Reclaiming the Sacred in Food and Farming

~ Written by John E. Ikerd ~ Photography by Christine Peterson ~

Farming is fundamentally biological. The essence of agriculture begins with conversion of solar energy through the living process of photosynthesis. The food that sustains our lives comes from other living things. If life is sacred, then food and farming must be sacred as well. Throughout nearly all of human history, both food and farming were considered sacred. Farmers prayed for rain, for protection from pestilence, and for bountiful harvests. People gave thanks to God for their “daily bread” — as well as for harvests at annual times of Thanksgiving. For many, farming and food are still sacred. But for many more, farming has become just another business and food just something else to buy. Those who still treat food and farming as something sacred may be labeled as old-fashion, strange, radical, or naïve.

But, the time to reclaim the sacred in food and farming may well be at hand. The trends that have desacralized farming may have run, even overrun, their course. There is a growing skepticism concerning the claim that more “stuff” – be it larger houses, fancier cars, more clothes, or more food – will make us more happy or satisfied with life. There is growing evidence that when we took out the sacred, we took out the substance, and have left our lives shallow and empty. Humanity is beginning to ask new questions. The old questions of how can I “get” more is being replaced with questions of how can I “be” more?

The answer to this question, at least in part, is that we must reclaim the spiritual dimension of our lives. But, how can we reclaim the spiritual or sacred? And, how will doing so change the way we farm and live? These questions will be addressed, but first we need to understand why we took spirituality out of food and farming in the first place and why we now need to put it back in.

Until some four hundred years ago, nearly everything in life was considered spiritual or sacred. The religious scholars were the primary source of knowledge in the intellectually “enlightened” world. Kings, chiefs, clan leaders, the people who other people looked to for wisdom were assumed to have special divine or spiritual powers. It was only during the seventeenth century that the spiritual nature of the world became seriously challenged. Among the most notable challengers was Descartes who proposed the spirit/matter dualism. “The Cartesian division allowed scientists to treat matter as dead and completely separate from themselves, and to see the material world as a multitude of different objects assembled into a huge machine” (Capra, 1983. p.22). Sir Isaac Newton also held this mechanistic view of the universe and shaped it into the foundation for classical physics.

Over time, the mechanical model was expanded to include the living as well as the “dead.” Plants, animals, even people, are now treated as complex mechanisms with many interrelated, yet separable parts — in spite of the emergence of quantum physics that now challenges the old mechanistic worldview. Reductionism, which attempts to explain all biological processes as purely chemical and mechanical processes, has come to dominate the applied biological sciences from agriculture to medicine.

The spiritual realm, to the extent it was considered at all, was assumed to be in the fundamental nature of things – the unchanging relationships of which scientists sought to discover. There was no active spiritual aspect of life, only the passive possibility that spirituality was somehow involved in the initial creation of the universe that we are now exploring. The more we understood about the working of the universe, the less we needed to understand about the nature of God. The more we “knew” the less we needed to “believe.” As we expanded the realm of the “factual” we reduced the realm of the “spiritual” until it became trivial, at least in matters of science.

Farming was one of the last strongholds for the sacred in the world of science. The shift in scientific thinking had been from a “science of understanding” to a “science of manipulation” (Schumacher). Over time, the goal of science shifted from increasing “wisdom” to the goal of increasing “power.” We didn’t want just to understand the universe; we wanted to dominate it. The purpose of science had become to enhance our ability to influence, direct, and control. “Mechanical” processes – using machines to manufacture things from “dead” matter – were relatively easy to understand and manipulate. “Biological” processes – involving living organisms, including humans – proved much more difficult to both understand and manage. Farming and food are fundamentally biological. So it took far longer to learn to manipulate and control agriculture. Farmers continued to pray for rain, and people continued to give thanks for food – although scientists would have advised us that both were either unnecessary or futile.

But, science eventually succeeded in taking the sacred out of farming – at least out of modern, scientific farming. People tend to be difficult to understand and manipulate. But machines took laborers out of the fields, so farming became more manageable. Selective breeding brought genetic vagaries more or less under control. Commercial fertilizers gave farmers the power to cope with the uncertainties of organic-based nutrient cycling. Commercial pesticides provided simple scientific means of managing predator, parasites, and pests. Deep-well irritation reduced the grower’s dependence on rainfall. Processing, storage, and transportation – all mechanical processes – removed many of the previous biological constraints associated with form, time, and place of production. Farms have become factories without roofs. Supermarkets and restaurants are but the final stages in a long and complex food assembly line. Why pray for rain when we can drill a deep well and irrigate? Why thank God for food created by ConAgra? Who needs God when we have modern science and technology?

