George Washington Carver: A Man of Science and Environmental Justice

02/10/2016

Photograph of Dr. George Washington Carver, courtesy of the Tuskegee Institute.  (view larger image)

Photograph of Dr. George Washington Carver, courtesy of the Tuskegee Institute.

By Karen Sturdivant, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems

The mission of the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University is to engage the people of Michigan, the United States, and the world in developing regionally integrated, sustainable food systems.

This mission of integrated, sustainable food systems was seen in the life of Dr. George Washington Carver, a pioneer in environmental and social thinking. Dr. Carver was a botanist, agriculturalist, and inventor. Born into slavery, he succeeded in a social climate and time that would have been impossible for most men of color, receiving his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in botany from Iowa State A&M College in 1891.  In 1896, he was invited by Booker T. Washington to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Dr. Carver, a pioneer in environmental concepts, believed that it was man’s duty to interact with nature and produce food in order to help to feed growing and impoverished populations. Dr. Carver espoused these concepts in his Master’s thesis, entitled ‘Plants as Modified by Man,’ at Iowa State, dated 1894.  His work contends that “no longer must man act simply as an aid to nature in improving plants, both edible and inedible, man must take the initiative in using nature to provide sustainable food systems that will help to alleviate hunger, encourage local participation and activism, and to safeguard and control our local food and water systems”.

Dr. Carver supported many of the concepts of our modern-day environmentalism.  He was a frontrunner in the belief that we must take care of the earth and all of its inhabitants. While this summary only touches on his legacy as an inventor and botanist, Dr. Carver would not be insulted at this appellation. He embraced everything in nature, believing that man was not above nature, but a part of it.

Dr. Carver taught his students and the local farmers, researched-based farming methods that helped increase farm production and income. One example of this was his work with crop rotation, encouraging farmers to begin alternating cotton crops with plantings of sweet potatoes or legumes, that subsequently restored nitrogen to their soils while simultaneously increasing cotton yields and providing alternative nutritious crops that are beneficial for human consumption. He was also an advocate for farmers in rural Alabama, encouraging them to be involved in every aspect of the food growing and distribution cycle, when possible.

In recent decades we have been made aware of how much we need to protect our world.  Environmentalism is a world-wide movement that seeks to raise our consciousness and help us understand that we must keep our air, water, and soil unpolluted and that we must protect our forests and wildlife, and their habitats from destruction. The distribution and availability of food for all peoples on earth is a prime goal of environmentalism. 

As an agriculturalist and scientist, Dr. Carver was a visionary and a man far ahead of his time. His work in developing regionally integrated, sustainable food systems should act as an example for all of us striving toward similar goals. We need only to look at his successful body of work in poor, rural Alabama to recognize today’s challenges in food systems and environmental justice.