Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Heroes Who Make All Heroism Possible

One week ago today, a group of very courageous, highly trained individuals successfully undertook a dangerous mission to apprehend a man believed to have caused the deaths of thousands of people. These men have since been regarded as heroes, as perhaps they should be. This is not a political blog, and I will not be remarking on the wisdom of such a mission. However, I would like to take a look at our notion of heroism, and specifically at those individuals who I consider the unsung heroes of civilization.

I remarked some time ago that if there had never been a fertile crescent, there would never have been a cradle of civilization, and I have been reflecting on that statement, off and on, ever since. It was the ability to grow food on a stable spot, as opposed an erstwhile reliance on hunting and gathering, that enabled humans to develop complex civilizations, with laws, property ownership, the division of labor, and specialization of skills. It also made possible the support of armies, which in turn enabled the projection of power and conquest. Everything we have today began with the planting of seeds, the nurturing of plants, and the harvest. Even now, our entire social structure is contingent upon the ability to grow food. Of course, transport, storage and distribution are also crucial, but even these would not have any importance if food itself were not grown first.

Mexican farmers, using ancient techniques in a painting by my late father, Phil Roettinger  

Why am I bringing this up? We're approaching a crossroads unprecedented in our history, at which point we'll need to decide whether we will choose to produce food in a sustainable, healthful manner consistent with ecology and the laws of nature, or continue on the path away from these principles and in the end bring about the destruction of everything our ancestors labored to achieve.

There are many ecologists, environmentalists, and even a few politicians who are working hard to ensure that we make wise decisions regarding our farming methods as well as other factors that influence our future ability to feed ourselves well. At a conference on The Future of Food earlier this week, Prince Charles gave a brilliant keynote speech, in which he noted the distinction between agriculture and agribusiness. He covered several related topics (I recommend watching the "full speech," versus the 4-minute clip), but what struck me more than anything was his appreciation for, and championing of, the fundamentals of natural, organic farming and the protection of both the environment and biodiversity. I've never thought much of royals, but I recognized in his manner the best sort of leadership on this subject, and became an instant fan.

Now I'll get to the point, which is recognizing the real heroes of civilization: farmers. And by farmers, I mean the actual people who dedicate their lives, day in, day out, to the study and practice of everything involved in growing food. These people never get what I would call a vacation, or a full day off, or many of the comforts most of us take for granted. Nor do they get much of a shot at amassing a fortune (to put it mildly). More importantly, however, they are crucial to our survival, as individuals and as a species. Just as armies stand between us and foreign enemies, farmers (real farmers, I mean) are all that stand between us and death by starvation.

In recent times, there have been "advances" in farming that are not based on what Prince Charles referred to as agriculture--that is, the great body of knowledge acquired over the last 10,000 years of what works and what doesn't. This time-tested and time-honored body of knowledge is part intuitive, part empirical, part technological, part social, even part religious/spiritual, whereas the "advances" I refer to are purely technological and profit-driven. That's not to say that farmers shouldn't be well rewarded for their labor (although historically they largely have not), but the glaring flaw in these new farming methods is that they have come about solely for profit, at the willful expense of all other considerations. To put it briefly, modern "factory" farming relies on practices that pollute the environment, deplete the soil, poison the produce, diminish biodiversity, and endanger the future of food itself.

As a cook, my heroes are organic farmers, especially those who grow heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and legumes. These brave souls work very hard, very long hours, and their livelihood is always at risk, subject not only to the whims of weather, but to the encroachment of Big Ag. Many have given up and moved to cities in search of more lucrative, less back-breaking work (and who could blame them?). But those who remain, implementing the methods of their ancestors, adding to the collective knowledge, and persisting in the most natural and noble of basic professions--these are at the vanguard of the battle to maintain a healthful, sustainable  source of food for all humanity. And they are the last line of defense against the greed-driven mechanism that reduces both plants and animals to mere commodities for ruthless exploitation.

So, next time you're at a farmer's market, consider walking up to the organic produce stall with the most unusual fruits and vegetables, and saying, with the utmost sincerity, as one might say to a veteran, "Thank you for your service."


  1. Awesome insight. Love the analogy of farmers to warriors in "the last line of defense." Thanks. Jill

    Don't understand the select a profile selection so I'm hitting anonymous. Lo-tech mamma here.

  2. Thank you, Jill. Lo-tech is just as welcome here as hi-tech.

  3. Very thoughtful, Alan. I am right there with you on this one, thankful.