The pattern of problems and solutions

By Jim Van Der Pol Kerkhoven, Minnesota — One pattern sometimes holds true in several different venues. That is true now of doctoring and farming, both of which are in a pretty advanced state of decay. Thoughtful people in both these areas are wondering how long the current practices and ideas can hold up.

Bruce Lipton, in his book The Biology of Belief, points out that it is conventionally accepted that 120,000 people die in the U.S. each year from adverse reactions to drugs. This would make prescription drugs the third leading cause of death. However, this count is obsolete, having been made in 2000. A 10-year survey of government statistics completed in 2003 shows that the real number may be closer to 300,000, making drugs the leading cause of death, according to Lipton. You will notice, of course, that this number never got talked about in our recent “health care debate.” But it presents the practitioners of conventional medicine with a picture of the dead end they are on, along with the knowledge that change is no longer just desirable, but absolutely necessary.

There are similarities between the practice of medicine and the practice of farming. Farming and medicine are necessary to human health. Both, if well done, are as much art as science. Or perhaps more precisely, they are the practice of art in the use of science. Whether or not the practitioners particularly want it or even like it, both work with biological systems. This means that there is always going to be some of the “make it up as we go along” about both. Medicine heals the body; farming feeds it. Some insist that if farming provides the right kind and quality of food that it, too, heals the body. And both farming and medicine fail with the failure, before death, of human life.

Agriculture, like medicine, is oversimplified. Just as doctors (especially those who work with the elderly) pile one drug on top of another, often hoping to control the bad effects of the first with the second and third, so, too, do practitioners of agriculture pile one technological solution on top of another. If one dose of Roundup won’t do it, perhaps two will. Maybe we will also have to “clean up” resistant weeds with other chemicals. Surely we need every crop to be genetically engineered, not just the main ones.

Animals will grow by eating this stuff, if they know what’s good for them. We will give them bicarbonate of soda or other minor ingredients in the feed to help their poor, damaged stomachs. If animals fed wrong (grains instead of forages) develop the dangerous e-coli, we will vaccinate them. And if bleach on the carcass doesn’t fix it, we will irradiate. Who can doubt that we will soon see handy home irradiation machines for sale in the Walmart?

We will grow our vegetables in monocultures in places that can be most “economically competitive.” We will ship all over the world from these places. If the dangerous e-coli is found on the vegetables, we will blame it on the wildlife, hire hunters to decimate the wild populations, and build tall fences to keep them out. Maybe we should bleach the spinach.

What we have here, in both areas of the economy, is a perfect storm of homegrown foolishness! We are pushing on a rope. And since there is really next to no chance the government is going to do anything useful in either of these areas, it is going to be up to us to hike up our drawers and be the adults in the room.

Lipton makes the argument that too much of today’s medicine is based on an outdated understanding of physics. The body is thought to be matter only; the role of energy is not considered. He says we are just beginning to understand that each cell relates and reacts to its environment, changing as necessary to live in that environment.

For Lipton, the cell’s membrane is its “brain,” deciding how much of what substances to let in and what to exclude. Through these simple processes, it controls the cell’s activities in its environment and therefore the health and well being of each cell, which is of course critical to the health of all the cells together — the body itself. Consider that a cell’s environment consists largely of the nutrients surrounding it, taken from the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, and you have a picture of the connection with agriculture.

It is both exciting and alarming to follow Lipton as he makes the argument that it is the cells themselves, communicating with their environment, that carry on a goodly share of the changes seen in an organism during its life, and that some of these changes are passed to following generations.

Darwin, according to Lipton, didn’t have the whole idea. As an indication of how little we really know of the life of the body and how cells communicate, Lipton tells us of a health-conscious woman who received a heart and lung transplant from a young man killed in a motorcycle accident. She soon developed a craving for chicken nuggets and beer, along with an appreciation for motorcycles.

And so we might ask: In what long-term direction are we being taken by a nutrient stream of biotech-manufactured carbohydrates and proteins, with chemical residues outside the cell membrane of each and every one of our cells?

Agriculture suffers from ignorance of the basic plant-soil relationship. Farmers today understand the soil and its life less than farmers just a generation ago. This is due to over-involvement of energy and technology corporations in the production, marketing and even financing of crops. We in agriculture also discount the importance of energy, often treating our farms as a simple pile of stuff we can force into making a profit for us.

I think we graziers don’t fully appreciate the radical difference of our own approach and what that does for our perception of agriculture. Remember that most farmers think of energy as something they pour into their tractors, or produce out of their corn. Some farmers are also dimly aware that fertilizers and crop chemicals are basically energy. Few indeed have any idea of the kind of total energy deficit their farms run, or how exposed this makes them in this climate of increasingly expensive and undependable purchased energy supplies.

Purchased energy is dead end energy. It is used for a single purpose and then disappears from the system, except as waste product and cost overhang. In contrast, nature’s energy flow produces no waste. It costs nothing other than having an understanding sufficient to see it, and sometimes the effort to enable it. It operates in a cycle coming up from the soil to nourish plants and then the animals and, upon death or sometimes the reproductive part of the cycle, these enter the earth again, going through a process of regeneration preparatory to emerging as new life once more.

The catalyst for all this is the sun, which is why the entire process is sometimes called the solar chain. It is our understanding of this cycle that gets us to graze our animals whenever possible, to stockpile forage to be grazed in place if we can or, in a somewhat more complicated and less efficient way, to operate a farm sufficiently diversified and well planned that it mimics the natural cycle in growing feed for animals whose manures are returned to enrich the soil.

Biotech seeds, crop chemicals, commercial fertilizers, and animals in feedlots attempt to turn this elegant arrangement into a simple, factory-style line — from production through use — ending not in regeneration, but only waste. Waste of soil, because its fertility is not linked to its own life through regeneration. Waste of the farm’s chance to be profitable and satisfying, because it is now merely a factory. And finally, waste of the consumer’s faith that the food he purchases is good and healthful. Unhealthful food is often supplemented with too many pills, so we have yet another connection between medicine and agriculture, this one a negative.

The sharing of patterns is an indication that great change is afoot. We can see it not only in agriculture and medicine, but also in government, economy, education and finance. The old forms are dying of their own contradictions, and are doing a great deal of thrashing about in the process.

Meanwhile, something new is trying to be born. It is exciting, but also terrifying. As with modern medicine, any enterprise based so squarely upon such simplistic delusions as those in modern conventional agriculture can only destroy itself. Let us hope we are not all destroyed in the process.

Jim Van Der Pol grazes and markets from his farm near Kerkhoven, Minnesota.