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EAP Publication - 26

SOIL, FOOD, HEALTH AND VALUES

Stuart B. Hill

Suddenly I realized that nobody knew anything and Tom moment I began to think for myself. - Maurice Nicoll

The task is not so much to see what no one has yet seen, but to think what no one has yet thought about what everybody sees. - Arthur Schopenhauer

I start with these two quotes firstly to encourage you to be willing to do your thinking and be wary of being over-reliant on so-called experts, and secondly, to caution you that recognizing the significance of what I am about to present will require a willingness to do new thinking about subjects that you may not have previously regarded as worthy of close attention.

Thinking, however, is not enough, for it is only when we feel passionately about something that we are likely to exhibit the necessary commitment to translate our clear thinking into effective action. Hence, "The task is not so much to think what no one has yet thought, but to feel what you have not yet felt about what you and others have thought." The importance of acknowledging our feelings was particularly evident to me at a conference a few years ago at which Joe Collins, co-author of "Food First" and "Aid as Obstable," went through a depressing list of ways in which people in less industrialized parts of the world are oppressed by those in the more industrialized parts. Three of us were to respond and as the final speaker I had heard my colleagues present two more installments of "bad news." I had watched the energy level of the audience go down and down, and I knew that I just had some more bad news to tell. At that moment I acknowledged my feelings - I was feeling really angry -so instead of launching into my prepared text, I shouted into the microphone as loud as I could, "DOESN'T THAT MAKE YOU DAMN MAD!" At that point we started to discuss the issues. I'll never forget an elderly McGill professor coming up to the microphone and saying, "It makes me damn mad and there are a few things I want to say," and he probably was saying those things for the first time. I should add that "The task is not just to feel what you have not yet felt, but to transform your knowledge, skills and feelings into personal actions that, for example in the food area. will lead to nourishment and fulfillment for all, and sustainability of the systems involved.- To avoid burnout and personal frustration it also helps to keep in mind that "The task is not so much to act in isolation, but to act in cooperation with other humans, other organisms and with the plant itself." I think it is extremely important for humanists to work in collaboration with other groups based on our common interests.

We are presently losing, based on a conservative estimate, a species a day on this planet (some have estimated over 100 species a day: over 400 times the natural rate of loss of species). This is a measure of the functioning of humanity. We could lose 20% of all species within the next generation, and a quarter of all plant families by the end of the next century, i.e., 50 families. We desperately need to translate our thinking about such insults to life into effective cooperative action.

Over a third of the earth's land area is threatened by desertification. The surface of the earth has been likened to the human body, which cannot survive losing more than a third of its skin. If the earth loses much more than a third of its surface through desertification. There will be irreversible changes with respect to atmospheric and biological functioning, and this will certainly have negative effects on our own species.

The Science Council of Canada recently published their study of soil degradation. Whereas the present cumulative cost was estimated to be about one billion dollars, by the year 2005 it is expected to reach $44 billion, unless we make radical changes in the way in which we farm and manage the land. Over the last 30 years we have lost 609,0 of the organic matter content of some of our most productive prairie soils. We have lost it by inappropriate farming systems that keep the soil exposed for most of the year, and that emphasize row crops with bare soil between the growing plants. There is loss of soil in wind and water, breakdown of organic matter by exposure to heat and degradation, and lack of return of organic waste to the soil. Such losses are clear evidence that our present practices are unsustainable. Soil should be covered with green or brown material at all times, i.e., growing plants or dead organic matter. But the systems of agriculture on which we currently rely depend on keeping the soil bare. As I will point out later, I think the reasons for this are not primarily scientific, but psychological.

We try to enrich this eroded and degraded soil by putting on nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus fertilizers. But out of poor soil we can produce only poor quality food. We take basically the same "enrichment" approach to food that has been degraded by food processing. Perhaps two or three dozen different nutrients are partially removed and only three or four added, and the processors have the audacity to call the food "enriched." In medicine we see the same approach to the human body through the taking of vitamins, minerals and toximolecular substances; and, if these approaches do not work, the surgeon is summoned -- a sad state of affairs.

