In December I had the opportunity to attend a talk given by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. Though the discussion covered many topics, it was essentially about humanity’s place and influence on the natural world and how our need to control it is doing us more harm than good. Agriculture may be the biggest culprit. Wes Jackson said, “The problem with agriculture is 10,000 years old.” That is to say that it is an inherently flawed way of feeding humanity. This may come as a surprise to some, and it certainly did for me, but this was precisely what sparked my own interest in agriculture. It was the moment I personally realized that a change in the agricultural system was our best hope for the future, and that a profound change in the way we grow food will result in profound changes in our world and how we relate to one another. We currently live in a society that values efficiency over decency and profit over people. Progress. Efficiency. Results. These were the things that were supposed to save our species, but as I look around me, I see crumbling economies, wars, hunger, and the decimation of natural resources. Is this what progress looks like? Can a machine replace a human? Does the outcome justify the means no matter how cruel? These are the questions I ask myself as I try to navigate through this insane society we have created.
Wendell Barry linked the rise of drug abuse and addictions to the ever-increasing mechanization of the work force, especially the agricultural sector. He argues that when thinking is taken out of work, the place we spend much of our time, life has a tendency to lose meaning. We become drones filling our unsatisfying lives with substances and consumer goods. In the documentary “King Corn” the filmmakers document the typical life of American corn famers. They demonstrate exactly what Barry is talking about; the planting can be done in the span of a few hours by one or two farmers, a tractor, government subsidized seeds, and heavy pesticide use. The farmer, who is entrusted with one of the most vital jobs in the nation is so undervalued and under paid that he seeks other employment opportunities in mostly unskilled labor to supplement his income. He works in monoculture so he cannot feed his family from the farm and he becomes, in essence, a puppet of the state. Those who pick the fruit and vegetables suffer an even worse fate. The great majority of them are undocumented, uneducated migrant workers who are often housed in near confinement, perform back breaking, monotonous labor in fields sprayed with pesticides, which causes them to suffer much higher rates of certain cancers and respiratory illnesses.
Wendell Berry put it best when he said, “there are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Modern agriculture including much of the organic movement is in blatant disregard for the environment and human rights. When we view these things as disposable we put all of our lives in a precarious situation. This saddens me tremendously, but where there are problems there are solutions. Darkness is only the absence of light, not its destruction. Those of us who have worked on small, diverse farms that utilize limited or no pesticides and machinery know that it is not only physically challenging, but also mentally stimulating and requires quite a bit of creativity and flexibility. More importantly, it takes the effort of people and communities. Humans are social creatures, we have always lived in packs, but the technology available to us currently has allowed us to be much more isolated. This isolation has created a collective anomie and malaise aiding in a loss of empathy, reverence and love.
Could a change in the agricultural paradigm rid society of all of its ills? Absolutely not, but reforming agriculture is a deciding factor in the future of the planet and our species. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth having ever is.