Teach your children well: our natural environment is home to everything we need to survive. We teach our kids about nutrition and different food groups. They usually study some environmental science. We need to bring those concepts together in a way that kids understand how food, civilization, and sustainable agriculture intertwine with each other.
History, Agriculture, and Civilization
Teaching children about sustainability requires consideration of historical events. Consider the age of the child when discussing the importance of agriculture in the development of civilization. National Geographic’s Genographic Project relates that about 12,000 years ago, humans switched from being hunter-gatherers and began living in permanent settlements. Through agriculture, humans found a way to create reliable food sources where they lived. Populations increased, and settlements grew into cities from which great civilizations sprang.
Explaining Climate Change’s Effect on Civilization
Children (and, perhaps, many adults) may not comprehend the far-reaching implications of environmental damage, climate change, and water shortages. However, after learning about the earliest civilizations, many children may assume they still exist. A short and simple overview of historical events demonstrates how the environment has the power to foster and devastate great civilizations.
According to NASA, “Shifts in climate—both large and small—are at least partly responsible for the rise and fall of many ancient civilizations.”
- Ubar, in what is now southern Oman, was once an important water source along camel caravan routes. Its buildings have since sunk into the sand, but at one time, the area was much damper, with abundant underground water resources. It now sits in one of the driest areas on earth.
- A kingdom in Ancient Egypt collapsed over 4,000 years ago due to extreme drought.
- The fall of the Mayan Empire in 900 AD is tied to extreme drought.
- Cambodia’s city of Angkor likely fell due to drought in the early 15th century.
Some believe that a 300-year-long drought caused the fall of the Ancient Greek civilizations. A more modern example of the interplay of climate change and civilization is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Teaching Kids About Sustainability
Even when children understand the concept of sustainability, most think of sustainability in broad terms, such as saving water, reducing air pollution, or using fewer pesticides. All are valid concerns. However, nothing brings a message home more than tying the idea of sustainability to something familiar to them: food.
Visiting a farm that practices sustainable agriculture provides a great lesson on how to protect the environment while still producing the foods we need. Unfortunately, finding sustainable agriculture farms is not always easy. However, if you are lucky enough to have access to such an operation, first spend some time explaining different sustainable agricultural techniques.
- Discuss what sustainable means, both broadly, and in terms of agriculture:
- Preserving our environment
- The importance of a healthy world for when they grow up
- Talk about things that damage ecosystems, both areas familiar to them and those unlikely to occur to them:
- Overuse of pesticides and herbicides
- Wasting water
- Erosion of soil
- Poor soil health
Sustainable Agriculture in Practice
Teaching children about sustainability not only promotes their awareness of caring for the environment, but also makes those teaching them more aware of the problems facing us.
Large-scale operations, such as those run by Gilberto Salazar Escoboza, head of Videxport in Sonora, Mexico, utilize several sustainable agriculture methods in growing a favorite fruit of many children: watermelon. Visiting a watermelon growing operation may prove logistically impossible. However, even going to a grower’s website, such as Salazar’s, provides some great pictures of what the growing process entails. It also presents the opportunity to discuss different types of certifications and what they mean, from Fair Trade to GlobalG.A.P.
After learning about sustainable agriculture, help children plan and create a garden of their own, incorporating some of the methods learned and observed. In dry climates, consider using plants adapted to arid conditions or set up a simple drip irrigation system. Reinforce how non-chemical approaches often produce better quality fruits and veggies, such as using floating row covers to keep pests away from plants, or judicious use of organic fertilizers appropriate for the plant type. Demonstrate the importance of careful tilling both during planting and as a method of weed control.
The End Product
Most importantly, keep lessons about agriculture and sustainability light and age appropriate. Understanding that continued environmental damage could mean they have less to eat in the future does not mean scaring them that they will starve. Instead, it should make them a little more aware of all that goes into producing food. Who knows? They may even eat their dinner vegetables, to boot!