There is another approach to sickness. It is to look at the previous stage in the chain of forces affecting us. One of these forces is the stale of the food, whose qualify is partly determined by the quality of the soil. Examining the causes of problems is one way in which we can take a more scientific approach to finding rational solutions. From 1953 to 1973 the Canadian population grew by 49%, but the cancer death rate grew by 73%, and 60% to 70% of those cancers are claimed by the Ontario Cancer Society to be related to food.

Why have we been a long time coming to grips with this? Starting in the 1920's, Drs. Williamson and Pearse examined the health of the population of Peckham, London, and they found that only 10% of the people were free of detectable physical or mental disorders. Ninety percent of the population were "sick." Although 20-30% were aware of their condition, 60-70% had exactly the same diseases and conditions but were unaware of this. Based on this finding and other observations, they classified the population into three states: healthy, diseased and compensatory. Thus, most of the population had developed compensatory lifestyles to mask their true conditions. Studies repeated since then have found roughly the same distribution among other Western populations, probably including those reading this article; i.e., most of us are living to some extent in a compensatory state.

There are certain characteristics of this compensatory state that are important to understand. We tend to deny the disorder. We do this not only about our own physical condition, but often also about the state of society and of the environment. To mask its effects there is first a widespread interest in stimulatory activities that are very distracting, and second a tendency to get involved in postponing activities such as forming committees, knowing that they won't lead to anything. Indeed, as a society we have invested considerable efforts into selling up institutional structures to support our compensatory habits. Even meetings such as this Humanist Conference are, to some extent, compensatory, because they rarely lead to the sort of action that is required. Unless you commit yourself to take some relevant action I will have fallen short of my objective to facilitate our moving out of this compensatory state.

If we examine our culture -- our social structures, our education, our relationships, birthing, child-rearing and consumption patterns, recreation and work, and also our industries, agriculture, forestry, social services, and political and legal systems -we can usually recognize two agendas: one that is rational, and another that is designed and maintained (usually unknowingly) to meet our compensatory needs, thereby keeping us partly in the dark and willing to continue postponing taking relevant action.

My position is that there are many inter-related local and global problems, and many of these have reached crisis levels. They are all caused by my species, including me. They can only be solved and prevented by my species, including me, and this requires that I change the way I feel, think and act. This approach is based on the important assumption that I can change. So the whole crux of my argument is based on each of us taking responsibility for changing ourselves and, in particular, abandoning our compensatory habits.

The general approach to problems in our society today is to recommend economic growth. But what does economic growth imply? In its conventional format implies increases in resource consumption, waste production, environmental impact, degeneration of the support systems, impacts on humans, an increased sense of vulnerability, and an expansion in the tendency to resort to emergency measures to solve these problems. In agriculture this is particularly obvious. For example, we now automatically put antibiotics in animal feed. Instead, antibiotics should be reserved for real emergencies. Now when we are faced with a problem that really requires an antibiotic, the microorganism may no longer be affected by it.

The use of pesticides has also become standard practice in agriculture, rather than as an emergency measure. This characterizes a humanity in retreat. We have become victims of a process of increasing dependence on emergency measures for maintaining our existence.

II is time to consider human growth and development as an alternative approach to progress. We will need to develop a supportive relationship with our resources and wean ourselves from our present dependent state. This will require a radical rethinking of our relationship with the Earth.

We can already recognize some indications of the crisis. Currently (1987) a quarter of Canadian farms are facing financial difficulty and possible closure. Farm debt is over $21 billion. A third of prairie farmers may be out of business by the end of this year. Potato prices in P.E.I. are two cents per pound at the farm gate; cost of production is six cents per pound. We have taken our cheap food policy to ridiculous ends, and made the farmer increasingly dependent on government subsidies. Economically, it is now almost impossible for anyone new to enter farming. A tragedy for me is seeing students, trained in agriculture, having to accept jobs as feed, fertilizer, and pesticide salespeople, when what they really want to do is to farm.