But today, as in the seventeenth century, we are in a time of “great transition.” “We are at that very point in time when a 400-year-old age is dying and another is struggling to be born – a shifting of culture, science, society, and institutions enormously greater than the world has ever experienced. Ahead, the possibility of the regeneration of individuality, liberty, community, and ethics such as the world has never known, and a harmony with nature, with one another, and with the divine intelligence such as the world has never dreamed.” These are the words of Dee Hock, founder of the Visa Corporation and creator of the Chaordic model of business organization. Hock is certainly not alone in this thinking. A whole host of futurist, including Alvin Toffler, Vaclav Havel, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, John Naisbitt, Robert Reich, and others agree that we are in a time of fundamental change. They talk and write of a shift in worldview from the mechanistic, industrial era where power is derived from control of capital and the technical means of production to a post-industrial era where human progress is derived from knowledge — the new source of wealth and human satisfaction. They agree that knowledge is fundamentally biological rather than mechanical in nature and will require a new “science of understanding” to replace the old “science of manipulation.”

The transition to a more sustainable agriculture is but one small part of the “great transition” that is taking place all across society. The questioning that is driving the sustainable agriculture issue, however, exemplifies the broader questioning of society that is fueling the “great transition.” We are questioning the sustainability of agriculture because we have come to believe that our natural resource base is finite, that we and the other elements of our environment are all interconnected, that there is a higher and unseen order of things to which we must conform. Sustainability concerns seem foolish to those who believe that human ingenuity is infinitely substitutable for natural resources, that our environment and we are separable, and that the laws of nature are but temporary obstacles to be overcome through science. Conflicts regarding the legitimacy of the sustainability issue are conflicts of beliefs, not of facts. But, there is a growing body of evidence to support the questioning of whether agriculture or any other aspect of our current society is sustainable.

In agriculture, the litany of sustainability concerns has become a familiar theme. Agriculture – with its fundamental purpose of transforming solar energy into human useful form – now uses far more energy from fossil sources than it captures from the sun. Water and air pollution — associated with commercial fertilizers and pesticides and large-scale confinement animal feeding operations – have become major public concerns. Declining numbers of family farms – a consequence of agricultural industrialization – has left many rural communities are in decline and decay — places without a purpose.

The ethical and moral commitment to stewardship and community among farmers seems to have given way to concern for the economic bottom line. Increases in agricultural productivity have become more illusionary than real as the farmer’s role in food production declines and the role of input and marketing firms rises. Small farms are considered largely irrelevant to agriculture, even though most U.S. farm families still live on small farms. There is a growing disillusionment and a sense of hopelessness, even among larger farmers, as multi-national corporations take over a larger and larger share of agricultural production.

Similar concerns are apparent in the larger society. As population and per capita consumption increase, the ultimate scarcity of natural resources — such as land and fossil fuels – seem obvious to many if not most of us. The environmental movement, born only in the early sixties with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, has grown to permeate the global society as evidence of environmental pollution abounds. The disintegration of families and communities is beginning to have major negative impacts on our societal quality of life. Increasing drug use, violence, and crime are attributed to the decline in ethical and moral values of a disconnected society. Declining productivity of labor, a symptom of treating people as if they were machines, has lead to growing underemployment and economic and social inequities. These and other factors contribute to a growing disillusionment and sense of hopelessness that permeates much of society. At a world conference of intellectuals reported in the book, “Reinventing the Future,” degradation of the environment, breakdown of public and private morality, and growing social inequities between the North and South were three of the four items on the global agenda.

But what do these concerns for sustainability have to do with spirituality? The answer, these concerns share a common source in the removal of spirituality from science and society. The science of manipulation, the quest for power and control, provided the conceptual foundation for the industrial revolution. The fundamental concepts of industrialization – specialization, mechanization, routinization, and control — are based on a mechanistic worldview. The science of Descartes and Newton became a science that sought to separate, sequence, compartmentalize, and control. Growing concerns for ecological, social, and economic sustainability all are consequences of growing industrialization. And, in the mechanistic worldview supporting industrialization, there is no active role for the sacred.

