I am neither a farmer nor an agricultural scientist. I am an interested layman. But my passion about food and farming stems from a conviction that it is the basis of human civilisation. Without efficient and viable farming human beings would spend their whole time as hunter – gatherers, as indeed our ancestors were. There would be no time in the day to buy cosmetics or other items that we do not really need, play computer games, build aircraft or fly in them to exotic destinations for a holiday. All our time would be taken up with finding food, fuel and shelter, the work of survival.
In the last 60 years or so it has been possible, due to new technologies and great human ingenuity for a single farmer to feed several hundred people. The more efficient your farmers, the more “civilisation” you can achieve. If you assume that unimaginable material wealth and breathtaking amounts of consumption are signs of civilisation.
Agriculture has become so productive and mechanised that there are now more people in jail in the US than there are farmers. It is probably much the same in Scotland where we have the highest prison population of any country in Western Europe. Using machinery and chemicals, what took 40 men in 1940 can be done by one in 2015. Every family a couple of generations ago had some members who worked the land, now it is rare. Our food is now so dressed up, so disguised and processed that we are constantly in danger of forgetting it is an agricultural product, derived from the soil of the earth. But, “eating is an agricultural act”.
Agriculture, and thus civilisation, depends on good soil and productive land. Nurturing the land for human survival is one of humanity’s great works and it is not just an industrial process it is a sacred trust. To see farming as an extractive industry is humanity’s folly and civilisation’s downfall.
In the 1950s, long before ecology and global warming and human ravaging of the planet was understood in the way it is now, two Americans, Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter wrote a book called Topsoil and Civilisation. They looked back in history and realised that ecological destruction was nothing new. We have been destroying our cherished lands for centuries and moving to new places in the wake of our plundering and destruction. We have lived under the delusion that “mastering our environment were permanent” and failed time and again to realise that we are children of nature, not the masters of it. Agriculture should not just be about extracting ever higher yields from the soil, it must also be about husbanding, serving and nurturing.
But, “civilised man has marched across the face of the earth and left a desert in his footprints” Now, with 6.7 billion people on the planet, there is nowhere for us to move to. We cannot do as Alexander the Great did and “march off our maps”. There are no new promised lands for us to discover, we have to tend the planet we have and the soil we have not yet destroyed.
So eating is an agricultural act and we should reject all notions that suggest that human, urban civilisation has nothing to do with the soil. The soil cradles our life.