Holy Saturday

I last wrote on this blog nearly four years ago. That time – early fall of 2016 – was poignant for a few reasons, but especially because of big changes to the American political landscape that were about to occur. Back then, I thought maybe I was beginning a new series of essays that would appear in the ensuing months and years. It did not happen, however, partly because of some very confusing things that occurred in my personal and professional life, as well as the public sphere. I’m hoping this will be the new beginning I was thinking about in that less complex and troubled time.

As the name of this piece implies, I began writing it on the day between Good Friday and Easter this year, which happened also to be my birthday. It is perhaps easy to take too seriously the convergence of such occasions, but please understand that, considering the way Easter bounces around each year, this kind of thing does not happen all that often for me. I can remember over the years my birthday falling on both Good Friday and Easter, as well as Palm Sunday, but this is the only time I can recall it falling on that mysterious day in the middle.

IMG_0361 - Copy

Good Friday 2020. As William Faulkner would say, “The day dawned bleak and chill.”

The day is also known variously as Black Saturday, the Saturday of Light, and other iterations falling within that range, depending on the religious tradition being consulted. This suggests considerable confusion about what the day falling betwixt the darkest and brightest days of the Christian calendar could possibly represent from a spiritual point of view. I struggled with the confusion that entire day, and into the next, realizing that experiencing the tug-of-war between doom and destiny is certainly a part of what Holy Week is intended to evoke.

But what a year for this to happen!  I, like most others, am now “stuck” at home and left to ponder the meaning of life with an intensity that quite honestly had not occurred to me since those fateful fall days four years ago. The current and unanticipated pandemic is causing all of us to think about ultimate questions in a way we did not anticipate just a few short months ago. For me in my professional work, this also leads to thinking more deeply about agriculture, food systems and our need to sustain life on Earth without simultaneously threatening the quality of life, though I’m rather certain these ends can only be achieved simultaneously.

To that end, I have noticed some very distinct trends emerging as the COVID-19 pandemic experience is playing out that have a bearing on quality of life issues. There are several that could be mentioned, but these three are particularly interesting to me:

  1. Food supply chains are being disrupted in predictable though seemingly contradictory ways. In some cases, while some farm products are being dumped, buried or applied back onto fields, grocery store shelves sit empty and lines at foodbanks are longer than ever seen.
  2. Underlying medical conditions are emerging in reports from around the world as the most reliable predictor of how patients who are stricken with the new coronavirus will fare. I’ve seen estimates as high as 80% of related deaths being associated with various iterations of metabolic syndrome lurking in the background.
  3. Racial and ethnic disparities are represented in the disease and death rates well beyond what is warranted by their relative populations. Disturbingly, this is as true now as it was in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and in other socioeconomic circumstances since, suggesting that we’ve made little progress in this regard over the past century.

{Note: The links contained in the bullets above provide only examples, not the exhaustive data that is available in each case.}

The apparent inter-relatedness of these observations is a compelling argument that what we have here is a systemic problem. It’s instructive to note that most any kind of major disruption, whether medically centered or not, would likely show similar patterns.  When you look at all three of these trends together, it’s in fact hard not to conclude that we are in big trouble, though not primarily because of this new virus. There’s an old saying that “when the water is running low, you can see where the rocks are.” Point being, those structural hazards persist even when you can’t see them.

My post from four years ago ended on a note of optimism, but it’s much harder to be optimistic now.  It’s not as though solutions don’t exist. I have written before that we live at an awkward point in history where we know far more about what steps can and should be taken to fix our biggest problems, than we do about mustering the courage to enact them. Looking ahead, I think there are at least four critical success factors that must hold sway if we are to move ahead with confidence and reasonable hopefulness, as follows:

  • Communication – Transparency is the key here, and nothing that borders on marketing will do. Our trust in institutions has been badly damaged in recent years, whereas clear, consistent and totally forthcoming communication is what we really need to insist on from all our leaders.
  • Collaboration – It’s time to realize that, even when friendly competition is seen as a boon to progress, it will be the ways in which we work together, across all artificially constructed barriers within our minds, that ultimately will make the difference between thriving and mere survival.
  • Innovation – Scientific advancement and new technologies are indeed necessary right now, but not all impactful innovation occurs in a laboratory. New ways of thinking about things may be the most critically important innovation, and for that we need the arts and humanities, as well as the benefit of wisdom from diverse sources, including from ancient times.
  • Transformation – This is a scary word for some, but one we will need to embrace to forge a constructive path forward. Whether you’re more comfortable with the concept of creation or evolution, we need some of that mojo right now. Transformational thinking is the new sustainability.

