PERSPECTIVES ON AGRICULTURE
A tale of two metaphors
He who tills his own land has food in plenty,
but he who follows idle pursuits is a fool (Proverbs 12:11)
By Petrus Simons
This brochure addresses in particular the problems of modern industrial farming and their roots in modern thinking and scientific technology. It is based on the author’s Ph.D thesis: “Tilling the good earth; the impact of technicism and economism on agriculture” (Potchefstroom Campus, North West University, 2007), prepared under the guidance of Prof. J.J. (Ponti) Venter and Prof. E. Schuurman.
Since human culture is directed by a deep-seated ethos, which impacts all of its practices, an inquiry into how Western culture goes about producing and distributing food must concern itself with its ethos of seeking material progress by means of science, and science applied in technics and economics. Since Western secular culture has been extended across the globe, its industrially based agriculture, marked in particular by the application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, machinery needing few human hands, specialisation enabled by trading networks, and modern genetics, has also been globalised.
Yet, despite being highly productive, modern agricultural systems appear to be unable to adequately feed all of the current 7.3 billion people living on earth. In many countries children suffer on account of a severe lack of food. Indeed, well over one billion people are under-nourished. Their number increases by about 7.5 million a year. On the other hand one billion people are eating too much or the wrong kind of food. A lack of healthy nutritious food will cause problems such as shortened life-spans due to obesity or malnutrition and increasing costs of health care.
Should we conclude that Th. R. Malthus (1970/or.1798) was right and that agriculture (including all of its forms) has not been able to increase its rate of production anywhere near the rate at which the world’s population has been growing? Or are there other reasons?
I believe that there are indeed other reasons for these problems and that they have much to do with the practices of modern industrialised agriculture. To analyse these we must pay close attention to the way in which modern scientifically based technics have shaped agriculture and how economic systems have helped it to spread and intensify across the globe. The key problem is that Western culture is guided by the metaphor that the earth is a machine. It is a shorthand for technicism.
A small but rapidly growing ‘protest movement’ of those who believe that we should reject industrial agriculture and replace it with biological-ecological farming systems, is causing tensions or a dialectic between the two. This means that the proponents of industrial agriculture may incorporate some features of biological-ecological agriculture, whereas the latter may borrow some ideas of the former. Such a dialectic may or may not promote proper biological-ecological agriculture. Yet, it is my view that it should become the mainstream, if agriculture is to carry out its peculiar vocation to feed the world.
What is preventing it from fulfilling this calling or, alternatively, what needs to be changed to make it more attractive?
Basically, what is needed is a conversion to a different metaphor, namely that of the Biblical vision of the earth developing from a garden or paradise towards a garden-city by the grace of God.
I believe that the systematics of reformational philosophy, as developed by D.H.Th. Vollenhoven (1892-1978), H. Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) and H.G. Stoker (1899-1993) and their followers are compatible with the metaphor of the garden-city.
Hence, this paper is divided into the following parts:
Part I: Outline of methodology
Part II: The task of agriculture
Part III: Industrial agriculture: the earth is a machine
Part IV: Biological-ecological agriculture: the garden-city metaphor
Part I: Methodology
Systematics of reformational philosophy
The following is a brief synopsis of reformational philosophy, inspired primarily by D.H.Th. Vollenhoven.
The Bible (God’s Word Revelation) tells us that God created the world, the cosmos, and that he subjected it to His will or law. The law is always valid. Hence, law and creation are correlated. Human beings stand in a privileged relation to God, known as covenant. Only humans are said to be created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). It is only said of the creation of ‘man’ that God ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’ (Genesis 2:7).
Within the covenant, humans are very much the junior partners, being totally dependent on God and the revelation of His Word to them. Yet, in that relationship they are able to see as it were the creation as a structure and as complying with a structure (Popma, 1956:9-15).
This idea of structure is comprised of various dimensions, which, notwithstanding being irreducible to each other, are intimately related to each other:
These three dimensions are found in each of the kingdoms that make up the cosmos.
Kingdoms are genetic coherences. Vollenhoven usually distinguishes the kingdoms of things (stars, minerals, gases etc.), plants, animals and people. In each there is genetic change: nuclear fission in the kingdom of things; procreation in the kingdoms of plants, animals and people, so that new individuals come into existence and enter into coherent relationships with others. Everything which emerges genetically in time takes part in the non-temporal modal structure of the kingdom concerned (Bril K.A./Tol, A., 1992:152-159).
It is noteworthy that discoveries in genetics have shown that there are ‘profound differences between animals and plants’ (Tudge, 1993:29,184).
Kingdoms relate to each other via the object functions of individual entities. Animals eat plants. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and deposit it into the soil. People domesticate animals.
Dooyeweerd has developed the concept of enkapsis to designate relationships such as a bird (animal) and her nest (a thing) or a farm as an economic social structure and the animals, fields, and plants which are part of it. The latter are not economically qualified. They remain subjects of the non-human kingdoms. At the same time, their functioning is modified to meet the purposes of the farm (Dooyeweerd, 1969, Vol. III:652).
Human society is not only made up of a variety of communities and institutions but also of a rich set of societal interlinkages. Dooyeweerd has analysed these in great detail.
