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The role of farming in societies (Part II: The present)

By: Rebecca Aréchiga
The earth is a finite space. It has a limited capacity to support human life. In the modern agricultural age, it has been our insistence to push the limits on just how much food our planet can produce.

The population of the earth is steadily rising and is now hovering around 7.7 billion people. Numerous advances in agriculture have allowed this explosive global growth. Despite the fact that human population has grown about 1,000 times larger since before the agricultural revolution, in the year 2012, global farmers managed to produce enough calories to feed the world plus an additional 1.6 billion people. Even still, the hunger crisis prevails because food is not evenly distributed across countries and much of what is produced gets wasted.

American culture today has grown comfortable with the ease of obtaining food from the grocery store but it is vital to keep in mind that as little as three hundred years ago, food procurement looked a lot different.

Native American tribes sprawled across early America in the pre-Columbian era, prior to 1492, and relied on a mix of gathering, hunting and planting native crops for sustenance. Some of the Great Plains Indians gave up agriculture during dry times to return to nomadic lifestyles. Others would rely more heavily on buffalo meat. There is also abundant evidence of long-distance trading between farming and nomadic hunting Native Americans.

When British colonists arrived, they adopted many Native American farming techniques. Even still, early settlers struggled; famine and starvation was not uncommon. Colonists realized that there was more land to care for than settlers to care for it. Once they had solidified their grasp on the New World, indentured servitude, and later slavery, was initiated out of a yearning for cheap (or free) labor. This granted the colonists the ability to produce more food on less land and even begin to acquire wealth through excess production that they could trade, barter or sell. This major shift marked the beginning of a division that still exists today: now, a “farmer” managed a farm and was self-employed, while a “farm worker” carried out labor-intensive work and was poorly compensated, if at all.

In Hawaiʻi of the 1800s, long before it was a U.S. territory, the Plantation Era was in full swing.

Owners of fruit and sugar plantations actively recruited immigrants—mainly Japanese—for the labor-intensive work required in the fields. Many of them were legally bound to contracts and their lives strictly controlled by the plantation owners. This influx of not only Japanese, but also Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Portuguese, and African American laborers had the inadvertent effect of changing Hawaiʻi’s cultural mosaic permanently. In 1853, 97% of the population of the islands were indigenous Hawaiians. After the influx of plantation workers, in 1923, indigenous Hawaiians made up only 16% with the largest portion the population Japanese. These immigrants brought with them their cultures, food, language and traditions, forever turning Hawaiʻi into a true melting pot.

Slavery was abolished in 1865 and indentured servitude in 1917. Today however, the division between farmer and farm worker is still overt. The U.S. relies on 2.5 million hired farm workers to cultivate our crops. Despite their crucial role in our country’s livelihood, nearly 2/3 live in poverty and fewer than 1/5 have health insurance. They are subject to occupational hazards such as the long-term effects of labor-intensive work and exposure to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

While pesticides and synthetic fertilizers have dramatically increased crop yields and contributed to the production of the bulk of the world’s food over the 20th century, they are attributed to causing illness in exposed farm workers, contributing to global warming, creating dead zones in our oceans by seeping into groundwater or being carried into nearby waterways and ultimately deplete soil fertility.

A human meal no longer automatically equates to sustenance that has been foraged or hunted from the direct surroundings. Or crops that have been grown by a family for that family. Or even food from the region of the world where it is eventually bought from a store. It is no wonder that humans have become disconnected from their food.

What some scientists are calling, “agricultural literacy” is at its lowest point in all of human history. World populations continue to move from rural to more urban areas, and as shipping food has become more and more efficient, people see food as “products” as opposed to the original animal or plant. The lack of exposure to farming in daily life has led to some children—and some adults—who do not know that french fries were once potatoes and pickles are cucumbers. This also contributes to unhealthy diets and the subsequent ailments which are attributed to poor nutrition. This lack of exposure which leads to lack of knowledge is also instrumental in the plight of humans’ apathy toward food waste. Not knowing what it takes to grow food equates to the indifference in throwing it away.

But along with all of the ruination of modern agriculture has also come a recent necessary move toward higher consciousness.

There is a demonstrative realization that what the world needs right now is a global shift in the way we procure food. And that perhaps, “the farm of the future” does not mean reverting backward to some romantic idea of “the good old days” before “Big Ag.,” but proceeding forward in a way that goes beyond the common understanding of farming.

Food and farming can offer the opportunity of finding common ground and tying humans back to their roots. Sharing a meal has always been, and will always be the Great Connector. We have the power to make conscientious choices that lead to meaningful change. All is not lost when it comes to our relationship with the soil.
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