Category Archives: GMO

The Ultimate Showdown: Mother Earth vs Globalization

Bolivia is a fascinating place to live right now. It is a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes that are a microcosm of the economic and ecological crises that the rest of the globe faces. Like any other collection of people, organizations, communities and especially nation-states, Bolivia is a complicated mix of history, races, languages, religions, ideologies and these make up the political situation of parties, factions and groups vying for influence, pushing their agenda, marching and blockading streets. Amidst this complex environment two issues in particular arise that frame all others and create contradictions that will eventually have to be overcome. They are environmental protection/conservation and economic development. An article on the Poverty Matters Blog of the Guardian summed this contradiction up nicely,

Rated eighth in the world for its biodiversity, more than half of Bolivia is still covered by pristine forests. But what for some is picturesque remoteness, is for others the curse of underdevelopment…Despite its finger-pointing at the west for causing climate change through the irrational use of raw materials, Bolivia’s economy thrives on the sale of natural gas… So, on one hand, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an environmental champion; on the other, he’s a tacit supporter of the industrialised model. 2

Seeds, Security and Sovereignty
I’ve written previously about this contradiction in terms of the Law of Pachamama
(The Law of Mother Earth) that Bolivia passed which gives “rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration” and mandates “a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature.” 1

Bolivia has since proposed other legislation concerning genetically modified seeds and food sovereignty. Carlos Romero, the minister who proposed a draft law for Bolivia to produce its own seeds and fertilizer explains in another Guardian article that “[Seeds] are a major factor in food production. But in recent years we’ve seen an increase in their price across the world, because of a rise in oil prices and the monopoly exercised on seeds by a few corporations. That’s why we want to create state-owned companies that produce seeds.”

In the same article Ciro Kopp, an agricultural engineer at the National Council for Food and Nutrition, puts the concerns about seeds and fertilizer in the broader context of food sovereignty,

“About 20 to 25 years ago, 70 to 80% of what we ate was produced locally in Bolivia,” he said, “but then we embraced the agro-industrial model and now 70 to 80% of what we eat comes from the agro-industry, which makes us dependent on technologies and price controls from abroad. So, in the same way that industrialists received support from the government in the past, now it’s small farmers who need help…Bolivia is a centre of origin of several Andean crops such as potatoes, quinoa, chili and corn,” he said. “It is essential to strengthen the systems of production, natural selection and exchange of seeds that farmers have been doing for centuries. Our focus should be first of all to feed the country. If our priority is to export, what are people going to eat?” 2

There have been serious effects from this shift to agro-industrial production, including abandoning one of the healthiest foods in the world. Also from the Guardian, “Prices of locally-produced indigenous food, such as quinoa, are also at a record highs: some highland communities have taken to eating rice and pasta instead of their traditional – and more nutritious – crops.” 2 Quinoa contains the most complete protein found in any grain in the world. Yet, the very people producing this crop cannot afford it and are forced, instead, to consume the poor substitutes of rice and pasta. For people whose health depends on getting the most nutrition out of the small amounts of food they can afford this places their very lives on the edge of survival.

Biodiversity is nature’s way of both creating a safety net and maintaining equilibrium. If one species goes extinct as they do (though never before at the current rate), then another is available to fill the niche left and other species can evolve from the diversity of the remaining gene pool. The BBC says

“Bolivia is home to thousands of native varieties of crops, including potato and corn. The Morales government wants to improve genetic stock through natural selection. It rejects what it describes as an invasion of genetically-modified seeds, fearing they will contaminate indigenous species, and prove to be too expensive for small farmers to buy.” 3

The reason that these technologies are beyond the reach of small farmers across the world is that companies, such as Monsanto, create a vertically integrated line of products in which their genetically modified seeds (or “viralized transgenics” as the host of Agroinnovations prefers) are dependent on the chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that the same company produces. This suite of agro-chemical products is very expensive and only becomes more so as more applications are needed year after year, or as new products are introduced. This has led many farmers in India to go into inexorable debt and is the cause of the epidemic of farmer suicides in that country.

