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farming independence

Via Root Simple, a great National Geographic article about crop diversity. The aim of the piece is to point out how monoculture agriculture is setting us up for disaster when climate change and disease render the few widely-grown cultivars of major crops unusable. That's a worthwhile concern, and as Kelly at Root Simple writes, it's also just sad that all those wonderful historic varieties have been lost. But it was another aspect that caught my attention:

Small farmers and pastoralists have gone deep into debt to pay for the "inputs"—the fertilizers, pesticides, high-protein feeds, and medication—required to grow these new plants and livestock in different climate conditions. They are like addicts, hooked on a habit they can ill afford in either economic and ecological terms.

My other posts last year talk about the subject with more eloquence (or at least more length) so I won't rehash all I have to say about how ridiculous it is to export a system of agriculture that doesn't even work (for farmers or eaters; I'm not concerned with corporations) in this country.

Happily, the article also presents an alternative view:

Forty-year-old Jemal Mohammed owns a five-acre, hillside farm outside the tiny hamlet of Fontanina in the Welo region of Ethiopia's northern highlands. It is in the heart of one of the centers of diversity that Nikolay Vavilov visited on his 1926 expedition.

Stepping foot on Mohammed's land is like tumbling back in time to an ancient way of farming. His circular, thatched-roof hut with walls of dried mud and straw is the same dwelling that has dotted Ethiopia's countryside for centuries. A pair of oxen lies to the right of the hut in the shade of a jacaranda tree. Three or four chickens strut across a bare front yard. His fields, tilled with an ox-drawn plough and planted by hand, are a jumble of crops: tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro, gourds, sorghum, wheat, barley, chickpeas, and teff, a grain used to make injera, a flatbread.

There are those who talk about the importance of saving heirloom seeds and traditional knowledge, so that when industrial agriculture does break down we have something to fall back on. I say don't wait for catastrophe: start working on alternatives now! Our food supply shouldn't rely on a handful of cultivars of just three crops and it shouldn't rely on a handful of companies either.

And if you'll excuse me, I need to go tend to my heirloom tomatoes (I'll let the f1 hybrids take care of themselves today). Happy 4th, everyone!

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