Combinations of such interlinkages, called rhizoids by Lepper and Simons (1996), are another way of showing how activities in society are linked to the kingdoms of material things, plants and animals.
Rhizoids are coherent and identifiable combinations of societal inter-linkages, which are independent of the people using them and which may persist for shorter or longer periods of time and which rely on the availability of supplies from the non-human kingdoms (Simons, 2011:545).
Key concepts of rhizoids are:
Stows: sets of things, animals, plants, and humanly formed objects or parts thereof, which accumulate or decrease through time.
Hoards: things, plants, animals or technical objects, which cannot be made fruitful for human use on the basis of available knowledge, perceptions and/or belief systems.
Flows: all what is yielded by transformations and stows over a period of time.
Transformations: processes to convert flows or stows into different stows or flows by means of stows of technical objects and flows of energy (Simons, 2011: 546, 547).
The modal dimension
Modalities are ways of existence. Something is this way or that way. The kingdom of things develops according to the modes of number, space, movement and energy. That of plants features the additional mode of organic life and that of animals has one more than that of plants: the psychical. In the kingdom of people, modal laws take the character of norms, inasmuch as we have to make choices as to how we obey them.
The modes concerned are: analytical, technical formation, linguistics, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical and pistic or certitudinal. Thus we may act logically or illogically, economically or uneconomically, and so on.
Modalities are closely related to each other through analogies. They rely on those preceding them via retrocipations, except the arithmetical one, and point forward to those following via anticipations (except the certitudinal one). Similarly, the analogies related to other analogies via retrocipations and anticipations.
The individual dimension
Distinct entities such as houses, cars, schools, states, nests, plants, animals, bacteria, are such or such. Usually, we designate them by nouns. They function in all modalities. Their purpose is indicated by a qualifying modality. A house is socially qualified, a family ethically, a school analytically.
The dimension of time
Everything exists in time. Individual things have a lifeline. In the modalities, time occurs in the form of rhythms or cycles.
Application to agriculture
All the elements just enumerated taken together form a very complex and dynamic structure.
Farmers seek to produce plants and animals and/or parts of them so as to be able to prepare foodstuffs and other products useful for the enrichment of human life. Agriculture is economically qualified.
To do this, farmers must cultivate a plot of land, prepare soil and water, sow seeds, and look after animals, using a wide range of technical objects, finance, prices, as well as societal relationships with suppliers, processors, scientists, government officials, customers.
Part II: What is agriculture?
Agriculture’s constant characteristics
Although agriculture has changed dramatically since pre-industrial times, it has retained characteristics that allow us to recognise it as agriculture. As a human activity agriculture has displayed some enduring features throughout the ages. I suggest that the following characteristics are pretty well universal.
a) Agriculture (including all of its branches) is a human activity, carried out in particular locations situated in (natural) ecosystems. No matter how intensely cultivated, ecosystems will retain a degree of unpredictability that might spring many pleasant or unpleasant surprises.
b) It involves an interaction between the ecosystem (its seasonality, rainfall, strength of wind, sunshine, density of populations, lie of the land, capacity to process effluents and other debris etc.) and the fields, micro-organisms, plants and animals incorporated into farms located within them and the actions of farmers.
c) Its purpose is to produce food and other things useful for human life. It is, therefore, a technical-economic activity.
d) In order to meet this purpose farmers must form soil, fields, plants and animals in a particular way. To be technically active, they must accurately analyse the situation they are in. This, in turn, appeals to their powers of observation, their psychic function. Farmers exercise a technical function. How far they can go in terms of cultivating animals, plants, soil etc. depends on their faith commitment, their ethics and the ethics of the culture or community they are part of.
e) Agriculture relies on soils, rain, sunshine, climate, micro-organisms, plants and animals, which are not naturally made to serve in farms. Somehow, farmers must make use of them and incorporate them into the farm’s structure. If farmers get it right, barring adverse climactic events, they may be able to gather abundant harvests.
f) Frequently, farmers and/or their advisors make mistakes, mostly unwittingly due to ignorance, or deliberately for short-term monetary gain.
g) Agriculture takes place in time, through cyclical rhythms, as well as over long periods. By means of technical/biotic interventions, a farm may produce a series of good harvests, whilst the natural basis for them is slowly eroding. Perhaps, the greatest challenge for farmers is to get it right over a long period of time.
h) Farmers are not only vulnerable because of the exigencies and contingencies of nature, but also on account of financial and legal issues. It can make quite a difference, whether they own land freehold or are mortgagors or rent it (with rents being set in kind and/or in money). Modes of property are important factors in agriculture.
i) A farm is usually, together with adjacent farms, connected to a social network of suppliers, financiers, workshops, processors, distribution facilities, government agencies, supermarkets and, increasingly, financial markets. Such networks may be local, regional or global.
j) Since the area of land under cultivation is fixed, the costs of ploughing, sowing and harvesting vary little. Barns, farming implements as well as farm labour are needed whether there is a good or a bad harvest or no harvest at all. This is particularly true when a farmer’s family provides most of the labour. This means that the costs per unit of output tend to fall when output rises.
