Why History? Imagining sustainable futures is dependent on understanding the past

You might wonder why a program focused on Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems has invested so much in understanding the historical context of the communities they work in. While these projects have often emerged organically with our community partners (pun intended), they also offer students important insights into the ways movements emerge,  policies and systems influence the natural and built environment, and how actions big and small become turning points in our food system futures.

Many current agriculture and food system dilemmas beg the question, “How did we get here?” As I developed the curriculum for the SAFS program, one of the first texts I was recommended was Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food, and Community by the influential rural sociologist Thomas A. Lyson. In this book, he explores the socioeconomic shifts that lead to more industrialized agriculture in the United States, and how mechanical, chemical, and biotechnological revolutions have contributed to farm consolidation pressures while also impacting production costs, market forces, environmental outcomes, and community health. Understanding the influence of these technologies beyond the greater yields that the Green Revolution certainly offered illuminates the path to our system today. Yet by elucidating the impacts in historical context, Lyson’s interpretation also reminds us that while we might feel that this “path dependency” is inescapable or inevitable, each step is also a choice. If we garner clarity of vision, we can also choose a different path.

Over time, I have developed this habit of “futures thinking” that is essential for sustainability literacy. While many of these histories are emerging as part of the sustainable food and farming movement, we still have much to learn and understand. For example, we have a unique and impressive nonprofit group in our state, the