Agriculture and the Dominion Covenant
Within the context of the Dominion Covenant, there is no contradiction between conventional farming and organic farming.
– Agricultural Revolution in England, Mark Overton
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Welcome to Episode 73 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes I want to cover a topic in which, I must admit, I am not very well prepared. I have spent the last couple of weeks reading up on it; that topic has never seemed very appealing to me, until I started reading. It has always seemed to be quite boring; and there were topics way more interesting than it. But I thought I should start getting me up to date on that topic, since it has become quite popular in the general culture, and among Christians. Not that I want to run where the popular opinion goes; but every topic that God raises in the society as an important problem to resolve, needs to be given a covenantal analysis – and, hopefully, a covenantal solution. So I will try to at least give it a start here. Nothing of what I say in this episode should be considered my final opinion; I will continue educating myself on this issue, and I may see some of my analysis go through changes. Either way, a covenantal analysis must be at least started, and hopefully, others will also continue working on it.
The topic is agriculture. And I want to specifically cover the topic of food production. And within that topic, I want to tackle the subtopic of “quantity vs. quality.” I will explain what I mean.
In the last several years, a debate has formed around the quality of the food produced in the Western societies, a debate which did not exist a few decades back – at least not when I was teenager. On one end of that debate is what I call the “traditional,” or the “technological” party. Their view is that food should be produced in greater and greater quantities, and for this reason, all the scientific discoveries and available technological tools must be used, even if that means that, at some point, the quality of the food may suffer. The most visible player in that group is Monsanto, with their relentless drive for more technological discoveries that would increase the production of food, or decrease the destruction of crops. There are other players, too, not as big as Monsanto, but just as determined to discover newer and newer technological ways for increasing the production of food; for example, Monsanto’s competitors BASF in Germany, Syngenta in Switzerland, and Dupont Pioneer. I know, I know, based on a lot of bad publicity of the last decade or so, to quite a few people, the name Monsanto sounds like Satan. However, the stated mission and vision of all these companies is the increase of agricultural productivity by any means possible and any tools available to mankind. And there is much sense in what they are saying, if we sift out the propaganda. I still remember, in Eastern Europe before 1989, the times when food production was lagging behind the needs of a growing population. The Soviet Union, for all its vast expanses of naturally irrigated, arable land, never seemed to be able to feed its own population, so they had to constantly import food. The situation was similar in the other countries of Eastern Europe – we always had to wait in lines for basic food products. And it wasn’t like this was anything unusual; such shortage of food has been the normal state of mankind for centuries. And now that the population of the earth has grown exponentially, the danger seems to be ever present. Just a century ago, only 7% of all agricultural land in the world was used. Today, this percentage has grown to 40. And the population is still rising. The population growth of the planet has slowed a bit, but, still, we are adding a billion every 12-13 years. If we continue down that road, by 2050, we will run out of arable land. True enough, we have much more land that can be improved by irrigation and fertilizing – just look at the Sahara Desert alone – but while such development is possible, it is also expensive in terms of energy and human capital. So if it comes to it, we can certainly develop vast stretches of currently unusable land, but at what cost, and how would that affect the food prices? The problem is much greater than most of us realize: many people think that it is easy to turn a desert into a blooming land. And while it is possible, as examples demonstrate (the western states on the US, Northern Chile, Israel, Egypt, the United Emirates), it also comes at a cost that makes it prohibitive to do at a large scale. So far such examples of reclaiming the land have been profitable only where the food prices have been high or there have been abundant supply of cheap labor. Since labor has been getting more and more expensive worldwide, our only option to turn deserts into agricultural lands is higher prices.
Or, technology. And that’s what Monsanto and its competitors argue for. Our other option is to try to increase the yield from the same acreage. If we can do that, we would be able to produce more food from the same acreage, thus solving the problem with the production of food. How much more can we produce from the same acreage? More about it later.