Clearly, agriculture is a very dynamic and complex activity, no matter whether it is carried out industrially or biologically-ecologically
Part III: Industrial agriculture: the earth is a machine
The poet, scientist and politician J.W. von Goethe (1749-1832) sensed that around 1800 a new and violent period had begun. Western people would strive for control over nature and property. His Faust (Part One was published in 1808) is an attempt to come to grips with the technical-industrial revolution inspired by the Enlightenment, which, in his view, is a narrative of mastery through technical violent interference with nature’s course (i.e. nature is seen as an enemy to be mastered), and also with the political French revolution that swept away the Ancien Régime. Science, money and large-scale engineering prospects would become prominent (Böhme, 2005:148ff).
When, in Faust, Part II, published in 1832, the land reclamation project gets under way, Mephistopheles is aided by three giants: Buster, Bagger and Hugger, names with economic connotations (Goethe,1994/1832:II acts 4,5). Those working on the project are slaves, despite the inhabitants of the brave new world being called free. Free but poor people such as Philemon and Baucis have to go when their humble possessions get in the way.
Two centuries later, the world is still marching to the tunes of the Enlightenment, as witnessed by a major emphasis on science, technology and market economics in all sectors of culture:
Inspired by the successful development of the natural sciences, heroic Enlightenment figures believed that they would be able to overcome all problems and to renew themselves and society by means of the natural sciences (Schuurman, 2005:16)
However, we may now be facing a situation in which problems are popping up at a rate that is well beyond the ability of science and technics to solve. New solutions create new often unexpected problems. Who had anticipated the destruction (of fertile farm land) and pollution caused by the nuclear accidents of Tchernobyl in 1986 and of Fukushima in 2011 (which also contaminated the Pacific Ocean with radio-active materials)?
The watershed of 1850 and the development of industrial agriculture
From 1850 onward universities started to emphasise the exact sciences such as mathematics, physics, biology and engineering. Shortly before that, in 1840 Justus von Liebig had shown that plants can grow without organic compounds. One had to make sure that soils were replenished with chemicals such as nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. It was a revolutionary idea. The soil came to be seen: ’as a chemical warehouse through which to supply crop growth’ (Montgomery, 2007:183).
The scientific approach was fostered also by experimental research stations such as Rothamsted in England, run initially by a chemist: J.B. Lawes. He could confirm the correctness of Liebig’s theory. One of his inventions was that: ‘by treating rock phosphate with sulfuric acid water-soluble phosphates are produced that are immediately accessible to plants’ (Montgomery, 2007:184). Agro-chemistry became seen as essential to the development of productive agriculture. In 1908 it became possible to manufacture ammonium nitrate by means of gas (Haber-Bosch process). Modern industrial agriculture is just about unthinkable without chemical fertilisers (Tudge, 2003:187-214).
The Industrial Revolution also led to the design of a vast range of mechanical implements, which had the effect of saving labour and time. The invention of steam revolutionised transport and manufacturing.
Transport systems (rail/ships) based on steam power and mechanical farm implements (such as harvesters) enabled the exploitation of the large plains of North America, Latin America and Australia. Major surpluses of grain grown there were cheaply and quickly shipped to England and Europe, where prices tumbled, resulting in a major economic depression during the second half of the 19th century.
The same transport systems made it possible to ship large volumes of fertilisers (guano) from Chile to England and Europe. Rail systems on the old continent opened up reserves of minerals that could be used as fertilisers.
As imports of food products flooded in from the colonies and other areas such as Russia and India, English farmers had to increase the scale of their operations to survive.
Agriculture became highly specialised across the world, leading to mono-cultures, with species suitable for mechanical sowing and harvesting. Countries imported foodstuffs they did not grow themselves and exported what they specialised in. Inputs also came from all over the world. Mono-cropping made it easier for predator insects to thrive as the normal checks and balances in nature arising from bio-diversity ceased to apply. This led to the application of chemical pesticides and fungicides, as well as hormonal weed-killers. However, pests never die off completely. There are always survivors which have developed resistance to the pesticides applied. This necessitates the development of new chemical pesticides. It is, in fact, a treadmill.
Biologically, the discovery of the laws of genetics (Mendel) inspired, for example, the development of hybrid (F1) seeds. Bonneuil and Thomas (2009) provide a fascinating account of how this discovery helped to identify ever better performing and productive varieties. They quote one of the leaders in this field (Schribaud) as comparing ‘the vegetal machine with the industrial machine’. So, they entitled their chapter: “perfecting the ‘vegetal machine’”.
Discoveries and inventions continued during the 20th century. At present growth hormones (prohibited in Australia and New Zealand), antibiotics and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are used to increase the productivity and production of agriculture, not only for food but also for bio-fuels. In fact, as some major corporations, originally producers of chemicals, have merged or amalgamated with seed producers to design and manufacture GMOs resistant to pests, a strong profit motive has taken over the production of seed for future crops. Farmers cannot put aside seed from their annual harvests, but must buy new supplies year after year. It is feared that the uniformity entailed in GMOs may sooner or later result in massive crop failures. There is also evidence that the process of genetically modifying organisms may trigger unforeseen changes in the modified organisms, which may pose health hazards (Smith, 2003).This fear is inspired by the observation that organic nature relies on diversity to ward off harmful organisms.