The Guardian article, “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”, concludes on an upbeat note about the prospects for Bolivia’s future, “For now, however, the general consensus is that if the new law is applied well, Bolivia could succeed in guaranteeing food security with sovereignty for its people – as well as keep its biodiversity intact.” 2 Yet, we have already hinted at some of the obstacles facing the application of environmental and food sovereignty legislation.

The Rising Tide of Globalization Is a Tsunami
An Associated Press article pointed out some of these difficulties concerning the current agro-industrial producers in Bolivia.

“In Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, soybeans that would ordinarily have been exported languished in their silos because they could not find local buyers. We were already being battered by the climate when the government came out with these decrees prohibiting exports,” said Demetrio Perez, a soy farmer who is president of the National Association of Oil Seed Producers. “With the restrictions, an incentive to plant more was lost.…”We can’t fight the ravages of nature, but what’s doing the most harm are inappropriate policies that discourage production,” said Gary Rodriguez of the National Institute of Foreign Commerce, a leading business group. “Farmers already have plenty to deal with coping with the climate.” 1

You see, there is currently only one possibility for development and that is the industrial, growth economy. On the one hand, I feel bad for any farmer affected by bad policies, but in this case it might be a case of good policies badly implemented, at least so far. Crops such as soy or corn are not produced in order to feed anybody until they have gone through a long chain of processing and turned into all kinds of products. These crops are damaging to the food security and sovereignty of nations like Bolivia, because they are primarily export commodities. The reason they don’t have much of a local market is because no one can eat them or turn them into edible products without massive infrastructure. This hurts the farmers producing such crops, because they have no incentives to plant something else and many don’t yet have the skills for alternative agricultural production.

How To Have It Both Ways…Or Not
The biggest battle currently raging in Bolivia is over the governments intention to build a road through the middle of the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) which is home to thousands of species of birds, mammals and plants, three indigenous groups and a lot of natural gas deposits. “With its 2.5m acres, the TIPNIS (from its initials in Spanish) is doubly protected, as a park and as the territory of the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes indigenous people.” 4 The conflict over the proposed road between indigenous groups and the government (with an indigenous leader as its president) has been going on for months. The government claims that the road will help to connect and unite the indigenous groups in the area, while the residents claim that the road will bring more trucks and extractive industry than unity or benefits to them. This particular issue has made the paradox of the Morales administration’s situation crystal clear in my mind. It has to deal with indigenous groups and its own agenda for environmental protection and rights, but at the same time has to do something about a country with the worst economy and highest poverty in South America.

This contradiction between economic development and ecological sustainability is the primary question facing our planet. The problem facing the Bolivian government is that you can only have it both ways for so long before the contradictions inherent in these two issues will come to a head. It’s not enough to pass good laws about the rights of the earth, food sovereignty and security. If there is not a strategy for transitioning to a new kind of development and economy, then Bolivia, and indeed the rest of the planet, will remain caught in this most costly of contradictions.

In the next post I will explore some ideas about this transition and what an economy based on the kinds of legislation Bolivia is working on might look like.

Articles cited:
1 AP “Climate, government controls hit Bolivia’s farmers”
2 Guardian “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”
3 BBC “Bolivia moves to end dependence on foreign seed firms”
4 Guardian “Evo Morales plays a double game on Bolivia’s environment”
5 Yes! Law of Mother Earth


Our Changing Relationship With Mother Nature

I often go on and on about our relationship to nature, but Alain de Botton touches on something in a Treehugger article that struck me.

Nature doesn’t remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet. Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves. We are responsible for the early flowering of those Wordsworthian daffodils. Our fingerprints are all over the uncannily early return of the migratory birds.

This recognizes how we assume that we relate to nature based on our mythologies, in contrast to the reality of how we really perceive nature and our relationship to it based on how we work things out practically in the real world. If you want to know what people (or societies) believe about something, don’t listen to what they say. Look at what they do and how they spend their money.

