RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

A Sustainable Peace

On Feb. 15 -- the international day of resistance against the US pre-emptive War against Iraq -- I missed the marches because I was teaching "Towards a Sustainable Food System" at a local health food store.

"Where were you?" asked my friends, "We needed everyone."

It's a complicated time for people working for sustainability, often the same people marching for peace, but the truth is that if the advocates for sustainability had won the opening arguments, America would be a different place. We didn't, so Americans can hardly see how to live without oil. We couldn't solve the ordinary problems of life -- how to eat, drink, provide warm shelter, get our children to school. Bottom line: Americans need to re-learn self-sufficiency.

You may argue that our quarrels with Iraq aren't about oil. OK -- what's the beef? Culture? Religion? Territory? If oil's not the problem this year, it will be another year.

Many Americans realized in the 1970s that oil was a finite resource. Visionaries argued for solar power, wind power, water power, conservation, but oil was cheap -- and it was easy to make a market, while it's hard to profit from sun, wind, water and self-control. The creation of automobiles, then trucks, then 18-wheelers and airplanes, was so exciting that it didn't take much to create momentum, just the wind in your hair and the taste of exotic fruits.

And, the resources were America's for the taking. The Soviet Bloc countries were too poor to compete. Ditto for Asia, Africa and South America. We let ourselves believe that America -- only America -- deserved modern prosperity, and we developed more and more ways to use oil.

Today, the US food system is entirely hooked. We import almost all our fresh vegetables from South America and China. US land is farmed ditch-to-ditch with grain, mostly harvested for animal feed. The grains are sprayed with petroleum-based fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, carried by petroleum-powered machinery, reaped by gas-powered machinery, trucked to feedlots and CAFOs, then fed to animals who are trucked long distances two or three times in their lives, trucked to butcher plant, warehouse, store. All this oil use is unnecessary. Grass-fed is best.

It didn't take long for American agriculture to drive the nation into a giant trade deficit, which we've attempted to fix by exporting food. Now, thanks to a system that rewards corporations that export, we export our meat products by jet plane wherever we can.

After years of self-examination, debate and refinement, a few farmers have agreed on general aspects of sustainability: Use seed, fertilizer, labor, from the farm or community; Support the land rather than deplete it; Raise crops that can be sold nearby; Make a profit and stay on the land.

The industrial system has gone farther and farther astray. The industrial system patents seeds and develops intimidating policies that penalize farmers for saving seed from their own land. Percy Schmeiser, a canola farmer who is being sued by Monsanto, says he doesn't know how patented genes got into the crop he raised a few years ago. All the same, Monsanto claimed his crop and is suing him for gene theft. Read the details at

Industrial fertilizer comes from petroleum. And industry's labor comes increasingly from families who have lost their homes on the continents where industry now raises our grocery-store vegetables.

Industrial US farm policy has determined that there are "allowable" or "acceptable" numbers for erosion, so the topsoil that nature built from the decay of plants and animals over the centuries has washed into the ditches and out to the streams, rivers and into the oceans. Rather than re-build the topsoil, the industrial farmer raises crops on the deeply-plowed clay, gravel, or sand that would otherwise be desert.

And, when the land's completely depleted, American farmers move to another continent and start all over. Brazil, which was once entirely rain forest, has been slashed and burned for soybeans. Where did all those indigenous people go?

Raising crops that can be sold nearby and making a profit are, to the grower, twin sides of the same coin. Sustainable farms profit from diversity, raising both vegetables and meats rather than focussing on grains that go to CAFOs. Here's where we all can help by supporting local markets -- farmers' markets, independent groceries and independent restaurants.

The puzzle would be easier to solve if we hadn't gone so far down this oil-slick road. The major players have assigned themselves so many government subsidies that they don't need profits. Food is cheap because corporations make their money from the Export Enhancement Program, tax loopholes that reward off-shore corporate addresses, and subsidies for corporate growers that keep farm prices below the cost of production. When Congress is slashing budgets, export rewards would be an excellent place to begin.

So what is the 12-step program that will lead to a sustainable system? First, we have to admit our addiction. Call me Ahab. I'm addicted to scarce resources on sale for cheap at the Big Store. Then, get rid of corporate export rewards.

As it is, all the ceasefires in the world won't ensure peace unless consumers make some fundamental changes and control our addiction to gasoline. Otherwise, we'll be fighting until Doomsday.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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