One crop to rule them all.
Photo: USDA

Tucked into the rolling hills of North Carolina’s Swannanoa Valley, Warren Wilson College is essentially surrounded by a farm. The school’s 800 students not only tend the 275-acre farm — which includes pastured livestock and vegetables — they also provide the labor to run the campus. They do everything from accounting to plumbing to cooking in the cafeteria. I’ve had the privilege of hosting several Warren Wilson kids at Maverick Farms, and I’ve been amazed at how well those kids know how to work, and have plenty of fun while doing it.

On March 3, I addressed a conference organized by Warren Wilson students called the Southern Appalachian Youth on Food Symposium — or simply, SAY Food. Among the conference’s organizers was Hillary Wilson, one of the founders of Maverick. Seventy students attended, coming together from as far away as Georgia, South Carolina, and Kentucky.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

For someone who spends a lot of his time in isolated circumstances — staring at a computer screen, working in the field — the conference was a great reminder for me that people all over the country are mobilizing around food issues. I’m no fiery orator; I read directly from my prepared text. Yet the students bombarded me with smart questions afterward, demonstrating passion, critical thought, and the zeal to do something.

As I prepared the notes for my talk, it became clear that I was essentially distilling my 25 or so Victual Reality columns into a broad look at food and the environment. After seven months of writing this weekly column, now seems like a good time to present a summary of my work so far. (Plus, with all that time spent preparing for the conference, I didn’t have time to write a fresh column. In writing as in farming — especially when writing while farming — nothing must go to waste.)

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

What follows is an edited version of my talk. Much of it may be familiar to regular readers, but in synthesizing my work, I’ve come up with new insights, connections, and ways of seeing things.

Just Getting Warmed Up

An earlier speaker made the point that if we seriously want to rebuild local food systems, we need more farmers. Warren Wilson College gives me hope for that vision. The idea that students should essentially run a campus with their own labor — should learn how to do things while in college — strikes me as a brilliant model for the whole education system.

A Warren Wilson student tends a movable chicken pen.

Photo: Courtesy Warren Wilson College

In our society, physical labor and intellectual labor tend to be rigorously separated: blue collar, white collar. It seems to me that many of our food problems could be solved by negating that false division. The Wilson system revalues physical work and reunites it with the world of thinking.

It also reminds us that our food is a daily, unavoidable link to the land. By eating and drinking, we literally embody the land by ingesting what grows from it. Since this relationship is so intimate, it isn’t surprising that the health of landscapes and the health of people are directly linked. Healthy, beautiful landscapes, like the one surrounding Warren Wilson, tend to engender healthy, beautiful people. Unhealthy, ugly landscapes, by contrast, tend to create disease and dysfunction.

I’m not talking about cities, which can be quite beautiful. In my view, livable, beautiful cities have always been among humanity’s greatest achievements — and relearning and perfecting the skill of making cities livable and beautiful may be essential to our survival as a species. But that’s a topic for another time.

The landscapes I have in mind now are those vast fields devoted to one crop, dependent on artificial fertilizers and a variety of poisons. Almost completely depopulated and devoid of diversity — indeed, at the whim of entire industries that exist to eradicate their biodiversity — these brutalized landscapes, it can be argued, are brutalizing our bodies in turn.

I will talk about a few of the major environmental effects of industrial agriculture — its destruction of soil, its mammoth effect on climate change, and the way it creates dead zones in coastal ocean areas across the globe. In all of these examples, the way we grow food now threatens our capacity to grow food in the future. But before I discuss these crises, I’m going to talk about something that’s intimately related to why our food system is so hard on the environment: economic history.

Cheap Labor, Cheap Food

Nothing operates in isolation; everything has a context. Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola — none of those institutions popped out of thin air. Nor did they emerge fully formed from some abstract source like “consumer preference.” Rather, they grew over decades, formed in the context of the broader economic system.

And our economic system is built on the idea of maintaining corporate profit growth by keeping wages down. Simply put, a system based on low wages requires cheap food. If wages are so low that people can’t satisfy their caloric needs, then society collapses. When policy makers figured out that low wages call for cheap sustenance, they began to think hard about how to make food cheaper. Food production has always been extremely labor intensive, and so through history food has been quite expensive.

Now, the idea of keeping wages low to maintain profits is as old as capitalism, which emerged as a dominant economic system in 18th-century England, reaching full flower during the Industrial Revolution. That is when work became mechanized, regimented — and essentially fragmented from thought.

From the start, for profitability’s sake, it was important to pay deskilled factory workers as little as possible. There’s a robust literature on the horrific conditions that prevailed among the early British working classes. The novels of Dickens — who was himself pulling 10-hour days in a factory by the age of 12 — are a good place to start.

In 19th-century Britain, policy makers hit upon an excellent method for delivering cheap calories to the new working class blooming in its cities: sugar. In preceding centuries, European merchants had built the sugar industry on the labor of ruthlessly exploited African slaves, mostly in the West Indies. The European sugar companies learned to mass-produce sugar — and as supply of the product grew, its price fell.

Britain’s new ruling class — much of its wealth having been derived from the sugar colonies — used sugar to create the 19th-century equivalent of fast food. Workers could and did subsist on a diet based mainly on bread and tea, with extra calories provided by jam and other processed sugar products. There’s a great book all young food activists should read called Sweetness and Power, by Sidney Mintz. It can be read as a kind of pre-history of industrial food.

Now, in our time, that kind of slavery is illegal, but beyond that, the politics of sweetness and power aren’t much different. The dominant sweetener is high-fructose corn syrup, which appears in products up and down the supermarket aisle — and which, it turns out, may be even more damaging to our bodies than refined sugar. And our system for creating cheap food is even more effective than the British one.

