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In search of a new agrarianism

According to Alice Bailey, “the key to humanity's trouble… has been to take and not give, to accept and not share, to grasp and not to distribute”. Irresponsible exploitation of the earth’s resources is unsustainable and interferes with the “divine circulatory flow”; it is now the task of humanity to restore this flow bringing balance between spirit and matter.

Humanity’s relationship with the land is coming under scrutiny as more and more people in the developing world leave the land and move to the cities. In the industrialised nations small farmers are caught between the global Agribusiness Corporations and the Supermarkets and they too are leaving the land. And city dwellers, being disconnected from the land, have less understanding about the origins of food, which is seen as simply a product on the supermarket shelf. The industrialisation of agriculture has brought economies of scale and has led to cheap food for consumers; productivity is all-important, but is dependent upon the ample use of chemicals. Whilst this brings more “certainty of output” due to crop resistance to pests and disease, chemical use damages and disturbs ecosystems, and contaminates soil and water and the food we eat. Also, there is concern that the recent outbreaks of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease are indicators of unsound agricultural practices. Animals are artificially fattened using growth hormones, regularly injected with antibiotics, and animals which are by nature herbivorous are given feeds which include components from animal carcasses. All of these practices may compromise natural resistance to disease.

Industrial farming and agrarianism

In the industrial farming system, many animals are housed in horrific and unacceptable conditions. Whilst there is greater awareness that humans have a moral responsibility not to cause cruelty or unnecessary suffering to animals, especially domesticated pets, the paradox is that the welfare of animals in the food chain is hidden from public view behind the closed doors of the slaughterhouses – killing factories where animals, whether cattle, sheep, or pigs, are viewed as units of production and treated accordingly. And, according to Bruce Friedrich of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), chickens qualify as the most abused animals on the face of the planet. Interestingly, there are now ideas in the public arena about the wisdom of using scarce resources – such as farm land and oil –to produce meat, when it is much more energy-efficient to feed crops directly to humans.

Wendell Berry, poet, writer and farmer, talks of a fundamental conflict between the motives and methods of industrial farming, and farming as defined by agrarianism: “farming as the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift”. In his view, the industrial economy is violent in nature and takes no account of the “idea of return” based upon good stewardship. To look upon the produce of the land as a gift, and not as a right, means that there is proper regard for the Earth’s scarce resources – there is a receiving and a giving back; then, we can “… be worthy of the gifts we receive and use”. 1 In the sacred texts of India, “the giver of food is the giver of life”- “we do not give as an extra, we give because of our dependence with all of life”. 2

In Berry’s view, industrial agriculture attempts to make the land produce without husbandry – which is “the name of all of the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us”.Modern farming relies on mechanical methods and chemical applications but “the undersurface reality of organisms and roots is mostly ignored.” Instead, good husbandry means “agriculture must mediate between nature and the human community, with ties and obligations in both directions. To farm well requires an elaborate courtesy toward all creatures, animate and inanimate…. We are going to have to return to the old questions about local nature, local carrying capacities and local needs. And we are going to have to resume the breeding of plants and animals to fit the region and the farm”. 3

Berry also comments on the importance of nurturing the soil. Soil is something we take for granted at our peril and there is a view that the rise and fall of civilisations is linked to the quality and management of the soil. “A healthy soil is ‘a wilderness, mostly unstudied and unknown, but teemingly alive…[it is] at once a living community of creatures and their habitat’”. The soil of a farm is not just a shallow surface on which “various mechanical operations are performed and to which various chemicals are applied”, it is a living integrated system which is, in turn, an integral part of the kingdom of nature. Soil needs science but also requires wise husbandry. 4

Soil husbandry can help prevent ecological disasters – such as the Dust Bowl in America in the 1930’s. This catastrophe taught farmers the need to care for the land and conserve the soil, so as to minimise the extremes of weather – the inevitable droughts and storms. Also, whilst “slash and burn” – the cutting and burning of forests to produce cropland – has occurred over millennia, it is thought that this method is unsustainable in the tropical forests of the world, which generally have very fragile soils. In Madagascar, for example, even a relatively small population has destroyed the integrity of the forests, due to large-scale erosion resulting from adverse surface run-off, resulting in slow regeneration and threats to endangered species. Thus, most of the Madagascar central highlands plateau is now infertile and unproductive. 5

