When I was eighteen years old my life was changed by a profound yet simple experience: I learned how to grow my own food. Working on a biodynamic farm in Northern California I learned how to build healthy compost piles, prepare beds for planting, nurture lettuce, garlic, cucumbers, melons, and an abundance of other crops until they ripened to maturity, to prune and train tomato plants to maximize their fullest succulent potential, to feed and care for cows who produce milk, sheep who produce wool, chickens who produce eggs, and draft horses who worked the land with us. Perhaps most importantly I learned how to work hard in the hot sun over long days, and to take responsibility for my own ecological footprint upon this planet.
The majority of food grown in the United States is not produced in the manner I have described above. The current food production system is dominated by industrialized commercial agriculture, which produces a small number of crops on large tracts of land cultivated as monocultures, fertilized with petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizers, and continuously sprayed with deadly chemical pesticides and herbicides. The bulk of these uniformly-produced crops are distributed by a minimal number of multi-national corporations. Both the number of farms and the number of corporations are rapidly decreasing as all aspects of the food system are consolidated into a few large organizations. When few corporations are allowed to amass such a monopoly on trade, smaller scale producers, such as the farmers with whom I worked, can no longer compete in the market, and consumers are given less choice in what kinds of food they can purchase.
Over the last half century the number of farmers has decreased while the size of farms has increased. In the 1960s, government policies pushed for fewer farmers working larger tracts of land because technological advances in farming equipment could make farms more efficient than human labor alone. As of 1997, 61% of agricultural products grown in the United States were produced on only 163,000 farms. Of these farms 63% were contracted to larger corporations which processed and distributed their products. Today the number of farms is continuing to decrease because the same policies have been pushing for greater economic efficiency on farms. The current U.S. farm system, which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, could not survive if it were not for the support of government policies. Changing government policy in regards to food production is key to decentralizing and reforming the system to make it more sustainable and resilient for both the land and its farmers.
The governing laws, policies, and world view of the United States is oriented entirely toward the health and well-being of the economy, not the ecosystems or even the human population who give the nation its substance and meaning. If the United States, along with the rest of Earth’s nations, is to survive the current ecological crises—climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, desertification, pollution, biodiversity loss, mass extinction, and a host of other issues—policies will have to be changed to recognize not only human and corporate rights, but rights that acknowledge the entirety of the Earth community as well. Such a shift to Earth-based governance is recognized as Earth Law or Earth Jurisprudence, a movement inspired by the work of the geologian Thomas Berry, and promoted by Cormac Cullinan, Linda Sheehan, and others involved with the Earth Law Center. Earth Law is slowly entering the legal world through the discussion of Earth Rights, and the writing of such historical documents as the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth, released on Earth Day in 2010. The Earth-centric perspective inherent to Earth Law gives ecosystems the right to be healthy, which translates to the right to exist, persist, and sustain itself. The importance of recognizing the rights of “Earth Others,” as the ecofeminist Val Plumwood calls nonhuman beings of the Earth community, is to begin to move away from the anthropocentric perspective that is currently degrading the health of our planet. Currently all of our laws serve, first and foremost, human interests.
Food is a particularly compelling issue on which to focus because it is a symbol and daily reminder of our dependence upon a healthy Earth. The food we put into our bodies is comprised entirely of other species, whether plant, fungus, or animal, and is nourished by the complex interactions of solar radiation, the hydrologic cycle, bacteria, minerals, insects, and many other factors. The quality of our food determines the quality of our health, and in the long run our ability to survive. In terms of Earth Law and questions of the rights of Earth Others, how might food be produced if the plants, animals, soils, and waters on which we depend each had their own right to health? What if agricultural land had rights? For example, the right of soil not to be eroded, of aquifers and ground water not to be depleted and contaminated, or of land to be free of contamination by pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers? What if human beings were given the right to always have access to healthy, uncontaminated food with higher nutritional value?
There are many different ways these issues might be addressed, but it seems that implementing some kind of shift to universal production of organic agriculture would be necessary in order to grant the right of health to agricultural land, and the right for human beings to have access to clean food. Organic agriculture can be a sustainable endeavor when it is designed to mimic a natural ecosystem on a small scale. Examples of such biomimicry techniques include animal husbandry—using composted animal manure to fertilize fields—and intercropping—in which multiple plant species are grown together in harmonious symbiotic relationship—among many other practices employed on organic and biodynamic farms. Usually the costs of transitioning to organic production, and of acquiring organic or biodynamic certification status, are born by the producer, which can be a barrier for many small-scale farmers and open the door for large corporations to come in and take over the organic niche market. Scale is an important factor because the larger the farm the less likely it is that the farm will be able to maintain ethical and sustainable practices in the long term. Land cannot be cared for if efficiency is the bottom line, and large-scale farming production tend to prioritize short-term efficiency over long-term attention and care.