Most of us tend to have rather romantic ideas of the farm and the food system, but things have changed radically over the past 50 years. Today farms produce the raw materials which the agribusiness system collects, processes, stores and delivers to us packaged as "neofood" -- reaping profits at every stage of the process. The number of middlemen has increased, and the highly processed products are correspondingly more expensive and less nutritious.

Through the industrialization of agriculture we have certainly increased productivity per area and per farmer effort; but we have done this by increasing energy inputs, particularly in the forms of fuels for machinery and the production of fertilizers, and to some extent pesticides. At the same time there has been an incredible increase in pollution, soil erosion and other related impacts. The energy efficiency of this system has gone down dramatically. Whereas a farmer in China might put in one unit of energy and gel 100 back in the form of rice, in North America, which relies heavily on feedlot beef, a farmer can be putting in 100 units of energy and getting one back in the form of beef. Agriculture has become an energy sink.

The amount of natural capital within one system has gone down in several ways. Soil fertility has decreased, so that we have be come more dependent on synthetic fertilizers to maintain the system. The natural control capacity of the systems has declined, so we have become increasingly dependent on synthetic pesticides. The amount of genetic material in the gene pool is gradually eroding away as we specialize in a narrower and narrower range of crops, and some are undo the illusion that this can be solved by biotechnology.

The farmer is in the worst position to effectively respond to this situation. The farmer buys retail and sells wholesale. S/he is completely in the grip of the input oligopoly, the output oligopoly, the bank and the tax man. Donald Mitchell, author of The Politics of Food, showed that in the 1970's one out of every four dollars that Canadians spent went to one interlocking oligopoly, which included Massey-Ferguson, Canada Packers, Dominion Stores, and a number of other agribusiness enterprises. When the farmer goes to the bank to borrow money, the bank manager will often only approve a loan, if it is to be spent on products produced by other members of the oligopoly. If the farmer wants to borrow money to set up a farm that is not dependent on such imported synthetic inputs, that is designed to be self-regulating and self-sustaining, then the bank is predictably not too interested. A cartoon I saw recently put it very well: The bank manager was saying to his son, who is looking at a farm, "Some day, son, this will all be yours! " The change in farm organization from family farms to large corporate, industrialized farms is increasing; so is our dependence on production for distant and uncertain export markets, and on government subsidies. The diffusion of urban social and industrial values to rural areas is having an enormous effect on the way farmers live, what they demand, and how they approach farming -- increasingly as a factory process, not as a farming process. As corporate concentration expands, the number of strong economic players in the food system declines.

Presently the food system emphasizes three objectives: productivity, profit and power -- the use of the food system as a bargaining tool in international relationships -- and the folly of this focus is that it fails to recognize ecological limits. Natural systems function with numerous built-in limits which, in transcended, result in resource exhaustion, environmental impact, and degradation of person and planet, outcomes which use obviously not sustainable. In contrast goals such as nourishment, fulfillment, flexibility, evolution, justice and sustainability are more likely to respect natural limits, conserve resources, be based on renewable resources and their maintenance, and be supportive of the development of person and planet. Such sustainable objectives are broader than the present narrow agribusiness ones.

The food system is really a cyclical system of production, consumption and not recycling. In our effort to increase production we have taken resources, primarily non-renewable ones, injected them into the production put of the cycle, thereby making it appear that the recycle part is not important. Instead of the wastes being recycled, they me allowed to accumulate or contaminate fragile ecosystems, thereby wasting valuable resources and causing damage to the environment. Thus, the outcome has been increased resource dependence, environmental impact and related health problems, partly resulting from changes in the quality and composition of the human diet. There has been an increase in the probability that toxins will be present in the diet and nutrients lost In this way we expose ourselves to increasing amounts of stress and, at the same time, reduce our ability to recover from it. The result a predictable increase in degenerative diseases.

Soil is a living system containing hundreds of different types of beneficial organisms that maintain the integrity of that system. Unless we take care of these organisms, they will not be able to benefit us. We tend to ignore such unseen allies, and may even see them as enemies. For example, our society tends to be entomophobic, afraid of insets and constantly at war with insects, yet 99.9% of insects me beneficial or neutral with respect to humans; only 0. 1% are pests. If we use pesticides to kill these we risk the lives of the harmless 99.9%, thereby destroying many of our allies.