Since the early 1970s, wages in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, have not risen; they’ve been essentially static. (Over the same period, corporate profits rose more or less steadily.) To get ahead, people tend to work more hours, and that leaves little time for cooking and enjoying food. Because of these conditions, people look more and more to the food industry to feed them — whether it’s a not-so-Happy Meal, a frozen microwavable pizza, or Cheetos. All of those choices provide energy-dense food at an unbeatable price.

The food industry has generated billions of dollars in profit providing that service. And they invest a significant portion of their profits in marketing campaigns, which make their products even more attractive to time-strapped, underpaid people. But for these companies to make money selling cheap food, they need to buy food from farmers even cheaper.

The whole system depends on farmers being able to crank out huge amounts of crops that can be transformed into livestock feed to create cheap meat; into sweeteners for cheap sodas; and into additives for all the convenience fare we find at the supermarket and in the fast-food chains. In this system, farmers don’t grow food for people to eat, they grow industrial inputs that corporations transform into food.

To produce the mountains of inputs needed by the food industry, farmers had to learn to specialize. After World War I, the rise of manufactured fertilizer, petroleum as an energy source, and the internal-combustion engine all made it possible to power farm machines without animals.

This was a revolution in agriculture. Crop production and meat production could now be separated — and intensified. Monocropping suddenly made sense. Yields of crops like corn, soy, and wheat exploded, and their prices fell. Meat production skyrocketed. The era of truly cheap food was on — and cheap food meant that wages could be kept down without making people starve.

Eating Disorders

Not many people in the United States are starving, but rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related conditions are rising fast. They’re high across the board, but they’re even higher for low-income people. In short, the less money you make, the more likely you are to be overweight and have diabetes. It’s no coincidence — studies show that high-calorie, “energy-dense” foods like potato chips tend to be much cheaper than “nutrient-dense” foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.

To me, it’s not surprising that what’s been a disaster for our bodies has also been a disaster for our planet. Replacing composted manure with artificial fertilizer increased yields in the short term, but it’s destroying one of our most precious natural resources — topsoil in the Midwest, one of the richest stores of soil fertility on the planet. Fertilizer application saps soil’s natural ability to hold nitrogen and retain water. As it loses its ability to retain water, the soil becomes more dependent on irrigation. Excess irrigation drains the soil of key nutrients — making it still more dependent on fertilizer. So the soil becomes fertilizer dependent and prone to erosion.

This is a global problem. Worldwide, synthetic fertilizer use increased by a factor of ten between 1950 and 1998.

But this annual bombardment of fertilizer isn’t merely degrading soil. As the soil loses its ability to retain nutrients, ever-heavier applications are needed to feed crops. The part that doesn’t make it into plants doesn’t disappear without a trace. Some of it is released into the air, and the rest of it dissolves into water. Both of these avenues lead to disaster.

When fertilizer enters the air, it does so as a substance called nitrous oxide — which, the EPA tells us, is a greenhouse gas “310 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2.” Fertilizer application accounts for about two-thirds of total U.S. nitrous oxide emissions — a significant contributor to climate change.

Nasty things also happen when fertilizers are flushed into waterways. In the Midwest, streams feed into the Mississippi River, which winds its way down to the Gulf Coast. All along that path, nitrogen from agricultural runoff feeds algae, which blots out other forms of life. Every year, the runoff accumulates in a 6,000-square-mile patch — about the size of New Jersey — in the northern Gulf of Mexico. As predictably as night follows day, every year a gigantic algae bloom emerges, under which little other marine life can live. This effect devastates not only fish populations, but also fishing communities along the coast. The Gulf of Mexico houses the world’s biggest, but by no means only, dead zone. In fact, there are two others in U.S. waters — one off the coast of Oregon, the other in the Chesapeake Bay.

Now, it’s important to note that grain production is the main culprit for the gulf dead zone — mainly corn, the most prolific U.S. crop and by far the most fertilizer-intensive. Oddly enough, it’s also our most heavily subsidized crop. Half of all U.S. corn production goes into domestic livestock feed, and another 20 percent is exported, the great bulk of it used for feed in other countries. As the writer Richard Manning has put it, by destroying marine life on the Gulf Coast in order to grow corn for meat production, we’re essentially sacrificing a cheap, high-quality, environmentally sustainable form of protein for one that has none of those virtues.

Indeed, producing meat by concentrating animals into pens and feeding them corn turns out to be perhaps the single most idiotic facet of our food system. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization recently released a stunning report on the environmental impact of industrial meat. The report bears reading in its entirety, but here’s the headline number: meat production (including the fertilizer used for feed crops) accounts for 18 percent of the greenhouse gases humans generate — and that’s more than we generate by driving cars. To me, that fact calls for a massive realignment of the environmental movement toward food-system reform.

What, then, is the answer to the crises and dilemmas I’ve outlined? That’s a question that everyone in this room, and young people in communities across the globe, will have to and in fact are grappling with. The challenge is this: to move away from a food-production system designed to deliver minimal nutrition, as cheaply as possible, to a vast low-wage workforce. We’ve seen where that has gotten us.

Food, our daily, inevitable link to the land, can be used to extract wealth from communities and enfeeble bodies. Our giant food-processing and agribusiness companies have certainly demonstrated that. But it can also be used to build wealth and health within communities. And the people in this room give me hope that we can move in that direction. I look forward to working with you and learning from you as we confront these challenges.