I listened recently to a TED talk by Paul Root Wolpe on the ethics of bioengineering. He talks about three phases of evolution. The first phase involved what we have come to understand as Darwinian evolution in which nature does all the work of random mutation, adaptation and selection. When we settled down into agricultural communities we realized that we could speed up this process and manipulate it in order to get traits of plants and animals that we wanted. So, we domesticated animals and selected plants with features that helped us cultivate easier, like large-seeded grains that did not fall off the plant until we harvested them. This second phase of evolution speeded up evolution from something like millions of years to thousands. So, the process was still pretty slow for a long time. However, we have entered what he calls the third phase of evolution in which we are able to actually design lifeforms and manipulate them in ways that do not require the process of Darwinian evolution. Paul Root Wolpe spends most of his talk describing the myriad of ways that scientists now are able to manipulate and use the building blocks and components of organisms and life to create all kinds of technologies and organisms.

One that really blew my mind was taking neurons from a rat which then organized themselves on a microprocessor into a network which was then used to run a computer. One experiment used a computer to monitor and understand the signals in a primate brain that moved its arm. Then the computer mirrored the monkey’s brain pattern to move a prosthetic arm in another room. Finally, the monkey was shown the arm that the computer was moving. Eventually the monkey stopped moving its own arm and was moving the prosthetic arm with his mind, essentially having a third arm that it could control. Another was wiring electrodes into the brains of animals which then made it possible for scientists to control their movements, running rats through a maze basically with a joystick. Wolpe mentions that some students involved in that particular experiment asked whether what they were doing was ethical, overriding and controlling another organism, effectively taking away its autonomy.

Wolpe as an ethicist calls for ethical discussion and consideration of these technologies. The point is that we are now capable of technology and manipulation of our natural environment in ways with which we have not, as a society, fully grappled. When we consider, not what could happen in the future, but what is possible right now, it is clearly true that nature does not terrify us. I wonder, however, if we terrify ourselves. I have close friends who are very confident in both technology and science to basically “do the right thing”. They think that the systems in place and the nature of the scientific community and process will basically take care of these ethical problems that some worry about. As is obvious to any casual reader of this blog, I do not share their confidence.

Our relationship to nature is the most important issue facing human beings today. For the vast majority, the nature of this relationship is simply assumed and goes unquestioned. The idea that we should recycle, change our light bulbs and not throw trash all over the place does not even scratch the surface of our relationship to nature. Yet this is the extent of most people’s probing of our relationship to nature. Until we deal with basic assumptions about what it means to be human and what that has to do with the natural systems that make up our planet, we will continue on a trajectory destined for disaster. As Paul Root Wolpe describes there is a sense in which our relationship to nature has changed dramatically, and we must understand and wrestle with these changes. However, there is another sense in which our relationship to nature does not and cannot change. This final reality will eventually catch up to us if we do need deal with it.

It seems to me that the idea that we perhaps should terrify ourselves relates to the concept of sin, in which we recognize potentialities and possibilities within ourselves that we do not want to realize or which we regret acting on. Sin is often described as brokenness or, better yet, broken relationships with God, other people and the planet. This seems to describe the state of our current relationship to the planet in which we continue to simply ignore the relationship or pursue an unhealthy kind of codependence that necessarily involves mental gymnastics and denial to sustain it.

As with healthy relationships with God and other people, we must first recognize that we are already related to them in some way, even if negatively (e.g. atheists or oppressive systems). Our civilization is designed in many ways to obscure and deny our relationship to the planet. So, the first step is to acknowledge our relationship and dependence. Then we can begin to listen to what we know about how ecosystems work and change our lives and systems to live within these systems rather than exploit, deplete and destroy them.

