A Poison Apple


Food from Fossil Fuels

Over the last century or two, agriculture has become increasingly industrialised, first through mechanisation, the application of imported natural fertilisers and more intensive breeding and use of selected varieties. Then artificial fertilisers were developed and applied more consistently, while a vast array of chemical sprays and additives were used to manage weeds, pests and diseases, with plants and animals being modified by more invasive biotechnology techniques. This industrialised agriculture has been spread around the world, with crop specialisation between countries, and the conversion of pre-existing landscapes into vast areas of a single species of food or fibre crops.

This industrialisation of agriculture has had profound effects on the soils, forests, landscapes and waterways of the Earth. There has been widespread and on going loss of topsoil and a progressive decline in the natural fertility level of soils. The loss of forests has been massive and is continuing, not only from low lands but well up into steep range and mountain lands, as well as the more recent destruction of tropical forests from forest burning practices and clearance for agricultural use. Landscapes have been transformed, with complex and diverse eco-systems being replaced by monocultures of food and fibre crops, managed grasslands and plantation forests. Groundwater and waterways have been severely polluted by toxic chemicals and nutrient overloads, while rainfall patterns and the gas composition of the atmosphere has been altered over large areas.

While the quantity of food and fibre obtained from the managed crops has been substantially increased, this has only been achieved with large inputs of external materials and extraordinarily high levels of energy consumption. At the same time, the overall productivity of the land has not necessarily been increased, when all possible sources of food and fibre are taken into account, and not just that from the target crops of the industrialised agriculture.

The quality of food has not been improved by this agriculture. On the contrary there is increasing evidence of a serious decline in nutritional value, as well as a loss of form and structure, which certainly affects palatability and taste, and may also affect the overall sustenance provided by the food. There are often many chemical residues on food (from production, keeping and ripening chemicals) that are at levels significant in terms of bodily absorption when the food is eaten. These chemicals include solvents and many are designed to be toxic to life forms.

Why does our agriculture give rise to highly modified landscapes, polluted waterways and chemically contaminated food of poor nutritional quality? Is this the best agriculture that our civilisation can achieve? And why do governments and scientific establishments promote more of the same, at even higher levels of intensity? Greater modification of the landscape, with further specialisation, an even wider array of chemicals, more complex and invasive biotechnological alteration of plants and animals - this is the order of the day.



Obtaining Food & Fibre

Different Types of Intervention and Inter-relationships

Challenges & Choices

Obtaining a sustainable supply of food and other essentials of survival is a perennial challenge of life. In facing this challenge at the beginning of the 21st century we do have other choices, provided we are willing to challenge our basic assumptions about life, and step outside the bounds of our cultural conditioning. Organic management can be more than a way of obtaining healthy nutritious food in a sustainable way. It can, and necessarily must be, part of an alternative way of living. An attitude of care and respect for the land and all living creatures arises in a culture that respects all of life and sees living in terms of connective relationships of mutual inter-dependence.

When life is seen as a participatory experience, within an infinitely infolded reality, the essential basis of social and economic activity would be one of partnership and co-operation. When plants are seen as growing by a pulsating interaction between soil and atmosphere, over day and night and through the changes of seasons, life would be understood in terms of interweaving spirals of convergence and divergence, instead of linear changes to conditions of fixed and unending stability. Then there would be an implicit acceptance of inter-dependence, and of the need to nurture relationships rather than achieve dominance. Harmony and balance would be the measure of success, not increasing production and hence consumption at the expense of other people and other life forms.

Organic agriculture is based on the nature and condition of the environment in which it is practised. It is a locality based farming for local supply, and supports and is supported by local communities. It fits into a social arrangement based around local communities, these communities being made up of people who interact sufficiently in their daily lives to form an identifiable group, actively involved in each others lives and able to make communal decisions on the basis of mutual interest. When society is built up from these communities, and decision making is delegated upwards as the interdependence and complexities of the issues demand, and not from the top down, then social life would reflect the natural hierarchies of life, which give rise to a complex order of mutual dependence and self-regulating feedback. In this way a sophisticated civilisation at a high level of organisation could be sustained, by building social processes from the foundation of natural processes, and in a way that reflects and works in with those processes.

Our approach to agriculture and the technologies we apply depend on our social institutions and cultural viewpoint - that defines how we see the world and what knowledge is acceptable and 'correct'. We do not apply all available technologies, on the contrary choices are constantly made.

Organic agriculture is much more than not using toxic and synthetic chemicals. All of life is made up of chemicals, and agriculture does involve intervention and alteration of the natural world. It is the way in which the chemicals are used that is important. Are they used to dominate and degrade the natural eco-system that supports agriculture? Or are they part of an integrative stewardship?

Similarly with bio-technology, there are many ways of altering the biology of species, and selective breeding, which is as old as agriculture, alters the gene pool and can effect inter-species relationships. It is the purpose of the chemical or the bio-technology that is important, and this depends on the wider context in which it is developed and applied.

Hence the need to consider the underpinning cultural perspectives, and those basic assumptions that we take for granted. What chemicals are developed for what purpose depends on what is culturally acceptable and what are the power relationships and incentive systems of the prevailing culture. The use that will be made of genetic engineering will similarly depend on the motivation and decision making context of the scientists and corporate managers who have the power and resources to develop and implement this technology.

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