Dust in the wind

Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture

Andrew Kimbrell, ed. (Island Press, 2002)

While newspapers and TV screens are peppered with rumors of terrorist threats and biological weapons, a far more present danger looms, mostly unremarked. It is an ancient problem with a modern, technological face. Eighteen centuries ago it toppled the Roman Empire, and absent a massive movement to divert the juggernaut, it will inevitably topple ours.

Civilization is built on rich topsoil: It is the primary wealth of nations. This is a commonplace that is all too often overlooked. Like all animals, humans obviously depend upon plants for food, but millenia ago, when we leveraged ourselves above subsistence, we began to mine the soil. Our history is the history of grain, and most of the empires which have ruled the world have been built on grass. It is no accident that the dominant powers of the last century were built on the vast prairies of the American Midwest and the Ukraine, fueled and furnished at the outset with that other irreplaceable soil product, wood.

Southern Europe has yet to recover from the massive erosion that resulted when all logging roads led to Rome. Greece, for example, is famous for its olive oil, because olive trees are one of the few fruits that can subsist on impoverished soil. The sword and greed may have unstitched the Roman state, but it was famine, and then disease, among an undernourished population that delivered the coup de grace.

Surely we have escaped from that ancient specter, have we not? Our farms are almost unimaginably productive, and we are a fat and healthy populace with only the haziest recall of dust bowl days.

Don’t count on it. The modern cornucopia is fueled by oil and gas, and it is laying waste the land. America’s topsoil is disappearing at an unprecedented rate, being mined for nutrients through intensive agricultural practices and mechanized mono cropping, and eroding into rivers and the sea. To make matters far worse, we are also poisoning the ground, the biosphere and ourselves with the chemicals employed to fashion our modern bounty.

I have read and reviewed widely on these matters over the past twenty years, both about the history of civilization and farming. I have a broad understanding of both the theory and practice of agriculture, and I am well pleased to have found a single book that thoroughly discusses the profound crisis we face.

Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture tells this tale, brilliantly, and, at first glance, beautifully. This is a lushly illustrated volume, replete with bucolic farm scenes and broad vistas. It is also a horror story with the fate of humanity in the balance.

Edited by Andrew Kimbrell — a public interest attorney and executive director of the Center for Technology Assessment and the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. — this book is a masterwork, an essential tool for understanding the road we are on and the choices we ignore at our peril.

With over three dozen authors, including some of the best known and most insightful policy analysts in the world — Miguel Altieri, Wendell Berry, Dave Henson, Jim Hightower, Daniel Imhoff, Wes Jackson, Jerry Mander, Anuradha Mital, Gary Nabhan, Vandana Shiva and Alice Waters — this collection presents an overwhelming case for change.

The state of world agriculture, the collapse of ecosystems, the disappearance of pollinator species, the poisons we spread, and the causes of the starvation that kills millions worldwide, today, are explored in depth and with eloquence. We are masters of our planet, and we are undoing ourselves.

Included, and most critically so, is a vision of hope. We can plow our way out of the mess we have created. To do so, we will need to embrace a meaningful version of homeland security that has nothing to do with protecting our homes from guns and foreign terrorists and everything to do with the land. We have eaten our way into trouble, and we can eat our way out. This is a source book for an organic revolution, a handbook for activists in food safety and labeling, a stepping stone for farmers who have confronted the beast and know there is a better way, a soaking rain after the information drought of chemical dependence and mechanized rape that has characterized “modern” farming. In the final essay, Wendell Berry sums up by limning conserving local economies — that is, communities which shorten the distance between production and consumption, thereby closing the loops of long-fractured nutrient and energy cycles. Such communities, he writes, can be the wellspring of an enduring global economy.

At press time, editor Andrew Kimbrell, and co-author Jerry Mander are slated to speak at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Sept. 10 — a notice that is too late for readers of this review. But it isn’t too late to find a copy of this excellent compendium, or of its companion volume, The Fatal Harvest Reader, which comprises all of the topics and an equally illustrious collection of authors.

Hope remains.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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