Thursday, September 10, 2015
Health and Economic Disparities are Created by Specialized, Fragmented Food and Healthcare Systems
The 20th Century Moved Us Into a Specialized, Fragmented, Industrialized World.
In the conservative1980's, as a student in the college of agriculture at New Mexico State University, I was engaged in frequent class discussions and debates regarding the loss of family farms, trends towards larger and more technologically advanced corporate farms, and the the need to address rapidly growing global populations. At the time, we could scarcely comprehend that 4.5 billion people lived on our planet! New Mexico's population density was still below one person per square mile, and most of us in the ag college grew up in rural areas. We were all made aware of the potential for a Malthusian catastrophe, which would be characterized by increasing disparities, high rates of disease, and widespread global conflict. College professors often used this potential to justify the need for agricultural research, and most of us marveled at the steps that had been taken to avert catastrophe using green revolution technologies of the 1950's and 60's. The conventional wisdom we absorbed in the university was that our agrochemical industry had spared us from catastrophe, and that we would continue to thrive as long as we continued to invest in technology.
A few of the older professors challenged this. They were not well liked by their peers. Like my uncles and aunts, most of whom were old enough to be my grandparents, these seniors seemed to believe that rural life in days past was much simpler, and much more fulfilling. My peers dismissed "seniors" as simply being unable to keep up with the times. I listened to both sides with an open mind, and looked for the middle ground. Years simply had to pass before I could come to terms with the wisdom the older generation had to offer.
For the most part, agriculture (like industry in general) had migrated to a highly specialized, assembly line business model. Machinery and chemicals had replaced human labor and biological defenses. Generalist farmers who raised twenty kinds of vegetables, beef, milk, eggs, and fruit on a small farm were being replaced with corporate agricultural specialists, often subsidized by the government to plant (or not to plant) one or a few commodities. Consumers were forced to change their shopping habits, because farms that once sold produce at roadside stands were replaced with supermarkets, and because with mom and dad now both working 40 to 80 hours a week, there simply wasn't time to drive out to Sam's melon stand and Sally's dairy. Shoppers now needed a one-stop shop where all their household, food, and medical needs could be met. Enter Wal-Mart.
Fast forward to 2015. Global hunger statistics this century have hovered around 1 billion. Despite, and perhaps because of, modern technology, these numbers are the highest in human history. In recent years, these numbers have fallen slightly, perhaps only because fighting and sickness in developing countries have reduced demands on failing global food systems.
Although costs of computers and other technology have dropped steadily since the first time I bought a personal computer, the pound of fresh fruit I paid $0.29 for in 1985 now costs $2.45. And like many of my peers, I suffer from an illness which appears to have been caused, at least in part, by nutritional imbalances stemming from years of consuming the products of the very technologies we were so proud of in the 80's. You see, when we were learning how to spray crops with pesticides, fertilize soil with ammonium nitrate, propagate thousands of clonal plants in vitro, engineer novel genes into crops, and package our clean, harvested corn into shrink wrap packages that could cross oceans and still look fresh in the supermarket, we were also altering the invisible, nutritionally complex microbiomes (microbial communities) that populated our soils, nurtured our crops, colonized our intestines, and worked with our immune systems to keep us healthy.
In the end, life is nothing more than a school of hard knocks, and the degrees we earn through experience are far more meaningful than those we pay for with tuition. As we watch the global news today, observe the trends in violence, stock markets, commodity price trends, disease trends, weather patterns, stagnant legislative processes, and widespread economic paralysis, we are all aware that business as usual is not cutting it, and changes promised by politicians only amplify problems. But many are looking to our seniors, our ancestors, our traditional spiritual leaders, and our indigenous cultures, recognizing that the old ways these people have clung to endure because they are sustainable. We've long since forgotten the Sony Walkman, and Apple IIe, all the rage back in the 80's. But we still eat, and local farmers markets are actually growing in popularity. After decades of cutting funds for vocational programs, high schools are re-introducing agriculture and mechanical arts, as if administrators have suddenly figured out that eating is a relevant activity for future generations.
For perhaps the first time, college graduates are taking a keen interest in home food production. Professionals are going home to feed the chickens or weed the gardens, and in doing so, they are finding the stress reducing mental health benefits that can only come from time spent outdoors. Bloggers reporting recovery from devastating, even life threatening illnesses share stories of recovery based on alternative methods that involve everything from herbal remedies to visits with shaman and curanderas. Specialized experts who stumble into these accounts are shocked, even horrified, to hear reports of success from such primitive approaches. Why wouldn't they be shocked? Many have invested their careers to proving that modern technologies make lives better. But the fact is, most technologies make our specialties better, and each time our life becomes more specialized, it also becomes more difficult to access those things we need to sustain ourselves and our families.
Learning to live holistically is invaluable. From an economic perspective, it reduces the cost of living. When all we need is close to home, it is also easier to afford. From a health perspective, it is less stressful, because we simply don't have to reach so far to find the products or the expertise we need to survive. This is why people in the 21st century will need to develop more holistic lifestyles. Lifestyles, primary health care, and careers will be closer to our families, safer, and more transparent. We will work less for strangers, and more for those whose lives are entwined in our own: our children, our spouses, and those we love. Victory gardens will resurface as the key to good health, sustainable communities, and sound fiscal management. Schools will be centered within the community, and parents voices will be reflected in the curriculum. Our children will not be surrendered to strangers to teach.
Of course, there will be many who reject these changes, and cling to the large industrial centers and government agencies that keep resources and people separated. I wish them well as I move to a world where their efforts are less relevant.