We do indeed live in a time of transition. Our situation as a society is much like mine on my Holy Saturday birthday, emerging from darkness and trying desperately to move toward the light. There is no guarantee of success, and we don’t even know what “success” will look like right now, except that it would be, as we used to hear on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, something completely different. This is just as true for each of us individually. Our personal ability to claw through sometimes overwhelming and internally hidden barriers of darkness and stagnation may be the necessary precursor to positive change on a grander scale.

Tomorrow cannot be a repeat of yesterday, in very realistic, fundamental and profound ways, because yesterday – at least our most recent version of it – is nowhere near what we are capable of achieving, nor what we must aspire to if life as we know it on this planet is to be considered worthwhile.

Looking Back; Surging Ahead

It should readily be apparent that we arrived at PASA’s 25th annual conference thinking more about the next 25 years than the past. We could easily have built this year’s conference around a celebration of all that has come before, and indeed there was some of that to be found in the conference center and on the program.  But the predominant motivation for all of us – staff and board members alike – in planning the event was to make manifest the urgency of taking action to change agricultural systems in the immediate future, and our plans for doing so.

I also want to add here a few additional thoughts about the nature of this organization, our work together and the success we anticipate for the new programs PASA is now developing. To do this I want to return to a favorite topic of mine, one that I talked about just over fifteen years ago as I first interviewed for the job of executive director. Instead of looking back just 25 years, though, I’d like to go back in our consideration to a little over 500 years ago. Continue reading

Dancing with Nature: The Sustainable Challenge

I am not much of a professional sports fan these days.  But every year at this time I remember myself as a kid, pulling out my old Maury Wills baseball mitt and Carl Yastrzemski bat from the basement to play outside with my friends, following what seemed like endless winters while growing up in the Midwest.

Throwing a baseball back and forth for hours felt like absolute freedom. And every once in a while you could reach an exalted state with a best friend whereby the two of you would feel at one with each other, the gloves and the ball – nothing would miss the mark, until you fell out of that groove due to fatigue, or maybe the dinner bell ringing.

The same kind of thing happens with other sports, including an outdoor sport like fishing, another harbinger of spring. As any good fisherman will tell you, it is at those times when you feel unified with the fish, and the stream in which you both do your dance, that the true nature of the sport and the freedom it has to offer is realized. For me, there is no greater sense of liberation, and belonging at the same time, than to commune in this way with nature, often in the company of a dear friend. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Consider the Bees of the Field

{Blogger’s note: This post was completed with the very welcome assistance of my colleague Jo Ann Baumgartner, director of the Wild Farm Alliance located in Watsonville, California. Jo Ann can be reached at wildfarms@earthlink.net}

I was honored to be asked this year to address the annual conference of the Eastern Apicultural Society (EAS) held in early August in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  With well over 500 professional beekeepers and bee scientists present, it was also a tremendous opportunity for me to learn something about a topic with which I had very little previous experience. I was both amazed and a bit alarmed with what I learned.

While the occurrence of Colony Collapse Disorder has captured the concern of the general public, very few people know just how complex the situation with honeybees really is.  I’ll add that even fewer have any idea how the viability of the bee population might be affected by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Congress passed FSMA in 2010, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now issued proposed rules for its implementation, with a deadline of November 15, 2013 for public comment.

In brief, the situation for honeybees and other pollinators, already dire in some places, is likely to get worse as new regulations associated with FSMA take effect. It really comes down to loss of biodiversity in the diet of honeybees and potential destruction of the habitat necessary for their survival. To the extent that food safety regulations make these situations any worse, by promoting the separation – far away from food crops – of what also functions as wildlife habitat, so will the pollinators, and ultimately the crops themselves, suffer. Continue reading