Emma Heins

As the season for the farmer’s market downtown wraps up, I want to talk a bit about the new “trend” of local, small-scale agriculture and the pride that farmers take when they are able to farm organically with composted fertilizers and natural alternatives to pesticides.

Industrialized agriculture and mainstream use of pesticides and fertilizers absolutely skyrocketed after the end of World War II. Suddenly we had all of these empty factories, and they got converted to making agricultural technology that American farmers quickly adopted. They were told they could make more food faster, so who would say no to that?

These products were things like all-purpose pesticides and synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers. Research has been done for decades about these new products, which started with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,”which examined how pesticides were killing bird species in the 1960s. Her groundbreaking book about chemical treatment of plants led to the U.S. passing the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Research about synthetic farming processes will continue for as long as we have large-scale issues associated with it

Right now, there is a hypoxic “dead” zone in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi Delta meets the ocean that is about 7,000 square miles, or the size of the state of Massachusetts.

This area has so much fertilizer runoff that the algae in the water grows out of control and actually uses up all of the oxygen in the water. This essentially suffocates the fish and other animals and kills the ecosystems.

Now that the complications and “side effects” of industrial farming and food processing are becoming more well known, people are choosing the trendier and more expensive route of buying from farms that prioritize using compost fertilizers and not synthetic, nitrogen-based ones, or rotating pastures between cows and chickens.

But here’s my question to you, reader: why did we stop doing these things in the first place?

There’s a sociology principle taught in most environmental classes called Modernization Theory. This theory basically says you must always be modernizing and improving technology in your nation to be at the global standard of progress.

But in application, modernization means westernizing — using more chemicals, growing more and always focusing on efficiency. It doesn’t concern the sustainability of the practice.

For the sake of “progress,” we are moving closer to almost complete mechanization and farther away from the farming techniques that indigenous populations sustainably used for thousands of years. The food we are growing is less nutritious than it used to be, and we are starting to realize that we are wrecking the soils and waters we are farming on.

Farmers are searching for new solutions to more sustainably farm the land we have only been on for less than 300 years, but haven’t thought to consider the practices that native Americans have used for 7,000 years.

White people raising a small-scale chicken farm or apple orchard are not “inventing” these sustainable practices; they’re bringing them back from the communities they kicked out in the first place. There needs to be some kind of acknowledgement and reverence for the fact that they did not discover sustainable farming, but rather that they’re reverting back to what the original owners of the land always did.

Emma Heins is a senior majoring in Environmental Studies. She can be reached ateheins@vols.utk.edu.

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