Institute for Planetary Renewal


Food does not come from the store. It comes from the earth. If we destroy the earth, there will be no food.
Every civilization so far has destroyed itself by destroying the land that fed it. Let us learn from history and be wiser. Do not trust that industry will help or that government will help. They themselves do not yet understand.

If the bridges over the Mississippi River fail, as they may when earth changes occur. The people in the East will not be able to feed themselves, since so much food now comes from the West. We must plan now to grow a substantial amount of our own food in our own gardens on our own land. Otherwise, we may have little to eat.

The contents below are an excerpt from a forthcoming publication by the Center for Global Sustainability. This is an early draft provided courtesy of John Nolt. We felt it is important to get the word out now. Look for their publication shortly. Although parts of it refer to conditions in Eastern Tennessee, these conditions exist everywhere.

You should know that there is only a 3 day food supply in any major city. The Mormons have good ideas about storing food for emergencies, but that is not enough. We must learn how to reconnect with the earth and bring forth food for ourselves, our family, and our community. Plant seeds.


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How Are We Fed?
Day and night, seven days a week, in any weather and in all seasons, constantly and without interruption, streams of smoke-spewing eighteen-wheelers rush noisily along the interstates to feed us. They roll in from California, from Mexico, from the Pacific Northwest, from Florida, and via Gulf ports from Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and points south, carrying food to a land once peopled by some of the most rugged, independent, and self-sufficient farmers on earth. But the new inhabitants of this land are beholden to the trucks, for they can, for the most part, no longer be bothered to feed themselves.

As Southern Appalachia's population has grown, its agriculture has declined. Recent data on imports and exports are hard to come by, but according to a 1984 estimate about fifty-three percent of Tennessee's food and eighty-four percent of its fresh fruits and vegetables are imported from outside the state. Since Tennessee's richest agricultural regions are in the middle and western portions of the state, it is likely that these figures were higher for East Tennessee. And since the trend of growing population and declining agriculture has continued since the 8Os, it is likely that they are still higher today.

Local figures for urbanized counties are even more extreme. In Knox County in 1992, for example, vegetables were grown on only thirty-seven farms totalling 185 acres and fruit was produced on only eighty-five acres. The only grains grown were corn (1,334 acres, mostly for livestock) and wheat (275 acres). The largest number of crop acres were devoted to growing hay. Most of the farms that still exist specialize in cattle. According to University of Tennessee study done in 1977, "It can be stated with assurance that less than five percent of the produce passing through the Knoxville market is locally grown." Since then, much, if not most, of Knox County's remaining farmland has been lost.

The trucks, of course, keep the warehouses, grocery stores, and restaurants well stocked. But fresh food is not always easy to come by. Supermarkets and even small neighborhood markets have abandoned many inner city communities. The only food available in these neighborhoods is at the convenient stores, often attached to gas stations. This food is mostly junk: highly processed, fattening, low in quality, of little nutritional value, and expensive. Thus it reinforces the familiar cycles of poverty, disease, and dependence.

Even in the suburbs, most of the available produce has been transported long distances and much of it is treated with chemical sprays, waxes, and colorings to preserve "freshness" -- or at least the illusion thereof. And even where high quality produce is available, many people -- ignorant, befuddled by advertising, or demoralized beyond caring -- still choose junk, as a few minutes observation of any supermarket check-out line readily confirms. It is not easy to motivate people so little concerned about their own health to care about the health of the world around them.

Fortunately, however, many people do care about their health and so have begun a venture whose logical conclusion may take them beyond themselves; for personal health requires healthful food, and healthful food requires a healthy land.

Food and the Land
Our current food system damages the land, not only here, but wherever the food is grown, and everywhere in between. Because our food comes from around the world, our eating habits in Southern Appalachia promote environmental damage almost everywhere. Rainforests in Costa Rica may be felled to provide grazing land for the cattle that become the fast food hamburgers we eat in Knoxville. A hillside in the Philippines may be deforested and soaked with herbicides and pesticides to grow the pineapple in the sundae we have for dessert. The lettuce on the hamburger may have been grown in Southern California on an irrigated desert whose shrinking water supply will dry up within a decade or two. The bread for the bun maybe baked in Cincinnati from flour ground in Minneapolis that was made from grains grown on Iowa farms that make heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The onion may have been raised in Texas on eroding land that is thin and compacted by heavy farm machinery. In one way or another, all these forms of agriculture degrade the land that produces the crops that feed us.

