Creating a New Normalcy

February 28, 2010

“How would you help the world out of a recession?” This was among the questions Time magazine put to Nobel Peace prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and economist who promotes microlending. (Time 10/19/09)

The Millennial Agrarians are showing a multitude of positive pathways.

“The system has failed us.  There’s no reason we should resuscitate it,” Yunus replied. “We have to make absolutely sure that we don’t go back to the old normalcy. We  should be creating a new normalcy.”

Worldwide, not just economic systems but also agricultural systems are mutating at breakneck speed. The factors include the kind of financial bubbles and shaky credit that have roiled global monetary markets, and also genetic engineering, vast monocropping, stupendous. problem-plagued animal-confinement operations, oil-based agrichemical use, aquifer depletion, farm consolidation, and over processing. While there is no single remedy for the ills afflicting our farms and our food, there are dozens upon dozens of positive paths and possibilities.

I have come to think of the thousands of people following these paths, and actively exploring new ones, as the Millennial Agrarians. They are the subject of The Call of the Land, and in my view their stories ought to be front page news week after week to serve as models and inspiration. When a ‘new normalcy’ of some description is finally established, it will be a clean and sustainable state of affairs for certain. Nothing else will stand. And it will arise from the efforts of the new agrarians on behalf of the people, the animals, the plants and the land. With their models and their ethics, these trailblazers are revealing how a sustainable agrarian ethos and practice can rebuild a steady, healthy foundation upon the land in relation to the fragile high-tech, digital-wave culture that is emerging so dynamically in the ethers.

The Most Valuable of All Arts
“…And this again, conforms to what must occur in a world less inclined to wars, and more devoted to the arts of peace, than heretofore…ere long the most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression of any of its forms. Such community will be alike independent of crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings….”

Excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, 1859.

Listening to The Call of the Land

December 5, 2009

Wendell Berry

This week I picked up a copy of a new book by Wendell Berry, the dean of American agrarians. The book is a collection of essays, titled “Bringing it to the Table,”  and it promises to be a rich read.

In the introduction another illustrious agrarian, Michael Pollan, notes that some of Berry’s ideas, dating back to the 1970s, prefigure the passionate national conversation now taking place concerning our farms, food, environment, and economy

I had barely cracked the cover of Berry’s new book – Essay 1, Nature as Measure —  when I found myself agreeing.

Berry wrote “The fact is that we have nearly destroyed American farming, and in the process have nearly destroyed our country…How has it happened?…

“…Industrial agriculture, built according to the single standard of productivity, has dealt with nature, including human nature, in the manner of a monologist or an orator. It has not asked for anything or waited to hear any response. It has told nature what it wanted, and in various clever ways has taken what it wanted.”

For me Berry’s comments brought into focus a core theme articulated in  The Call of the Land. That theme revolves around the fundamental realization that we have been dictating demands to the land for decades. Much good can come from finally becoming still enough to listen to the land now in the depth of winter, and to respond. What is the land communicating? What does it ask in reciprocity?

As documented in The Call of the Land, thousands upon thousands  of farmers, households, suburbs, cities,  churches, schools, and college campuses across North America are listening. They have already awakened to the necessity and value of a healthy, clean reciprocal relationship with the land. They are pioneering positive, new environmental and economic relationships with the land. These are the Millennial Agrarians, and they are are demonstrating an abundance of promising pathways forward.

Our Survival Imperative: Cultivating Diversity

August 26, 2009
Dr. Vandana Shiva

Dr. Vandana Shiva

“I don’t call it ‘climate change’ any more,” Vandana Shiva said last night in Santa Fe. “That term sounds too benign to some, as if climate change could be portrayed as a beneficial thing with Eskimos able to sunbathe and so forth. But that’s not what’s really happening, so to make the true point I call it ‘climate kills.’ That’s what’s really happening. And industrial agriculture is playing a large part in creating climate kills.”

Dr. Shiva is in New Mexico this week to participate in the first international conference sponsored by IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements). A powerhouse at the podium, she is a scientist, philosopher, environmental activist, and author of over 300 scientific papers. Her influential books include Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, and Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis

Last night – as she has consistently and eloquently over her career – she warned about the increasing dangers of industrial agriculture, genetically modified crops and seeds, and the burgeoning monopoly of the world’s food system by transnational corporations. “The monopolies are killing diversity, and killing farmers,” she said. “Food is not a commodity for speculation and profit. It is our essential source of nutrition that life may continue.”

