Changing a Food System, One Seed at a Time: Part 2

Changing A Food System, One Seed At A Time: Part 2

Tue 11 Dec 2012

Story by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow

Read part 1 here.

From Farms to Factory Farms

The system La Semilla is tackling has changed dramatically since the 1960s. As Roni Neff of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future summarized,

“In the last fifty years, vast tracts of land devoted to corn and soy have largely replaced farms that raise animals and grow fruits, vegetables, and a variety of grains. Animals raised for food or to produce food have been moved from farms to feedlots and confinement operations. And instead of family farmers, large corporations such as Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill, and ConAgra control much of the process and market.”

These changes stemmed from what originally seemed to be a very good idea: the application of scientific breakthroughs to increase agricultural yields dramatically. Indeed, the practices of the “Green Revolution” earned Norman Borlaug, the plant scientist whose work inspired it, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. And corporations and governments, recognizing the opportunity presented by the new technologies, fostered the rapid spread of industrialized agriculture from the United States to Asia and Latin America.

On the face of it, industrialized agriculture promised to be a most welcome solution to the timeless problem of world hunger. But some so-called solutions, as writer and farmer Wendell Berry observed, led to ramifying sets of new problems. And during the past several decades, it has become increasingly clear that industrial agriculture has indeed created a host of new problems impacting the health of people and the planet. The use of fertilizers and pesticides, for example, has led to higher rates of cancer and the contamination of soil, streams, and groundwater. Monoculture farming (the cultivation of a single crop over a large area) has led to the loss of biodiversity, undermining the productivity and stability of ecosystems. Factory farms, where most chickens, hogs, and cattle are now bred and slaughtered in the United States, contaminate water and soil and create air pollution linked to asthma and other respiratory problems.

Modern agriculture, moreover, is the single largest user of water worldwide, with global agriculture consuming nearly two quadrillion gallons of rainwater and irrigation water annually—enough to cover the entire United States with two feet of water, as essayist Wenonah Hauter has reported. Industrialized agriculture is also highly dependent on diminishing supplies of fossil fuels, accounting for some 19 percent of fossil fuel consumption in the United States. It is also one of the most significant contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Meanwhile, the reality of hunger and malnutrition remains. In 2009, the United Nations reported that the number of hungry people in the world topped one billion—one of every seven men, women, and children. In recent decades, there has also been an epidemic of obesity and diet-related illnesses in developed countries such as the United States. The causes are complex, to be sure, but one of the primary reasons is the rise of fast foods and processed foods that are high in fat and sugar and low in nutrition.

Because these foods are cheap—often cheaper than more nutritious options—many low-income people have come to rely on them to the detriment of the health of their families and communities in places like southern New Mexico.

Part 3: In tomorrow's installment of this five-part series, the authors of Ecoliterate take us to the birthplace of La Semilla—the humble town of Anthony, New Mexico, where some residents are starting to experience food in a whole new way.

About the authors: In the new book, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman and the Center for Ecoliteracy's Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow profile inspiring educators, activists, and students who embody this new integration of intelligences as they creatively address food, water, and energy issues. This is a story about a group of young adults in New Mexico who set out to change the way people in their community nourish themselves.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. From Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Photo Credit: ©Tyler/Center for Ecoliteracy


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