During its short history, industrial agriculture has led to a significant decline in real prices received by farmers, much larger-scale farms, systems of income protection and export subsidies and a transformation of Third and Second World peasant farming, where millions of traditional farmers, not being able to compete with imports of cheap food from industrialised countries, have lost their livelihood and have been forced to migrate to cities to find work, often in sweatshop conditions.
The specialisation on exportable crops for world markets, with imports of foodstuffs from abroad has reduced the production of food in many countries. The idea that populations should, as much as possible, grow their own food has fallen by the way-side.
Consequences of industrial agriculture
When supplying large markets (large relative to their own production), farmers must take the world price as given. They cannot alter it by increasing or decreasing their production. However, since they can intensify their production on the basis of given resources of land and machinery, and thereby increase the volume of production, they are able to increase their income at the given price. If they are all doing this, then, total supply increases and, with the demand for food rising but slowly, the world price falls. Farmers could then be tempted to increase their productivity and production again. They are, therefore, in danger of stepping on a treadmill.
The working of the treadmill does not imply that prices always fall. Apart from inflation they may rise when the area of land allocated to farming is reduced on account of population growth, urban expansion or natural disasters. Growing scarcity of key resources may also give an impetus to rising prices. World prices rising on account of such factors may increase the profits of farmers in areas where land and other resources remain abundant. To benefit from this they invest in newer means of production and methods. They could also buy adjacent land to increase their scale of operations and get lower per unit costs. When prospective profits increase, prices of land will rise in sympathy, making it harder for young farmers to get a farm of their own.
Farmers tend to be willing takers of advice and products offered by scientific advisors and producers so as to maintain their incomes by increasing productivity in the face of falling prices. Should prices stabilise or rise, then, their incentive to increase farm profits by new ideas and products is all the stronger.
The treadmill is a peculiar characteristic of modern industrialised agriculture with global markets and transport/communication systems. Current economic theory suggests that free trade is the most efficient way of economising as each country would specialise in which it is best. In agriculture this results in a relentless drive to increase productivity and production. In consequence, eco-systems become over-exploited, so that in the long run their natural productivity declines. The most efficient countries will produce surpluses that tend to be sold at subsidised prices at the expense of less modern farmers (who may well practise truly sustainable agriculture) across the globe.
Industrial agriculture attempts to reverse the dependency of farmers on animals and plants. Instead, the latter become dependent on the farmers and their suppliers and scientific advisors. There are now species of cow, for instance, that cannot deliver a calf in the natural way but only by caesarean section. Without antibiotics and veterinary services, to mention just these, farm animals cannot survive anymore. The reproduction of animals has become divorced from natural mating through artificial insemination.
Farmers must follow the scientific technical and administrative prescriptions of suppliers and processors if they are to sell their products, so that little autonomy is left to them.
In the present global economy industrial agriculture is displacing traditional, usually biological, farming, forcing millions of farmers to abandon their land. Precious tropical rain forests are being felled to make way for the cultivation of soy and African palm, with disturbing consequences for the world’s water circulation, climate and bio-diversity.
In the long run the soil on which the system depends is being eroded at a rate that far exceeds the natural rate of soil formation. The world’s skin is being damaged and in many places is disappearing (Montgomery, 2007). Bommert notes that every year the world loses the soil of about 550 million hectares (40 times the area used in Germany for agriculture):
‘In Asia, Africa and Latin America, the annual loss is around 30 to 40 tonnes per hectare or about 30 to 40 times the rate of new soil formation. On average, the layer of soil on which we depend is 150 mm. thick. It takes about 1,500 years or 50 generations of humans to replace it naturally’ (Bommert, 2012:190).
Considering the way agriculture has been developed since the Enlightenment, and particularly since 1850, we should note that it has increasingly been bearing the imprint of technicism, inasmuch as its technical productivity has been raised at the expense of the environment and with its end product, food, having become an abstract commodity which is channelled to us from all parts of the world, without our getting to know the farmers involved, their practices of handling animals, soils, plants and natural environment in general.
Technicism is indeed part of the ethos of modern Western culture. It is characterised by an image of the world as a machine.
Egbert Schuurman has analysed technicism extensively. His definition is:
Technicism is the pretension of humans, as self-declared lords and masters using the scientific-technical method of control, to bend all of reality to their will in order to solve all problems, old and new, and to guarantee increasing material prosperity and progress. By means of their technology humans want to control and safeguard the future. This technicism answers to two important norms as though they are the two great commandments: the norm of technical perfection or effectiveness and the economic norm of efficiency. In other words, by means of the scientific-technical method of control the stated goals must be reached as directly and efficiently as possible. The entire technical progress, therefore, is clearly set within a narrow framework. Everything outside that narrow framework is denied recognition. This concerns the value of nature and the distinctive character of plants and animals. Such norms as that of appreciation, care, love, harmony, doing justice, and so forth are, accordingly, discounted (Schuurman, 2003:69).
Technicisation is the process whereby plants and animals, to mention just these, are increasingly turned into technically performing units.
Technicism and technicisation have been changing the world to such an extent that it is appearing like a ship that directs its own course on the basis of its own mass, as physicist Werner Heisenberg once put it:
humankind having arrived by its apparently unlimited expansion of material power in a situation similar to that of the captain of a huge ship made of iron and steel such that the needle of the compass pointed to the ship itself rather than due North’ (Schuurman, 2014:81,82; my translation).
