Chemical agriculture is not the right way. Evolutions and involutions of an activity that has lasted for centuries

When our ancestors practised agriculture they acted along a tradition which was mostly many centuries old. Growing crops and breeding animals was done in a way that took in account the possibilities and impossibilities of the local biotope and what was locally available as plant, animal and mineral resources.

It’s difficult for us now to get an understanding of what it was like, so we have to revert to witness accounts to get an idea. There is a fabulous series of booklets published in 1932, titled  “The little house on the prairie” (“La casa nella prateria”) written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, an American pioneer woman. She was a little girl when her parents finally settled in Dakota around 1870-1880. In a very accessible language (the books can easily be read by children) she describes in detail how the family  made a living as farmers in the harsh climate of North America, how and with which means they did it and how their relationship with neighbours and friends were.

Another interesting book is “Walden; or, the Life in the Woods” (Walden ovvero Vita nei boschi) by Henry David Thoreau, published in 1854. Thoreau also describes a pioneer experience: he went to live for two years in a cabin in the woods, without companionship and without the then usual comfort. He describes what he perceived around him and which inner experiences he had. The solitude, the primitive living circumstances and the necessity to be forever inventive and creative made a profound impression: “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”  (« Solo quando ci siamo perduti, in altre parole, solo quando abbiamo perduto il mondo, cominciamo a trovare noi stessi, e a capire dove siamo, e l’infinita ampiezza delle nostre relazioni »).

Old books to solve our new problems? Is this the type of approach we should go for, back to the past and to a rather basic way of living? Absolutely not! But there are some similarities between the challenges the Ingalls family as well as Henry Thoreau were confronted with, and the challenges we have in front of us today. Both books describe life within a society still standing on the threshold of scientific discovery and industrial revolution. Nature was not yet smudged with the environmental impacts of an industrial and agricultural life that had developed against instead of with that nature, for the sake of financial profit. Human health was not yet victimised by the misunderstanding that man is just a bag of flesh and bones that can be repaired with chemistry – again, for the sake of financial profit. We are further down the timeline now and we are able to see the damage; there’s more than enough to dampen our spirits. “We have entered an Age of Disruption” writes Otto Scharmer[1], it is “special-interest-group-driven decision-making that has led us into a state of organized irresponsibility, collectively creating results that nobody wants”.

Apparently we got onto the wrong track, which is extremely visible in agriculture, the vital human activity that makes that we can live on this planet at all. We replaced the care for the natural fertility of the soil by increased spreading of synthetic fertiliser, with as a dramatic outcome that everywhere in the world the fertility of that soil is decreasing. In the wake of that phenomenon came a lot of vermin, against which we had to start using insecticides, and so-called plant diseases which we have to combat with pesticides. Both are persistent and they poison the broader environment for years to come. Plant seeds, which have been common property resources during thousands of years, are seized by industry, genetically modified, patented and sold with the interdiction to reproduce them.

Dairy cattle and poultry are forced to produce beyond their natural boundaries, often in poor animal welfare conditions, when not flat-out of animal cruelty. As a consequence the animals get weak and need antibiotics to survive long enough to make it to the slaughterhouse. In the wake of all this, a lot of undesirable chemicals are spreading daily through the food chain. In short, modern agriculture became fully dependent of the chemical industry and it is rightful to call it “chemical agriculture”. All this is not new, of course, and conscious consumers who resist the anaesthetic of the average marketing humbug will already have been searching for alternatives.

Getting off the wrong track of chemical agriculture was tried as early as 1893 when the first attempts were made by the Eden Foundation in Oranienburg, Germany (they are still producing today!). The first real course in what would be coined later as “organic agriculture” was given in 1924 in Koberwitz (now Kobierzyce, Poland) in the presence of over 100 attendees from several countries. Since then, organic agriculture and organic produce have spread everywhere in the world. Many people still think it’s agriculture without-this-and-without-that, but it is much, much more than that. All the actual ethical, health and environmental themes are an inextricable part of it: climate and biotope respect, care for soil fertility, crop quality optimalisation, animal-friendly husbandry, sustainable agricultural methods, limitation of meat and dairy produce consumption, seasonal food, care for the global water system, sustainable energy use, limitation of the use of chemicals of waste generation and energy input, exclusion of genetic manipulation and of fossil ingredients.

Organic starts from an holistic approach by nature. That’s why, when we do our shopping the next days, we should let our attention go to the products from certified organic agriculture in the shelves, rather than those from chemical agriculture.  Expensive? Nah. All other agricultural produce is far too cheap for the damage they do, and it’s our health and our environment which are paying the real price.

[1]     Dr. Otto Scharmer & Dr. Katrin Kaufer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in “Leading from the Emerging Future”, Berrett Koehler 2013.

The expert

Peter Malaise

Ricercatore belga e consulente per la sostenibilità dal 1972, è fondatore e Amministratore Delegato di Meta Consort Partnership, che aiuta le imprese e le ONG a livello mondiale nello sviluppo pratico di prodotti e servizi su base sostenibile. Nel 1976 Peter ha co-fondato Meta Fellowship, organizzazione no-profit per lo sviluppo e la promozione di “soluzioni…

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