Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
PHOTO BY BRYAN WELCH
The first “green revolution” has not been an unqualified success. It’s had its downsides. Farmers have generally stopped raising their own food as production has shifted to “monocultural” crops with global market value. So, when economies decline and geopolitical structures teeter, farmers are in the same dire straits as everyone else. They have, largely, surrendered their ability to live off their land or to supply their own communities with a balanced diet. The visionary scientist Wes Jackson describes modern agricultural economies as “brittle.” When an entire region depends on a single product — say corn — and an unusual weather pattern devastates the corn crop one year, the region’s economy is also devastated. Most modern farmers don’t even raise their own vegetable gardens.
Pesticides, herbicides and industrial fertilizers pollute water supplies and destroy wildlife. Even as the White House and the Ford Foundation were trumpeting industrial agriculture’s achievements, Rachel Carson was taking note of the sudden decline of wildlife around the world where pesticides were used. New health problems proliferated in farming communities around the world. According to the National Cancer Institute within the U.S. National Institutes of Health, farm workers face unusually high incidence of leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, soft tissue sarcomas, and cancers of the skin, lip, stomach, brain and prostate.
The bare earth between the rows of corn or soybeans erodes in the absence of the root structures and decomposing plant matter that enrich undisturbed soils. Plant varieties are developed to maximize the nutrition derived from every square meter. As that nutrition is pulled from the soil and trucked away to feed human beings and livestock, the soil is depleted and the crops are increasingly dependent on artificial fertilizers. Those fertilizers are specifically designed to benefit the crops immediately, and have no lasting positive impact. The soil is, gradually, robbed of its natural assets.
Furthermore, there’s good evidence that, as we’ve increased the productivity of our farmland, we’ve also made our food less nutritious. Some studies suggest that up to 75 percent of the natural minerals we would expect to find in a piece of fruit or a bowl of spinach may be missing if our fruits and vegetables are grown with aggressive industrial agricultural practices. 
 National Cancer Institute. Agricultural Health Study. Ongoing.
 Lawrence, Felicity. 2004. Kate Barker: Not on the Label. Penguin.