Clearly, people generally will not state that they are technicists. It functions rather as a hidden ideology. However, it is possible to find its signs in the way people think, write, form policies etc. Since Western culture as a whole is marked by technicism, institutions, thinkers, policy-makers tend to share its values and its utilitarian ethics.
Hans Sachsse has identified technicism in the works of various key philosophers from the time of the Renaissance in the 15th century, which inspired the belief ‘that all of life’s problems can be solved by means of a scientific-technical change of the world’ (my translation). Leonardo da Vinci proclaimed that mechanics is the paradise of mathematics (Sachsse, 1978:180). Descartes drew a distinction between a res cogitans and a res extensa, with a paradigm that the latter is populated by machines or automatons and forms the material for the former. Nature is a machine.
With the Enlightenment such technicism became part of the public mind, especially as the industrial revolution began. Kant saw a sharp contrast between humans and nature, with the former as rulers over the latter. Even knowledge had to be constructed. He interpreted thinking as a technical performance.
Fichte continued in this vein by drawing a distinction between the I and the non-I, which depends on the I. The world needs to be made, even god. It is an apotheosis of man, albeit a ‘homo faber’.
Similar thoughts of technically fashioning or refashioning the world Sachsse found in Hegel and Feuerbach (Sachsse, 1978:191-197).
As expressed by Heisenberg’s metaphor, technicism has become a dominant feature of our culture.
Industrial agriculture is no exception. In terms of rhizoid theory it tends to use scientifically-technically designed flows of chemical fertilisers and pesticides as a substitute for biological-ecological ones. Seeds are transformed by means of genetic engineering to release flows of chemical pesticides such as Round-Up.
The so-called ‘green revolution’ is a good example. It is based on varieties of grain, corn and rice, developed during the 1950s-1960s by Norman Borlaug (1914-2009), and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, which could easily be processed by mechanical devices, but which also required large volumes of water, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It has led to major increases in production as well as in population (Bourne, 2015).
The green revolution was introduced in many countries without regard to their particular ecological characteristics or the long-term effects on water tables and soil structures.
As the fertility of the varieties concerned cannot be boosted much more, one is hoping for another ‘green revolution’, based on new science and technics such as genetic engineering as well as on a further dismantling of barriers to trade (tariffs as well as non-tariffs).
Agricultural productivity, say the flow of milk solids per cow, is boosted by flows of semen produced artificially by top-performing bulls. It is also stimulated by free trade deals on the assumption that if each country or region specialises on what it is best at producing, then, all will benefit. Thus, free markets encourage specialisation and large-scale agriculture. They act thereby as a catalyst for technicism.
Economism is closely related to technicism. It is primarily interested in obtaining maximum flows of money per unit of capital (a stow) invested. In pursuit of such maximisation, it disregards in particular the long-term destruction of critical stows such as soil.
Science, technicism and economism
When one, two or three functions of human culture become so important that they dominate the whole of culture and suppress all others or make them subservient to the dominating ones, we are dealing with –isms, absolutisations with the force of idolatry. This is what is meant by technicism and economism.
The technicisation of agriculture (turning it into a technical construction) compels farmers to follow the precepts of suppliers of technology, seeds, fertilisers and sprays and to comply with the requirements of processors. Their soil structure may decline in quality over time as micro-organisms are killed off, so that the nutritional value of food produced decreases. But what can the individual farmer do?
Science, technicism and economism are closely related inasmuch as technicism projects the abstractions of science into agriculture. Schuurman has often pointed to four properties of science:
It is functional
It is universal
It is law like-prescriptive
It is done for the love of truth rather than private interests (Schuurman, 2003:96-101).
Animals and plants are bred so as to maximise production, regardless of the welfare of animals. It is a very functional system. Modern fertilisers have been scientifically developed and applied regardless of the particular properties of soil structures. Their, often injudicious, application may result in severe pollution of waterways or a depletion of soil fertility over time.
Disregard for the welfare of particular animals, the state of particular eco-systems and the nutritional value of food is an expression of the universal nature of modern agriculture. It is also very prescriptive. What the experts have found and designed leads to rules to be precisely observed by farmers.
Economism is found in the non-observance of the 4th characteristic. Scientists working for private corporations must come up with results that are likely to increase the profitability of their masters. No doubt, they try to maintain their scientific integrity. However, there are many cases where it has not been observed as strictly as it should, as Marion Nestle has shown, amongst others (Nestle, 2002).
In the USA in particular there is a practice of revolving doors, meaning that scientists move from corporations to regulatory agencies that should control the former to ensure that regulations are as much as possible compatible with their pecuniary interests. Robin has documented this in particular for Monsanto (Robin, 2008).
It would seem to me that the role of abstraction in modern life is even wider. Ships and planes are simply supposed to move goods from A to B. Effects such as the displacement of organisms in ballast tanks are ignored. In general, transferral of plants and animals out of their normal habitat, for economic or technical reasons, into differently structured eco-systems often causes them to become destructive invaders (Nikiforuk, 2006:29-53).
