I read the other day about a guy wearing a tee-shirt that said, “eating is an agricultural act”. That is a quote from a wonderful American farmer, poet and thinker Wendell Berry. It’s rare for people to think of food in that way, but why? Succesful food production is the foundation of human civilisation. Without food producers, we’d all be so busy hunting and gathering we’d never have time to play our i-pod or doodle in a blog like this.
For all our sophistication and technological advance, and the fact that so few of us have anything to do directly with tilling the land, we are still an agricultural people. Our lives depend on cycles over which we have little control. We remain at the mercy of nature. Our technology can produce strains of plants that can survive drought or yield far more than thought possible, but we have not come up with a technology that can efficiently pollinate plants so that they produce their fruit in season. We still rely on the honeybee to pollinate all the plants we eat. Albert Einstein gave humanity 4 years at best if the honeybee became extinct. All across the globe honeybee populations are currently being lost, and some argue that the use of pesticides is amongst the chief causes.
The soil that guarantees productive agriculture depends on microbial life forms and the action of the common earthworm. These little creatures digest organic matter and produce the wonderful dark loam that provides the basis for continuing agricultural production. “The meek shall inherit the earth” in the form of the humble worm; for the lowly earthworm takes the earth’s waste into itself and transforms it into humanity’s bounty, the soil upon which the human earth community depends. The late John Morton Boyd, a Church of Scotland elder and former Director of the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland, expressed concern about the untold damage that is being done to the “Soil Capital” of the earth. He argued that the indiscriminate use of pesticides and chemicals that kills these small life forms has the potential to undermine the long term viability of much of the earth’s soil. “We have disregarded Darwin’s message when he drew attention to the vitality of the earthworm’s presence in human affairs”. Stories of the composting process breaking down and stubble lying in the fields without rotting are becoming more common. The war against pests and weeds can also be a war against those good bacteria and worms that recycle green matter and guarantee fertility. When the composting cycle stops the soil no longer replenishes itself.