Remembering Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed’s life provides a stark indictment of modern food and agriculture.

Jake Swede

Today is Johnny Appleseed Day. While many of us havenâÄôt thought of Johnny since fourth grade, his legacy belies a serious critique of modern life. Appleseed sojourned the Midwest cultivating apple orchards for frontiersmen at the turn of the 19th century. Unfortunately, forgetting the legacy Appleseed strived to circulate has obscured Americans from the agricultural process. We conceive of food as it arrives to us: the apple at breakfast, that half-price turkey on Russian rye you had for lunch. Rarely in our nourishment do we reflect on the process of food production. The legacy of Appleseed makes it clear that food needs to become more than abstract in the American consciousness. French politician Jean Brillat-Savarin said, âÄúTell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.âÄù Willful ignorance of the food one consumes says much about them. Some agricultural corporations, such as those in Taiwan, still use phosphate insecticides and herbicides, which have been linked to cancer and birth defects. But food producers today have taken on new risks, like genetically grafting plants and reducing seed diversity with MonsantoâÄôs Roundup Ready line. Rarely do we compare JIF, Skippy or SmuckerâÄôs reputations or the nutrition labels of our foods. But food ignorance has immediate consequences. Imports from countries with ineffective or weak regulations often find their way onto our dinner table. Despite USDA regulation, the Center for Disease Control estimates that 76 million cases of foodborne disease occur in the United States yearly, 325,000 leading to hospitalization and 5,000 leading to death. Recognizing the underlying causes that account for differences between an American-grown banana and one that comes from a dangerous area, such as Ecuador, allows consumers to make healthier choices. Food ignorance, such as uncertainty about nutrition or food preparation, has substantial physical effects. The prevalence of obesity among Americans can be largely attributed to AmericansâÄô penchant for dining out, says a 2007 Temple University study. The research found that Americans eat out five times a week on average, and those who consume fast food three to six times per week have measurably higher body mass indexes than those who eat fast food two or less times a week. This high obesity trend is borne out in 2009 data by the Trust for AmericaâÄôs Health, which found 25.3 percent of adults in Minnesota to be obese. The same Temple study indicates that if people were more conscious of their eating habits, they would willingly choose differently. This is true not merely because people make bad decisions (we all crave that Big Mac every once in a while) but because people donâÄôt take the time to understand what they eat. Living life away from the fields creates a cognitive rift between the consumer and the consumed. Certainly the intimate relationship Appleseed maintained with his food is an unachievable standard for the busy modern American, but oneâÄôs apathy toward food suggests oneâÄôs health will suffer. AppleseedâÄôs legacy is not an example merely for consumers. Producers neglect the burden of providing beneficial food while maintaining the land for future use with tilling techniques which erode topsoil for greater harvest. Indeed, AppleseedâÄôs lifestyle of environmental altruism is the antithesis of the modern agricultural industry. The cultivation techniques that agricultural corporations employ to maximize yield make soil maintenance of secondary importance. In the past 30 years this problem has been drastically reduced in the U.S., but not in many poorer nations where corporations outsource their production. A 2008 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations study, taken over 20 years, found that land degradation is increasing rapidly due to farming practices. Some areas previously used for agriculture are now so nutrient-depleted or salinated that they have been completely abandoned. This may seem a concern for conservationists, but the same study found that the survival of nearly 1.5 billion people depends on the maintenance of this landâÄôs agricultural capacity. Irresponsible farmland management is perilous both for those ecosystems and for those whose livelihood falls within those ecosystems. Concerns arenâÄôt purely environmental; many are economic. Imported foods require cheap labor in order to turn a substantial profit. Those exploited for cheap labor are impoverished people in poor countries. To compound the problem of erosion, the people doing the menial tasks are rarely paid living wages. These circumstances are rampant in poor countries that agribusiness corporations import from, but theyâÄôre not unheard of in the United States, either. Despite its âÄúFood with IntegrityâÄù motto, even the enlightened Chipotle chain had been buying from unscrupulous Florida tomato growers since 2009. The Florida farm managers had hired immigrants at slave wages and forced them to live in a ventilated box truck, all the while Chipotle remained willfully ignorant. Filling the interstice between consumers and oppressive systems of agribusiness with knowledge is the first step toward changing the tenuous reality of modern farming. Johnny Appleseed Day is a neglected holiday in the United States, but AppleseedâÄôs legacy can be a model for changing the paradigm of both producers and consumers, as well as a model to bridge the gap between the two. Jacob Swede welcomes comments at [email protected]