Farming, sustainability: America's founders understood

  • Article by: BONNIE BLODGETT
  • Updated: April 13, 2013 - 5:09 PM

Genetically modified organisms and big machines aren’t inherently evil. But we need take a step back and evaluate.

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The award-winning British writer Andrea Wulf’s “Founding Gardeners: the Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation” tells a story that we Americans seldom hear. By Wulf’s account, the like-minded men who hammered out our Constitution and Bill of Rights had in mind an agrarian republic that would emulate nature.

The founders knew what they were up against. Our human penchant for selfish, shortsighted behavior was alive and well in their day. By 1818, Virginia’s once-fertile farmland had been ruined.

When James Madison addressed landowners who’d gathered to discuss the mass exodus of farmers to the greener pastures of Kentucky, his first task was consciousness-raising. Not all of his listeners were as up on their classical philosophy as the former president, much less on the latest scientific discoveries in biology and horticulture.

But farmers have opinions, and Madison knew they’d change their ways only if they understood what Wulf describes as agriculture’s “pivotal place within the delicate balance between man and nature.”

Madison combined political ideology, soil chemistry, ecology and plant physiology “into one comprehensive idea.” He showed how new discoveries only underscored the importance of time-tested methods. “Vegetable matter which springs from the earth must return to the earth,” he said, and “different species of flora and fauna have relation & proportion to one another.”

Thus, biodiversity was essential to the solution Madison proposed for reclaiming Virginia’s farmland. Even those in the room who cared little about freedom and equality (the political side of Madison’s argument) could understand that his way of farming made practical sense. Biodiversity was sound risk management, a way of hedging one’s bets.

In today’s America, a farmer’s only hedges against risk are the futures market and various government subsidies. Farmers depend on synthetic chemical fertilizers (instead of the fancy manures that Jefferson, Adams and Washington in particular discussed with the ardor of any modern wine snob) and on genetic tinkering to keep pests and weeds at bay.

The founders were tinkerers themselves, of course. They loved science and would have been agog at our advances.

Genetically modified organisms and big machines aren’t inherently evil. But we need to take a step back to evaluate the pros and cons of what a monoculture-based system is doing to us and our planet.

Can corn and soybeans feed the world? Actually, these crops mainly feed livestock (not the most efficient protein source). They also make ethanol (not the most efficient fuel) and corn syrup sweeteners (not the best human energy source).

Meanwhile, soybean production is stealing land from biodiverse rainforests in Brazil that are our first line of defense against climate change. Oil-based fertilizers are aggravating an already grave shortage of clean water, and pesticides are proving toxic to bees and butterflies. Colony Collapse Disorder threatens bee pollinators without whose services our food system itself could collapse.

There’s also a compelling political argument for the equivalent of biodiversity in human affairs, as the founding gardeners knew. Whether on the farm or in government, freedom thrives when there are checks on power — Madison’s delicate balance.

A cynic might say Madison’s precious Enlightenment philosophers were full of cow manure. It’s a jungle out there. Life’s a crapshoot. We humans do love to gamble. But is this the bet we want to make?

Do we want to ignore what the 19th-century French philosopher Auguste Comte called “the greater good” so the lucky and clever can climb up a rung while the rich take refuge in gated communities? European aristocrats used to live that way. Revolutions toppled oligarchs and religious despots whose monopoly on power and wealth became, well, unsustainable.

The American system of checks and balances was the state-of-the-art solution in 1787. Our government is now reviled for being too big — when in fact its power on behalf of ordinary people has been eroded by gerrymandering, tax loopholes, subsidies, legislative decisions like the one that keeps food labels GMO-free, and the judicial proclamation that corporations are people.

Our “big” government has been reduced to refereeing turf battles among business interests — from gun manufacturers, energy producers and insurance providers to food processors, telecommunications giants and international banking conglomerates — that are beholden not to lofty ideals like diversity, liberty and equality but to the bottom line.

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Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul.

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