Awakening to the spirit and beauty of the northern Great Plains
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Lies about agricultural sustainability; truth about education
rose hip along the North Saskatchewn River
[Update: Since writing the following post, I posted a retraction and apology. See my November 10 posting.] In a given day, like anyone, I hear my share of lies and then every so often a piece of truth falls into my lap. The lies are plentiful, comforting, and easy to act upon. The truths are rare, disturbing, and, all too often, hard to act upon.
Today I received another notice inviting me to attend a conference about “agricultural sustainability.” They are calling it “Balancing the Bottom Line: practical tools and solutions for successful, sustainable prairie farms.” Over the past few weeks I have received several notices about the conference and while I could not tell right off where they stand on questions of agricultural sustainability, things became clear soon enough. The conference is funded by Viterra (the Wheat Pool updated with a corporate-sounding name concocted by an ad agency). I am sure the people attending this conference will all be fine gentlemen (very few women seem to be involved; contrast that with the food security alternatives conference I attended recently, which was 80% women), but I am also pretty sure they are conventional farmers who run massive, high input, high impact farms as they ride the monster that grain and oil seed farming has become today. Their idea of sustainable farming is using pedigreed GM seeds, high doses of glyphosate and artificial nitrogen to make their beleaguered soils produce maximum yields with minimum interference from weeds and other unwanted organisms. Yes, they are becoming more aware of the environmental issues that farming faces, but they don’t want to be outflanked by environmentalists, or by alternative agriculture and organics so they have caught onto the concept of “ecological goods and services.” In fact they are only too happy to point out that they are providing such services—and therefore they should be receiving payments or else why should they continue to keep that slough or patch of bush when it is clearly a liability?
In the end, there is a deep cynicism running through this kind of agri-business speak that comes from the technocrats and businessmen who run the grain industry. The farmers themselves are either naive or willing to take some comfort whenever it is offered: “You mean I can farm 34 quarter sections, spray it with approved chemicals and fertilizers, get enough yield to take a vacation in the Dominican Republic, and call myself sustainable? Wow, sign me up!”
But life offers the odd piece of truth and wisdom too. My good friend Joe Milligan sent me this short and powerful treatise on education by David Orr this morning and, though it is hard and uncompromising, as truth usually is, reading it felt like an act of absolution for my own participation in a world that is so very fond of its myths. Take a minute and read this, What is Education For, by the great and wise David Orr. lichens on rock