Human Agriculture

What it will take to foster strong rural communities, nutritious foods, humane cities, and ecological wisdom

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 14
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

David Orr is the author of Earth in Mind and Ecological Literacy, and co-author of The Campus and Environmental Responsibility and The Global Predicament. He is a professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College. We asked him to share some of his insights into the interplay between the human, ecological, and community dimensions of food and agriculture.

Sarah:Perhaps the most obvious change in rural communities is their steady decline. What’s the relationship between modern agricultural practices and the health of rural communities?

David:There’s a direct relationship. Agriculture as practiced by agribusiness tends to displace workers and communities and everything else that stands in the way of productivity. It’s just not important to agribusiness to preserve community, people, or natural systems.

Moreover, industrial agriculture has gotten on what some writers refer to as a technological treadmill. Agriculture is continually mechanized, and that tends to displace labor. The industrial mindset lacks the capacity to say "no" to virtually any technological development.

Let me give two examples. The development of bovine growth hormone, was a solution looking for a problem. We didn’t have a problem with dairy productivity. What Monsanto and other chemical companies found was a capacity to increase productivity even though we suffered from a milk glut. The industrial mindset says, regardless of the effect on communities and on dairy farmers – particularly the smaller farmers, we’ll sell bovine growth hormone.

Let me give another example. David Klein, an old- order Amish man living in Holmes County, Ohio, has explained to my students on several occasions why he uses relatively advanced technology to bring in hay but not to get in grain. The old order Amish refuse to buy combines because threshing parties are a community affair. They refuse to let technology intrude in certain activities because to do so would damage the community and limit their chances to help their neighbors and work together. They make that choice with full knowledge that individually they could be wealthier if they got grain in faster and increased the scale of farming. But they would be wealthier at the expense of community.

Sarah:What does this system cost us in terms of our sense of connection with our food and with the land?

David:At the most obvious level, we’re rapidly becoming a food dumb society. The urban person, who is mentally and physically removed from the food system, knows virtually nothing about the art of raising and preserving food or its real cost to the world. So at one level, we’ve become an inordinately dumb society about what we eat.

As long as we don’t know very much, and don’t care to learn much, the standards for what we eat will continual to ratchet downwards. What passes for food now often requires flavor metabolites or food additives sufficient to simulate the real thing. Doing so adds enormous costs between farm and supermarket shelf.

I think that’s one level of cost. Another level is the divorce of the mind from land. We didn’t just move people off the land and into cities, mentally we moved them from one galaxy to another, rendering us unaware of soils, wildlife, seasons, rhythms of nature, and the art of working with natural systems.

Sarah:In modern agriculture, there seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t take into account the particular local conditions. Is that also part of what you’re talking about?

David: Oh yes. There’s an enormous push to manage land in a uniform way, mostly by absentee landlords or land managers operating on behalf of absentee owners – frequently now corporate owners. And this is at a huge cost to practical ecological intelligence. Farms were the place, for better or worse, where most of us learned what we know about the way nature works. By moving people from the farms into cities we’ve now lost the most direct, tangible, and probably the best environmental education system we’ve had.

People knew many things 50 or 100 years ago, things my grandparents knew that I have had to go back and re-learn, and the kids I teach will have to learn from scratch. And this isn’t getting better. The average age of farmers is roughly 56. Many will retire with no replacement. We’re not approaching a watershed, we’re coming to a water fall!

Sarah:So we could lose a lot of that basic knowledge about the natural world as the older farmers retire.

David: Right. We’re rapidly losing the information about how to live on the land. It won’t ever die out completely – we have, after all, Amish communities – but we’re losing what Wes Jackson calls "cultural information": knowledge necessary to live well in a particular place. It’s very practical, the kind of information that was handed down from grandparent to grandchild. It was a long recollection of a place.

Smarter cultures than ours know that prosperity begins in the land, natural capital, biotic systems, wildlife, and water, not in bank accounts and stock portfolios.

Sarah:What effects does this increased separation from the land have on the human spirit?

David: In a word: impoverishment. We see fewer options before us. You see this in kind of a vague nostalgia that’s pervasive in American life.

When we speak of the human relationship to our environment, I think we need to draw a distinction between complexity on one hand and complicatedness on the other. A cornfield, for example, is a complicated contrivance tied to futures prices on the Chicago Board of Trade, manufacturers of chemicals and expensive equipment, balance of payments, Saudi Arabian oil, and seed companies.

