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
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
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
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,
Ecology-action groups on campuses can help by demanding
organic food in eating halls, cafeterias, student unions,
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
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?