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Return to Civilization

Evaggelos Vallianatos

I grew up in the 1940s in a village in Greece. My father owned a few strips of land that, together, equaled no more than 4 acres. Most of this land had olive trees. The rest was for grapevines and the growing of wheat, barley and lentils. In addition, my father had small flocks of sheep and goats, and we had chickens, a donkey, a mule and ancient tools for cultivating the land.

My family was self-reliant in food. We had everything: wheat and barley bread, olive oil, wine and cheese and meat once a week. Even during the years Greece was occupied by Italians and Germans, 1941-1944, we had enough food. Those were years of famine and hunger for most Greeks, especially those living in cities. I remember that my father hid our olive oil in a large stone container buried in the ground.

Everyone in my family worked hard. During my elementary school years, I took care of a goat. I would also help with the picking of olives in December, but the most memorable experience was during our grape harvest in the heat of late August. My cousin and I would crush grapes with our bare feet. Piles of grapes would be up to our knees. Treading on those soft fruit was heaven. It was the closest experience to reliving the joy of the ancient Greek tradition of Dionysos supervising the making of wine.

To the dismay of my father, I left the village for the United States where I attended college. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a doctorate in history in the early 1970s. I then did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. By that time, I was married and trying to make a living. My farm in the village would have to wait — unfortunately, forever.

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I worked on Capitol Hill and with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 27 years: enough time to learn and reflect on what this new country, the United States, was all about — but my greatest interest continued to be agriculture. In fact, my work experience was mostly about environmental protection and the science and regulation of farming.

I was stunned with the realization of the dramatic collapse of family farming in the United States in the aftermath of World War II. All of a sudden rural America became a realm of large farmers owning thousands of acres of land and gigantic machinery. It disturbed me that America had abandoned eons-tested biological farming for a petrochemicals-dependent factory in the fields. This giant agriculture divided crops from animals.

This new fashion, like most other high-tech “innovations” for large farms, came from the agribusiness brain of America: the land grant universities.

But the worst contribution of World War II and the land grant universities was making agriculture in the United States into a gigantic chemical machine. War chemists converted petrochemicals into lethal chemical weapons. After the war, land grant university chemists converted petrochemicals into pesticides, slightly less toxic compounds than chemical weapons. These pesticides were designed to kill everything, especially insects, weeds, rodents and fungi.

By the time I started at the EPA in 1979, the petrochemical regime of industrialized agriculture was the dominant model. Almost immediately I started raising ethical, philosophical and scientific questions about assisting destructive practices to remain in place. I expressed my rejection of neurotoxins and cancer-causing compounds sprayed over crops harvested by farmworkers and eaten by consumers.

I spent years researching alternatives to this mechanical-chemical giant agriculture. Organic, or eco-farming, was the most common of alternatives to chemical agriculture. I would then present my findings to EPA economists and biologists doing assessments of pesticides giving humans cancer and killing “nontargets” (honeybees and other beneficial animals). My colleagues, however, did not embrace non-chemical alternatives to carcinogenic and neurotoxic pesticides for the simple reason that alternatives did not exist in the EPA’s agenda. In fact, I remember being astonished during the Clinton administration in the 1990s when economists from the USDA were trying to discover the drawbacks of a potential conversion of U.S. farming to sustainable methods.

These bizarre behaviors of the EPA and USDA were the results of a long process of successful corruption. The petrochemical and agribusiness industries purchased politicians in state legislatures, Congress and the White House. Those politicians saw that the subversion of science and government became public policy dressed in the rhetoric of growing more cheap food and feeding the hungry. Food became a vast power of conquest.

Organic or ecological and biological farming operates in a war zone. Pesticide lobbyists keep polluting the organics laws and its administration and enforcement. Toxins are everywhere in rural America. Add to this danger the equally hazardous practices of genetically engineered crops and all of rural America is a battlefield.

Organic farmers and those eating the healthy food they raise need to organize and fight back by getting their food to schools, churches, universities and the armed forces.
It’s counterproductive for organic farmers to sell their successful and beneficial farms to agribusiness and pesticide companies. These conventional corporations want to kill eco-farming. Besides, purchasing organic food from a pesticide-centric company diminishes the integrity of organic food.

The struggle of spreading organic food to the entire country, in a sense, resurrecting the traditional small family farming of America, is a return to civilization.

Eco-farmers and those eating their food must help in electing politicians who will defend their way of life. And at a time of global warming, it’s critical that Americans understand eco-agriculture is keeping the offending carbon dioxide in the soil. In contrast, large-scale farming emits nearly half of all global warming gases.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., is the author of several books, including Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA (with McKay Jenkins, Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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