Assuming that the core idea of the economic modality is abundance, the normative economic principle may be put as: manage abundance wisely, avoiding waste. Behind this lies the belief that God, the Creator, has provided abundantly for all his creatures and for all people living on this earth. If we manage that which he has entrusted to us wisely, we will have abundance. Should we behave foolishly, then, sooner or later we will experience poverty and scarcity of resources. Implied in this is that we share our wealth generously with others.
In contrast, both technicism and economism have resulted in a globalising technical/economic agricultural system which is completely unsustainable, wasteful and damaging to the world’s eco-systems and climate. Generally accepted wasteful practices, especially in the food distribution system, are a sure sign of economism working in conjunction with technicism. Issues of ethics, justice, poverty, aesthetics and the long-term health of the planet are abstracted from. Paradoxically, the longer one continues wasting, the less effective our mastery will be. The more the abstractions of technicism and economism are ignored, the greater the havoc they are likely to inflict on the world.
Technicism and economism in rhizoids
In terms of rhizoid theory, technicism would come to expression in an extreme fascination with transformations. In Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, Constantine Levin, a modern farmer, has ‘a theory of dairy farming which maintains that a cow is only a machine for the transformation of fodder into milk and so on’ (Tolstoy, 1980:268).
Scientists and engineers try to speed up and automate transformations. By improving the breeding and feeding of cows, by a selection and breeding of more productive seeds, by automating milking and so on, transformations become faster and more efficient, provided farmers follow the prescriptions imposed by suppliers and processors. They tend to lose their own responsibility for the proper stewardship of their farms.
With regard to economism, the emphasis falls on maximising flows that may help to maximise profits. Since flows are often the result of technical transformations, economism tends to depend on technicism. The two are like Siamese twins. Together, they inspire a reconstruction of reality according to theoretical designs.
A cow, for example, prior to domestication, is not very productive. She has a life-line of 20/30 years. She needs a bull to become pregnant. By selective breeding with an emphasis on features that would increase her gift of milk or the size and texture of beefsteaks her production of milk and beef may be enhanced. The various functions of the cow that can do such things are abstracted from the cow as a whole, systematically studied and then designed anew. Modern cows are equipped with udders and a frame to support it vastly bigger than those you see on pictures of cows in previous centuries. Robin’s study referred to above, shows that Monsanto developed a bovine growth hormone to increase the milk flow, without regard to the problems cows might suffer (Robin, 2008:128-130). Artificial insemination, introduced after World War II has made it possible to increase the progeny of superior bulls quite considerably, with possibly an impoverishment of the gene pool.
Despite efforts to turn the world into a highly productive and profitable machine, it systematises a waste of precious resources.
Bommert (2012: 286-310) reviews in detail how much food is actually wasted around the world. Supermarkets play a major role as they make sure that the food on display is attractive. Moreover, they like to show an abundance of food on their shelves and in their fridges. As a result not all the food harvested is accepted. It is left on the fields. In many countries, especially in Africa and Asia much food is lost post-harvest due to poor transport facilities or inadequate storage facilities. Supermarkets must offer fresh food. As soon as the ‘best by’ dates are passed, it lands in the waste bins. Households too play their part by over –stocking. Trends such as fast-food, often made tastier by sugar, and popular drinks such as Cola, a greater consumption of meat and dairy have resulted in an ‘obesogenic’ environment. From 1980 to 2008 the number of overweight people has doubled to 1.5 billion.
If the consumption of meat were reduced to something like normal and sources of waste plugged, then, 900 million hectares of land used for growing food could be saved, according to Bommert (2012:310). However, he concludes that economic interests are opposed to this: ‘they supply fertilisers, concoct chemicals, grow seeds, manufacture tractors and machinery and make money by trading in agricultural products and foodstuffs (2012:310).
Part IV: The garden-city metaphor
Given that industrial agriculture is driven by major vested economic interests, it is understandable that those who oppose it will be greeted with considerable scepticism. There are many voices within the scientific community who argue that biological-ecological agriculture is unable to feed the world’s current or expected population or that its scientific basis is seriously flawed or based on ‘vitalism’ (for instance: Th.R DeGregori, 2004). Nevertheless, even from an intuitive point of view, it would make sense to ‘work with nature’, whilst safeguarding the health of ecological systems.
One of the main pioneers of the ‘organic’ movement in the 20th century was Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), a distinguished scientist. He came to the conclusion that we should study why peasants had managed to keep their fields fertile for centuries by biological methods. As a result of 21 years of study and experimentation at the Pusa Agricultural Institute in India he developed a method of composting (the Indore method) vegetable and animal wastes. In his “An Agricultural Testament” (1940), he describes one of his key findings as the mycorrhizal association (1940:23), which involves a symbiosis between certain soil fungi, which live on humus and the plant’s young roots:
At the end of the partnership the root consumes the fungus and in this manner is able to absorb the carbohydrates and proteins which the fungus obtains partly from the humus in the soil. The mycorrhizal association therefore is the living bridge by which the fertile soil and the crop are are directly connected and by which food materials ready for immediate use can be transferred from soil to plant (Howard, 1940:25).
A second plank in Howard’s approach is the fact that in nature plants and animals are usually found together: ‘mixed crops and mixed farming are the rule’ (1940:1).
