Fact sheet from "What Have We Done?,
The Foundation for Global Sustainability's State of the Bioregion Report for the Upper Tennessee Valley and Southern Appalachian Mountains."

Neither say they in their heart, Let is now fear the Lord our God, that giveth rain, both the former and the latter, in his season: he reserveth unto us the appointed weeks of the harvest.

Jeremiah 5:24

How Are We Fed?

  • Tractor-trailers rumble down our highways twenty-four hours a day to supply us with food from all over the globe. As of 1984, 53% of Tennessee's food and 84% of its fresh fruits and vegetables come from outside the state. These figures are probably higher now due to continuing population increase and agriculture decline since the '80s. Figures are worse in urban areas; as long ago as 1977, "less than five percent of the produce passing through the Knoxville market was locally grown." Most of the local farmland goes toward hay and corn for cattle.

  • Grocery stores often abandon inner cities, leaving residents a poor selection of highly processed, fatty foods available in convenience marts. This reinforces the cycles of poverty, disease, and dependence.

    Food and the Land

  • Our current food system damages the land where food is produced, where it is con-sumed, and everywhere in between. Costa Rican rainforests may be felled to give grazing land for the cattle we eat in a fast-food hamburger. The lettuce for this bur-ger may be grown in California on irrigated land with a shrinking water supply.

  • Ships and trucks which transport food from producer to consumer pollute the air. Transport also requires enormous amounts of fuel derived from a shrinking supply of crude oil, and encourages more road building for crowded interstates.

  • Packaging, refrigeration, and processing wastes resources; processing also results in loss of nutritional value. Southern Appalachians ever less frequently prepare their own food. Their reliance on restaurants adds to waste of food, proliferation of strip malls, as well as excessive use of fossil fuels to get there and back.

    Agriculture: A Long, Steep Decline

  • The proliferation of strip malls and urban sprawl continues to impinge on farm-land. Farm acreage in the state of Tennessee has decreased from 20,342,000 in 1900 to 11,800,000 in 1995. Also, farm population in 1900 was 1,246,000; by 1980 (most recent figures available from US Census Bureau), it was down to 176,000.

  • Most of Tennessee's agricultural land now lies in Middle and West Tennessee. However, the Tennessee Valley is suited to grow vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, lettuce, onions, green peas, and others. Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collards can even be cultivated in winter months. However, we do not raise any significant quantity of these here. The tomatoes and eggplants grown here are often sold outside the bio-region. Much of our produce comes from the irrigated deserts of California.

  • Remaining farms are often owned by large corporations and rely mainly on monoculture, which renders them susceptible to a single insect plague or fluctuations in weather conditions. Changing global climate conditions and the evolution of insects resistant to pesticides means crops are more susceptible to plagues. Nationwide more farmers have lost their small farm to corporations, such as Exxon, Tenneco, Goodyear, Bank of America, Prudential Insurance, than in Tennessee. But the remains of farms still in private hands are fast disappearing.

    The Squeeze on Farmers

  • Loss of agriculture in the bioregion results from increasing urbanization and rising land costs as well as corporatization of food production..."It is we who have acquiesced to the advertising that teaches us to prefer convenient, heavily packaged, far-transported, highly processed food to nutritious produce direct from local farms."

  • The wealth generated for farmers by America's farmland is no greater than it was in 1910-despite the fact that farmers feed a much larger population and are much more productive. The money has instead flowed primarily to the corporations that control inputs and marketing, such as Del Monte, Kraft, General Mills, etc.

  • The rise of mechanized and chemical agriculture further puts a squeeze on small farmers, who become less dependent on their own labor and ingenuity and more on mechanical and chemical inputs. Corporations get them coming and going, controlling inputs and marketing for farm supplies and products.

  • Ways to overcome this squeeze include using cover crops, compost, or manure produced on the farm rather than chemical fertilizers, using draft animals and human labor instead of petroleum-driven machinery, using pesticides and herbicides only when needed, and organizing co-ops and community-supported agriculture whenever possible.

  • Community-supported agriculture is an arrangement in which consumer pays the farmer in advance for a year's worth of specified foods. This spreads the risk normally borne by farmers among many people, lessening it; it promotes independence by cutting out middlemen. Several east Tennessee communities have such programs underway, and with consumer demand, this could be a sizable market in the face of corporate dominance.

    Organic vs. Chemical Agriculture

  • All agriculture used to be organic until the rise of petrochemical fertilizers in this century. Such fertilizers made the short-term benefits of chemical farming more cost-efficient, despite the fact that organic farming is superior in regards to ecological health. With modern advances in organic techniques, this style is now competitive with chemical farming.

  • Organic farming avoids the use of pesticides and fertilizers, relying on manure, compost, and cover crops to increase fertility. Small farms use human and animal labor only, while larger ones use some machinery.

  • Organic farms are richer in nutrients, moisture, and beneficial microbial activities than non-organic ones. They are by far more sustainable on the long-term due to less erosion and higher maintenance of soil nutrients. The only drawback is economic; because they require more labor, produce from them is more expensive.

    The True Cost of Food

  • Market price, however, is not the true cost of food. High environmental costs result from erosion, siltation of reservoirs and streams (hurting recreation, fishing, and flood control), loss of soil, and loss of land quality (aging farms require more chemical stimuli in order to remain profitable).

  • Chemicals used on farms contribute to water pollution, either directly or through the addition of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. This increases human cancer risk and animal health problems. Consumption of food containig these chemicals has health impacts. Manufacture and transport of pesticides exposes people to health-risks and adds to air pollution.

  • Thus, organic food may be more costly monetarily, but when all factors are weighed, it is the less expensive alternative environmentally and health-wise. Also complicating the matter are the unfair, low wages of migrant workers who grow much of our produce from California and Central America. The true cost of conventional farming is very high when all these factors are considered.

    Meat <

  • The cow, although less destructive than the plow, is still hard on the land, especially when confined to the steep acreages of Southern Appalachia. They contribute to erosion, siltation, and pollution of streams by manure. However, cattle are raised much more sustainably in our region than compared to the overgrazed lands of the West or the denuded rainforests of Central and South America,

  • Local grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-fed beef, and local owners often refuse such novelties as growth hormones. The same holds true for dairy products. "Factory farms," however, are notorious for poor treatment of animals and pharmaceutical abuses. Increasing numbers of people are becoming vegetarian for these as well as health and environmental concerns. It generally takes much less land, energy, and environmental disruption to support a vegetarian diet than to support the food habits of a carnivore.

    Eating with the Seasons

  • Throughout all of human history up until the last few decades, diet had a seasonal rhythm. Celebrations of the seasonal rhythms and harvests have for many lost their meanings. Processed and/or imported food now gives us the chance to eat foods which normally fluctuate with the seasons, such as strawberries, corn, beans, and nuts. The only seasonal variation we now see is in price. A more sustainable food supply would include eating more locally-grown, fresh food which would enhance the health of the body and the land.

    Growing Your Own

  • The best local food source is your own garden, which requires no fossil fuels or chemical techniques. Waste from the yard and kitchen, rather than being landfilled or incinerated, can composted and used as fertilizer. A family can grow most of its fruits and vegetables on an acre or two, saving on grocery bills. Even apartment dwellers with no access to land can grow tomatoes, peppers, and herbs in pots. Thus people can overcome nearly all the aforementioned ills of food production and enjoy the benefits of a renewed connection with the land and increased health.