The Future of Farming

Eco Action Engaged Buddhism Environmental Issues Food Sumeru Books

This morning I saw an article in The New York Times, How High Tech Is Transforming One of the Oldest Jobs: Farming

It reminded me of a section on farming from my new book, Bodhisattva 4.0: A Primer for Engaged Buddhists, the excerpt from which I include here. Hopefully you read them and find them both valuable.


"The real cause of hunger is the powerlessness of the poor to gain access to the resources they need to feed themselves." Frances Moore Lappé

We have enough food for everybody, but they can’t get it. They are like hungry ghosts. There is no shortage of problems involving farming these days. Some have to do with land use, some with the crops themselves, and some with social impacts on the other side of the fence. Here are just a few, specifically about farming (as opposed to the particular crops being grown).

Destruction of virgin forest to create croplands (for palm oil in Indonesia, for example) is reversing one of the planet’s crucial carbon sinks, in addition to its impact in wildlife habitat destruction leading to a dramatic rise in extinctions.

Wasteful water use (such as for raising livestock), unsanitary water use (such as irrigating crops with potentially contaminated water sourced upstream from feedlots), and excessive water use (draining ancient aquifers and water tables), all put unsustainable stress on the ecology.

Monoculture has depleted heritage seed diversity, increasing the threat from blights and diseases, as well as distorting longstanding natural ecologies.

Concentration of control amongst large agri-businesses strips farmers of control and sustainable profits, while forcing them to bear the greatest risk. Marginal subsistence farmers are most vulnerable.

Genetic modification of organisms and patents over intellectual pro­perty create an unlevel playing field for small farmers, against whom multi­national corporations launch crippling lawsuits or insupportable debt to nullify alternatives.

Since the 1950’s, increasing dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides limits agricultural options, threatens pollinators (e.g., bees) and other animals, creates toxic run-off, harms human health, and has proven to be an unsustainable system.

Healthy diets for subsistence farmers become disrupted as they switch from traditional crops to cash crops for sale and/or export, often with the need for much greater resource inputs.

Long-distance supply chains involve enormous amounts of carbon-­based energy to bring food from farm to table. They also lend themselves to lax quality control, weak environmental oversight, and exploitative ­labour practices.

In all of this, governments often act with little awareness of potential unforeseen consequences, in thrall to the ideology and dollars of lobbyists.

On the other hand, there are some encouraging trends.

Consumers are increasingly conscious about their food choices. Organic, non-gmo, and Fair Trade products are now commonplace and ­often competitively priced. Slow food, local food, farm basket networks, and vegetarian options are gaining traction. The realities of good nutrition, the health risks of food additives and pesticide residues, and the ethical implications of food choices, are all transforming the food chain.

Historical Buddhism does not have much to offer on agricultural policy as it pertains to Right Livelihood, since monastics traditionally relied on alms for their sustenance. Romantic images of monks saving earthworms from the plow (as in the 1997 movie Seven Years in Tibet) are about as realistic as other fantasies about Buddhism (such as the 1937 movie Lost Horizon). Books on mindful eating, with their intensely personal focus, aren’t much help either beyond the basics, since they rarely offer concrete advice on how to be an activist on the larger ethical issues.

Be that as it may, the guiding principle of Buddhist practice has ­always been to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of beings (and that’s all beings, not just humans), rather than short-term bene­fit for the individual at the expense of others. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that we are heading for a system crash. From E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), to Frances Moore Lappé (Diet for a Small Planet), to John Robbins (Diet for a New America), we can get the lay of the land. Systems thinking and design thinking can provide us with a framework for action. What remains is for us to find the will to act, and for some outspoken Buddhist leaders to take the initiative to make the discussion of agriculture a key component of our largely urban practice.







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