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The Blessings of Dirty Work

By Barbara Kingsolver
Sunday, September 30, 2007

In my neighborhood of Southwest Virginia, backyard gardens are as common as satellite dishes. Now is the time of year for husking corn and breaking beans. Jars bobble quietly in water-bath canners on our stoves: tomatoes, allspice pickles, whatever the garden has overproduced today. If we don't have our own, we can buy bushels from our neighbors' trucks at the Saturday market, because farmers have plenty right now, and what they grow is our sustenance.

Elsewhere that connection may be a stretch of the imagination; here it's not. We move to the same impulse that makes squirrels hoard their nuts, rising at dawn to pick, returning in the evening to pick more. We freeze, we preserve, we give away excess. It's the gardener's World Series -- an all-consuming hoopla at the end of the season. We will finish with full larders, our chest freezers overstuffed like suitcases lugged home from the duty-free zone.

I face this work each year with satisfaction, but not without self-consciousness. I come from a line of folks with some dirt on our jeans who've watched the long exodus from the land that seems inevitable to our species. As a popular World War I song asked, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Par-ee?"

Paris I have seen, and places beyond, where many different languages assign similar scorn with the phrase "dirty work." My generation has absorbed an implicit hierarchy of values in which working the soil is poor people's toil. Apparently we're now meant to rise above even touching the stuff those people grow. The real labors of keeping a family fed (as opposed to the widely used metaphor) are presumed tedious and irrelevant. A woman confided to me at a New York dinner party, "Honestly, who has time to cook anymore? My daughter will probably grow up wondering what a kitchen is used for." The lament had the predictable blend of weariness and braggadocio, unremarkable except for this woman's post at the helm of one of the nation's major homemaking magazines.

This is modern thinking. Even keeping house does not dirty its hands with food production. Sorry, but we have work to do, the stuff that happens in an office or agency or retail outlet -- waiting tables, for instance. Clicking a cash register at the speed of light. Driving a truck on a long-distance haul. We have risen above the muddy business of an agrarian society, heaven be praised. People in China and India do that for us now.

On the other side of the world from that New York dinner party, another influential woman gave me an opposite perspective on leaving behind the labor and culture of food: that it's impossible. We only transform the tasks, she claims -- and not necessarily for the better.

Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, is an elegant scientist in her silk sari, with a red bindi on her forehead like an accent mark over her broad smile. She was trained as a physicist but is best known for her work for farmers' rights. The soil of her country, India, is home to one-quarter of all the world's farmers. Increasingly they grow commodities for export rather than traditional, locally adapted foods for their own communities. This strategy was laid out by the technological Green Revolution, as it was called in the 1970s (when "green" was not the word it is today), which promised that one farmer with the right tools and chemicals could feed hundreds, freeing the rest of us for cleaner work.

It sounds good unless you're that one guy on a tractor in Nebraska, and the price of soybeans won't quite refuel your tank and pay for your fertilizer. Elsewhere, it's worse. In India, Shiva says, 150,000 farmers have committed suicide -- often by drinking pesticide, to underscore the point -- after being bankrupted by costly chemicals in a cycle of debt created by ties to corporate agriculture. Centralized food production requires constant inputs -- fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation -- that in some settings are impossible to sustain, and chemical-based farming virtually always damages the soil over time, whether in India or Nebraska.

Traditional farming retains soil structure, but intensive modern agriculture does not: Since the 1970s, while global grain production has tripled, an estimated 30 percent of the world's farmland has become too damaged to use. Also shrinking are the fossil fuel reserves for a system that requires petroleum to run the farm machines, serve as the chemical base of fertilizers, fuel the milling and processing plants and drive the food to widely dispersed consumers. Shiva puts it this way: "The new modified crops brought to us by the Green Revolution were described as 'green oil of the future.' Ironically, that has turned out to be correct in a way, as the Green Revolution makes a renewable resource -- food -- into a nonrenewable one, just like petroleum."

