When I heard that the feature article of this edition of the Reader would focus on food safety, I realized that this would be a great chance to remind the Co-op Owners that the safety of our environment is an aspect of food safety too. Is the food you buy for yourself and your family safe for the ecosystem? Does your dollar really end up helping the causes you champion or does it hinder them?

As a student of history, I am fascinated by research that shows previous civilizations rose and fell in part because of poor care of their agricultural resources. In my reading recently I ran across some ideas that ought to remind us of our responsibilities to the environment.

The founder of the Green party was the environmentalist, author, and philosopher Edward Goldsmith. He published a piece in 1975 titled “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” In this paper he mentions how the hunger of all the citizens of Rome required heavy agriculture which was accomplished in the areas around Rome. As the empire grew and the population grew in the city it became very dependent on mass production of wheat, vegetables, fruit and livestock. The soils were not renewed at the rate they were used, the progressive deforestation of the Italian peninsula was unchecked, and ultimately the empire had to go further and further up into Europe to get adequate food supplies. As Goldsmith wrote: “Everything was geared to the short-term and, just as with us, the long-term consequences of the totally unsound agricultural practices which inevitably arose, led to the most terrible deterioration of the soil. To this day, Southern Italy is a semi-wilderness.”

Historians have noted that the subsequent erosion even silted the harbors and the damage persisted for hundreds of years, well into the Middle Ages.

Have you looked at the pictures from space of the mouth of the Mississippi? The huge dead zone of silt extends way out into the Gulf of Mexico. This is our agricultural revolution in full view!

Organic agriculture tries to practice good stewardship and minimize erosion. It promotes a full spectrum of minerals and a healthy ecosystem. It allows nearby forests and streams, ponds and lakes to flourish. The animals are content and healthy too.

Another writer, Ugo Bardi, published Peak Civilization: The Fall of the Roman Empire. Bardi is a chemistry professor at the University of Florence in Italy. He specializes in socioeconomic models of resource management and has warned about the possibility of dwindling oil supplies and the effect this will have on worldwide food supplies. Bardi refers to anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s research into complex societies. Regarding the challenge of maintaining a complex society Bardi writes:

“Now, Tainter says, as complexity increases, the benefit of this extra complexity starts going down. He calls it ‘the marginal benefit of complexity.’ That is because complexity has a cost—it costs energy to maintain complex systems. As you keep increasing complexity, this benefit becomes negative. The cost of complexity overtakes its benefit. At some moment, the burden of these complex structures is so great that the whole society crashes down.”

We are not at this point with our food supply but when you consider the use of oil, the depletion of soils, and the unexpected events of a summer too hot and too dry, the possibility could exist that our complexity just might be equal to our appetites. We at Willy Street Co-op are concerned for our food supply. We want to encourage the responsible use of our soil. We want the workers who produce the food we sell to be healthy, happy, and practice good stewardship. It is who we all are. Celebrate our mission because it is the right thing to do!

From the writings of the great Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius: “Nature which governs the whole will soon change all things which thou seest, and out of their substance will make other things, and again other things from the substance of them, in order that the world may be ever new.”

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