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Cultivating an Ecological Conscience

Review by Dan Armstrong (page 2)

The thirty-seven essays in Cultivating an Ecological Conscience are divided into three parts. The first part includes thirteen essays and is titled "Working at Home: Lessons from Kirschenmann Family Farms." This could be called the short version of Fred Kirschenmann's life. At the heart of this is his sudden change of careers in 1977 and his personal transition from academic to farmer and the physical transition of his farm from conventional to organic. With each essay, the reader indirectly follows the transition process from the difficult early years of trying to bring a new agricultural perspective to an established farming community to the creation of a likeminded group of North Dakota natural farmers to the evolution and rationale behind his crop rotations. In a sense, this transition is the same transition that Kirschenmann would likely say the entire agricultural system must go through in one way or another.

Where does this start? Kirschenmann uses a quote from Sir Albert Howard's An Agricultural Testament to describe his philosophy of farming. Sir Albert's wisdom bears repeating:

"The main characteristic of nature's farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted to humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store rainfall, both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease."

The essays "Low-input Farming in Practice," "A Transcendent Vision," and "A Journey toward Sustainability" describe how Kirschenmann put these ideas into action and track a steep learning curve that included growing as much of his own food as possible, striving toward zero waste, and confronting the continual reminder that every piece of land is different, with its own path to sustainability that is also ever changing and adapting–a concept that is true for all the regions of the earth.

Fred Kirschenmann

The second part of the book contains eleven essays and is titled "Cracks in the Bridges: Inspecting the Industrial Food System." This is Kirschenmann's examination of the existing system, and his criticism starts with countering the seemingly inarguable concept that maximum yield is the measure of successful farming. He feels this is simply wrong if not backwards:

"We also know that the overriding goal of industrial agriculture has been to maximize efficient production and short-term return. Given this single-minded goal, we have paid little attention to the health of our finite biosphere…as a result, we have severely degraded the very resources on which our economy depends."

This contains a theme Kirschenmann repeats throughout the book. Short-term answers are invariably contrary to long-term sustainability. Chemical inputs may improve yield and profits over the short-term, but who pays for the long-term, external effects–like the chemicals in the ground water, the chemicals in the food, or even the health of the farmer who must handle these chemicals on a daily basis. If these external factors and others are not part of the profit-loss equation, they should be.

The second essay in this section, "Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World? And is that the Right Question?," again goes against a hallowed industrial agricultural premise. The question "Can organic agriculture feed the world?" is usually posed from the perspective that there is no way organic agriculture can produce as much food as industrial agriculture. Add the fact that we are running out of petroleum and that petrochemical inputs and fossil fuels are essential to industrial agriculture, and the question transforms into "Can we feed the world without petrochemicals?" Though there is wide debate whether the answer to this is yes or no, according to Kirschenmann, this is simply not the right question to be asking on a planet with limited resources.

Food shortages, he tells us over and over, are not solved by making every effort to increase production, which is the way they are usually addressed. "If we are to survive," he writes, "we must both reduce the growth of the human species and transform agriculture so that it enhances, rather than further deteriorates, the ecological neighborhoods in which we farm." This is a far more honest answer to the question than simply producing more food for more people at an ever increasing cost to the overall health of the planet.

This second section contains three essays on biotechnology. The first two, "Biotechnology on the Ground" and "Questioning Biotechnology's Claims and Imagining Alternatives," explore the long-term effects of recent technological advances in agriculture, specifically in bioengineering, and how these advances were sold to the public. Very few of these so-called advances have lived up to the advertising and invariably are more advantageous to the sellers of these technologies than to the farmers who use them. Returning to the theme touched on in "Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World," but from a slightly difference angle, Kirschenmann concludes:

"There is a fundamental flaw with the claim that genetically engineered foods will feed the world. Hunger is not caused by food availability, but by food entitlement. In other words, hunger is not caused by an insufficient quantity of food, but by insufficient access to food. Feeding the world is therefore largely a social and economic problem, not a production problem…Focusing on more food as the single solution to feeding expanding human populations distracts us from a host of other problems that further overcrowding by still more humans will surely create: increased disease, destruction of ecosystem services, increased fragility of the entire ecosystem."

