What You Didn’t Learn in School: George Washington Carver Wrote the Book on Sustainability

a group of men in suits and ties sitting on a bench with Carver in the middle.Jun 2, 2023

You probably remember George Washington Carver from elementary school. He was the man made famous by his more than 300 inventive uses for peanuts. What you may not know is the role that his many inventions (and zeal for peanuts) played in promoting sustainability. A century since his publication on peanuts, his guide to diversifying crop rotation remains the standard for sustainable agriculture in the South, and continues to lead to new developments for improving sustainability.

Sustainability is a buzzword for today’s conscientious consumers. We all want to know where our food comes from, and whether it’s farmed in a way that can be continued for generations to come. While today the ethics of sustainable agriculture guides our purchasing decisions, for George Washington Carver it was a practical solution to improving the lot of poor Southern farmers.

Sustainability and Sustenance: Diversity in Crop Production

Carver was a botanist and inventor who set out to improve the lives of farmers by encouraging them to change their practice of just growing cotton year after year. He recognized that by planting other crops in rotation with cotton and corn, farmers could conserve the land and restore the health of the soil by returning nutrients that the former crops were depleting.

Sweet potatoes and legumes were crops Carver identified as having a positive impact on soil health, and he demonstrated those benefits to farmers across the South. He was especially drawn to the peanut because of its nitrogen-fixing properties that reduced the need for fertilizers, and put nitrogen back into the soil. Peanuts also had the added benefit of a healthy nutrition profile which could provide a good source of protein to farmers who often did not have access to meat.

Read All About It: Bulletin Leads to Peanut Boon

His prescription for crop rotation was so successful at improving yields that Carver realized he needed to develop marketable uses for these new crops. He began inventing alternative uses for sweet potatoes, beans, and peanuts and published those inventions in bulletins. By the time the boll weevil destroyed the Southern cotton crop in 1915, Carver began extolling the virtues of planting peanuts. A year later he published his bulletin on “How to Grow the Peanut, and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption.”

His bulletin on peanuts, and the many recipes it included, was so popular that it was constantly reprinted. The publication was instrumental in reviving Southern agriculture by advocating for a new crop that farmers could find profitable. In fact, when bulletin was first published in 1916, only 500,000 acres were planted with peanuts. By 1918, peanuts were planted on four million acres. It was also the impetus to the widespread adoption of sustainable crop rotation which limited pest infestations and improved soil quality.

Today, agricultural researchers are continuing to advance sustainable agriculture for the sake of land conservation and improving the economy of farmers. There are even some peanut researchers studying ways to further improve crop rotation. Advances in sustainability in Southern agriculture were made possible thanks to Carver’s initial work in promoting crop rotation and his bulletin on the many uses for peanuts. That publication was more than a collection of inventive uses for peanuts. It provided a recipe for sustainability in Southern farming.

Photo credit: Johnston, F. B., photographer. (ca. 1902) George Washington Carver, full-length portrait, seated on steps, facing front, with staff. , ca. 1902. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004671560/.

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