control has been very steep.

Pesticides are biocides. Spraying them, as farmers and urban users have been doing for decades, is deleterious to all life, including human life. They contaminate our food and drinking water; they can cause cancer, especially among farmers and others living close to farmers. They also sicken and kill wildlife, especially endangered species.

Passing on these facts to the students is easy. There are dozens of scientific studies and books documenting the biocidal effects of pesticides. What is difficult is dealing with the bewilderment I see in the students’ eyes.

Some students ask: why are we still hooked to these biocides? After all, they are barely necessary for food production; biological control of “pests” and organic farming take care of growing plentiful and high quality food.

To answer these questions, I pass on some more facts: Government policies riddled with corruption, a system of regulation of risky technologies like pesticides designed to fail. Why, students ask. And I say because petrochemical businesses have so much power that they draft the very regulatory system supervising them.

This reality of “environmental protection” leaves the students angry. I tell them stories from my 25-year experience with the Environmental Protection Agency. I started during the administration of Jimmy Carter and survived until the end of the first administration of George W. Bush.

I smile and secretly anguish in explaining corruption in Congress, the White house and the EPA. This is the holy trinity that blesses the empire of agribusiness. The White House and Congress embrace the agenda of giant agriculture and EPA and the Department of Agriculture iron out the details for its implementation.

A student asked if Michelle Obama was aware of the heavy subsidy of corn that is partly responsible, through myriad ways, for the obesity epidemic. After all, Michelle Obama is leading a campaign against obesity. The student hoped Mrs. Obama would talk to her husband to end corn subsidies.

I admit that teaching about pesticides, agriculture and environmental protection at a small school is not going to alter the anthropogenic insults against the Earth. But I am also certain that sowing knowledge is just as important — and lo less significant — than sowing seeds in the land. We must water all these seeds to bear fruit.

Evaggelos Vallianatos teaches at Pitzer College. He is the author of several books, including Poison Spring (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press).

1 Comments to “Sowing Knowledge”


  1. It’s understandable that your students should perceive this concentration and abuse of land as insane, but it may make more sense if it is seen as a long-standing pattern in human cultural evolution – one that we must transcend if we are to avoid what historical anthropologist Ronald Wright calls “progress traps” (A Short History of Progress, 2004).

    Where agriculture first developed in ancient Sumer (the likely location of the Garden of Eden), there is evidence of widespread deforestation and soil erosion as early as 6,000 BC. By 3,000 BC as many as 80% of Sumerians lived in urban areas, with land controlled and concentrated by priestly corporations which invented private property, protection rackets, and generalized exploitation of workers.

    By 2500 BC, most Sumerians were either serfs or slaves under the control of the elites, and the heavily irrigated croplands were becoming saline and losing productive capacity. By 2,000 BC, the civilization collapsed as the land had “turned white” and become infertile. Noah’s flood was almost certainly due to the mismanagement and abuse of this low-lying land.

    A similar story worked itself out in Mesoamerica, with the Mayan empire deforesting much of the central American jungle. The primary difference between those times and today, is that mechanized and chemicalized agriculture allows us to despoil the earth at a much faster pace. But, oddly, the paradigm of control and conquest of nature for short-term gain is the same now as then.

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