Looking Back; Surging Ahead

It should readily be apparent that we arrived at PASA’s 25th annual conference thinking more about the next 25 years than the past. We could easily have built this year’s conference around a celebration of all that has come before, and indeed there was some of that to be found in the conference center and on the program.  But the predominant motivation for all of us – staff and board members alike – in planning the event was to make manifest the urgency of taking action to change agricultural systems in the immediate future, and our plans for doing so.

I also want to add here a few additional thoughts about the nature of this organization, our work together and the success we anticipate for the new programs PASA is now developing. To do this I want to return to a favorite topic of mine, one that I talked about just over fifteen years ago as I first interviewed for the job of executive director. Instead of looking back just 25 years, though, I’d like to go back in our consideration to a little over 500 years ago.

Contrary to popular misconception, when in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he arrived in a hemisphere that was in many ways, in terms of human civilization, more advanced than the one he left. The population in the Americas was likely older and larger than in Europe and Asia at the time. There had been cities here as big, and even more organized, as compared to London, Paris and Rome of that time. Sophisticated communication in graphic form had likely been around here at least as long as in Europe, and much of the technology in terms of understanding calendars, natural resources and, most particularly, agriculture were far more advanced here, especially in Central and South America, than across the ocean.

It is estimated by a growing body of research that over 90% of the Native American population vanished in the decades immediately following the first voyage of Columbus, mostly due to invasive diseases like Smallpox, and also because of the negative consequences of invasive human conquest. But they left behind some pretty strong medicine. In fact, Native American agriculture has been a key, perhaps even the most important key, in feeding the rest of the world over the last 500 years. When you think of the impacts of crops like corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, squash and chocolate, as well as the managed grazing pioneered on the great plains and elsewhere, you could easily conclude that the real Green Revolution that originally fed the world came centuries before modern chemical inputs and genetically engineered crops. In many ways, we in the modern world owe our lives to those who, by our indelicate hand, were robbed of theirs.

Aside from specific crops, however, American indigenous agricultural left us with a far more impactful and less appreciated gift, i.e. a way of concretely understanding what sustainable farming is all about. If you look up the term “milpa” on Wikipedia or elsewhere, you will find that it represents a style of traditional agriculture that uses complimentary, intermixed crops, along with an aggressive rotation of land used alternatively in production or left fallow, to maximize overall crop yields. In its most basic form, this system has been referred to for centuries as the three sisters, represented by the use of corn, beans and squash in synergistic combination.  The hallmark of the system is that it takes advantage of the way the beans supply nitrogen for the corn and squash, the corn provides a place for the bean vines to grow, and the squash supplies a living mulch to control weeds that might otherwise crowd out the other two.

In reality a true milpa system, practiced then as now mostly in Central America, uses many more than three complimentary crops to achieve its impressive results. It represents a very complex approach that would make any agricultural researcher today extremely proud to concoct in some innovative experiment. And here’s the real kicker. Not only does such a system improve overall yields, but the same combinations of foods being produced provide a more complete and healthy diet for people to eat. As it turns out, corn, beans and squash represent a convenient and advantageous mix of carbohydrates, protein and necessary vitamins and minerals to support human health.

Further to the point I am offering here, the dynamic nature of agriculture practiced in this hemisphere even before Columbus first stepped aboard a seaward ship, was also understood as reflecting the interdependent way in which human communities work best, and contributed significantly to concepts of the spiritual realm as well. In other words, agriculture practiced in this way, with carefully planned, regionally adapted varieties, combinations and rotations of crops, was a fundamental organizing principle of human society of that time, right here in what was considered the “new” world.

The original Americans were not perfect human beings by any stretch, but they did, on the whole, embody an attitude toward agriculture and the natural environment that we would do well to learn from today, particularly as we consider how to feed a fast-growing worldwide population while also responding to the challenges of climate change and diminished resources of all kinds. And it is this sense of the essential unity of cropping systems, human nutrition, geographical integrity and vibrant community life that PASA plans to mimic through the work of our new SOIL Institute and development of the Sustainability Hub networks.

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