Top | Excerpts

Hey Mr. Green

(article, Bob Schildgen)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true][%adInjectionSettings noInject=true]

h3. From the chapter "Food for Thought: What to Eat, How to Drink, and Answers to Other Dietary Dilemmas"

Frankly, I'm feeling a bit conflicted as I sit here rattling the keys of a laptop, ready to launch into a criticism of modern agriculture. Instead of wading knee-deep in hog manure, popping a hernia hoisting two-bushel bags of grain onto a wagon, or being stomped by a mean old Holstein bull, I'm one of the millions of people that marvelous agricultural innovations have liberated from a lifetime of dirty, boring, backbreaking, and dangerous toil tied to the land. On top of this, modern farming also proudly provides almost everybody in this country with a steady supply of low-cost food.

But I'm convinced that modern agriculture has also given us way too much of a good thing. Because I grew up on a farm, no environmental issue aggravates me more than the dangerous way food is grown and processed today, imperiling human health, the planet, and rural communities. 


h1. About the book and author

Bob Schildgen, aka "Mr. Green," is the green-living columnist for Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club. Schildgen grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and now keeps a Mr. Green blog.

Excerpt reprinted with permission of Sierra Club Books (2008).


Ecological education is a natural part of childhood on a farm. We wandered the fields and woods constantly, getting acquainted with scores of species of plants and animals — field mice, moles, toads, bats, cottontails, foxes, coons, badgers, jackrabbits, squirrels, deer, possums, and yes, skunks and those perennial nuisances, 13-striped gophers. The summer days and nights were huge with the sound of frogs, insects, locusts, and crickets, and the nights were so clear the Milky Way was a solid stripe across the sky. Sometimes we'd lie outside and quietly ponder the cosmic spectacle, in which I felt like just another creature, along with the lightning bugs (what city kids called fireflies) and Johnny Jump-Up beetles.

Of all this natural wealth, I was most taken by the birds, and spent hours watching them and listening to their languages. I can still sing the meadowlarks' happy assortment of songs: cheer chebber a-ghee wheet-leet; cheedle-a-cheedle-bird willis written; and chee chee wee cher chee cheedle bird. The simpler dialects of the redwing blackbirds, quails, upland robins, and the whippoorwills down in the river village were easy too. I never did master bobolink, which would probably have required tutoring from a musicology professor.

But even in the 1950s, this idyll was already being eroded by postwar progress, and we were literally inhaling a toxic future. On the farm was a hybrid corn-processing plant founded by my father's cousin, so we were on the cutting edge of agricultural innovation. One memorable implement was a tiny red Farmall B, a fetus of a tractor by today's standards, with less horsepower than some riding lawn mowers (a fact that itself speaks volumes about the insanity of modern American consumerism). 

The B's duty was to pull a trailer that carried a barrel of the weed killer 2,4-D, now considered a possible carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor that was also a major ingredient in the notorious Agent Orange, used in Vietnam as a "defoliant." (A tad more Orwellian term than "weed killer.") The hoses from the barrel led to a sprayer boom mounted on the front of the little Farmall. 

[%image feature-image float=right width=425 caption="Modern-day crop spraying in California."]

Whether you rode on it or were just in the vicinity, you were hit by a noxious odor, something like paint thinner mixed with gasoline, that made you dizzy, as well it should have: the official symptoms of exposure are headache, nausea, and weakness. Progress literally made me sick, as it has tens of thousands of farmers and farmworkers. 

So when one relative wrote me a few years ago saying, "So many people in our little village are dying of cancer these days," I thought of the many chemicals rural folks and their animals were, or still are, exposed to: aldrin, captan, diethylstilbestrol, heptachlor, malathion, methoxychlor, methyl bromide, and on and on. (In addition, the excessive doses of antibiotics used on fish and livestock may be partly responsible for the evolution of antibiotic-resistant germs.)

Then there was the "miracle" of DDT. My father discovered that it was quite effective in killing the mice that invaded the seed house, as we called the corn-processing facility, to steal what they could of the tens of thousands of bushels. They'd eat the DDT, and before they perished, which was quite frankly a joy to behold, they'd spin spasmodically like sprayed flies. 

My father asked the sales rep if this fine product could hurt people, to which the fellow confidently responded, "No, it's harmless to humans."

This was also the very beginning of the era when farmers were exhorted to "get big or get out" and "plant fencerow to fencerow," which required more and more chemicals and bigger and bigger equipment. Then even those proverbial fencerows, which harbored many critters, were ripped out. There's not much reason for fences when livestock itself is banished from the farm; they just get in the way of the gigantic plows, planters, combines, and other equipment that look like they were meant to wage war or build freeways.

Livestock is increasingly segregated in large buildings on stinking factory farms where good manure, in too-large quantities, becomes a threat to public health and sanity, while the land is planted road to road in order to feed confined animals that might live a thousand miles away. 

None of this has benefited ordinary farmers in the long term; instead it drives them out of business. Farmers have become suppliers of cheap raw materials to companies that make the real profits on highly processed food they sell through ingenious packaging and marketing. In 1950, farmers received an average of 50 cents of every food dollar spent by consumers. Today they get less than 20 cents, while consumers get obese on the products of the corporate junk-food pushers.

My wish for a return to the safer, healthier agriculture whose systematic destruction I have painfully witnessed does not come from some back-to-the-land romanticism, nor a hippie yearning for the simple life or a Luddite penchant for the peasant economy. It comes from knowing just how much damage industrialized farming does to the environment and all the creatures within it, whether it's the dead zone created in the Gulf of Mexico by fertilizer runoff from Iowa or the chronic illness of a child exposed to agricultural poison in California's Central Valley.

Today's agriculture boasts that one farmer can feed 50 times as many people as a hundred years ago, as if sheer productivity is all that matters. (Imagine how you'd react if your doctor bragged that she now treats 50 times as many patients as she once did.) In fact, we may be at the point where sheer productivity creates diminishing returns — and increasing hidden costs, in terms of damaged health, subsidies, pollution, and, yes, the loss of social values relating to food and farming.

It may be time, as Wendell Berry urges, to put the culture back into agriculture, and return to a more labor-intensive, cautious, smaller-scale farming — one that is based more on concern for the well-being of land and people than on a relentless and dangerous drive for profit and productivity. Yes, we would certainly all have to pay more for food, but it may well cost us less in the long run.

reference-image, l

feature-image, l

featurette-image, l

promo-image, l