To that we must add the degradation involved in getting the food here. The exhausts of the ships and trucks that transport our food pollute the air with carbon monoxide, particulates, nitrous oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds, and ozone, the effects of which are discussed in Chapters One and Two. As local agriculture declines, population grows, and tastes become more cosmopolitan, the transportation system also grows, crowding the interstates with trucks and the landscape with the truck stops, fast food joints, and service stations that support the transportation system.

All this moving from place to place requires enormous amounts of fuel (as, in most cases, does the growing and processing of the food itself). This fuel is made from crude oil. Since our domestic supply of crude oil is nearly used up, the crude must be shipped from Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations on supertankers (which themselves use still more fuel). When it reaches the United States, typically on the Gulf coast of Texas or Louisiana, the oil is refined and processed in one of the innumerable polluting chemical plants of that industrial nightmare known as "cancer alley," then pumped or trucked (again at great expense of energy and fuel and with considerable pollution of the air) to truck stops and gas stations all across the country where the diesel trucks that bring the food receive it.

Those same Gulf coast chemical plants may supply the plastics, styrofoam, coloring, and inks in which the food is packaged -- unless it is packaged in paper or cardboard, in which case forests are cut and chipped to supply the paper mills. Much of our food is refrigerated over long times and distances. The refrigeration requires more fuel -- or electricity generated chiefly by the burning of strip mined coal.

Most of the food bought in Southern Appalachia is processed. Precise recent percentages are unavailable, but a good estimate may be obtained by considering the stock of any regional supermarket. The unprocessed foods are the fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats, eggs, and some dairy products. Compare the floor area in the grocery store devoted to these items with the area devoted to such products as soft drinks, processed meat, beer, canned and frozen foods, specialty foods, mixes, snacks, sugary breakfast cereals, and candy. Since most people buy most of their food from grocery stores, this proportion is a good estimate of the preponderance of processed food in our diet. All these processed items pass through at least one and often several industrial operations, each of which requires additional truck transportation and energy. The resulting food is almost invariably less nutritious than produce fresh from the garden or farm.

To these energy and transportation costs we must add the fuel burned by our automobiles as we drive to the grocery store or restaurant to buy the food and the fuel required to bring the fuel for our automobiles to the gas station where we buy it, and the energy and pollution required to refine that fuel -- and so on. All these things are now integral components of our food supply system, and all degrade the land.

Not only do most people in Southern Appalachia no longer grow their own food; many seldom even prepare it. Thus we endure the seemingly endless proliferation of strip malls teeming with restaurant upon fast food restaurant. Many of these go out of business almost as soon as they open, yet they continue relentlessly to expand across the land, leaving boarded-up buildings and desolate parking lots behind. This is said to be a side-effect of the "efficiency" of our economic system.

Agriculture: A Long, Steep Decline
As strip malls, roads, and housing developments expand, farms die, and more and more of our food comes from somewhere far away. This is a disturbing transformation for a land that was once self-sufficient and agriculturally independent. Even setting environmental issues aside, given the exponential growth of world population, worldwide loss of croplands, competition for fresh water, and global climate change, it is prudent to have a reliable regional food supply.

The statistics are not encouraging. Southern Appalachian agriculture has suffered a long, steep decline over the last century. Table 4.1 gives some idea of its magnitude, though the figures are for the entire state of Tennessee. Since most of the state's remaining agricultural land lies in Middle and Western Tennessee, the decline in Eastern Tennessee and Southern Appalachia has almost certainly been steeper.

TABLE 4.1: Trends in farm population and acreage in Tennessee (Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Farm data are not collected every year. Except for the year 1995 -- the most recent data -- we have selected data from available years closest to the turn of the decade.)

YearNumber of FarmsTotal Farm AcreageAverage per FarmTotal Farm Population
1900 225,000 20,342,000 90 1,246,000
1910 246,000 20,042,000 81 1,278,000
1920 253,000 19,511,000 77 1,290,000
1930 246,000 18,003,000 73 1,219,000
1940 248,000 18,493,000 74 1,276,000
1950 232,000 18,534,000 79 1,016,000
1959 158,000 16,081,000 101 715,000
1969 121,000 15,057,000 124 412,000
1980 96,000 14,000,000 146 176,000
1992 88,000 13,000,000 148 (unavailable)
1995 80,000 11,800,000 148 (unavailable)

Just since 1950, Tennessee has lost 6,734,000 acres of farmland, much of it to sprawling development. That, in more familiar terms, is over ten thousand square miles: more than enough land to fill a square a hundred miles on a side, an area roughly equal to all of East Tennessee.

