Andean Civilization and the US Food System

This semester I am taking South American Archaeology as one of my four classes. Right now, we are discussing pre-Incan Andean civilizations, some of which inhabited the area of Peru that we will be visiting on our upcoming trip. While developments in pre-Incan cultures might not be directly related to climate change, the topic of climate comes up often in the study of pre-Incan cultures, as it plays an important role in societies that are so connected to the Earth and the environment. There was, of course, no anthropogenic climate change during the pre-Incan period, but climate affects civilizations nonetheless. In fact, the collapse of the Tiwanaku was caused in part by a changing climate.
The Tiwanaku, a civilization present during the Middle Horizon period of Peruvian history, from about AD 500-1000, was already seeing fragmentation in their society near the late 11th century, as evidenced by the defacing of ritualistic monoliths– representing a ritual “killing” of the monolith’s ritual and power. But, beginning in the late 11th century and continuing for a few hundred years, a drought hit the altiplano region of the Andes, the location of the Tiwanaku capital. At the time, the Tiwanaku had a centralized food economy, and the drought put stress on this, exacerbating fragmentations in an already disjointed culture. Local production systems came under the control of local corporate groups exercising local autonomy over their region, taking power away from the elites of the society (Janusek). Tiwanaku civilization was really an alliance of many different ethnic groups, which probably made it easier for it to break apart.

Obviously, a development such as the one seen with the Tiwanaku can inform our current situation with global warming. For instance, the US, similar to the Tiwanaku, has a centralized food economy that could be damaged by the effects of current climate change. Because all areas of the country depend on a centralized production center, the whole country will feel the effects of climate change, as a decrease in crop yield in one part of the country will affect the quantity and quality of food shipped to the whole of the country. We are not only facing at long-term drought, as the Tiwanaku did, but also rising oceans, more extreme weather, and hotter global temperatures. While we might have a better infrastructure than the Tiwanaku did, if we don’t do anything, at some point we will not be able to deal with the fallout from current climate change. Further, even if the US can deal some of these effects, the same cannot be said for less developed countries. These changes will not only have damaging effects on human populations, but might even modify economic and government systems. Already, and as Michael Pollan hints at in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we are seeing, in some areas of the US, movement towards supporting locally sourced food (Pollan). Could this represent regions of the US starting to exhibit more local autonomy, due to the stresses put on the world’s economic and political systems by climate change? Furthermore, private corporations and subnational governments are working together to form transnational governance networks, for the purpose of working to mitigate and adapt to climate change below the realm of international negotiations, as they realized some of the failures of the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol. I’m not saying our whole civilization is going to collapse due to climate change, but climate change will definitely affect more than just our daily everyday life. It will affect the whole of human civilization.

Works Cited:

Janusek, J.W.   2004     Household and City in Tiwanaku. In Andean Archaeology, edited by H. Silverman, pp. 183-208. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Seeds of Change: Sustainable Agriculture

Often when we hear the phrases “eat your greens” or “eating healthy” we do not make the connection with creating a “greener” planet or a healthy climate. Yet, in Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappe makes it clear that our food is inextricably linked with climate change. So often in hearing and learning about the climate crisis on our doorstep (although perhaps now the metaphor should be in our kitchen) I am left with a poignant feeling of despair. I get the sense that the forces perpetuating climate change are too great, and the opposition too meager. However, this book illuminated the incredible potential of sustainable agriculture locked within an otherwise bleak portrait of the future. According to her the current food system is responsible for roughly one third of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. It is to blame for most of the nitrous oxide and methane emissions (two of the most damaging greenhouse gasses). Yet, through changing the way we farm, eat, and dispose of our food, agriculture could sequester roughly forty percent of all current emissions. Rarely, if ever, have I discovered such an obvious change that could make a significant impact on our future.

Personally, these are some of the most hopeful facts I have heard. Not only that, but it is a solution that I, and others within the Dickinson community, are already taking part in directly at the College Farm. Though the farm I have attended the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference where I saw the backstage of a movement that has been growing throughout America and abroad. It has been popping up in the form of local farmers markets, cooking in popular restaurants, and taking seed in the grocery aisles now dedicated to “organics.” There are websites devoted to grassroots fundraising for “green” farms, and organizations created to cultivate a herd of young farmers. Just in the past year at Dickinson I have had a direct relationship with sustainable farming, learning its possibilities, successes and promise.


Personally, what is most exciting about sustainable agriculture are it’s many intersections with so many other crucial issues in our society, offering solutions to them as well. What we eat and where it comes from crosses the field to impact many of the systemic health problems and issues of social justice we as a society face. Industrial agriculture relies on petroleum-based, toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers and is generally heavily processed (think corn syrup). Two of the leading causes of death in America, heart disease and diabetes, are directly correlated with eating poorly. The process of industrial agriculture also requires farm workers. These workers are habitually some of the most marginalized Americans, often immigrants, at incredibly high risk for cancers and other serious health threats because of the toxins they encounter daily.

Sustainability is not always accessible to Americans, but we have to eat food everyday. For many people it is hard to see the benefits of turning off the lights, taking shorter showers or riding public transportation but our relationship with food is crucial on a primal level, it literally comprises what we are. Sustainable agriculture is one of several key solutions necessary to slow and prevent climate change and it is one we can feel good about doing.