The Regenerative Power of Restraint

If we were lacking an adequate appreciation for the concept of power and the ways it can be used in both constructive and destructive ways, the world has certainly given us an abundance of opportunities in the past several years to remedy that situation. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Arab Spring, leadership transitions in North Korea and the Catholic Church, and right up to the current Ukrainian crisis, we’ve had a chance to examine and contemplate the alternative expressions of power on an international stage numerous times.

In addition, there has been much attention to the exercise of power on a smaller scale between groups of people who think differently, act differently, or are just plain different.  And the power that sometimes comes between individuals in the form of bullying or other types of abuse is something we seem to care much more about these days, at least in theory. It’s laudable that our society is doing more to address bullying in schools, though equally notable that it goes unchecked sometimes in communities, civic organizations, politics or even the U.S. Congress.

We have also experienced big power moves within the realm of farming and food systems during this time – ongoing situations that are far from conclusive at this writing. New approvals of genetically modified seed varieties coming at a quickening pace, a Farm Bill process that took years and was more contentious than ever, the Food Safety Modernization Act (‘nuff said), and a stealthy move by USDA to substitute the vague idea of “coexistence” for a blessing of the status quo, have all complicated the lives of those of us dreaming of a more sustainable future for our people and the planet.

All of this brings to mind the lessons we have learned throughout our lives – sometimes even successfully – about the nature of power and how it should be exercised effectively. More specifically, the lessons we have been taught in our families, by our teachers and through centuries-long faith traditions, have focused on the idea that power itself is most respected when a person, group or nation refrains from using it, except in the direst of circumstances. Nothing exhibits power more, it seems, than the willful restraint from using it. It’s regrettable, however, that our thoughts, actions and votes often seem to indicate otherwise.

But when we apply this thought process to an agricultural environment, we understand immediately what’s truly at stake.  We understand that the wanton use of power almost always creates situations that demand more of the same. When we overuse weed and pest killing chemicals on our fields, we quite predictably end up with weeds and other pests that are resistant to such treatments. When we use antibiotics in animal feed as a powerful way of preventing disease, the increasingly recognized result is the propagation of diseases that exceed our ability to respond effectively to save our livestock, and sometimes gravely sicken people as well.  Likewise, when we attempt to use the full force of government to create sterile farm and food handling environments, free of human pathogens, it is predictably and precisely at that point when we become most vulnerable to such disease causing agents.

Why do we have to keep learning these lessons over and over, believing that the next technology – in addition to the various good things it can do – will not itself cause problems that will require more complex and costly forms of technology to solve? I could fall back on my theological training here and just glibly say that this situation is indicative of the so-called “Fall of Man” I suppose.  And there is something of the epic battle between human-made technology and divinely inspired wisdom in all of this. But I want to say something more useful about this troubling tendency that humankind seems to be saddled with. We are hearing more and more often these days that, indeed, the future of the world might depend on us getting downright practical about the prospects of our ongoing existence, let alone continued prosperity.

So here’s the deal. We can learn from our most sustainable farms that technology is never more than a set of tools, and that the most powerful use of such tools is very often the choice made by a farmer not to use them. In fact, it is when restraint is shown in the use of technology on farms that we stand the best chance of “letting nature lead,” as the theme of our most recent Farming for the Future conference suggested. Resilience is built into the very fabric of life, which is a principle upon which even the most hardcore evolutionists and creationists could agree. Only when we hold back with the most invasive forms of technology do we stand a chance of discovering the underlying resilience, and allowing the natural systems upon which we depend for breath and sustenance to become regenerative.

There is enough paradox here to keep the most earnest philosopher busy for a lifetime.  But it leaves us with an important question. What would it take to make our food system safer for humans and less damaging to the environment?  We would need powerful restraint at both the farm level and in use of government’s regulatory hammer. We would need a partnership between the two not dreamed of in any heretofore hard-fought Farm Bill compromise. We would need a dramatic effort to remember what we have lost, in order to imagine what we could gain by working together and trusting the nature of things more than anything that comes out of the technician’s machine shop.

What we need is a vision for the future that doesn’t involve fallible humans being in charge all the time.

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