The advocates of development sometimes herald this loss as a good thing, signaling the transformation of an agricultural economy into a modern, diversified economy. King Midas may celebrate his power to turn everything into gold, but if he turns his farms and fields into gold, eventually he will find the gold less valuable than plain food.

It is astonishing how little care we have taken, for example, to ensure a fresh supply of locally grown vegetables. The soils and climate of the Tennessee Valley are quite good for the cultivation of many vegetables, including asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, lettuce, and others.

Organic vs. Chemical Agriculture
What is nowadays known as "conventional" agriculture did not become conventional until after World War II. It began with the wide availability of cheap petrochemical fertilizers (made possible by the conversion of munitions plants to fertilizer plants) and of pesticides, such as DDT. For the greatest part of human history, all farming was organic. Farmers adopted the new technologies, not because the old methods did not work, but because the short-term efficiency of chemical agriculture generated fierce competitive pressures that forced compliance. That situation is now changing. Advances in organic agriculture (achieved mostly outside the dominant agricultural institutions) have steadily increased its efficiency, so that some farmers are now able compete on the open market using organic methods. Other organic growers have sought niches not dominated by the competitive pressures of the marketplace, niches in which they can work slowly and responsibly to heal the land. Community supported agricultural projects are one sort of example.

There is some controversy over the definition of the word "organic", but certain general points may be stressed: Organic farms avoid the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers. For fertility they rely on compost -- genuine compost, not ground-up municipal waste --, manure, and cover crops that are plowed into the soil (often referred to as "green manure"). For pest control, organic farms employ various combinations of crop rotation, physical pest removal, and biological controls. Large organic farms may use standard farm machinery, though often with modifications to avoid soil compaction, but the smaller ones tend to rely solely on muscle power (human or animal) for tillage.

By nearly all measures of ecological health, organic agriculture is far superior to conventional techniques. A recent Washington State University study, for example, compared two adjacent farms in Washington, one of which had been operated organically for over eighty years, the other of which had used fertilizers and pesticides since 1948. (We would prefer to report regional research, but we have been unable to find studies of organic agriculture in Southern Appalachia. Funding for agricultural research is dominated by chemical companies and other corporate interests that do not support scientific investigation of organic techniques.)

In the Washington study, soil samples were taken from adjacent areas with identical slopes on each farm. Soil from the organic farm contained much more moisture and was richer in nutrients (especially nitrogen and potassium) than the soil of the nonorganic farm. This was due in part to greater microbial activity. (Microbes, which generate nutrients that enrich the soil, are often killed -- along with beneficial insects and worms -- by conventional agricultural chemicals.) The organic farm had sixty percent more organic matter (which improves soil structure and increases the soil's ability to store moisture) at the soil's surface. It also had a lower "modulus of rupture" -- a measure of how easily seedlings can break through the surface of the soil -- and was superior in overall tilth. The topsoil on the organic farm was over six inches thicker than on the nonorganic farm. This was due in part to differences in the erosion rates; erosion was nearly four times greater on the nonorganic farm. But it was also due to the practice on the organic farm of plowing in cover crops to build topsoil. The researchers concluded that the nonorganic farm was gradually becoming less productive as a result of the erosion, though the impoverishment of the soil was masked by the use of higher-yielding plant varieties and more effective chemical fertilizers, but that the organic farm could maintain its productivity in the long term.

Most organic farms strive for diversity, growing many varieties of fruits and vegetables, and rotating crops to keep pests from becoming established or from infecting the whole crop. Many use biointensive methods, which concentrate the plants into highly enriched beds of soil. Unlike traditional row cropping, this method of concentrating plants simulates natural growing conditions, by creating a cool, shady microclimate near the surface of the soil, maintains constant moisture, and discourages weeds. Though the biointensive method requires more labor than "conventional" methods, its yields are in many cases much higher. Moreover, through the use of terracing, biointensive growing is adaptable Southern Appalachian hillsides, where conventional row cropping creates unacceptable erosion, thus permitting the production of fruit and vegetable crops on lands that might otherwise be suitable only for pasture. Connie Whitehead, using biointensive methods at Planted Earth Farm in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, has been easily able to grow on two acres nearly all the vegetables needed over a period of five months by twenty families, who participated with her in a community supported agricultural project. Her methods were strictly organic.

There is no question that organic farms are superior in almost every environmental measure to "conventional" farms. The only serious objection to them is economic. Primarily because they require more labor than conventional farms, their produce usually costs more. If not biointensive, they may also have slightly lower yields. In one sense, the additional labor is an advantage, since organic farms create more jobs than nonorganic farms. But cost is still the great deterrent.