The science of manipulation is a science which separates – mind from matter, people from nature, people from each other, the body from the mind, and the mind from the soul. It’s the science of modern economics that assumes the greatest good arises spontaneously from the greatest greed – that the interest of society is a consequence of the vigorous pursuit of self-interest. The same science that made the industrial era possible is the science that removed the sacred from matters of economics and politics and removed spirituality from the day-to-day matters of both individuals and their communities. We were lead to believe that good science would bring about success and happiness without any help from “on high.”

But, biological and social phenomena never really fit the mechanistic, manipulative view of the world. Living things of nature had to be bent, twisted, bribed and coerced to bring them under control. But, nature inevitably fights back. Questions of sustainability invariably can be traced to unintended consequences of treating living things as if they were inanimate, programmable, controllable machines. A science of understanding – of wisdom rather than power and control – must provide the foundation for a sustainable society.

Using almost anyone’s definition, concerns for sustainability imply concerns for intergenerational equity – a need to meet the needs of our current generation while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of generations to follow. Thus, sustainability is about “equity, forever.” The three corner stones of sustainable agriculture – ecological soundness, economic viability, and social equity – rest upon a foundation of intergenerational equity. Intergenerational equity, in turn, has its foundation in human spirituality. Concern for sustainability reflects a felt need to treat fairly those in whom we have neither self-interests nor shared-interests, in any sense other than spiritual.

Conventional economic theory deals with short-run self-interest. Economic efficiency defines the optimum means of using things up. There is nothing in economics to ensure long run sustainability. Economics is about “me, now.” Conventional public choice theory deals with collective decisions concerning matters of current shared-interest. There is nothing in this theory concerning allocating societal goods and services to ensure a sustainable society. Public choice is about “us, now.” Likewise, many of the current environmental concerns are related to a desire to protect “us, now” rather than our concern for future generations. But, sustainability includes concern for “us and them, forever.” Only the spiritual is capable of transcending the present to address the fundamental issues of long run sustainability. Only the spirituality transcends “me, us, and them, both for now and forever. ”

What is this thing called spirituality? First, spirituality is not religion, at least not as it is used here. Religion is simply one of many possible means of expressing one’s spirituality. William James, a religious philosopher, defined religion as “an attempt to be in harmony with an unseen order of things.” Paraphrasing James, one might define spirituality as “a ‘need’ to be in harmony with an unseen order.” This definition embraces a wide range of cultural beliefs, philosophies, and religions.

A Native American, Chief Sealth, or Seattle, said: “Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” (Roberts and Amidon, p.10 ).

From another culture, “the most important characteristic of the Eastern world view – one could almost say the essence of it – is the awareness of unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness” (Capra, p. 131).

An example of a Polynesian worldview: “The Kahuna told me, if you are looking for God, look out at the sea. Look to the horizon. Get in your canoe and go to the horizon. When you get there, you will meet God. God is nature. God is everything” (Pearsall, p. 121).

And, from a Jewish Prayer: “And God saw everything he had made and found it very good. And he said: This is a beautiful world I have given you. Take good care of it; do not ruin it…I place it in your hands: hold it in trust” (Roberts and Amidon, p. 62)

Finally, from the Bible: “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun; A time to be born a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill a time to heal; a time to weep a time to laugh;… a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

A common thread of all these expressions of spirituality is the existence of an unseen order or interconnected web that defines the oneness of all things within a unified whole. We as people are a part of this whole. We may attempt to understand it and even influence it, but we did not create nor can we control it. Thus, we must seek peace through harmony within the order of things beyond our control. This harmony may be defined as “doing the right things.” And, by “doing the right things;” for ourselves, for others around us, and for those of future generations, we create harmony and find inner peace.

The sustainable agriculture issue ultimately is rooted in a perceived “need to be in harmony with the order of things” — in spirituality. Finding harmony with a higher order requires an understanding of that order – wisdom not power and control. Sustainable farming means farming in harmony with nature – nurturing nature rather than dominating or manipulating it. Sustainable agriculture means fitting farming to the farmer and the farm – not forcing either to fit some predefined prescription for progress. Sustainable farming means farming in harmony among people – within families, communities, and societies. Sustainable farming means farming in harmony with future generations – being good stewards of finite resources. A life of quality is a shared life. A life of quality is a spiritual life.