But this is just the beginning of his argument against biotechnology. Yes, he says, agricultural technology, including genetic engineering, has risen to meet each new problem encountered but with the effect of creating yet another problem. (Super weeds as a result of super herbicides.) Technological solutions will never be able to keep up with the capacity of natural systems to adapt and adapt quickly, either to natural forces or man's attempt to control nature. In other words, biotech scientists will always be at least one step behind agile nature. And that's not to mention the vulnerability of the large monoculture operations industrial agriculture promotes–to which Kirschenmann comments:

"Propping up monocultures and the industrial food system using transgenic technologies is challenging because monocultures are fundamentally at odds with nature. Nature is diverse and complex. Monocultures are inherently unstable and fraught with pest problems. All organisms in nature have learned to adapt to biodiversity. Nature will always find ways to overcome the specialization and simplification of monocultures."

Then he returns to his argument against the pursuit of maximum production at all costs and applies this to biotechnology. Instead of the farmer saving his or her seeds and using them to plant his next crop, buying genetically modified seed patented and controlled by the manufacturer amounts to just one more input cost in what has become a generations long treadmill of increasing input costs to increase yields–but not necessarily profits or long-term returns:

"Profitability is determined more by the share of the agricultural economic activity that farmers command than by the quantity of commodities they produce or the price received for them. The farm sector's share of agricultural activity has steadily eroded for most of the twentieth century, shrinking from 41 percent to 9 percent from 1910 to 1990. Coincidentally, during that same period the input sector's share of agricultural economic activity increased from 15 percent to 24 percent, and the marketing sector increased from 44 percent to 67 percent."

Though Kirschenmman does not think transgenic research should be abandoned entirely, he refers to the precautionary principle when it comes to taking chances with the environment. "If we continue to ignore the ecological dimensions of our modifications, as we seem to regularly do with genetic engineering, we are likely to experience many unpleasant surprises." Why involve ourselves in these kinds of risks, he asks, when there are alternatives out there. "If we invested research funding for ecological approaches to solving production problems that was comparable to what we spend on the engineering approach, what solutions would we find?"

Though he certainly speaks to several other "cracks in the bridges," the biotechnology question is an important one to Kirschenmann and he offers many ways to come at it. The third essay on the subject, "Is the USDA Accounting for the Costs to Farmers from Contamination Caused by Genetically Engineered Plants?," is a slightly revised version of the statement Kirschenmann made to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform in March of 2008. The focus is how "shortcomings at the USDA in the regulation of genetically engineered crops have significantly affected organic producers economically"–specifically the impact of Roundup Ready canola on organic canola growers in the northern United States. Everyone should read this essay.

After his review of the industrial food system, Kirschenmann devotes the third section of his book, titled "Envisioning an Alternative Food and Farming System," to agricultural solutions and a vision for the future, not just for farming but in the reframing of our entire food system. This portion of the book will resonate with those who are concerned about climate change and peaking oil production. Its thirteen essays lay out the reasons for "deindustrializing" the food system and describe what this deindustrialation might look like. In a sense this is an advancement of the regionalism of the New Agrarian movement in the 1970s and looks very much like the peak oil community's idea of relocalization as a strategy for diminishing our carbon footprint–yet with the emphasis placed on locally produced, locally processed, and locally consumed food.