Small Is Beautiful: Resources

I ended the first post on E.F. Schumacher’s classic text Small is Beautiful considering his deconstruction of our dualistic ways of thinking. In his section “Resources” he continues this theme grounding his work in the idea that economics is a means that must be beholden to higher values and ideas which guide and shape it. His illustration of this idea is illuminating,

“the nature of our thinking is such that we cannot help thinking in opposites…The typical problems of life are insoluble on the level of being on which we normally find ourselves. How can one reconcile the demands of freedom and discipline in education? Countless mothers and teachers, in fact, do it, but no one can write down a solution. They do it by bringing into the situation a force that belongs to a higher level where opposites are transcended–the power of love.” (97)

The question is how to bring into the situation of our current context a higher level force that can bring reconciliation to what we typically experience as diametrically opposed. For the religious this sounds somewhat like the vague divine language favored by Alcoholics Anonymous, but for the non-religious it sounds equally foreign and exclusive. Some of my friends like to claim that religion is the problem. Other fundamentalists might see a coming one world religion as the problem. I think they are both right, but neither sees consumerism as the one-world religion at the heart of the problem. Our solutions must be able to incorporate the whole of humanity, while maintaining and honoring the diversity within that whole. I believe what Schumacher is describing is a basic reality of human existence, regardless of how it is formulated by either the religious or non-religious. Our discomfort with the modern world is a symptom of the absence of this higher level force at work in our lives, relationships and societies.

It seems that this first diatribe is a tangent from the topic of resources, but I think that it is actually these higher level resources of love and values that transcend our tendency to think in opposites that is most needed. If we view the world without these resources it becomes easier to exploit nature or human beings or to dehumanize those we see as the exploiters. In this way both conservatives and liberals, capitalists and environmentalists find themselves subject to the same problem of dualistic thinking. The problems faced in Appalachia are a perfect illustration of this problem.

Tobacco farming and mining are the two main industries in the region. On one side you have a system that has made tobacco farming and mining the most profitable things to do in this region. Infrastructure, subsidies and numerous other factors have made these industries embedded in Appalachia. On the other side you have the environmentalists who deplore both industries. They attempt to stop the destructive practice of mountain top mining and the production of a raw material which causes the deaths of millions of Americans every year. In the middle are the people whose lives are dependent on these industries, the farmers and miners. For the most part, the environmentalists and capitalists simply ignore the people in the middle and hash out their ideological battles on cable news without solutions that are actually beneficial and possible to implement.

Schumacher goes further in peeling back the layers of our perspective on natural resources. He poses a more basic question about the nature of agriculture and industry.

The question arises of whether agriculture is, in fact, an industry, or whether it might be something essentially different. Not surprisingly, as this is a metaphysical–or metaeconomic–question, it is never raised by economists…The ideal of industry is the elimination of living substances. Man-made materials are preferable to natural materials, because we can make them to measure and apply perfect quality control. Man-made machines work more reliably and more predictably than do such living substances as men…In other words, there can be no doubt that the fundamental ‘principles’ of agriculture and of industry, far from being compatible with each other, are in opposition. Real life consists of the tensions produced by the incompatibility of opposites, each of which is needed…It remains true, however, that agriculture is primary, whereas industry is secondary, which means that human life can continue without industry, whereas it cannot continue without agriculture. (110-11)

In the case of Appalachia, both tobacco farming and mining, though producers of primary raw commodities, must be considered industries, because they are in truth not necessary. Nobody needs to smoke or make things from minerals the way that we need to eat. Even as we have attempted to create an “industrial agriculture” built on the principles stated above, conforming lifeforms to rigid standards of appearance and size, and the increased mechanization and synthetic basis of growing food, Mother Nature continues to defy our attempts to impose an industrial way of thinking. It turns out that this industrialization of agriculture into monocultures creates problems by selectively breeding super-pests, super-weeds and, in CAFOs, super-diseases. The agribusiness industry then turns to these same methods and ways of thinking to try and simply produce new and better chemicals, genetically modified organisms and better antibiotics, instead of recognizing that the problem is that agriculture is “something essentially different” than industry. It must be understood on its own terms if there is any hope of finding ways to live on this planet that do not continue to point the loaded pistol of our own intellects at our proverbial feet.