In a world governed by these ideals of capitalist efficiency, the initial costs of converting a conventional farm to organic production can be quite high and discourage farmers from changing. One major drawback to organic agriculture is the need for more human labor if the practice is to be sustainable. Organic farms that try to remain competitive in a corporate market usually rely on machines to till large tracts of land and suppress weed growth. To decrease fossil fuel use and implement sustainable practices, farmers would either have to pay their workers a higher salary for more labor or employ more farm hands, both of which would be a high increase in expenditure.
Unavailability of arable land is another obstacle to organic farming, but this can partially be overcome with the use of urban plots and green roofing on city buildings. Green roofing is a method of covering the roofs of urban buildings with gardens. It is a simple and effective idea that keeps cities cooler in summer by converting much of the cities’ carbon dioxide emissions back into oxygen, and helping clean the air of other pollutants. The gardens also contribute to the food consumed by urban dwellers, which otherwise would have to be transported across the country. Green roofing would cut transportation costs and energy usage.
Food is essential to all human beings in a way that no other commodity is. Therefore, reconnecting people to food production is vital to changing attitudes toward farmers and the cost of food. In order to overcome the shortage of farm workers necessary to convert conventional industrialized farms to organic agriculture, I am proposing a required civil service system that could be implemented in the United States for all young people when they graduate from high school. This plan is not dissimilar to European civil service policies, called Zivildienst, in such countries as Germany and Austria, where conscientious objectors to the required military service can opt to do community service instead. Such a solution is radical and would require a fundamental change in values, but it could also bring about the kind of change needed to fix the food system in the United States.
Under this policy, when a U.S. citizen turns eighteen she or he would be required to submit a form demonstrating eligibility for farm service. She or he would work either on a farm in a rural area, or on a green roof plot in a city. On the service form citizens would indicate their future plans, such as whether they would be attending college or university, or working at a job outside of their farm work. They would also be able to show preference for an urban or rural working environment. Distribution would be based on state, so that people would not have to be taken far from their families. If someone wished to work out of state that could also be arranged.
Each citizen would serve the equivalent of at least two years, with the time distributed according to one’s school and work schedules. A person could work full-time on a farm project and complete his or her required service in two years. Those who chose this method would receive a salary based on the income of an average job in their living area. This money would be provided by the government from the funds currently spent on crop and fossil fuel subsidies. If the farm workers already had employment to which they would be returning after their service was complete, they might also opt to be on a sabbatical salary at those jobs to secure their positions.
A part-time arrangement could be made for those currently holding half-time civilian jobs, so that they would not need to leave their work positions. On the other hand, full-time students would be able to work every summer for four years, or every other summer for eight. Those who chose to work in a rural area would usually work full-time, whereas those working in urban areas could work either full or part-time depending on their preferences and skills. If a person wished, he or she could serve one year and then spend their second year training new farm hands. After two years, those who wished to continue farming could do so on a full-time salary.
Living arrangements would be made according to each person’s lifestyle, work, familial situation, and marital status. Those who farmed in a rural area would live on or near the farms. Those who farmed in the city would have the option of living anywhere in or near that city. If possible, it could be arranged for workers to live in the building under their allotted green roof. Persons or families who have houses with green roofs or personal vegetable gardens could have the possibility of exemption from the farm service if they fulfilled a certain quota of food production.
According to Lewis Mumford, the benefits of smaller-scale agriculture, in the hands of more people, brings diversity and stability:
The small scale method of production, resting mainly on human skill . . . [while] remaining under active direction of the craftsman or farmer, each group developing its own gifts, through appropriate arts and social ceremonies, as well as making discreet use of wide diffusion and its modest demands . . . [These methods have] great powers of adaptation and recuperation.
An increase in gardens and workers would make U.S. cities into partially self-contained ecosystems able to provide much of their own food. A larger proportion of the carbon dioxide and pollution in city air would be converted to oxygen or decreased, and more green spaces would be available for citizens to enjoy. Furthermore, the universal availability of organic produce would start to make the overall population healthier, and undermine the corporate control of the majority of our current food system. The generations of young farm workers would be given the same opportunity I was at age eighteen, of learning to use the skills of my body, mind, and heart in service of the Earth and a healthier humanity, connecting not only with plants and animals, but with soil, water, and weather as well.