Farmers come to Shiva's farm-based institute in Derha Dun to learn how to free themselves from chemicals, indebtedness and landlessness. Shiva's research has shown that returning to more traditional multi-crop food farms can offer them higher, more consistent incomes than modern single-crop fields of export commodities. She identifies the extinction of traditional seed varieties as the principal threat to food security here; to name an important example, South Asian farmers once grew about 50,000 varieties of rice, a number that has dropped to around 5,000 as a globalized seeds-and-chemicals industry displaces tradition, sometimes with coercion from the Indian government.

The institute, called Navdanya, is a small, green Eden framed against the startling blue backdrop of the Himalayas. On the morning of my visit last December, birds sang from the fruit trees as we ate our breakfast of millet porridge with fruit and nuts, lemon pickle and tea, all grown on the farm's intensively planted organic acres. Sixteen years earlier, with no funds beyond her small savings, Shiva and her acolytes had bought this piece of ruined land, which neighboring farmers advised her would never grow anything at all.

Her devoted team has built the soil with compost and careful crop rotation to its present lushness. After a tour through the fields, we took off our shoes to enter the seed bank room, a precious library of germ plasm collected in labeled jars and baskets: oilseeds, mustard greens, wheats and barleys, 380 varieties of rice. Other farmers throughout the country are building different seed banks of locally appropriate varieties, all replanted in the fields each year as a living catalogue. "This is the basis of Indian farmers' sovereignty," Shiva said. "Our traditional crops."

Navdanya now hosts what Shiva calls the Grandmothers' University, a series of cooking festivals to help connect the conservation of traditional crops with the practical skills of cooking and eating them. Clearly, traditional farming and time-honored food customs are mutually dependent.

Less clear is whether this country could lose its powerful food culture -- what is more important to an Indian girl's education than perfecting the art of making her mother's daal? But Shiva warns that even here, the consumption of packaged foods is on the rise. "The nutrition transition is driven by economic changes that coerce people into jobs that give them no time for food culture," she said. "Tech jobs, telephone industry jobs here are mostly held by kids who may have very few other employment prospects. They are making great money by local standards, but they are sometimes working 20 hours per day! In a life like that, there is no time for your mother's daal."

Industrial farming -- however destructive to the land and our nutrition -- has held out as its main selling point the allure of freedom: Two percent of the population would be able to feed everyone. The rest could do as we pleased. Shiva sees straight through that promise. "Most of those who have moved off of farms are still working in the industry of creating food and bringing it to consumers: as cashiers, truck drivers, even the oil-rig workers who generate the fuels to run the trucks. Those jobs are all necessary to a travel-dependent, highly mechanized food system. And many of those jobs are menial, life-taking work, instead of the life-giving work of farming on the land. The analyses we have done show that no matter what, whether the system is highly technological or much more simple, about 50 to 60 percent of a population has to be involved in the work of feeding that population. Industrial agriculture did not 'save' anyone from that work, it only shifted people into other forms of food service."

Waiting tables, for instance, or driving a truck full of lettuce, or spending 70 hours a week in an office overseeing a magazine full of glossy ads selling food products. Surprise: There is no free lunch. No animal can really escape the work of feeding itself. We're just the only one with fancy clothes and big enough brains to make up a story like that: Hooray, we are far from the soil, and that has set us free.

I'm not convinced. When I consider my own employment history, I can see how much of it was somehow tied to feeding my species. My first writing job was in the public relations office of a university College of Agriculture; I was prouder of the "office" than the "aggie" part of my title. As a 20-something with a paycheck and benefits, I had risen above my rural roots and thought myself quite the professional gal. I wore stockings and pumps to do important interviews. I can still remember how my feet felt at the end of a day when I kicked them off.

These days when I finally kick off my shoes, they are apt to be muddy. Then I can see myself for what I am: an animal that hasn't quite escaped from the land that feeds me.

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of 12 books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life."

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