The goal of sustainability is to sustain a desirable quality of life. Quality of life is not something we can buy at Walmart or Disney World with the money we earn from farming for the “bottom line.” Quality of life is determined by our ability to “do the right things,” for me, for us, and for them. Quality of life, inherently and inseparably, is personal, interpersonal, and spiritual in nature.

A sustainable agriculture, likewise, has personal, interpersonal and spiritual dimensions. A sustainable agriculture must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just. Protecting our own environment is not enough. We must conserve and protect resources for those of the future. Profits are necessary but not sufficient. The economics of short run, self-interests are inadequate to ensure that there will be anything left for future generations. A society without justice is not sustainable — no matter how profitable and environmentally sound it may seem. The economic, ecological, and social dimensions are all essential and inseparable. Sustainability requires harmony among things personal, interpersonal, and spiritual. We can begin reclaiming the sacred in food and farming by reclaiming, up front and without compromise, the spiritual nature of sustainability.

As we reclaim the sacred in food and farming, it changes the way we farm and live. We learn to pursue peace and happiness rather than success. We seek “harmony” among things economic, social, and spiritual – not maximums or minimums. If we focus on any one, we tend to deplete the others, and lose rather than gain what we seek to achieve. Farming solely for the bottom line, for example, invariably takes time and resources away from family and community, degrades the natural resource base, degrades the human spirit, and eventually destroys the ability of the farm to even generate a profit. However, ignoring farm economics for short-run family or religious reasons can be just as devastating in the long run for both family and spirituality.

Our common sense tells us that we must have balance in our lives among the personal, interpersonal, and spiritual. Yet we are bombarded from every corner with the message that having more stuff will make us happy, that success means having more money. Or we may be told that happiness is found only in love of family and friends, and that money doesn’t matter. On Sunday, the message is likely to be that happiness comes only from the love of God, that we should deny ourselves and follow Him. The thesis of sustainability is that “all these things matter, but than none alone is sufficient.” To sustain the sacred in farming, we must find harmony among things economic, social, and ecological – among the personal, interpersonal, and spiritual.

Spirituality does not mean that our rewards must be delayed until after-life, any more than sustainability means we must sacrifice quality of life today for some future reward. We live only in the present, not the past or the future. If we are unhappy today, reaching some future tangible goal is likely to leave us unhappy. If we are happy today, we are quite likely to be happy in the future regardless of whether we reach some goal we now have in mind. The focus of faith and hope may on things expected or hoped for in the future, but the true benefits of both are in the here and now. “Living in faith and hope” defines a life worth living far more than does achieving whatever is expected or hoped for. Faith and hope are about “now, not when.” Faith and hope are fruits of the spirit.

Likewise the spirituality of sustainable farming is about here and now, not there and when. The rewards come from having adequate, not maximum, income; from having positive relationships with family, friends, and others; and from being a responsible steward of resources for the future. All of those things have rewards here and now, as well as somewhere else at some time in the future. The key point is that the reward comes from knowing that we are “in harmony with some unseen order.” An adequate income, friends and family, and a clean environment are all products, not sources, of our overall sense of peace and happiness.

A desire to declaiming the spiritual does not guarantee peace and happiness. Reclaiming the sacred simply recreates a “possibility or hope” for a desirable quality of life. We still must seek to understand so we may learn to accommodate rather than dominate and nurture rather than conquer. We need to be wise, not smart. And wisdom may be more difficult to achieve than is cunning. We need to learn to humble, not powerful. Humility may be more difficulty to master than is control. We need to seek and accept the spiritual in everything we see and do. The physical may be far easier to see and to manipulate. We need to learn to dance with life rather than try to push life around.

To farm and live sustainably, is to farm and live spiritually. Sustainability certainly is not a religion, but it is fundamentally spiritual. Sustainable farming and sustainable living are attempts to work and live “in harmony with an unseen order of things” — to work and live spiritually. To farm and live sustainably, we must be willing to openly proclaim the spirituality of sustainability. We must reclaim the sacred in food and farming.



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