“Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first; that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight (Raj Patel).”
It is no coincidence that the bounty of the harvest in early mythologies is frequently tied with creation itself. Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest bestowed upon humankind the ability to cultivate life, a skill once reserved for the gods and goddesses, through the sowing and propagation of seeds. Demeter is also the goddess of nurturance, for without nurturance, the land becomes barren and will not bring forth life.
During the trials and tribulations of her legacy, Demeter was raped by Poseidon, and her daughter Persephone was abducted by the god of the underworld, Hades. She experienced pain, grief and loss as well as great joys and successes connecting Demeter empathetically with the suffering and joy of humanity. During her period of pain and loss, the earth was barren and would not bring forth food, when her daughter was returned the earth once again became bountiful. Demeter’s story reveals itself each year as Persephone is forced to return to the underworld every winter and Demeter once again grieves the loss of her daughter.
The myth of Demeter is literally as old as civilization itself and various adaptations of her mythology appear within the artifacts of nearly all early cultures. Her sister goddesses are the Roman goddess Ceres, the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the Native American Spider Woman and the Japanese goddess Ukemochi to name a few. Each of these cultures across the globe placed an emphasis on the reverence and nurturance of the earth coupled with extreme gratitude for the bounty provided by the goddesses of the harvest.
For most of human history, people were intimately connected to their food supply. Most nurtured a personal patch of land producing fruit and vegetables for subsistence and raised a small collection of livestock for meat, eggs and dairy. Others lived in communities where the food they purchased was produced by their neighbors. Taking care of the land and one’s neighbors was paramount to survival. The relationship to the earth with regards to food production was reciprocal. Farmers cared for the earth and in exchange, the earth provided sustenance.
Today, the vast majority of people living in industrialized countries, and particularly within the United States have no idea where their food comes from. Small children are shocked to learn that vegetables grow in dirt or that their Happy Meal was once a cow or chicken. Rather than being produced by our neighbors, the average meal travels 1,500 miles before it arrives on our plate.
Our current methodologies of industrial agriculture place emphasis on production. Applications of artificial fertilizer, mechanized tilling and harvesting, monoculture crops and regular herbicide and pesticide use all promise greater crop yields as the ultimate aim. The concept of nurturance of the land does not exist within the modern industrial agricultural paradigm. Like Poseidon raping Demeter to satisfy his own lust, the industrialized food system views the land as a resource to be exploited for financial gain. The land’s subsequent loss of biodiversity and fertility are temporarily remedied with more applications of chemicals designed to force more production from the dying earth, but this strategy has met with disastrous results. Waterways are choking on excessive nutrient loads from fertilizer and manure runoff, topsoil is being lost at alarming rates and water tables are depleting faster than nature can restore them. Simple mathematics dictates that we will not be able to continue along this course indefinitely. It seems we have lost something precious when it comes to the growing of food.
A History of Food
Thousands of years ago in an area of the Middle East known as the ‘Fertile Crescent,’ mankind placed a seed into the earth and nurtured it into food beginning the great course of civilization. The simple act of growing crops gave stability to human society. No longer reliant on migrating herds of animals, man was able to metaphorically put down roots. Villages established, people developed rudimentary writing to keep track of harvests. The advent of agriculture and subsequent food surpluses also relieved humans from the day to day necessity of procuring food and thus freed up time to ponder nature, beauty and the questions of the origins of life itself. Thus, the act of growing food for ourselves becomes inextricably linked to civilization itself.
Once upon a time, the vast majority of the human population in America and across the globe was empowered with the knowledge and ability to feed ourselves. We ate well and ate food that we created with our own labor. Livestock such as cows, donkeys, horses, chickens and goats provided labor and food and increased soil fertility for crops with their manure. Fossil fuels expended in production of crops equaled zero. Monetary costs to the farmer were also $0. Toxic chemicals in food were non existent. Individuals nurtured their land, saved seeds and traded with their neighbors, resulting in thousands of varieties of crops each suited to the unique site conditions in every region. Food was healthy, free, provided by nature and nurtured from healthy, living soils by the sweat of our brows.
A perfect storm of events in human history in the early and mid 20th century changed the way we eat as a nation and across the globe. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s saw the beginnings of migrations of people from rural communities affected by drought to California and urban areas searching for work. World War II increased the exodus, as patriotic Americans, both male and female, rushed to urban areas to work for the cause in munitions factories. The end of the war found returning soldiers without work, defunct factories and a new urban population that needed to be put to work and fed.
The great wars changed the world forever in many ways. The wars to end all wars were a wake up call that the earth and her people no longer lived in isolation. The community of nations is intricately connected, and we will all live together or perish together. With technological advancements including nuclear arms that developed during the World War II era, warfare became a threat to life itself on the planet.
The technology developed during the World Wars changed the planet in other ways. Warfare entered the commercial realm as corporations were engaged to develop munitions, chemicals, tanks planes and other tools of warfare. When the wars were over, corporations needed a new market to sell their products to.
Chemical manufacturers of nerve gas discovered their products worked as well on insects as they did on humans. Defoliants could be used to kill weeds on the farm. The same technology used to create explosives could be used to manufacture fertilizer. Nerve gas was bottled and became pesticide. The developers of Agent Orange revamped their product into Roundup, and bomb factories switched to manufacturing fertilizer.
In this way, the chemicals of destruction worked their way into our food chain, and the age of industrial agriculture was born. The new technologies promised increased production and freedom from toil. Soils could be mechanically tilled with tractors rather than laboriously turned by oxen or mules. There was no longer a need for collecting, composting and spreading manure. Chemical fertilizers could easily be mechanically applied with more fossil fuel consuming equipment. The need for livestock on the farm became obsolete. In fact, the presence of animals on the farm impeded production. Land areas once needed for grazing of animals and growing of feed and hay could be converted into more cropland. After thousands of years of cycling life-giving nutrients back into the soil to nurture crops, livestock were removed from the farm and placed instead onto feedlots to simplify their own industrial production.
Rather than pulling weeds by had, a quick spray of herbicide would tackle the problem. If insect infestations were a problem, another quick spray of pesticide would kill any pest downwind of the toxic stream. Farming would no longer be a difficult, labor-intensive task, as it entered the industrial age. The American survivors of the Great Depression, remembering the difficult years of starvation and depravation embraced these new technologies of bounty and ease.
Industrial agriculture also benefitted from the new urban demographic. People in urban areas were not able to grow their own food or raise livestock. Massive quantities of food to feed large cities needed to be transported in from other areas to feed the urban masses. As cities grew larger, so did the farms that fed them.
Unfortunately, the promise of industrial agriculture has turned out to be misguided. While production certainly has increased, much more has been lost. Soils that have taken thousands of years to develop have blown away on the wind. Groundwater resources that have existed for millions of years are now threatened with annihilation. The thousands of heirloom crops developed over millennia by cultures across the globe are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. The chemicals of warfare, death and destruction are spreading their infection across the earth, and the food that is supposed to nourish us is making us sick. Traditional agriculture served the world’s populations for thousands of years. In order to stop killing the planet and ourselves, it is time to embrace its wisdom once again.