Letting Nature Lead

The past year has been an extraordinary one in the world of sustainable agriculture for many reasons, some of which may not be fully understood for many years to come.  That year (November ’12 thru November ’13) included much attention across the country to labeling of genetically engineered foods, including two high-profile public referendums that went down to defeat in California and the state of Washington. For many, this effort, occurring state-by-state, has become the holy grail of the effort to promote local, sustainable and organic food and farming systems for the future.

But for me and many of my closest colleagues across the country, the past year has been about something much less glamorous, i.e. the drive to understand, explain and then fix the problems in proposed regulations associated with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This was certainly a long slog by any measure, with dozens of folks working together to generate hundreds of pages of public commentary in response to thousands of pages of material we were given to digest last January. It was an extraordinary experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat, but the sort of work that had to be done at a critical moment in our sustainable food system movement.

Like just about all worthwhile endeavors, in working on FSMA we eventually came down to very basic issues that touch on just about everything we believe and do. For instance, the definition of a “farm” could not have been more important in the regulations, and still awaits the Food and Drug Administration’s final determination (see What’s In a Farm? on this blog).  It was relatively late in the process when I finally understood that the idea of farming contained in the proposed rules was of fairly recent origin and based on the idea that a farm is an entity that, in isolation, grows commodities for processing elsewhere, and little else. Such an idea would have been impossible to conjure just fifty years ago.

Another very basic issue critically important to the FSMA regulations has been the role of both raw and composted manure in farming.  Things sink in slowly for me sometimes, so this really took some time to fully comprehend and assimilate. A watershed moment for me was when I heard one of our nation’s most prominent consumer advocates say that “farmers who raise livestock should not also be growing produce for human consumption,” for fear of having manure and vegetables in close proximity to each other. This idea was not nearly as appalling to me as the depth of conviction exhibited by the person expressing it.  At that point, I finally understood we were really up against a belief system in this situation that flies in the face of nature’s intentions.

In fact, it was really at about that point when we finalized the theme for our upcoming, 23rd annual Farming for the Future ConferenceLetting Nature Lead.  Throughout this challenging past year, I have become convinced that we are facing a far more menacing and, yes, crucial battle ahead than we may previously have imagined, that of defeating a belief system wherein the natural world is seen as a bundle of problems to be solved instead of lessons to be learned.

This belief system is often mistaken for, or even disguised as “science,” which it most certainly is not. All scientific endeavor begins with certain assumptions about the way things work, and those assumptions greatly influence the expectations a scientist may have in conducting research.  Unfortunately, we live in a time when many, if not most scientists believe that nature must be manipulated, or even defeated, in the course of addressing the really big problems our society now faces.  Such expectations quite naturally affect their findings, particularly if monetary compensation depends on it.  But an increasingly vocal minority of scientists is speaking up in support of a different kind of belief system, one that reveres, not the way things used to be, as is sometimes said, but the way things are, right in front of us, with the same insistence that others might apply to scripture.

Nature makes no mistakes, which is the first great lesson almost totally missed in the debate over food safety regulations. The second great lesson is that reality is not a “thing,” or even a collection of things, but a dynamic system of interrelationships that is easier to comprehend from the inside looking out than the outside looking in.  The occurrence of a pathogen in this system – defined for these purposes as a part of the system out of tune with another part – is really an indication of a perfect system trying to correct itself. Our goal should be to understand and respond to such indications, not to eliminate them or distance ourselves from them, as with any effort to widen the distance between our food and the most natural forms of fertility available to any farmer.

In many ways, our job in this sustainable food system movement has become that of a global “town” crier, using every avenue at our disposal to stave off the forces of “search and destroy” with respect to nature, to give the new scientists – those with the proverbial eyes to see and ears to hear – a chance to get the story right.  Never in history have the stakes been so high, nor the consequences of failing so abysmally clear.

The future of our people and planet depends on our almost immediate turning as a whole civilization to face the truths nature has to teach, and letting them lead us to a better way of being, with each other, and with the world.

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PASA’s 23rd annual Farming for the Future Conference program is now online, and registration will be live beginning on Thursday, December 5th. We’ve a lot of important matters to discuss, as we work to advance the Sustainable Food System Movement to it’s next stage of following where nature will lead us.  We look forward to seeing you there!  

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