Navdanya logo

Navdanya logo

Dr. Shiva said we must move from ‘suicide economies’ to ‘living economies’  She told of how in India some villages have established themselves as safe zones – free of agricultural chemicals and genetically modified seeds and food. “If governments won’t ban this stuff and protect the people,” she said, “then the people and the villages themselves will do it…No law is high enough to override the ethical duty we have to the Earth and to future generations. Cultivating and conserving diversity is no luxury in our times: it is our survival imperative.”

In 1987 Dr. Shiva founded Navdanya, an organizational pioneer in the movement of sustainable, organic agriculture, and seed saving in response to the crisis of agricultural biodiversity.  Over the last two decades, among other things, Navdanya has established more than 54 community seed banks in India. She encouraged others actively to consider establishing community seed banks, where neighbors, towns, and urban blocks grow and store  natural open-pollinated varieties of seeds.

In her keynote remarks last night, Dr. Shiva said “We can now move forward only by picking up the proven, healthy threads from the past, and extending them into the future.”


Pollinator Perplex: Update on the Honeybees

August 9, 2009

Birds, bees, and bats continue to perish in great numbers around the world. These massive die offs affect not only their specific communities of life, but also our natural world and our food supply.

Our winged relatives weave essential threads through the whole of life as they carry pollen from plant to plant and cause the land to bloom. Their loss to earth is inestimable. The ongoing decline of pollinators is one form of global change that will alter the shape and structure of the land and our capacity to live upon it.

This recent report on the evolving status of the bees comes from writer Jodi Peterson at High Country News:

HBEE“It’s been more than two years since High Country News reported on the West’s  disappearing honeybees. Since then, parasitic  mites and a mysterious syndrome called colony collapse disorder have  killed off thousands more hives.

“Honeybees pollinate 80 percent of the  fruits and vegetables we eat, and many wild species essential to  ecosystems. In China, hive collapse has forced farmers to start  pollinating fruit trees by hand with brushes.

“Now, researchers at  Washington State University think they’ve figured out the major causes of  colony collapse disorder…”

A Billion Hungry People on Earth, More Coming Fast

June 14, 2009

bThe United Nations World Food Program reported this week that there are over a billion hungry people among the approximately 6.8 billion human beings now alive. That means that over one in seven of us is hungry or starving, and the number is rapidly climbing upward

“This year we are clocking in on average four million new hungry people a week, people who are urgently hungry,” according to Josette Sheeran, head of the UN Program.

At the G8 food summit in Rome last week, she told Reuters news service that high food prices have pushed another 105 million people into hunger in the first half of 2009.

The global financial crisis has made things worse. In terms of staple food, people in poorer countries today can only afford about a third of what they could afford three years ago.

Meanwhile, in an independent but equally ominous echo, the esteemed National Geongraphic has just published a special report on food and hunger – the end of plenty. “Last year the skyrocketing cost of food was a wake-up call for the planet,” Joel K. Bourne Jr. reported in the magazine.

“High prices are the ultimate signal that demand is outstripping supply, that there is simply not enough food to go around.”

Yet with world population spiraling toward nine billion by mid-century, these experts now say we need a repeat performance, doubling current food production by 2030.

In other words, we need another green revolution. And we need it in half the time. We also need it to be a clean, sustainable revolution, for the synthetic chemicals of the first ‘green revolution’ have proven themselves to be toxic and at variance with a healthy planet; the hybrid crops have shown themselves to be fragile; and ongoing overdoses of chemical fertilizer and pesticides have ruined vast stretches of agricultural terrain, and are suspected carcinogens.

Last year a massive study called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development concluded that the immense production increases brought about by science and technology in the past 30 years have failed to improve food access for many of the world’s poor. The six-year study, involving some 400 agricultural experts from around the globe, called for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward more sustainable and ecologically friendly practices.

Though many people still do not hear it yet, hunger is one of the loudest voices calling from our land. This blog, and in particular the links page, offer direction and models that can be emulated by awakened citizens who recognize the wisdom of taking action now for food security.

Food and Farms Emerge as Key Movement of Our Era

May 30, 2009

foodpolitics1If all politics is personal, as is widely held, then ultimately not much is more political than our food, and the farms which produce it. Everyone must eat, thus everyone has a vested interest in food.

