THEOSOPHY, Vol. 82, No. 2, December, 1993
(Pages 49-53; Size: 12K)



[Part 13 of a 16-part series]

Most people consider the products of agriculture to be necessities, especially with today's large human population. Without cultivated crops survival would be difficult, if not impossible. Plants found in the wild are still sometimes gathered for food, but agriculture has enhanced, not only the quantity, but also the quality of available food, sometimes by breeding originally wild species.

The prototypes of some basic foods come from previous planetary systems -- a subject dealt with in The Secret Doctrine II, p. 373-4:

"Fruits and grain, unknown to Earth to that day, were brought by the 'Lords of Wisdom' for the benefit of those they ruled -- from other lokas (spheres)..." Now: "The earliest inventions (?) of mankind are the most wonderful ... and, above all, the processes by which the various cereals were first developed out of some wild grasses (?) .... They are all unknown to history ..." ("Unity of Nature," Argyll).

This will be doubted and denied in our proud generation. But if it is asserted that there are no grains and fruits unknown to earth, then we may remind the reader that wheat has never been found in the wild state: it is not a product of the earth. All the other cereals have been traced to their primogenital forms in various species of wild grasses, but wheat has hitherto defied the efforts of botanists to trace it to its origin.

Although the development of food crops has been beneficial, plants and the land in which they are grown have been heavily exploited. The outstanding writings and work of agriculturists Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Masanobu Fukuoka address this thesis with challenges and constructive countermeasures. They treat the earth with respect and steadfastly reject shortcuts or any kind of exploitation; their books demonstrate a profound agricultural philosophy. Perhaps from their influence, today many others follow the ways of "natural farming" in varying degrees. The work of Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have been featured in THEOSOPHY and Manas magazines.

Wes Jackson and The Land Institute

New Roots for Agriculture (Friends of the Earth, 1980) describes Wes Jackson's major work. The "new roots" are based on developing new hardy perennial food grains that may largely replace the annual grains bred from once wild grasses. They would be derived from prairie plants, which for thousands of years have fed large herds of grazing animals. This second effort represents a chance for man to breed grains that would retain perennial characteristics and the hardiness of wild grasses, yet be wholly suitable for human consumption.

Dr. Jackson left an academic career to pioneer the cultivation of new plants in Salina, Kansas, where he established "The Land Institute." Research studies, educational work, and plant breeding are carried out to achieve his goals and those of his loyal extended family.

Perennials do not require plowing and annual replanting, thus save time, money, and most importantly, soil. Wes Jackson writes in the preface to his book that "the plowshare may well have destroyed more options for future generations than the sword." Careless plowing has led to massive, rapid losses of topsoil that took centuries to build. He asserts:

This book calls essentially all till agriculture, almost from the beginning, into question, not because sustainable till agriculture can't be practiced, but because it isn't and hasn't been, except in small pockets scattered over the globe. So destructive has the agricultural revolution been that, geologically speaking, it surely stands as the most significant and explosive event to appear on the face of the earth. ... agriculture has come on the global scene so rapidly that the life-support system has not had time to adjust to the changing circumstances. In this sense, then, till agriculture is a global disease, which in a few places has been well-managed, but overall has steadily eroded the land. In some areas, such as the U.S., it is advancing at an alarming rate. Unless this disease is checked, the human race will wilt like any other crop.
Natural methods are used by The Land Institute: genetically engineered plants, considered wholly undesirable "monsters" with potential hazards, are avoided. Agricultural schools have cooperated with Dr. Jackson's experiments; commercial interests, whose profits would be affected, have ignored or belittled them. The work progresses slowly but surely, requiring much patience and careful evaluation.

Stewards of the Land

The ethics of the honest farmer, who is often of second or third generation, make him feel responsible for the land, as he does for his family. However, to the new philosopher-agriculturist, the land belongs to everyone, as "primitive" people have always felt. We are all stewards, managers and protectors, not only of the land, but of the whole environment, including the three other elements of nature which interact with land (earth). Of the four ancient elements, air and water are sensorially detectable, but fire, representing the power of mind, though ever present, is invisible. Thus, the body of human thoughts directly affects the environment, whose elements are astral as well as physical. The elemental kingdoms of the astral world are sensitive to feelings and thoughts, just as air, water, and earth reflect our irresponsible actions and thoughts.

Dr. Jackson presents statistical evidence of how we have reneged on the responsibilities of stewardship. Our short-lived agricultural success, gained by exploiting the land, has led to rapid loss of precious topsoil, chemical poisoning, and other kinds of deterioration, bringing about "the failure of success."

Practices such as contour planting, the use of organic products on the surface, and crop rotation have been partially successful. However, soil losses are still above the levels of sustainability (natural replenishment of about 1.5 tons per acre per year). Some crops, such as corn, have caused annual losses of over 20 tons of soil per acre. Land losses under natural conditions average well under 0.1 ton of soil per acre annually.

Even in the early development of the United States, when resources were abundant, soil and vegetation loss alarmed prophets like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, H. D. Thoreau, R. W. Emerson, John W. Powell, and John Muir. The words of warning and wise advice of these early farmers, philosophers, and naturalists, were not heeded, nor were ancient verses in the Bible and other scriptures on protecting the land. The chapters in New Roots for Agriculture on "The Failure of Prophecy" and "The Failure of Organizations" cover well this aspect of agricultural ignorance and heedlessness. Governmental and private organizations, while making significant strides, have not been able to stop the destructive direction of modern, technological agriculture.

Raising Food for Energy and Other Problems

Dr. Jackson documents the folly of raising crops for energy, e.g., alcohols and methane. We are already exhausting our soils by overplanting and overgrazing. Because fossil fuels are used in operating farm machinery and in chemical fertilizers, many virtually nonrenewable fuels are being rapidly depleted.

The ecosystem of the Great Plains states is fragile and has been greatly disturbed by the paving over of large acreages of prairie, by overgrazing cattle, depleting aquifers, and the resultant eroding of soil. Farms have become factories of large landowners, who often operate as absentees, while the number of small farmers has sharply declined. Dr. Jackson indicates strongly that the farm should be a "hearth": "Food Factory, No! Hearth, Yes!" He writes:

The Jeffersonian ideal of a democracy based on agrarian values and enlightenment was live and well as recently as 1862 when the Homestead Act established the system of small farms during the era of great expansion. A settler, for a small fee, could acquire 160 acres free and clear if he would live on the homestead for five years.
The policy eventually failed for many reasons; one, because the 160-acre parcels proved to be too small, land was accumulated in large tracts by wealthy individuals and corporations. It is reminiscent of the attempt in ancient India to divide land equitably; after each of several attempts, it ended up in the hands of wealthy and ambitious people. Human nature has not changed substantially in long periods of time.

"The Search for a Sustainable Agriculture"

Under this title Dr. Jackson lays out, in terms understandable to the layman, details of the search and his conclusions. In essence, he attributes soil losses to the monoculture of annual food plants and quotes J. Russell Smith as saying that corn is "the killer of continents ... and one of the worst enemies of the human future." Dr. Jackson continues:

The polyculture of perennials is another matter, however. The more elaborate root system is an excellent soil binder. It has been estimated that before Europeans came, fires were sufficiently common and any given area became burned at least once in a decade. Though the top organic matter may have been absent for brief periods, the roots at least were alive and binding the soil.
Many other arguments are given for the cultivation of perennials besides producing fruit and nut trees and forage crops. The abundant details given in this book not only inform but promise a wide range of thinking -- a consideration of our priorities, values, and humanity's responsibility to the earth. Dr. Jackson's conclusions and experimental efforts intelligently and practically address that responsibility.

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