A forest, by contrast is complex beyond our capacity to fully comprehend. Natural systems are incredibly complex; they have a kind of a layered complexity. We can’t comprehend how complex they are. Complexity I think is an ecological and perhaps spiritual measure.

In contrast, complicatedness is an industrial thing. We understand complicated things somewhat because we made them. Cities, for example, are merely complicated.

The industrial mind, which is born of this complicatedness, sees the world as something to be manipulated. Essentially, this mindset holds that we can make end runs around the natural world and have it all, and of course we can’t.

What the industrial world has done in this transition from complex to complicated is to draw down natural wealth, biotic potential, species diversity, fossil fuels, and fossil water. The result is a short-run bonanza. Wes Jackson points out better than anybody else I know that the price of this transition is the loss of cultural information. So the extractive economy destroys both ecological and human potentials.

I think the cost to human spirit is sizable because the human mind and the human spirit evolved with nature in that womb of complexity. And now, in a very short period of time, a matter of a few decades, we find ourselves in a world that is becoming more and more complicated and ecologically less and less complex. By our own actions, we are driving ourselves out of our own home, becoming strangers in an alien land.

Sarah:What is the outcome of that estrangement? In particular in terms of agriculture, what is this complicated industrial mindset doing to natural systems?

David: Well, I think that depends on where you are in the world. If you start in the US breadbasket for example, at least since the dust bowl years, agriculture in the high Great Plains has been built around the draw down of the Ogallala Aquifer. That’s an underground water resource roughly the size of Lake Ontario, but it varies considerably in depth from Nebraska to north Texas.
We are extracting this "fossil" water much faster than it is being recharged by rainfall.
Once it’s drawn down, agriculture in that region will have to revert to dry-land practices. This is a one-time bonanza and we can see the end coming.

Globally, modern agriculture will be affected by climate change. While on-farm activities account for only about 2 percent or 3 percent of total fossil fuel used, a good bit more fossil fuel is used to transport food long distances from where it’s grown and produced to where it’s consumed.

Soil loss is another problem that’s both serious and showing up worldwide. David Pimentel at Cornell recently estimated in Science magazine that soil loss costs the US economy around $44 billion a year. Worldwide, the number is well over $200 billion dollars. Now let’s assume that he’s half wrong. That’s still a cost of $22 billion.

So we’re drawing down biological potential and ecological resilience, and we’re not paying the full costs of doing so in the prices we pay.

Sarah:Why isn’t something done to prevent this depletion of resources?

David: The heart of the problem is dishonest bookkeeping. We don’t pay the full cost. We don’t factor the draw down of biotic potential into prices. We were blessed with a very biologically rich continent, and we’re rapidly impoverishing it. But someday, this is going to show up in the prices that we pay for food and fiber.

Sarah:So it’s benefiting the people of today at the expense of future generations?

David: There’s a strange irony in that too. It’s nice if you’re in the top 5 percent or 10 percent of the world’s population. Your life is convenient and to some degree secure. But we see now an increasing gap between the wealthiest and the poorest worldwide; it certainly is occurring in the US and it’s occurring between the first world and the third and fourth worlds. And that condition can’t last.

Sarah:You’ve talked about the likelihood that more and more people will someday return to rural living. Why do you think that will happen?

David: I don’t think the fully urban world will be anything more than a blip in human history. And I don’t think you need to believe in some kind of imminent disaster to see that we’re probably headed for a world that is far more evenly balanced between rural and urban or skewed toward a higher percentage living in rural areas than in urban areas.

Sarah:So many trends seem to be going towards greater urbanization. What do you see turning those trends around?

David: First of all, fossil fuels have allowed us to herd people into cities. When you industrialize agriculture using fossil fuels you displace people with cheap energy. And then, with enough cheap fossil fuels, you can feed and clothe them and provide for their needs in relatively compact urban areas. But if we know anything about the 21st century, it is that fossil energy will not be cheap, whatever its relative abundance. You can no longer burn it with impunity, given the costs and risks of acid rain, climate change, and so forth. So we’ll have to make a transition to a far more energy-efficient world, and one eventually that is powered by sunshine in all of its various forms.

Secondly, you could provision people who were herded into cities as long as there was enough ecological abundance or ecological resilience in the natural world. From any number of ecological indicators, such as species extinctions, soil quality, and climate stability it is possible to infer that the era of ecological resilience is drawing to a close. That’s what the environmental crisis is all about.