What is imperative for soil is that sustainable systems of management be implemented; and what is imperative for food-health relationships is that people become aware of their individual needs and tolerances. For example, one individual's requirement for a particular nutrient, such as Vitamin C, might differ from that of another individual by as large a factor of 100, because of differences in their metabolic functioning and lifestyle. Thus, RDAs (recommended daily allowances), which imply that all people have uniform requirements for different nutrients, merely reflect the primitive state of the science of nutrition. Eventually techniques will be available whereby individuals will be able to determine their unique and changing needs and tolerances.

Many of the things that we do within the food system decrease the nutritional value of food. It can be lowered by reducing the presence of desirable components and by adding undesirable materials, such as pesticides. The production process involves selecting a crop and a site, planting the crop, maintaining the site and harvesting the crop. We then usually transport, store, process, package, and eventually consume the product. There is a high probability that during each of these processes nutrients will be lost and toxins added. Crops are more often selected for their productivity than for their nutritional value, and one of the easiest ways to increase the productivity of a vegetable is to increase its ability to retain water. Some of our increased productivity of vegetables actually reflects an increased capacity to sell water to people. When you shop for vegetables, I recommend that you choose the smallest product, because usually these are the one that have the least water, whereas the great big lush looking items represent a fairly expensive way of buying water!

We not only select for productivity, but also for machine pick-ability, for resistance to pests, shelf life, and cosmetic appearance. Selection for such non-nutritional qualities is likely to reduce nutrient content. Planting sites are selected to maximize productivity and profit.. Often produce is grown in areas that are not ideal for them, and this can result in a loss of nutrients. The same plant is open grown in the same soil year after year. If that plant tends to require a lot of zinc, for example, its annual demand will eventually deplete the soil of zinc; the pantry will be bare, and when you eel the plant you won't gel enough zinc.

Pesticides of course are poisons, and so their use can make food more toxic. Harvesting is often done before the plant is ripe, because it can be more easily machine-picked, and this can lower its nutritional value. Transportation, storage, processing, packaging and preparation may all result in a loss of nutrients and an addition of toxins.

To examine how soil and climate can affect food quality, the same variety of spinach was grown in about 20 different states in the U.S.A. The manganese content of the final product varied from one part per million (ppm) to 117 ppm; iron from 1,584 ppm in the west to as low as 19 ppm in the east. These differences are significant nutritionally.

One cause of such difference is our tendency to add to soil massive amounts of single nutrients, such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. All of these interact with the other elements in soil. For example, phosphorus interacts with iron, sodium, calcium, boron and aluminum, and can change the availability of these elements to plants. In the human body elements such as manganese and iron function in the formation of essential enzymes. Manganese is a co-enzyme in arginase, which is involved in the formation of urea. If nitrogenous waste products are not converted into urea, they can result in poisoning.

Relatively little (less than 50%) of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to the soil is actually taken up by the crop. Most of it is lost through erosion, leaching, and conversion to gases. Some goes into the atmosphere as ammonia and some of this is converted to nitrous oxide; this becomes nitric oxide in the presence of ultraviolet radiation and through its reaction with ozone depletes the protective ozone layer, thereby increasing the risk of skin cancers.

Pesticides are another issue. The food items on our plate do not come with labels describing the pesticide residues that might be in them. Most of these chemicals have not been adequately tested. A U.S. study by the National Academy of Sciences in 1984 found that only 10% of pesticides had sufficient data for a complete health hazard appraisal, 24% had partial data, 2% minimal data, 26% had some data but below minimal, and 38% lacked any toxicological data; and this only refers to the resting of individual chemicals. Our understanding of the possible synergistic effects between such toxic chemicals has hardly been examined. We are essentially guinea pigs in a rather cruel human experiment.

