Commercial or Covenantal: Finding the Divine in Agriculture

By Eastman, Niles | Currents in Theology and Mission, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Commercial or Covenantal: Finding the Divine in Agriculture


Eastman, Niles, Currents in Theology and Mission


Agriculture is one of the oldest organized activities in human history. The earliest evidence of crop cultivation dates back over 10,000 years. During the vast majority of that time, farming followed relatively consistent methods and guidelines. In the last century, however, modern technology has completely reshaped farming in the industrialized world, and these new techniques are now spreading further and further. But how does modern industrial agriculture achieve its remarkable yields? What sort of philosophy of agriculture can we find at work in modern farming? Is there room for a spiritual connection in agriculture, or have the needs of the modern world rendered obsolete the views and the practices of ancient farmers? This paper will seek to answer these questions by analyzing two different systems of agriculture: that found in present-day North America and Europe, and that codified in the Torah and used by the ancient Israelite people. In the process, this paper will seek out each culture's understanding of what land is and how people relate to it, and what role farmers play in society. Finally, this paper will examine what it might look like to bring ancient practice forward into the modern day, and attempt to articulate an agricultural philosophy that combines ancient spirituality with contemporary context.

Modern farming in North America and Europe follows a paradigm that has been dubbed "industrial agriculture" or "monoculture." Under this system, farms are optimized for cost and yield. That is to say, the top priorities in managing a farm are minimizing the cost of operation and maximizing the money earned. (2) Many farms accomplish this by taking advantage of economies of scale--scaling up a single operation as large as possible because the costs will grow at a slower rate than the profits, meaning the bigger a farm, the more profitable it will be. This form of optimization has led to the development of techniques that have vastly increased the yields attainable from the land, and today's farms produce more food than at any point in human history.

Industrial agriculture also minimizes costs by reducing a farm to growing a relatively small number of crops. Some farms, in fact, only grow a single crop, planting it over and over again. The three main crops produced are wheat, corn, and soybeans. 'The latter two crops are especially valuable to the industrial agriculture model because, not only can they be used as livestock feed, they can be processed into hundreds of different ingredients for use in producing food. In the United States alone, between 50 and 70 million acres of these crops are plan ted annually. The majority of the harvest, however, goes to feeding animals in industrial feedlots, and a significant portion of the remainder is processed into food additives.

Industrial agriculture models a farm as a simple production system, with resources being input and salable commodities being output by the farm. The land the farm utilizes is essentially just another part of the production system, providing a substrate for the crops to grow in. This land is bought and sold, much as any other commodity or resource. Conceptually, in this model of agriculture, land occupies the same space on the balance sheet as a tractor--it is simply another necessary element in the profit-generating machine that is an industrial farm.

Environmental science, however, takes a bleak view of industrial agriculture. The methods and chemicals employed in generating the farms' enormous yields pose a number of risks to both the environment and humankind. Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and artificial fertilizers can all make their way into the crops themselves, as well as local waterways. These contaminants then cause harm, even death, to local ecosystems and the people who eat the crops. In addition to environmental concerns, industrial farming also favors the centralization of land into the hands of wealthy owners, who are then able to use that land to create even bigger profits. …

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