Back to the future: farming in the wake of corporate overreach

Ten years ago Wendell Berry, the revered American writer, sage and farmer, gave a speech at a conference about the future of food in which he described “an irreconcilable contradiction between the natural world and the engineered world of industrialism”.

As Berry saw it, a sustainable food supply called for agriculture that was inherently democratic, “work for everybody, requiring everybody’s intelligence”. It would be “fitted to the nature of millions of unique small places” – something which financial, intellectual and political “hotshots” were ill-suited to manage.

Contrary to today’s trends to bigger farms under corporate management, said Berry, we should be limiting the scale of operations, avoiding at all costs the same industrial-scale technology which had caused the problems in the first place. We must not cause permanent ecological damage – “break things we cannot fix”.

He warned against solving problems by moving on: “We must try to stay put, and to learn where we are geographically, historically and ecologically” while also learning the sources and full costs of our own economic lives. He called for “local, locally adapted economies, based on local nature, local sunlight, local intelligence and local work”. 

“We must give up the notion that we are too good to do our own work and clean up our own messes,” said Berry. And we must understand that these measures can be implemented only by us, not by “any expert, political leader or corporation”.

He spoke of damage done to nature by industrial agriculture, a disease we seem powerless to counter, and said that this “legitimated violence” was likely to continue. But resistance was increasing, said Berry. We can see this in the uprisings in India over recent months against government-backed corporate farming, swallowing up local enterprises.

Industrial farming is just part of the modern world’s assault on nature. Add to that land clearing, mining, oil and gas extraction, fish-farming, ocean fishing and urban sprawl – driving and driven by growing economies, growing populations and growing waste – and you have more than enough ingredients for ecological catastrophe.

The people directly involved in these activities see them as normal, legitimate work, contributions to our economic life that bring in money to keep us fed, clothed, housed and mobile – and presumably happy. 

On a pre-industrial scale that might be so, but technology has enabled acts of violence of an unprecedented size, massively damaging the lands and ecosystems which are our lifeline. And these assaults on nature are not merely allowed, but encouraged by governments driven by short-term gain.

Do authorities understand what they’re presiding over? When they attack and proscribe protesters attempting to stop the “developments” they have approved, are they not the tiniest bit uneasy about their practice of punishing people trying to curb our excesses?

Do they ever stop for a moment to think what is prompting people to go to such lengths – sometimes risking life and limb – to prevent the schemes they have approved from happening? Do they appreciate that protesters feel genuine grief at losing something precious and irreplaceable? Do they care? Apparently not.

Culpability is a whole other question. We need to hold to account, at the polls or in law, the powerful interests which commit or enable these crimes, to make plain the undesirability of blighting the future of humanity and the multiple species with which we share the planet. 

But in a sense we are all culpable – at least, all of us who live our lives of relative ease on the back of a money flow enabled by industrial-scale exploitation of Earth’s resources. I am part of this cohort.

Wendell Berry’s radically different, new-old recipe for a future worth having – small farms fitted to local needs and environments, people staying put, valuing, tending and taking responsibility for their own particular natural and historical estate – is an ideal, a model for confronting the rise of monocultural monsters and preparing for their inevitable collapse.

Our effort to turn around this global juggernaut must be driven by communities, separately but also together. To limit the scale of the damage we must protect what we have in our local regions, including the capacity to govern our affairs. 

Backs against the wall, we must prepare for huge personal and collective effort. That’s what it takes to build something worthwhile and lasting. Contrary to political messaging, it will involve sweat, toil and tears, if not blood. And there will be significant financial cost.

Someone has to take the first step. That’s what small farmers, local foodies and protestors against monoculture and corporatised, remote resource management are doing. I salute them.

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