As We Teeter Toward The Tipping Point: A Rural Advantage

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“I am convinced that sustainability is the defining question of the 21st Century,” John Ikerd said one icy afternoon in the depth of February, weeks before the Gulf of Mexico exploded into an infernal industrial mess of oil, gas, and chemical dispersant.

Ikerd, a senior statesman among American agrarians, was addressing a conference hosted by the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society in Lincoln. He earned a standing ovation for his definitive, imperative, and impassioned remarks.

Ikerd painted a convincing word picture of how sustainable food production systems can and should be employed to restore health to our bodies and minds, to restore vitality to the land, and to restore long-term stability to our economy. This healing potential, he said as he sounded a conference keynote, is a rural advantage. America would do well to take note.

The very day Ikerd spoke, Bob Herbert wrote an op-ed column titled “Time is Running Out” for The New York Times. “We’ve now lost 8.4 million jobs in this recession, and a vast majority of them are gone for good,” Herbert reported. “The politicians are clambering aboard the jobs bandwagon, belatedly, but very few are telling the truth about the structural employment problems in the U.S. and the extremely heavy lift that is necessary to halt our declining living standards and get us back to an economy that is self-sustaining.”

Noting that our economy has been thrown desperately out of whack by frantic, debt-driven consumption, speculative bubbles, and exotic financial instruments, Herbert reported that living standards are sinking swiftly in the USA, and that there is no coherent long-term vision or plan for reversing that ominous trend.

Almost as if he picked up on the same thought train as the Times columnist, but basing his response on a lifetime of work advocating for clean, truly economic agriculture, Ikerd in his speech said that the issue which has potential to bring this all into focus is public health – specifically the growing epidemics of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, allergies and asthma. All these illnesses are related to diet, and our diet is directly related to the way we cultivate the land and raise our animals. It’s all linked.

Now gluttonously congested with agrichemicals, processing and genetic-mechanical initiatives, that link has led to some staggeringly expensive consequences. Health care spending devoured 17 percent of the entire U.S. economy last year according to the Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. Just a few years back it was only 5 percent, 6 percent, and then 7 percent.  But over the same time period that our diets and our land have been dosed with chemicals, hormones, processing and GMOs, our health costs have ballooned to the present onerous 17 percent. Soon, according to the projections of the Federal Centers, health care will be devouring 20 percent, and then 22 percent of our annual economy. That’s money we could be spending on lots of other things we need.

“For the last 50 years,” Ikerd said, “our focus has been on producing a lot of cheap stuff – with chemicals, herbicides and GMOs. But the decline in human health has paralleled this.” Putting the paradox into a sound bite, he said, “Our country is now both overfed and undernourished.”

One day before Ikerd spoke and Herbert wrote his column for the Times, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, told the Nebraska conference that consumers who buy directly from food producers keep 90 percent of food income in the agricultural sector, supporting their neighbors who are local, sustainable growers. Fortenberry also made the connection between clean, healthy food and the kind of good health that could dramatically shrink health-care costs.

John Ikerd really drove the point home with his facts and his rhetoric. The tipping point will come, he said, when we realize that the economic and environmental health of the nation depends upon, and is directly related to the physical and mental health of the people, and that that is related to the health of the soil and the way we cultivate the land.

As with other American agrarians, Ikerd sees the potential of clean sustainable agriculture to be the vision and the plan that leads us out of recession and pollution and into the future with clean food, healthy bodies and minds, a vibrant environment, and a stable economy built on something real and enduring.

“The tide is changing,” he said at the end of his talk. “It takes healthy people to maintain healthy soil and to bring healthy food from the land. There is a new purpose for people to be out in rural areas now, to repopulate our farmlands and to create healthy soil, and healthy food that will lead to healthy people. We need to rebuild from the soil up, and we can do it. Where are we going to find the jobs of the future? They are on the land. There’s a whole new concept of society emerging that is based on local, clean healthy food. That’s the rural advantage.”

N.B. –  John Ikerd published a new book online in April: A Revolution of the Middle