While the picture often seems bleak, even in Schumacher’s 1975 tome, there are rays of hope that with shifts in our thinking we will be able to harness the powers of economics, industry and technology in ways that can benefit us.

I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for giantism is to go for self-destruction…We might remind ourselves that to calculate the cost of survival is perverse. No doubt, a price has to be paid for anything worthwhile: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear. (159)

Again, we need a reorientation of things around their proper order and relationship. This reminds me of Augustine’s concept of the proper ordering of everything in creation. William Cavanaugh draws on Augustine, as well, to deconstruct our consumer religion in his book Being Consumed. Augustine claimed that we could only properly relate to everything else in creation when our love was properly ordered in God. Then we could rightly see resources, property, possessions and people through the eyes of our first love, God. In Augustine’s logic, it also rightly places human beings as the small, insignificant creatures that we are. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” This serves to dethrone the idol of “giantism” that is what many theologians throughout Christian history considered the original and origin of sin, pride, the idea that we could become gods and transcend the limits of our creaturely nature. This right ordering then leads us to also recognize the role of technology and economics to serve humanity, as well as the planet. Only with this rightly ordered way of thinking can we create a future that is sustainable.

The key that Schumacher and others point to is “the imagination and an abandonment of fear”. I often hear the argument that capitalism and democracy are the “best that we’ve got.” I’m not saying we should tear up the “best we’ve got” tomorrow, throw it in the fire and start over, but this kind of argument belies how captive our imaginations are to the current system and the fear that holds the status quo in place. The greatest leaps forward in human history have been from people that went against prevailing ways of thinking and questioned our assumptions. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that the next leap forward will force us to return to some of the lessons we previously learned (and are continuing to learn) about things like nature, evolution and ecosystems. My hope is that this next leap forward is not one of a linear progression, in which technology like artificial intelligence just makes more of the same way of life possible, but a radical shift in the understanding of what life is and means.

Collapse: It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine

One of my favorite parts of Jarrod Diamond’s book, Collapse, was the final section where he takes on many of the most commonly heard one liner arguments against any impending collapse:

“The environment has to be balanced against the economy”Diamond says that this is exactly backwards; I agree. Environmental problems are very costly, but our system has tended toward the habit of externalizing certain problems and not accounting for them in the costs of production or sale
“Technology will solve our problems” I’ve spent significant time on this blog talking about this argument in particular. New technology both creates and solves problems. Some technologies succeed and others don’t. Successes take decades to phase in. Diamond says, “Advances in technology just increase our ability to do things which may be either for the better or the worse. All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology.” He uses the example of CFCs which are still being phased out globally even while they have been illegal in the First World for decades. The impact of what is already present in the atmosphere will last for decades longer. CFCs solved a previous problem of dangerous chemicals that were used in refrigerators and other appliances. Predicting the future and the consequences of new technologies seems a risky place to put your faith.

“If we exhaust one resource, we can always just switch to some other resource meeting the same need”This involves many of the same problems mentioned concerning new technologies. There will likely be unforeseen difficulties and transition time involved in switching to new resources including secondary infrastructure needed to support these technologies. Renewable energy technologies will certainly have a role in an energy economy not based on fossil fuels, but predicting what that looks like and what the unintended consequences will be is difficult. It also distracts us from the changes in energy consumption that must be made to make life on this planet possible for everyone.

“There really isn’t a world food problem there is already enough food.We only need to solve the transportation problem of distributing that food to places that need it.” or “The world’s food problem is already being solved by the Green Revolution with its new high yield varieties of rice and other crops, or else it will be solved by genetically modified crops.” Probably because this is my specific area of interest, I thought Diamond unfairly lumped these arguments together. The first statement is true in a global sense, and I think it’s important to recognize that we continue to focus on production issues without dealing with the problem of distribution. However, Diamond clarifies his point by saying, “First world citizens show no interest in eating less so that Third world citizens could eat more.” This points out the connection between population pressures and the issue of whether or not there is enough. It also is a reminder that, though global production will continue to be high for a while, the problem of hunger has local and regional causes, and will need local and regional solutions.
In terms of the second part Diamond points out that the primary four GM crops are soybean, corn, canola and cotton, none of which is eaten directly by humans. The majority of these crops are sold to wealthy farmers in North America. Notice that there has been little work or interest in developing GMO cassava, millet or sorghum which would actually benefit farmers in the tropics, where the majority of the world’s poor live.