Just now, early in the 21st Century, foods and farms are emerging as a leading-edge political movement. Thousands of college students are awake to the crucial importance of food and farms, and more are awakening.

With food poisoning scares, the ongoing onslaught of genetically modified food products being surreptitiously introduced to our diets, and the mounting evidence of the health and environmental consequences of large-scale, chemically dependent industrial agriculture, the list of reasons is growing for people to become active and take a direct part in ensuring food quality and food supply.

According to a May 23 story in The New York Times, a new wave of students is heading to farms this summer, in search of both work as interns, and social change. The interest in summer farm work among college students has never been as high, concurs the growing organization Organic Volunteers.

According to the Times, the students come armed with little more than soft hands and dog-eared copies of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. They are acutely aware of the gross environmental problems caused by mass-scale industrial agriculture; they want to help bring about change, and to know they are doing something to better the world.

Meanwhile, the dietary forces impelling people to recognize foods and farms as a key political issue are mounting in strength and credibility. According to stories in both Time Magazine and Mother Earth News, we now have solid, scientific evidence that industrial farming is giving us less healthy  food. Produce in the  U.S. not only tastes worse than it did in our grandparents’ days, the evidence shows it also contains fewer nutrients.

Both articles cite a February, 2009 study entitled “Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition,” by Dr. Donald R. Davis published in the journal HortScience, 2009.

Davis reports that the average vegetable found in today’s supermarket is anywhere from 5% to 40% lower in minerals than those harvested just 50 years ago.

Because of widely used chemical fertilizers and pesticides, modern crops are harvested faster than ever before. But quick and early harvests mean the produce has less time to absorb nutrients either from synthesis or the soil. Meanwhile, monoculture – another hallmark of the Big Ag industry – has also led to soil-mineral depletion, which, in turn, affects the nutrient content of crops.

What can we do? Follow the examples of the new agrarians of the 21st Century. They continue to respond intelligently, creatively, and innovatively in backyards, neighborhoods, and with community gardens and farms across the land.

Changing economic conditions represent yet a third force making it likely many more people will be looking for the practical and political pathways being trailblazed by the new agrarians.  For example, a May 24 story in The Hartford Courant told of how – in the face of drastically changing economics – local growers have begun offering CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares as a survival strategy to keep their farms alive..

CSA describes an emerging agrarian form that has swept the country since the first two CSA farms were established in 1978. The number of CSA farms is barely keeping up with demand. As reported elsewhere on this blog, CSA farms have increased dramatically in recent years, with more than 13,000 now operating in the USA according to a census taken by the US Department of Agriculture.

We can expect to see more in the times ahead as, of necessity, food and farms come to the forefront of public awareness.

The Open Veins of Our Land – Eduardo Galeano

April 20, 2009

At a meeting of the nations of our hemisphere last week, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela presented U.S. President Barack Obama a book, “Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina,” or “The Open Veins of Latin America.”

The work, originally published in 1970, is the best known by Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan writer. It explores the history of European colonization of Latin America. Galeano’s book immediately began rising to the top of the best-seller lists.  I also became interested in his work, wanting in particular to learn what this influential author had to say about the land. What follows is an excerpt from a recent interview he did with Niels Boel of UNESCO:

Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Galeano

“Five centuries ago, people in Latin America were taught to separate nature from Man—or so-called Man—which in fact meant men and women. Nature was placed on one side, human beings on the other. The same divorce took place the world over.

“Many of the indigenous people burned alive for worshipping idols were simply the environmentalists of their time who were practicing the only kind of ecology that seems worthwhile to me—an ecology of communion with nature. Harmony with nature and a communal approach to life ensured the survival of ancient indigenous values despite five centuries of persecution and contempt.

“For centuries, nature was seen as a beast that had to be tamed—as a foreign enemy and a traitor. Now that we’re all ‘greens,’ thanks to deceitful advertising based on words rather than deeds, nature has become something to be protected. But whether nature is to be protected or mastered and exploited for profit, it’s still seen as separate from us.

“We have to recover this sense of communion with nature. Nature is not a landscape, it’s something inside us, something we live with. I’m not just talking about forests, but about everything to do with the reverence for the natural that the indigenous people of the Americas have and always have had. They see nature as sacred in the sense that every harm we cause turns against us one day or another. So every crime becomes a suicide…I truly wish that we could manage to summon up enough energy to heal ourselves.”

The full UNESCO interview with Eduardo Galeano is available here.

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