Food, people and dirt under your fingernails

“The changes we dread most may contain our salvation.”

– Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

I had a chance to bridge the cultural divide, and I jumped at it.

My chance came as a result of some bait I inserted into a column. Someone bit, and a conversation was begun.

The bait came in the form of a sentence about what are popularly (and simplistically) thought of as contrasting methods of agriculture: “organic” and “industrial.” I wrote: “… industrial agriculture … is dependent on … massive chemical inputs and the reduction of healthy soil to sterile dirt to meet the demands of rigid mechanization …”

I could have said: “… industrial agriculture … fails to treat the soil as the living entity that it is …” But I suspected (and secretly hoped) that my accusation of soil abuse would get a rise from someone in the “industrial agriculture” sector.

Sure enough. Just after the column appeared, I received an email from someone named Brad asking, “Are you interested in talking to a real farmer about real issues?”

You bet I am.

A growing consensus among climate scientists and environmentalists is that the biggest immediate threat from climate change is the disruption of our food supply. Severe, lengthy droughts, flooding and unpredictable weather already are taking their toll. Throw in water scarcity caused by disappearing glaciers, reservoirs and rivers and there will be some nasty, global-scale consequences. These could include water wars between developing countries such as nuclear-armed China, India and Pakistan; mass migrations from drought- and flood-stricken regions; and economic turmoil in agriculturally dependent areas.

One of our great hopes for mitigating (slowing) and adapting to climate change lies with the “agricultural sector.” But it’s fair to say that in the U.S., at least, most farmers and the food industry that depends on them have been resistant to acknowledging the scientific consensus about climate change.

The reasons for this are complex, and they involve questions about the science but also values, perceptions and, perhaps most important, self-image and group identification or affiliation issues – an us/them cultural divide. “They believe in manmade climate change, but we don’t. They want to use ‘climate change’ as an excuse to take away our rights, our farms, our heritage and way of life.”

Meanwhile, “We (environmentalists, city folk, ‘liberals’) believe that human-generated climate change is a very real threat to humanity’s future, and they don’t. They want to wreck the planet for profit.”

So here’s a message for us “believers.” If we want to do something about climate change, we’d darn well better get off our butts and engage them in meaningful, respectful and productive dialogue on the subject. We’re all in this boat together. If we are right about the direction the climate’s going – and, of course, I’m convinced that we are – then we’d better get the people who feed us working on solutions.

As we were making arrangements to meet, Brad sent me another email:

“I guess the comment (from your column) that got me, was that we farmers ‘reduce healthy soil to sterile dirt.’ Dirt is what is under your nails. Soil is what puts food on our tables. Every farmer I know spends a large amount of time protecting and enhancing their soils. We lose everything if we don’t have healthy soil. The broad generalizations made about farmers by the press saddens me. We work very hard to get (food to market).”

I replied: “When I wrote that, I wasn’t thinking of ‘you farmers.’ I was thinking of the agricultural system – the huge agribusiness conglomerates (that) both own farms and dictate terms of production to farmers, especially in the Midwest. To them, the soil is just a place to set the plants down. The resulting erosion is horrific, and the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi (caused mostly by fertilizer runoff) is the size of New Jersey.

“For agriculture to remain sustainable, that system must change. But those are topics we can discuss when we get together.”

And so we did. During our delightful two-hour conversation over coffee, we immediately got past cultural stereotypes about environmentalists and farmers and engaged each other as individuals concerned with, among other things, feeding the world’s burgeoning population.

But in our effort to make friends, we did skirt one issue – climate change. So this conversation must be continued at our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him via e-mail through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.

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