In general, biological-ecological farming considers plants and animals as subjects in their own right and seeks to apply biological methods, without destroying useful micro-organisms (fungi, bacteria) and by taking due care of animals, having regard to their proper nature, and also to the needs of people engaged in the production process. Importantly, it tries to maintain the fruitfulness of eco-systems for generations to come. In short, it seeks a harvest rather than maximum output and profits.
Fortunately, biological-ecological (often known as organic) agriculture has been increasing in many countries, albeit from a small base. As it tends to offer higher prices, farmers have been prepared to take the risks of embarking on sustainable farming practices. These tend to be more labour-intensive. The premium paid for organic produce should compensate for this. One might also say that the products of industrial agriculture are too cheap since they do not include the costs of the environmental problems they cause.
An example of a recent approach to biological-ecological agriculture is what Zu Löwenstein, with reference to Markus Arbenz of IFOAM (ecological farmers movement), calls ecological intensification (2011:169). It is meant to be affordable by the one billion people who cannot eat sufficiently and of whom 67 percent live on the land. He also reminds us that 70 percent of all food produced on earth is grown by small farmers (2011:170). Ecological intensification, also known as agro-ecology, has three dimensions:
Social: to create contentment and respect, so that it is more attractive to live in rural areas rather than in slums; distribution of available work to avoid overwork or under-employment; avoidance of health risks from the use of chemicals.
Economic: harvests which provide sufficient food year round; attainment of surpluses which can be sold to provide capital for future development; becoming independent of suppliers by reliance as much as possible on own resources of energy, seeds, and healthy animals; diversification of products.
Ecological: maintenance of natural foundations of agricultural production, especially soil fertility; re-mediation of ecology by tree-planting; attempt to avoid more emissions of greenhouse gases than producing them; creation of a stable system of production, which is immune to environmental changes brought about by climate change (Zu Löwenstein, 2011:170,171).
A good example of ecological intensification is the ‘push and pull’ system invented by scientists in Kenya and England to beat the maize borer. One plants Desmodium between the rows of maize. As it emits a smell, the borers are pushed out of the field. However, when they fly away, they are attracted by Napier grass planted around the block. They lay their eggs on it, but as the caterpillars can’t feed on the grass, they die. Moreover, Desmodium is a nitrogen-binder. Hence, there is no need for Monsanto’s expensive GMO seeds (Zu Löwenstein, 2011:200-203).
In a sense, older cultures also have lessons for us. A fascinating one is the discovery of ‘incredibly fertile black soil’ (terra preta) in the Amazon tropical forest. It seems to have covered about 10 percent of the whole area and must have sustained large populations, according to reports of explorers of the 16th century. One believes that it came about as a result of intensive agro-forestry by which ash and garbage, excrement, organic waste, fish and animal bones, even remains of people, were all mixed together and protected by understory and tree crops. Over a thousand years, rich black soils were formed. Similar soils have been found in Thailand (Montgomery, 2007:142-144).
Naturally, scientists have attempted to find out whether it might be possible to form such soils in the modern age. Bommert (2012:271-280) reports a couple of very successful, albeit small-scale, attempts undertaken in Germany. In Austria he found a village community which has set up a communal humus operation. On a large field, with walls around it, all green wastes, kitchen scraps, etc. are accumulated, cut up and mixed up, until it becomes a rich compost which matures under plastic covers until it is ready to be deposited on the surrounding farms, to an extent of 11 tonnes per hectare. The resulting soil is able to hold and process water without losing its nutrition. The humus feeds a large number of worms, which produce enzymes that stimulate the growth of soil bacteria.
One of the great inventions of the Middle Ages was that of the wheeled plough furnished with coulter and moulding board. It was useful particularly for land reclamation. Ploughing has continued to be seen as essential to preparing land for sowing. However, it has increasingly been seen as a problem. It has been responsible for turning the virgin prairies of the USA into the dustbowls of the 1930s.
Recently, the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) estimated that the world has, on average, no more than 60 years of growing crops left. To change this, the plough should be largely phased out. In New Zealand Dr John Baker (Feilding) has invented a Cross Slot no-tillage seed drill. It drills underneath any residue left on the soil and sows and fertilizes at different bands. Since it hardly disturbs the soil, it prevents the loss of carbon and micro-organisms.
Many more examples could be given. Suffice it to say that across the world initiatives have been taken that hold the prospect of a new biological-ecological agriculture, which would neither oppose the use of science and scientifically designed technics nor the introduction of property rights (private and/or communal) or improvements in the status of women. Rather it would seek to use all of these in the service of farmers and their families, so that they may help feed properly the current and future generations from the magnificent resources available to humankind, without wasting them.
Skeptics might ask whether this is really possible?
Zu Löwenstein (2011) cites a study of the University of Michigan (Institute for Food and Development Policy, 2007) which examined 91 studies of 293 case studies and asked how much extra food would become available if a) conventional agriculture (without using chemicals) and b) modern industrial agriculture, following practices introduced by the green revolution, would be converted to ecological intensification?
The conclusion was that such a conversion would increase food production by 50% to 4,381 kilo-calories per person per day (we only need 2,200-2,500) (2011:209,210).