I’d mention climate change in a special sense in this regard. There are any number of cities that depended on air conditioning and/or lie in relatively low-land areas. Climate change places their future in jeopardy because of rising sea levels and because of rising cost to air condition them and supply them with electricity.

There’s another factor that may make urban living less viable: some medical experts believe we are entering an era in which disease and microbes will play a major role. The recent Ebola scare brings to mind the possibility that disease could radically affect human numbers, and urban populations are perhaps more vulnerable to killer diseases like Ebola than rural areas might be.

You mentioned the human spirit a few minutes ago, and I think there is something interesting here that also bears on the future of rural America. Polling data shows that when people are asked where they would want to live, the ideal is not the city. The ideal for most people is a smaller town, or a farm. That’s interesting because that suggests that there is something tugging us back to the land. It isn’t just nostalgia, nor is it just the media. It’s something that’s hard-wired into us, an affinity for the natural world, what E.O. Wilson calls biophilia. And that affinity tends to pull us back to places where there are fewer people and more nature.

Sarah:That sounds attractive, and yet growth in rural areas is often accompanied by a lot of strip malls, office parks, or factories. But you’re talking about a very different kind of rural development.

David: I think there are four different models, which are not mutually exclusive. One would be what Gene Logsdon, in a book called The Contrary Farmer, has proposed. Rural areas with farms of, say, 20-25 acres would be intensively managed but basically would provide a second income. Logsdon’s model is essentially a down scaling of the status quo; it’s a kind of a mini-farm size.

In the second model, I think we’re talking about reinventing agriculture. This model is based on the European farm village in which people live in a town that has a vital civic and cultural life. But farm lands lie outside the village. This model would be in fact a reinvention of a human community relative to a particular habitat, involving everything from food production to marketing. It would certainly be more diverse. You could imagine land owned collectively or cooperatively with outlets like local restaurants or direct marketing a variety of products to urban areas.

A third model involves reruralizing cities and moving agriculture in novel ways into urban areas. Let me give you two different examples. You can see in virtually every large city, small groups doing urban gardening. What they’ve done is to move agriculture on a small scale into often blighted urban neighborhoods. (See Farming in Cities in this issue).

Another form is the ecological engineering being developed by John and Nancy Todd of the Ocean Arks Institute (see Healing Technologies in this issue). An example would be a city block under glass in which you use the waste water from local communities as the input to a series of human-designed ecosystems. While you’re purifying the water, you’re using the nutrient stream in the water, the nitrogen and the phosphorous, to grow trees, fruits, flowers, various kinds of plants and vegetables, and raise fish.

Finally, there’s a fourth approach. Paul Shepard, author of The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, once described reintegrating hunting/gathering zones in and around cities. These zones work as wildlife corridors and also as places where people in adjoining towns can hunt and gather. I saw something like this near the town of Puschino south of Moscow on the banks of the Oka River. There was a biosphere reserve on the north side of the river, and they kept the river corridor relatively pristine. People would go out on the weekend with baskets and harvest the forest: a kind of modern age hunting and gathering.

Three things amazed me. One was how pretty the landscape was; the people there appreciated the beauty and they kept it beautiful. Second, I was impressed by how competent they were; the people knew plants and animals. They were natural historians. The third thing was how productive the land along the river appeared to be.

That’s good land use planning, it’s good food policy, it conserves resources and biological diversity, and it nourishes the spirit.

Sarah:So whether you live in the city or in the countryside, you could be much more connected to your source of food. How do you think this would address the alienation you spoke of earlier?

David: I think that the human mind evolved in a complex world. There is a certain harmony in the way we think and the way the world worked. The industrial mindset assumes it can remake the way the world works and that the human mind will follow in tow. I don’t think that’s happened or will happen.

What I see with students introduced to agriculture and to natural systems is a degree of excitement and joy that they don’t find in shopping malls and suburbs.

I think a good indicator of sustainability and a motivating factor for the human spirit is sheer beauty. The mind has an affinity not only for life and life-like processes, but for beauty and the kind of harmony that is the natural world.

One of the big driving factors, then, in moving us to reruralization – including the reruralization of cities, if that’s not a complete oxymoron – is the sheer joy of it.


Reaching the Limits

Looking for evidence that we are approaching the limits of our current system of agriculture? The following facts are fom Worldwatch Institute publications, Full House, the 1995 State of the World, and 1994 Vital Signs, by Lester Brown, et. al.

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