What a Carrot Can Teach Us About the World
I tried to grow carrots.
This past May we tilled up the ground, making sure it was loose and level. We put out the seeds just like the people show you on YouTube, sprinkling the teeny-tiny seeds onto an already wet soil surface, then dusting dirt on top like powdered sugar on a donut. We watered them - albeit occasionally (not as religiously as we might have) - and weeded around the frilly sprouts as they crept out of the surface.
Now, after several attempts, we have maybe ten barely edible carrots, thicker than bratwurst and as ugly as Mother Nature could concoct, with multiple legs and root hairs all over the surface, some even with holes where underground vermin dined.
Growing straight, sweet carrots is a difficult skill it turns out, much as learning to build a bridge or competing in swimming. It requires good carrot genetics and good soil - both of which are managed and maintained by humans - in addition to the learning and practice needed to nurture them.
Yet everyone reading this (at least in the US) could right now walk into their closest grocery store and buy a package of at least moderately tasty, straight-as-an-arrow, carrots. You can get the lathed ones that arrive small and snacky, frozen ones in a bag, or the fresh, ready to peel kind we are all familiar with. Which, while likely assisted by chemicals and machines, grown in monocultures (single crops) and perhaps less nutritious than a non-conventionally grown carrot, is, in my opinion, a f*#king miracle.
The amazingness of the simple conventional, grocery-chain bought carrot should not be dismissed. The fact that this food system - for all its major faults and injustices - produces fresh, healthy vegetables accessible to most of the country’s population every single day, is astounding. What is broken is not so much the “system” in general, but its specifics - the way chemicals are too broadly used, water too often diverted to the wrong thing, too much of the same thing grown to excess. We get carried away with a way of doing things to the point where the fix itself becomes the problem.
The field across the road from us is a good example. Covered in healthy, vibrant soybean plants, not a weed was in sight, and yet, like clockwork, the sprayer arrived and spread its mechanical wings, spraying the entire field in a chemical mist. Unnecessary and redundant, the chemicals applied (likely glyphosate) covered the insects and microbes as it soaked into the soil. The money for its application was likely spent months prior when the fear of weeds and the discounted rates for buying the entire package of seeds and chemicals together clouded the fiscal judgement of the farmer.
An estimated TWO percent of pesticides sprayed actually sticks to a plant, the other 98 percent of it runs directly off and into the environment, an environment in which many of us humans, plants and animals live. Much of the spraying - even when needed to ensure the success of the crop - is overdone. The recommendations by companies are overkill, and just as the medical profession over prescribed antibiotics or opioids, the very same companies now sell too many agricultural chemicals.
Maybe my carrots needed a little help in keeping predators away or in making the soil more fertile so that they could flourish. But our neighbors erred on the side of applying way too much, in overbuying and then applying the chemicals because there was no clear reason not to. There has to be a line drawn somewhere in the dirt, as to what is necessary and what is excess, how and when we need to use our precious resources or not.