Zu Löwenstein concludes appropriately:
If we do not succeed in stopping the expansion of the Western style of living, featuring a high consumption of meat, over-eating and a destruction of foodstuffs (wastage), then, there is no technical solution that would prevent the collapse of the food production system. The same applies if we do not stop the destruction of the natural foundations of our life, in particular in terms of soil and climate (2011:211-212, my translation).
We may accept this conclusion in the spirit of the garden-city metaphor. Rather than a machine, the earth should be seen as a garden with the potential of being developed to a garden-city. By reflecting on the meaning of this metaphor, we may begin to discern how it might lead to a different culture and life-style.
The promise of the garden-city metaphor
The Bible often pictures a garden as a space in which the relationship between the Creator and his creatures gets a pregnant meaning. In the beginning (Gen. 2, 3) Adam is given the task of cultivating the garden and caring for it (to guard it against evil intruders). The Revelation of John ends with a city that has the clear features of a garden. Jesus suffers in the garden of Gethsemany, is buried in a new tomb in a garden where He rises from the dead. We get the strong impression that human culture should resemble a garden-city, in which justice and peace for all prevails and in which people and animals may safely graze.
Let us assume that a city-garden is a metaphor for a healthy culture.
If this is our guide, then, we should find out the key features of a garden that should be transferred to human culture. The following come to mind:
A garden is aesthetically pleasing rather than ugly;
It offers a variety of plants and technical features (waterfalls, paths, secluded areas);
Its productivity (sustainability) is maintained;
There is scope for children and animals to play;
There is no sharp distinction between areas where people live and their productive gardens;
It is protected against intruders (human and otherwise).
Debris is re-cycled.
Readers may well be able to add more features.
If we now think of agriculture in terms of the garden-city metaphor, then, we would resist the development of large-scale mono-cultures, whilst science and technology would be assigned a serving role only.
Whilst we may accept that specialisation in a global context is theoretically optimal, we are not bound in practice to follow this as a normative precept. In wisdom, we accept that theory has a serving function only. Hence, we should provide protection to agriculture to ensure security of food supplies as well as an aid to maintain the sustainability of agriculture. As markets become smaller, the domination of the treadmill may be broken.
It would be good if small-scale rhizoids were formed between local farmers, processors and users, including small-scale local shops. Customers are bound to be interested in the way their food is grown and processed. As a case in point think of organic (biological-ecological) farmers who invite customers to invest in their farms.
The road towards sustainable biological-ecological farming around the world will not be easy. Inescapably, herds of cows and sheep will have to be reduced in size. The land so freed should be converted to the production of human food. For many in the “rich” countries eating less meat would be desirable.
With agriculture becoming smaller in scale, speculation by hedge funds and pension funds that prices will rise in future (thereby pushing up the price of food) will cease to be profitable.
Greater variety and preservation of older species of plants/animals may add to the conviviality of neighbourhoods, as shown by the slow food movement originated by the Italian Carlo Petrini.
A greater emphasis on biological farming will require more hands. By coupling work and education in sustainable farming practices, attractive new employment opportunities will be created.
There is no escaping the conclusion that we have to make a break from our culture’s fascination with increasing speed. We should slow down if we are to have an abundant life of service to God and neighbour in the company of happy farm animals (much smaller herds of cows) and flourishing ecosystems.
The more we succeed in working along the lines of the garden-city metaphor, the more resistance we may expect from the corporate business powers. They dominate industrial agriculture and, in fact, politics and economics in general. They will not hesitate to denigrate biological-ecological farming as a romantic pipe-dream, unable to feed the world. On the other hand, they will try to conquer the developing market for ‘organics’ by implementing more organic features in agriculture and offering healthier food.
It is also conceivable that growing consumer interest in biologically-ecologically produced food would entice growers to go for larger-scale operations that relay maybe even to a small extent on chemicals.
Such dialectics emphasise the need to think in terms of rhizoids, by considering alternatives to the widespread networks of modern economics.
The Book of Proverbs (12:11) tells us that when we till our own land we will have food in plenty. Of course, this is based on Old Testament times, when everybody was supposed to have his own plot of land. Transposed to our times, we can think of cities or countries that should make it a priority to feed their own populations, with trade confined to importing and exporting of residuals. This has been proposed, for example, by the Confédération Paysanne (Bové/Dufour, 2000).
The Proverb then contrasts such an act of wisdom with someone who follows idle pursuits. The latter term is used also by the Apostle Paul in Acts 14:15, where it is also translated as ‘idols’.
Collectively, our modern culture has turned God’s noble gifts of science, technical ability and prudent stewardship into an ethos that is idolatrous: the world is understood as a machine. It is now confronting us with problems that seem to be almost unsurmountable. Climate warming, nuclear armaments and nuclear power appear to be the worst. The steady destruction of fertile soil must rate as another.
Yet, there are signs of more fruitful pursuits. I have highlighted a few. Some stem from cultures that succumbed to Western ways centuries ago. There is an echo here from St Paul’s same speech to those in Lystra: that God left himself not without witness, but gave rains from heaven and fruitful seasons (Acts 14:17).
Indeed, the Biblical metaphor of the earth as a garden-city points the way to a fruitful and peaceful culture in which all may share God’s given abundance.
We may consider this metaphor in the light of Luther’s question: how should we draw faith into life; into our agricultural thinking and practice? What is our task as stewards of God’s creation?
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