“As measured by common sense human indicators like human lifespan, health and wealth conditions have actually been getting better for decades” or “Just look around you the grass is still green, there’s plenty of food in the supermarkets, clean water still flows from the taps and there’s absolutely no sign of imminent collapse.” This is the view from the top. Diamond also points out that lifespan is not a sufficient indicator. An increasing fraction of the population is at the poverty level in the US. He uses the analogy of a bank account. It’s not just the size of the bank account that matters, but the direction of cash flow. If you have $5,000 in the bank that looks great. If you realize that you’ve been spending $200 a month above your income, then you realize that you only have 2 years before you will be broke unless something changes. Our prosperity is based on spending down our environmental capital. One major lesson to draw from the decline of the Maya and Anasazi: “A society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth and power.”

“The population crisis is already solving itself, because the rate of increase of the world’s population is decreasing such that the world population such that the population will level off at less than double its present level.”The problem is not just population, but also per capita human impact. Even if population growth suddenly stopped this year at 7billion we would already be at an unsustainable level based on the per capita impact of our rates of consumption. If the poor in developing countries achieve their aspirations of similar rates of consumption, the problem of population will be moot. I still believe that population growth is a significant part of the equation that is not adequately considered or understood, but I also agree that even with population growth slowing or declining we will continue to face problems of overconsumption of our resources.

“The world can accommodate human population growth indefinitely. The more people the better, because more people mean more inventions and ultimately more wealth.”Diamond seemed to think this was kind of a silly argument, but offered a comparison between two top ten lists. Top Ten countries in population: China, India, US, Indonesia, Brasil, Pakistan, Russia, Japan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. Top Ten countries with highest affluence above $20,000 per capita: Switzerland, Luxembourg, Finland, Japan, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada and Nouru. Only country on both lists is Japan. The lists would seem to indicate the opposite; the higher the population of a country the higher rate of poverty. Population growth rate is the difference between the two lists.

“Environmental concerns are a luxury affordable just by affluent First world yuppies who have no business telling desperate Third world citizens what they should be doing.”I sometimes have this sentiment, but for different reasons as I explored in the series on development. Diamond points out that the Third world is more aware of and understands how environmental problems affect them. These issues affect everyone on the planet and disproportionately affect the poorest of the poor, who make their living from the land and live closer to the effects of environmental degradation and climate change.

“We’re managing just fine despite all those environmental problems which really don’t concern them because the problems fall mainly on Third world people.”The rich are not immune. However, this does point out how easy it is for the wealthy and powerful to keep themselves insulated from the effects of their decisions. This was often the case in the examples of collapses where the rich and powerful acted in their own interest to preserve status and power rather than prevent the coming collapse, even when it seems obvious. Diamond points out that the rich and powerful in collapsing societies buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve or die.

“If those environmental problems become desperate it will be at some time off in the future after I die and I can’t take them seriously.”– The twelve problems that Diamond lists (eight present in historical collapses and four new ones that we face) will become acute during the lives of young adults today. If we do so many things to plan for the future of our young people (insurance, saving, education, etc.), it makes no sense to ignore the very world that they will live in. It’s also important to recognize that these issues are not as far off as we would like to think they are.