Clearly, new approaches to pest control are called for. In a conventional agricultural system the crops are in nice neat rows of single crops, a situation that is ideal for any organisms that feed on the particular crops, i.e., with such a design there will always be pests. The conventional response is to spray pesticides. As David Suzuki said recently, spraying pesticides to get rid of pests is like bombing New York City to get rid of criminals. To kill the 0. 1% that are harmful we risk the lives of the 99.9% that are beneficial or neutral with respect to humans. Two improvements are currently being promoted. One is to monitor pests and only spray when the pest is there, using more sophisticated spraying equipment. I call this the efficiency approach. The other is the substitution approach whereby we import or promote biological control agents -- parasites, predators and pathogens -- or use other more benign interventions to kill the pests. The problem with these "shallow" ecology approaches is that the more effective they are, the more we protect and perpetuate the agroecosystem designs and management systems that are the causes of our pest problems. I believe that we should keep curative approaches for emergencies and instead emphasize preventive approaches -- strategies that recognize and respond to the causes and roots of our problems. This "deep" ecology approach requires the re-design of both self and system.

The task is to prevent pest outbreaks without compromising our other goals, especially nourishment. I grow much of my own food. Sometimes visitors to my garden, on seeing a few holes in some leaves, will say, "Aren't you going to do anything about that? You are supposed to be a model gardener. What if people see these holes?" My reply is, "All I am growing that garden for is to nourish my family, not to produce Olympic standard vegetables. I don't care if insects eat a few things. My garden always produces more food than I can ever use." We have become so conditioned to expect cosmetically perfect fruits and vegetables that we confuse this with nutritional quality, and we regard as an enemy any organism that interferes with this unrealistic appearance standard. One study showed that sugar beets could suffer about 60% defoliation of the plant before affecting the sugar beet in the ground. But farmers have been conditioned by pesticide salesmen and the media to spray when they see a few holes in the leaves.

I go through three stages of perception when I am searching for solutions to such problems as agricultural pests. The first I call deceptive simplicity, the second confusing, paralyzing complexity, and the third profound simplicity. Pesticides represent the deceptively simply solution. A medical friend clearly pointed Out such deceptions to me when he commented that "We don't suffer from headaches because of a deficiency of aspirin in our blood." Similarly, we don't suffer from crime because of a deficiency of prisons, or cancer because of a deficiency of cancer beds in hospitals, or pests because of a deficiency of pesticides in the air around the farm, garden or home.

Confusing complexity is experienced when we start to examine in detail the causes of such problems. In this stage we tend to initiate studies, establish committees, or conduct hearings. The result is often that we become distracted and side-tracked, and effective action tends to be postponed.

Profound simplicity is experienced when we have recognized the causes and meanings of problems, and have identified key actions that can be taken to prevent them. Thus, pest problems might be solved by adjusting the liming of planting to avoid the pest, using suitable crop rotations and planting designs, avoiding stressing the plant, supporting the development of natural controls, and abandoning our demand for cosmetically perfect commodities, or for crops that are not suited to our environmental conditions.

In our society we consistently take curative, symptom-focused, single, simple, direct, short-term, technology-intensive, physicochemical, high-powered, often imported types of approaches to solve problems. Furthermore, we tend to be very enemy oriented; and we promote and give prizes to people who find deceptively simply solutions to "eliminate" enemies. In contrast, the fully developed and functioning human being is probably someone who sees no enemies and is content to solve problems anonymously. This usually involves-being willing to take indirect, long-term, low-powered, multi-faceted, bioecological, and local approaches. Problems solved in this way cannot so easily be associated with effective individual actions or actors. It requires collaboration both with others (excluding no one) and with the natural environment. The fact that this approach is virtually untried in our society gives me hope that most of our problems can be solved.