The essay "Rethinking Food" begins with a quote from the distinguished peak oil writer Richard Heinberg, who refers to "reruralization" as the "dominant social trend of the twenty-first century." This "rerualization" is essentially the rebuilding of our rural communities around a reinvigorated food system or something very much like the "deindustrialization" of farming Kirschenmann describes. Both terms point to a decentralization of our food systems as a common sense response to rising oil prices, leading Kirschenmann to write:

"We are now on the brink of peak global oil production, and we have nowhere to turn for new sources of stored, concentrated energy. While many forms of alternative energy are being explored and produced, it is unlikely that any of these current dispersed forms of energy will reach the energy-profit ratios we have become accustomed to with oil and natural gas. Our new energy landscape is likely to significantly alter the food system, and those changes are only a short time ahead."

But what are those changes? How do we make "reruralization" or "deindustrialization" happen? Kirschenmann mentions a trip he made to Cuba several years ago and the "deindustrialization" of Cuba's agriculture in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Cuba's primary source of petroleum. Cuba entered into a politically imposed energy crisis that forced them to decentralize their agriculture and out of necessity produce their food with as little chemical inputs and fossil fuels as possible–and they thrived! (See the documentary film The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.) In Kirschenmann's words Cuba "serves as an example of how the end of cheap oil can lead to creative alternatives grounded in modern science."

Central to the deindustrialization concept is one key premise–do not sent raw material somewhere else for processing–it costs you jobs and community resilience:

"The way farmers do business has to change. Instead of mass-producing undifferentiated raw materials for the global economy, they must produce identity-preserved products that are marketed as directly as possible. Such enterprises need to be owned and operated by farmers, with direct retail links that conform to consumers' changing demands."

As part of this process, Kirschenmann accents value-based, value-chain markets, niche marketing, and food with a story:

"Because the farm identity of such products is essential in these new markets, these foods must be processed in local community facilities where the identity of each product can be maintained all the way from farm to table. Such local enterprises can help expand wealth in local rural communities. These new food chains can be designed to operate on values that best serve the community and the market, ensuring that farmers receive fair compensation and that more of the wealth generated will be retained in the community."

While some local food advocates will refer to "local" as within 100 miles or within the same bioregion, Kirschenmann favors the term "foodshed" as a way to determine a locale. Highly attuned to peak oil and the transition towns movement, he defines 'foodshed" and how it applies to local marketing in at article on the website Transition Times: Colorado Edition (published Oct. 20, 2009 accessed 4/12/2011):

"A foodshed is a regional food concept that is based on a new set of priorities. The first priority of a foodshed is to feed people within the foodshed by people in the foodshed, making them as food self-sufficient as possible, and only then fulfilling other needs through trade. This new vision of our food future gives people in each community much more authority over the food they will produce and consume, and allows them to determine how it will benefit their own communities. This new movement has the potential to grow rather rapidly and eventually evolve into effective rural-urban food coalitions with farmers and consumers working together as food citizens to create food systems that are based on resilient production and long-term return. This can benefit their own communities economically, ecologically, and socially, rather than making them totally dependent on distant enterprises from which they gain little and over which they have little control. And, as John Cobb put it some time ago, they will recognize that trade is only free when they are free not to trade."

Place emphasis on the reverse ordering of the global market priority. Instead of selling first global then regionally then locally. The producer begins with the local market and works outward. This strategy offers manifold benefits. It reduces transportation distances and thus reduces freight expenditures and carbon footprint. It focuses on the rebuilding of the rural economies and rural life and culture—Heinberg's "reruralization.." It promotes maximum diversity of crops and sustainable practices—the closer we are to our food; the closer we are to the ecological imperatives. And it stimulates the rebuilding of our local and region food systems.

Relocalized, reruralized, deindustrialized, by any name there is strong common ground here for environmentalists and agriculturalists alike in Kirschenmann's agrarian vision—and in this reviewer's opinion, finding and defining this common ground is one of the most important tasks of our time. Healing the planet begins with learning how to sustainably feed the human populace.

Kirschenmann's Cultivating an Ecological Conscience is an important book covering almost forty years of work from one of the most astute agricultural thinkers of our times. If we are going to change the way we manage the planet, it must begin with an ecological conscience and making the necessary connection between caring for the environment and how we farm and how we eat.

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