Dependent on outside forces

Another dubious recent practice of industrial farming is monoculture, i.e. the practice of planting large areas of a crop with the same pattern of growth (because of genetic similarity). This practice encourages standardisation, can bring greater yields, simplifies harvesting, and means individual crops can be suited to specific locations. However, against these benefits must be weighed some disadvantages: monoculture is heavily reliant on artificial inputs, such as fertilisers and pesticides; harvesting on a larger scale may require more machinery; and the seed varieties employed may need to be bought from a company, rather than being saved in the traditional way. All of these factors make farmers more dependent on outside actors for both materials and finance. The farmer is no longer in control of his own destiny as an integral part of the local community; instead he is caught in the middle, squeezed between the big Agribusiness Corporations and the Supermarkets. And due to the lack of diversity in the crop, there is an increased risk of catastrophic crop failure through pests or disease. The so-called “Green Revolution” (from the late 1940s to the 70s) promoted the practice of monoculture in countries where previously more diverse, small-scale systems were in place.

Almost all aspects of the modern food system are dependent upon oil. There is talk of a new energy regime but it has not yet arrived; in the meantime we face an uncertain future with the instability of oil supplies, fluctuations in price and an addiction to its continued use in food production, food packaging and food distribution. Questions are now being asked about reducing emissions from the food production, processing and distribution system through the use of renewable energy sources, and the development of a more “bioregional” approach – where products are, as far as possible, sourced from within the consumer’s bioregion (an area of land which shares a combination of physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries, typical ecosystems, and soil and terrain characteristics.)

The mechanisation of farming, again a factor that depends on oil, has reduced labour costs, but the downside is that it also means less employment in rural areas, with people moving to the cities. For developing countries, this will mean the need to create many additional non-agricultural jobs for those leaving the land. To quote the website People and Planet, “The agricultural labour force is expected to continue to drop during the first half of this century, as the agricultural revolution that has reduced labor needs on farms and plantations spreads throughout the developing world. There were an estimated 1.1 billion small-scale farmers and farm workers worldwide in the mid-1990s. If one-third of them are displaced over the next half century, as some studies project, developing countries will have to create as many additional nonagricultural jobs for farmers as now exist in all the developed countries together. Meeting this need would fall primarily to urban economies, as the main engines in job creation for displaced rural populations.” 6

Control of the food chain

A small number of supermarkets now control much of what the world eats; according to New Internationalist, in Australia two food companies, Woolworths and Coles, sell a third of all food consumed. In Britain, the big four sell 75% of the country’s groceries, with Tesco alone controlling 30% of the market. In the US, Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, controls a large percentage of the market. 7According to Katherine Ainger, “control of the ‘food-chain’ is being concentrated in ever-fewer hands…giant corporations control seed, fertilizer, pesticides, farm finance, grain collection, grain processing, livestock-feed processing, livestock production and slaughtering, as well as processed food brands.” 8 And Ted Nace, the author of Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy, “the managers of a few hundred large corporations [have] the power to make many of the big decisions that will shape the future – what energy technologies should be invested in… how aggressively timber or mineral resources should be extracted…”. These levels of corporate control is one of the reasons why there is opposition to genetically modified (GM) seeds – which require “own brand herbicides and even own brand ‘trigger’ chemicals that the farmer has to apply for before the seed will germinate.” 9

However, big business does not always get its own way: when Monsanto proposed to introduce Roundup Ready spring wheat as “the crown jewel of genetically modified crops”, the farmers of North Dakota (accounting for 47% of the US acreage for spring wheat) sprang into action. The fundamental question was whether decisions should be made by the big corporations or whether the future of wheat should be “in the hands of people who are accountable to the citizens of North Dakota”. The situation came to a head in 2004, and after a long campaign by the US farmers, political sentiment turned against GM crops. One of the basic issues was the idea that corporations can patent seed stocks and sue those who infringe their rights – even when fields have been accidentally contaminated by seed blown from passing trucks.