In terms of science I believe we are still functioning at an incredibly primitive level. Most scientists and the agencies that fund them are caught up in the deceptively simple and confusingly complex paradigms. How can we change this? The main limiting factors are lack of relevant information (and presence of misinformation), skills, and institutional supports; but also lack of a realistic sustainable vision, lack of awareness and widespread disempowerment. These latter deficiencies are essentially inherited, not in a genetic but in a psychological sense. The psychological hurts from which our parents in particular, and society in general, have not fully recovered are unknowingly passed on to the subsequent generations. This can happen in apparently innocent ways. For example, a small boy may fall down and hurt himself. His natural response is to cry; indeed the act of crying in the presence of another's loving attention is the natural means of recovering from such hurts. What usually happens, however, is that this process is interrupted by the parent distracting the child, mistakenly thinking that by stopping the crying, the hurt is healed. The result is that the distress becomes internalized and subsequent hurts become more painful or, conversely, the child learns to become numb to such pain. In both cases there is a loss of awareness and a disempowerment. The parent may have been unknowingly stopping the child from crying to avoid their semi- conscious recollection of their own unhealed hurts. In this way unhealed hurts are "inherited" and humans are prevented from reaching their true potential.

Similarly, if you watch any small child being given baby food for the first time, you can observe the same process. The parent sits the baby on their lap, scoops up the "goop" and shoves it into the child's mouth. I've never seen a baby who didn't spit it out on first exposure. The parent then scrapes it up and shoves it back in. The baby of course knows exactly what it needs nutritionally -- mother's milk -- but it also needs the love and acceptance of the parent; and so the baby is taught that to get the good stuff you have to swallow the bad stuff. This lesson is repeated over and over again in many forms throughout our upbringing. If you just think back to your own childhood, how were meal times? Were they wonderful, happy times? Did you eat what you wanted to, how you wanted to, when you wanted to? Or was h "I've called you six times; come and eat now! " "Don't eat with your elbows on the table...." Countless times one was told essentially, "You are stupid, you are going to be controlled by me," and then when the child tries to let out some feelings about it, "Shut up" and, particularly to a boy, "Don't cry." It is little wonder that children grow up with poor self-images, feel inadequate and overwhelmed by situations, and seek compensation in addictive activities, including the attraction to "violent" solutions to problems.

A very interesting experiment to carry out, whenever you get a chance, with a child who is crying, is to sit her (or him) on your lap and not try to stop the crying. Just pay loving attention and allow her to cry. She will cry and cry and cry. Usually she will stop every now and then to check if you are still paying attention, and if so she will start to cry again, because she is going to take the chance to also recover from some earlier hurts. Eventually, which may even be twenty minutes later -- you have to have a lot of patience for this experiment -- the child will stop crying and spontaneously start to laugh; or, if she is exhausted, she will go to sleep and on awaking will spontaneously laugh or produce contented noises. This is a wonderful thing to experience.

It really will only require one generation of adults allowing children to recover from their hurts to stop them from being passed on unhealed to future generations. The effects of this on society could only be positive. The effects of controlling children in oppressive ways are evident in the ways in which we design our lives and our industries. The projection of control is evident everywhere. In agriculture, for example, the emphasis on clean cultivation of monocultures may reflect a subconscious effort to keep things simple enough to facilitate control (with high-powered machinery and strong chemicals).

If we are really serious about solving the main problems that face society today, I believe that in addition to taking the necessary political and technological actions we must accept responsibility for healing our hurts at the individual level and in so doing we will be dealing with seminal causes of all of our problems. It is usually not easy to accept this for as R.D. Laing commented, "In our development it is as if each of us were hypnotized twice, firstly into accepting pseudo-reality as reality, and secondly into believing that we were not hypnotized."

Note: To End the addresses of groups in your area involved in the healing of individual hurts and the reclaiming of one's full potential, write: Re-evaluation Counseling Communities, 719 Second Avenue North, Seattle, WA 98109, U.S.A., or to Co-Counseling International, 144 Smith St., Middletown, CT 06457, U.S.A.

About the Author: Stuart Hill is with the Ecological Agricultural Projects at the McDonald Campus of McGill University. He is the author of numerous reports, papers and other publications. A list of available publications relating to this topic may tee obtained by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the author at Ecological Agriculture Projects, P.O. Box 191, Macdonald College, Ste-Anne de Bellevue, Que., Canada H9X ICO. This article is from a talk given to the Humanist Association of Canada, June 27, 1987, and it was subsequently published in The Humanist in a shorter form. Reprinted here with percussion.

Copyright 1990 Ecological Agriculture Projects


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