A number of changes such as these over the next few decades could make the United States a country with partially self-sustaining cities and small-scale rural farms that produce organic food that is both less expensive and safer to eat. This plan would not be easy to implement within the current world system, and would have to be adjusted in many ways to fit the diversity of this country. However, major, radical changes do need to be made to change the practices of food production and the education of most citizens in regards to their food. I believe that the education provided to youth by working on farms will begin to foster a more Earth-centric world view that will help nurture in young individuals the love of our planet so greatly needed at this time.
Currently there are no policies in motion to introduce a plan such as this in the United States. However, it possible to begin to implement it on a smaller scale to test out how it works in certain areas. The San Francisco Bay Area might be an ideal location in which to attempt such an experiment, not only because the Northern California climate is ideal for growing many kinds of produce but also because San Francisco has been called “the place where new ideas meet the least amount of resistance.” Furthermore, several organizations in the Bay Area are already doing work in this field, and likely would be open to experimenting with such a program: for example, the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point, a project of Literacy for Environmental Justice, or the Food First organization in Oakland. At a different level, the farm service proposal could supplement the work already being done by such programs as Americore or Teach for America. The slogan for such a campaign could possibly be “Empower You(th), Feed A Nation!”
Ultimately, the goal of instituting a youth farm service program would be to change the way Americans are interacting with the Earth. Food is an issue that affects every single person, indeed every organism, and indicates the interconnection between all beings on planet Earth. Introducing every young person in a country to the means by which their nourishment is created would empower them to be self-sustaining and to know that their survival is in their own hands. The education provided by such a program could literally be life-saving. But it would also foster a care for other species, for the plants and animals with which these youth would interact daily for at least two years. Learning to farm would also fundamentally change the human relationship to waste, teaching that there is no such place as “away” to which waste can be thrown. Rather it would bring ideas such as composting and reuse into the everyday rhythm of life. After a few generations of such a program I can imagine that the policies passed by the adults who have learned to grow their own food would be far more Earth-centered than our current policies today.
Cullinan, Cormac. Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011.
Earth Law Center. Accessed May 8, 2014. http://earthlawcenter.org/.
“Food First.” Accessed May 8, 2014. http://foodfirst.org/.
Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. “Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth.” Accessed May 8, 2014. http://therightsofnature.org/universal-declaration/.
Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. “Green Roof Benefits.” Accessed May 8, 2014. http://www.greenroofs.org/index.php/about/greenroofbenefits.
Kirschenmann, Frederick. “The Current State of Agriculture.” In The Essential Agrarian Reader, edited by Norman Wirzba, 101-119. Washington D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.
Literacy for Environmental Justice. “EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park.” Accessed May 8, 2014. http://ecocenterheronshead.blogspot.com/.
Newsham, Brad. “The Spiritual Center of the Earth.” SF Gate, November 23, 1999. Accessed May 8, 2014. http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/The-Spiritual-Center-Of-the-Earth-2894518.php.
Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006.
Raynolds, Laura. “Organic and Fair Trade Movements in the Global Food Networks.” In Ethical Sourcing in the Global Food System. Edited by Stephanie Barrientos & Catherine Dolan, 49-61. Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2006.
 Frederick Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” in The Essential Agrarian Reader, ed. Norman Wirzba (Washington D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004), 101.
 Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” 102.
 Ibid, 117.
 Cormac Cullinan, Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011).
 “Earth Law Center, accessed May 8, 2014, http://earthlawcenter.org/.
 “Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth,” Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, accessed May 8, 2014, http://therightsofnature.org/universal-declaration/.
 Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 146.
 Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” 113.
 Laura Raynolds, “Organic and Fair Trade Movements in the Global Food Networks,” in Ethical Sourcing in the Global Food System, ed. Stephanie Barrientos & Catherine Dolan (Sterling, VA: Earthscan, 2006), 52, 57.
 Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), 159-60.
 “Green Roof Benefits,” Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, accessed May 8, 2014, http://www.greenroofs.org/index.php/about/greenroofbenefits.
 Lewis Mumford, qtd. in Kirschenmann, “The Current State of Agriculture,” 108.
 Brad Newsham, “The Spiritual Center of the Earth,” SF Gate, November 23, 1999, accessed May 8, 2014, http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/The-Spiritual-Center-Of-the-Earth-2894518.php.
 “EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park,” Literacy for Environmental Justice, accessed May 8, 2014, http://ecocenterheronshead.blogspot.com/.
 “Food First,” accessed May 8, 2014, http://foodfirst.org/.