The True Cost of Food
Market price, however, is not the true cost of food. Conventional agriculture imposes high environmental costs, which eventually become financial costs, though the bill may not come due for many years. One important contributor to these hidden costs -- what economists call "externalities" -- is siltation. Since "conventional" agriculture creates considerable erosion, it can substantially increase the sedimentation of streams and rivers. A 1981 study found that conversion of previously unfarmed land to conventional cropland in a Southern Appalachian ridge and valley landscape increases the influx of sediment into streams by over twelve tons per acre annually (about an inch of topsoil every fourteen years) -- an unacceptably high figure by any standards. (Recent advances in "no-till" agriculture can reduce these losses, but they are generally combined with greater applications of pesticides.)

The silt makes rivers and streams less suitable for fishing and recreation, which can hurt the businesses that support these activities. Furthermore, as it settles into reservoirs, it hastens the day when the reservoirs become so clogged that they are no longer effective for flood control. One of two results must then follow: expensive flood damages or costly new public works projects to correct the situation. In either case, the bill will come due to us all.

Loss of topsoil is in effect loss of capital; the land grows poorer each year, so that over time it becomes less suitable for growing crops and requires more chemical inputs. Food production thus becomes increasingly expensive, though we may not notice the loss or pay the price for many years.

Conventional agriculture also adds substantially to the nutrients (especially nitrogen and phosphorus from chemical fertilizers) and pesticides that contaminate streams and groundwater (see Chapter One), increasing the risk of cancer for those who drink the groundwater or harming fish and wildlife that use the streams. The results are higher health care costs (which must ultimately be borne by everyone) and a further generalized degradation of water quality, which could reduce income from tourism, hunting, and fishing.

With chemical agriculture there are also more direct health care costs to consumers of food which contains pesticide residues and to the farmers themselves, for some portion (albeit relatively small) of these people are likely to get cancer or suffer other health problems from pesticide exposures. The purchase of these pesticides draws down the inventories of pesticide suppliers, stimulating new orders to manufacture more. In this manufacturing process, too, people are exposed to dangerous chemicals and still more pollution is released. Further pollution is generated by the trucks that transport the chemicals to the supplier and on to the farm. These activities, too, contribute to the cost of health care.

It is probably impossible accurately to assess these hidden costs. But, though fraught with uncertainties, they are real and eventually will have to be paid. Once we take them into account, it is by no means certain that nonorganic food is cheaper in purely monetary terms, on the whole and in the long run, than organic food.

Consequently, even though organic produce generally costs more in dollars amounts than nonorganic, many people are willing to pay the higher price, the real cost, as an investment in their own health, in the health of the land, and in the future. A good selection of high-quality organic produce, some of it locally grown, is available at the Knoxville Community Food Co-op and at several other outlets in our region.

Soil Loss
Early farming and logging in the Southern Appalachians were so reckless that, in effect, they mined the soil. As the steep hillsides were clearcut and then plowed and plowed again, more and more topsoil soil washed away, until sometimes only the subsoil remained. The losses were monumental. In 1977, long after most farmers had become aware of the need for soil conservation, a national resource inventory indicated that the soil of Tennessee's croplands was still eroding at an average rate of one inch every eleven years. The losses were much greater, no doubt, earlier in the century. By now, much of the soil of Southern Appalachia lies beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The erosion continues, though soil conservation programs and government regulations have helped to slow the rates. Though soil is constantly being created by erosion of underlying rock and deposition of organic material, most forms of human land use (organic agriculture being one notable exception) erode it rapidly, producing net losses. Since humans are actively using virtually all the land except for the forests (when they are not being logged), this means that net gains of topsoil occur primarily the forests. Topsoil accumulates at a rate somewhere between an inch a century and an inch every three or four centuries. Since much of Southern Appalachia has already lost many inches of soil, merely to restore the soil losses that we have already inflicted would take many centuries of forest growth. But widespread erosion continues. Since topsoil is a prime necessity for all land-based life, this is another reason (if anymore were needed) for defending Southern Appalachian forests.

As farm after farm wore out in the first half of this century, more and more farm families packed up and moved west, to the dust bowl -- but that is another story. Those who stayed adapted their methods to the impoverished soil. When the hills would no longer bear a healthy crop of corn, wheat, or tobacco, they would still grow grass. So the grain and tobacco farms gave way to beef and dairy operations, which are the mainstays of Southern Appalachian agriculture to this day. [Editor's Note: This is the classic progression of how civilizations throughout history have destroyed the land and collapsed in famine. When grasses (grains) won't even grow, it's all over. Meat production is not a sane use of land.]

