Despite highest crop yields per acre in history, American agriculture is in a state of acute crisis. Farmers have been treating the soil the way speed freaks treat their bodies—with similar results.
The Meth that is used down on the farm is artificial fertilizer, an "upper" that stimulates rapid plant growth without contributing anything to soil health. In the short run, as with speed freaks, crops grow at a frantic pace. But in the long run, the use of these artificial and inorganic chemical fertilizers destroys the soil and saturates the ground with chemicals that do not break down or decompose into the earth.
Nitrogen in the soil is vital to plant growth, but when huge doses of this element are shot into the earth as an ingredient in artificial fertilizer, the results are often disastrous. The crops absorb some of the nitrogen, but much of it seeps through the soil into the ground water to pollute rivers, lakes and drinking water.
According to Dr. Barry Commoner, director of the Center for the Study of Biology Systems at Washington University in St. Louis, excess nitrogen in drinking water can cause a serious infant disease, methemoglobinemia. A number of public wells in California have been closed by health officials due to high nitrate content in the water. Says Dr. Commoner: "The agricultural wealth of California's Central Valley has been gained at a cost that does not appear on the farmer's balance sheets — the general pollution of the state's huge underground water reserves with nitrate."
Nitrate run-off in the ground water also encourages the growth of algae, which removes oxygen from water. These "algae-blooms" turn lakes and rivers into cesspools which, lacking oxygen, are unable to sustain aquatic life. This is happening in such Corn Belt states as Illinois where, according to Dr. Commoner, "Every major river is overburdened with fertilizer drainage."
Dependence on artificial, inorganic fertilizers has also diminished the mineral content of the soil. Consequently, the food we eat is lacking in nutritional value—at least in comparison with the farm produce of yesteryear when good crops were dependent on healthy soil and farmers put back into the soil what the year's crop took out. (Refining and processing food also robs it of nutritional value; by the time we get to eat it, losses may be as high as 50%.)
Agricultural research is directed at bigger and prettier crops for supermarket display. Soil health is virtually ignored. Our agriculture is based on the faith that, no matter how depleted our soil, it can continue to produce bountiful crops year after year if shot up with massive doses of chemical fertilizer.
American farmers are encouraged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and by trade publications like Farm Journal to accept the necessity of chemical farming for high yields, even at the acknowledged expense of healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich soil. Dr. Commoner has said: "We cannot speed up the biological cycle, as USDA policy has tried to do, without getting into serious trouble."
Dr. Commoner has also noted that nothing will change this absurd farming system except ". . . a fundamental revision of the entire economy of agricultural production in this country." What does that mean?
- Agriculture must be viewed in social terms and not as a business. We must support marginal and subsistence farms and encourage people (with financial grants) to move back to the land and return fallow fields to cultivation. This would ease pressures on the cities, lead to a more evenly balanced population and create the possibility for further change.
- We must decentralize our entire agriculture system, so that local areas can raise their own produce. With thousands of small farms in operation this would be feasible. It isn't now.
- USDA research should be redirected towards organic farming methods. This would include developing new farm machinery (mulchers, shredders, etc.), recycling garbage (turning organic wastes, autumn leaves, etc. into compost) and making these machines available to all farmers.
This will be no easy task. Both government and business are committed to large-unit, mechanized, chemical farming. The better farmers are as concerned with the environment as we are but they are exposed only to USDA information and trade journals which serve the interests of corporate agriculture. What can we do?
Probably, farmers can be most easily reached by professional scientists like Dr. Commoner but rural communes can provide worthwhile examples too.
The communes can do this by getting involved in organic farming and marketing their produce in ways that educate the public and create a demand for organically grown food. (For instance, distribute literature with the produce; "compete" by comparing the poison-free vegetables with the crap that passes for food in supermarkets: supply urban communes and food-buying cooperatives with low-priced, healthy foods.)
Ecology-action groups on campuses can help by demanding organic food in eating halls, cafeterias, student unions, etc.
And, finally, groups can start "People's Gardens" in parks, abandoned lots, in the suburbs, on campuses, etc. They can grow food for the community and hold free feasts at harvest time.
People with other suggestions and ideas should put them into practice and get the word around. The Movement has ignored the farmer and U.S. agriculture policy for too long. How many harvests have we left?