Signs of new life

Yet, despite there being many challenges in agriculture, there are signs of new life on the horizon, for example, biodynamic agriculture, permaculture and the increasing demand for organic food sourcing; and in the developing world – La Via Campesina – “an international movement of peasants, small- and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers… an autonomous, pluralist and multicultural movement, independent of any political, economic, or other type of affiliation”. The members of this movement are from 56 countries from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. A model of peasant or family-farm agriculture based on sustainable production with local resources and in harmony with local culture and traditions is promoted. Peasants and farmers rely on long experience with their locally available resources and are capable of producing the optimal quantity and quality of food with few external inputs. Production is mainly for family consumption and domestic markets. 10

Biodynamic agriculture builds on the pioneering research work of Rudolf Steiner and is founded on a holistic and spiritual understanding of nature and the human being.Biodynamic farming is based on self-sufficiency in compost, manures and animal feeds, with minimum external inputs. Compost is treated with special herb-based preparations, and crop quality is improved using natural manure and quartz-based preparations. Ecological diversity is a goal of landscape management and an astronomical calendar is used to determine auspicious planting, cultivating and harvesting times.11 Biodynamic methods are used worldwide, for example, in the tea gardens of Darjeeling, in India, where “Chemical fertilisers have been replaced by natural worm composts, manures and biodynamic preparations made from plants such as yarrow and nettle, with impressive results. When there is any sign of the dreaded tea mosquito, the patch affected is sprayed with a natural insecticide, which is derived from the neem tree.”12

Permaculture is about “creating sustainable human habitats by following nature's patterns.” It uses the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems to provide a framework and guidance for people to develop their own sustainable solutions to the problems facing their world, on a local, national or global scale. It is based on the philosophy of co-operation with nature and caring for the earth and its people. It is a “system of design” with "maximum contemplation; minimum action"; it is about thinking before you act; it is not a set of rules; it is “a process of design based around principles found in the natural world, of co-operation and mutually beneficial relationships, and translating these principles into actions.” This action can range from choosing what you eat, how you travel, the type of work you do, and where you live, to working with others to create a community food-growing project. It's about making decisions that relate to all your other decisions; so one area of your life is not working against another. For example, if you are planning a journey, consider other tasks that can be completed on the way to your destination (combining a trip to the leisure centre with buying food on the way home, for example). It means thinking about your life or project as a whole system - working out the most effective way to do things that involves the least effort and the least damage to others, and looking for ways to make relationships more beneficial. 13

The Soil Association is the UK's leading campaigning and certification organisation for organic food and farming, who since 1946, have been working to raise awareness about the positive health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming. The Association works actively with issues including: animal welfare; antibiotics in food and farming; local organic food sourcing; school meals; genetic engineering; pesticides in farming; and wildlife in the countryside. Organic food is now gaining popularity especially due to health concerns.

In the midst of the complexity of our relationship with the land, the following words from the Earth Charter seem to beautifully simplify the challenge we all face: “The spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life is strengthened when we live with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life, and humility regarding the human place in nature.14

1. “The Agrarian Standard” by Wendell Berry. Orion Summer 2002. www.orionmagazine.org

2. “Gift of Food” by Vandana Shiva. Resurgence No. 228, 2005. www.resurgence.org

3. “Renewing Husbandry” by Wendell Berry. Orion, Sept. / Oct.2005.

4. Ibid. (adapted).

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slash_and_burn

6. www.peopleandplanet.net/doc.php?id=1054&section=5

7. “Don’t Believe the Hypermarket” by Sarah Irving. New Internationalist November 2006. www.newint.org

8. “The New Peasants Revolt” by Katherine Ainger. www.countercurrents.org/glo-ainger120503.htm

9. “Breadbasket of Democracy” by Ted Nace. Orion May/June 2006.

10. www.viacampesina.org

11. www.biodynamic.org.uk/FAQ.htm

12. “The hottest cuppa in the world” by Joanna Blythman. The Observer April 29 2007. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/

13. www.permaculture.org.uk/mm.asp?mmfile=whatispermaculture

14. www.earthcharter.org

Goodwill is…the key to living in harmony with the land.