But the cow, though less destructive than the plow, is still hard on the land, especially when confined to small, steep acreage. Many a hillside in East Tennessee and western North Carolina is grazed almost bare and crisscrossed with muddy or dusty paths, its thin compacted clay, once overlain by rich forested topsoil, now receding to reveal the underlying skeleton of rock. Where pastures are crossed by a spring or stream, the cattle are often allowed to trample its banks, contaminating the water with sediment and manure and sending the soil riverwards.

Eating with the Seasons
Throughout all of human history up until the last few decades, diet had a seasonal rhythm. In Southern Appalachia, greens came in the early spring, then peas and other spring vegetables. Strawberries appeared in May, blackberries in June. July, August, and September were the months of the corn and bean harvests and of fresh tomatoes and watermelons, and later in the fall there were nuts, squashes, and persimmons. Meat, dried beans, and stored grains made up the bulk of the winter diet, though the careful gardener knew how to extend a fall crop of greens long into the winter.

But these rhythms, which once gave texture and tempo to life and provided cause for anticipation and celebration, have long been broken. Processed food, which makes up the bulk of our diet, has no seasonal rhythm and is available on demand, constantly. Even "fresh" produce of virtually any variety, is now available year round, trucked in from Mexico or California, or shipped up from Chile, New Zealand, or Brazil, the only seasonal variation being a fluctuation in price.

What is true of the food supply generally is also true in particular for the region's restaurants. The fast-food restaurants, of course, get their stocks from regional or national suppliers which standardize it so rigidly that it varies not at all from franchise to franchise or season to season. But even the more up-scale and unique local restaurants which offer changing menus usually buy from a few corporate suppliers, such as Sysco or IJ, which may truck in just about any food from just about anywhere in just about any season.

Perhaps this constant availability of everything has contributed in some measure to human happiness, but nearly all now take it for granted and many find it blasé. Correlatively, celebrations of the seasonal rhythms and harvests have for many lost their meanings.

However we assess its effect on the quality of our lives, this much, at least, is clear: this vast supply of exotic and luxurious foods is procured at great environmental cost. The energy required to transport and refrigerate all this food is tremendous, and most of it is generated by the burning of fossil fuels, with all the attendant effects described in Chapters One, Two, Five, and Seven.

Progress toward a sustainable food supply would require in part a return to eating with the seasons. Much more of our produce would be locally grown, farm-ripened, transported only short distances, and consumed while still fresh. This would certainly enhance the health of the body and of the land. It is also not unreasonable to suppose that it would improve the health of the spirit.

Growing Your Own
The ultimate local food source is the home garden. Its ecological advantages are manifold. Fruits and vegetables grown at home are eaten at home, with no consumption of fossil fuels for transportation. In fact, the home garden is usually small enough to be worked entirely by hand -- especially by biointensive methods --so that fossil fuels need not be used at all, and most other inputs can be reduced or eliminated by organic techniques.

Yard waste, kitchen waste, and leaves, which might otherwise be landfilled or incinerated at considerable ecological cost, can with very little effort made into compost that continually enriches the soil and eliminates the need for corporate chemical fertilizers. A family can grow most or even all of its fruits and vegetables on an acre or two, saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars annually in food bills. And almost anyone can gain some advantage and make some contribution by gardening. Even apartment dwellers usually have access to a nearby patch of ground or, lacking that, a set of planters and pots, in which tomatoes, peppers, fresh herbs, or greens may be grown. Rainfall in Southern Appalachia is abundant in most years, and the climate is so mild that it is possible, using such simple methods as row covers or cold frames, to harvest something every month of the year.

The home gardener enjoys healthy exercise and the freshest and most healthful of foods. She eats with the seasons, rejoices in harvests, develops a weather eye, becomes acquainted with a whole world of small creatures (both helpful and frustrating) that once lived beneath her notice, learns discipline of keeping and improving the soil, and -- in taking personal responsibility for the source of her nourishment -- taps a wellspring of meaning that is inaccessible to those who consume only the cargo of eighteen-wheelers.

1. Eat low on the food chain -- a completely vegetarian diet.
2. Eat organic foods grown in mineral rich soil (rock dust soil amendments provide essential trace minerals).
3. Eat locally grown foods
4. Eat food when they are naturally in season

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