“There are big differences between modern society and those past societies of Easter Islanders, Maya and Anasazi who collapsed so that we can’t straightforwardly apply lessons from the past.”The risks are increased rather than decreased in our current situation, because of globalization and the scale of environmental damage. Diamond also imagines asking an ecologist, “Which overseas countries are facing problems over environmental stress, overpopulation or both?” The ecologist lists Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, The Phillipines, Rwanda, Solomon Islands and Somalia plus others. Then he imagines asking a politician, “Which countries are the world’s worst trouble spots?” He then lists the same countries. Such collapses have happened and are happening right now. We are seeing the influence of the five factors Diamond lists in countries as we speak. These things are happening before our eyes, even if we decide to ignore them and say that what happened to those ancient societies can’t happen to us.

Any other thoughts about these arguments or other one-liners that you hear often?

Natural Farming and the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30;36-43)

That’s right, the reason you started reading this blog in the first place is back. The last post was April 26 of this year and before that January 10. For a while, I was disciplined in doing it once or twice a week. I’d like to get back to that.

Before diving into today’s passage I want to take a brief moment to point out that this is not an esoteric exercise in obscurity. My purpose in examining Food in the Bible is, like Ellen Davis, because an agrarian reading of the Bible is essential to fully understand the context of the text. In a culture so disconnected from the land and our food, we skim over those antiquated passages that have to do with agriculture. In so doing we have cut ourselves off from some of the most powerful elements of the biblical narrative and consequently some answers to many problems that plague modern civilization, society and globalization.

Matthew 13:24-43 This passage is a sandwich with the parable of the weeds (24-30) and the following explanation (36-43) as the bread and the parable of the mustard seed and yeast (31-35) the meat (or peanut butter for you vegetarians). I’d like to take them separately and then reflect on what it means that they’re sandwiched together here.

3480587807_7b8a4633b1.jpgThe Parable of the Weeds

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

In terms of agriculture the first thing I notice is that farmers have been dealing with the problem of weeds forever, surely since the dawn of agriculture. It’s important, and relevant to the parable, to remember that a “weed” is simply a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. People intentionally growing food crops on a plot of land view other plants in that plot as competitors. Plants that are aggressive (like bermuda grass) can outcompete other crops and ultimately kill the food you’re trying to grow.

One of the biggest difficulties with organic and no-till agriculture is how to deal with weeds. Industrial agriculture simply invented Round-up Ready seeds that could be sprayed with a broad spectrum herbicide and not die. So, you kill everything except the plant you want to grow. That method seems to have a number of problems with it (i.e. reliance on chemicals, loss of biodiversity, affect on the environment and concerns about GMO crops).

So, how do you deal with weeds? While it’s tempting to get into tillage practices and weed management, for the purpose of this post the method is usually to get rid of the weeds. However, many weeds are edible and there are other methods for growing food than the industrial monoculture we’ve come to know and love.

Fukuoka-closeup.jpgJesus suggestion to the farmer in the parable sounds a lot like Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution. For those not familiar with his agricultural philosophy the two part interview with Larry Korn, a student of Fukuoka, on the Agroinnovations podcast is a great introduction. Fukuoka’s “natural farming” method is very similar and closely related to permaculture. Basically Fukuoma’s method was to observe the way nature worked without intervention. He would scatter seeds randomly in a field and then observe what happened. He would select the seeds of the plants that did well and try to understand why that particular plant did better. Was it something about the soil or topography, etc.? By mimicking and learning from nature Fukuoka was able to eventually get greater yields than his Japanese counterparts with a lot less work. If the workers in the parable let the weeds and their crop grow together their labor is greatly reduced as well.

In verses 36-43 Jesus gives an explanation of his parable in spiritual terms. This is a parable about the judgment at the “end of the age” and why the wicked are allowed to live along with the righteous. The meaning and intention is to use an agricultural metaphor to point to a spiritual reality. Often this is a way of sweeping away the parable itself and only focusing on the spiritual interpretation. Jesus chose parables and parabolic actions with purpose and intent. Why should we think that the spiritual application of the parable is separate from its physical, agricultural counterpart? Isn’t the nature of a parable in some way to join these two things?

Next… The Parable of the Mustard Seed and Yeast

Photo of car overgrown by weeds from Flickr user cavanimages. Photo of Fukuoka from