I have a student who reminds me that agriculture is a business – which is true. But there is something about the business of agriculture that makes it much more than simply the efficient production and marketing of food and fiber. Many people (including farmers) recognize that some forms of agriculture can feed both the human body and the human soul. Some of us see local, sustainable food and farming as a way to participate in natural ecological cycles and thus connect with all of creation – and perhaps even the divine.
I believe this awareness of a larger purpose for agriculture is something that farmers should not ignore, as they seek creative ways to market local food. In a world in which people crave entertainment and try to find meaning in distractions such as passive consumption of sporting events or “recreational” shopping, more and more people are finding a sense of purpose or a connection with “a power greater than themselves” through the act of purposeful eating.
Wendell Berry (1) wrote that “…eating is an agricultural act. Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true.” Everyone living has no choice but to participate in agriculture through the act of food consumption. This can be either a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy — or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with the earth and thus with all of Creation.
According to Berry “when food… is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.” This amnesia gets in the way of understanding food and farming as a source of both physical and spiritual nourishment.
Berry presents a few ideas on how we may learn to free ourselves from this cultural amnesia. He suggests that we:
- grow our own food to the extent that we can,
- cook and serve our own food,
- learn the origins of the food we eat,
- get to know a local farmer, and;
- learn more about the biology, ecology and sociology of our food.
I would add to the list, composting all usable kitchen and garden “wastes”, as a necessary means of participating in natural ecological cycles.
I believe the nature of our interaction with the earth is an expression of how we see ourselves as human beings. Wes Jackson (2) describes our awareness of the earth as a technologically mediated rather than a direct personal experience.
When Astronaut Edgar Mitchell is asked about his experience on the moon “he replies that he was too busy being operational to experience the moon.” According to Jackson, we have become “..more operational, with less and less time to experience the earth.” Buying pre-packaged food at the supermarket for example, or eating at fast food outlets surely do not add to the direct human experience of the earth.
The disconnection between the human species and the earth is reinforced by a Cartesian worldview that divides wholes into parts and gives priority to the importance of the part (humans) over the whole (the earth). Science is particularly good at dividing wholes for the purpose of study. However when we do this, we sacrifice an understanding of those characteristics that only have meaning at the level of the whole. It would be foolish to try to measure the speed of an Olympic runner by examining her foot. It is equally as foolish to try to understand the health of a human or an ecosystem by studying its parts.
The science of Sir Issac Newton and Descartes is based upon an understanding of a mechanical universe in which whole systems can be dismantled for study. This understanding is indeed quite useful when the area of study is actually mechanical.
However, people, farms and ecosystems are not machines but living systems born of an organic universe in which the parts are interdependent components within a hierarchy of increasing complexity.
Agriculture is highly efficient and successful when considered simply at its own level. But when it is viewed as a component of a hierarchy of increasing complexity, it fails in the sense that it causes a continual erosion of the capacity of the earth to support life (including but not limited to human life). An agriculture that destroys both natural and social systems fails to achieve its own larger purpose. Wendell Berry (3) writes; “an agriculture cannot survive long at the expense of the natural systems that support it… A culture cannot survive long at the expense either of its agricultural or its natural sources. To live at the expense of the source of life is obviously suicidal.”
I believe farming should be viewed as both an economic (business) and a moral act. Americans (and most of western society) worship the economic act, while ignoring the moral implications. Aldo Leopold (4) boldly stated that we must understand an act as (morally) right “… when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” If we consider agriculture as merely an economic act, then the business of agriculture is a grand success, as it is efficient at extracting resources from the earth. On the other hand, if farming is more than a just a business then we must acknowledge that industrial agriculture fails to “preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.”
Leopold does not stand alone in his broad understanding of a successful agriculture. E.F. Schumacher (5), wrote that agriculture must fulfill at least three tasks: “to keep man in touch with living nature…; to humanize and ennoble man’s wider habitat; and to bring forth the foodstuffs and other materials which are needed…”
In this statement he acknowledges the need to serve both an economic and a moral purpose. Schumacher continues; “I do not believe that a civilization which recognizes only the third of these tasks, and which pursues it with such ruthlessness and violence that the other two tasks are not merely neglected but systematically counteracted, has any chance of long-term survival.”
A world in which agriculture is merely an economic act is doomed to continue causing damage to both the global ecosystem and the human soul. We need to view agriculture as both a business AND a means of connecting with something larger than ourselves; with our community, with the earth, and perhaps even with the divine.
(1) Berry, W. 1990. The pleasures of eating. IN: What are People For? North Point Press. San Francisco.
(2) Jackson, W. 1990. Making Sustainable Agriculture Work. IN: Our Sustainable Table. Ed. R. Clark. North Point Press. San Francisco.
(3) Berry, W. 1977. The Unsettling of America. Sierra Club Press.
(4) Aldo Leopold. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Ballantine Books.
(5) Schumacher, E.F. 1972. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Harper Perennial.
NOTE: this blog post is an abbreviated and slightly revised version of an essay I wrote in 1997, Agriculture is a business, a lifestyle and a conversation with the universe.
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