On the other end of the spectrum is what is called today “organic farming.” Now, until recently, I mistakenly believed that the concept of organic farming had to do with the quality of the food produced: that food from organic farms is better quality than food from conventional farms: healthier, better taste, etc. I personally never saw a difference in the taste, having tried both conventionally produced and organic products. I have also never seen any evidence that the quality of organic food is superior: after all, if all the food produced before the modern era was organic (as supporters of organic farming claim), why is it that mankind has experienced greater longevity after the introduction of the industrial methods of agriculture? Aren’t we supposed to die younger from those inorganically-produced foods? When I started educating myself on the issue, I found out I was not the only one who didn’t have evidence of such superiority of organic foods: the multiple studies done over the last several decades are rather inconclusive. Some do find difference, others don’t. Either there is no difference between organic and conventional food, or our modern methods of testing (and tasting) can’t categorically make out the difference.
When I started reading up on it, however, I discovered that the concept of organic farming had less to do with the quality of food – although, there are some who claim that it is superior – and more to do with the quality of farming itself. The methods of organic farming are not designed to necessarily produce tastier and healthier food; may be, only may be, the result would be such, but it would all depend not so much on the farming methods but also on the systems of distribution. The word “organic” did not relate to the chemical terms “organic” and “inorganic,” as in manure is organic matter while nitrogen fertilizers are inorganic substances. It had to do rather with the view of the long term relation between the farmer and the land, and the sustainability of the land in its natural state, as over against making it an exploitable resource which is to be exhausted until it can’t produce, and then maintain it in an unnatural state of being supported with chemicals with the purpose of maintaining its productivity. (Like a football player who is constantly kept on steroids and anabolics so that he can perform all the time.) The term “organic” presupposed that the farm is an organism, and as an organism, the farmer is supposed to take care of it as an organism, so that it lives as an organism, naturally and smoothly, so that at the end of his life, he can transfer to his successors or heirs a living system which is in the same or better natural condition than it was when he took possession of it. The land is not supposed to be worked to death as a slave; it is supposed to be maintained and nourished as a partner; and no, I am not speaking here of some sort of animistic fetishism where the land itself is a person and people need to have some occult unity with it. It is rather the attitude one has to his car, house, or business office. We don’t just exploit our cars without any maintenance, and neither do we do maintenance only after the car has broken. We try to do things that are “natural,” “organic” to the car: we change the oil, we check and refill the fluids, we rotate the tires, etc. We have the same attitude to our houses and to our business offices. We try to anticipate and prevent the breakdown, we don’t just patch things up after the breakdown has happened. And that’s the philosophy behind organic farming. It’s not that inorganic chemistry is not allowed; but only that is allowed that preserves the natural state of the soil and the plants, so that the land can keep producing over and over again without any necessity to be patched up with unnatural remedies.
And while the studies about the health and the taste of organic foods are inconclusive, it looks like other tests are quite conclusive: namely, that organic farming does indeed achieve the results it has set out to achieve: organic farms consistently demonstrate improved soils, greater biodiversity, lesser need for added chemicals (assuming that chemicals are by default unhealthy, of which I am not convinced), and, as a result of all this, gradually increasing productivity. The productivity of organic farms, however, still trails behind that of conventional agriculture: the best confirmed results are about 80% of the productivity of comparable conventional farms. On another indicator – prices – organic food is still prohibitively expensive for the majority of the world’s population. This has been the reason for two facts about organic food production: first, it is still quite small compared to the total food production ($80 billion out of a total of 2 trillion a year, or less than 5%), and, second, its markets are almost entirely limited to North America and Europe, that is, to populations that can afford the high prices. And, one more misconception that needs to be corrected, namely, that for centuries, mankind has been practicing organic farming, and only recently started practicing industrial farming. That’s not true. For centuries, mankind has been doing agriculture without any regard for the land and its sustainability. A group of people would come to a clearing in the woods, would expand it by cutting the trees, plow the land and sow their seeds, the land would then be exploited for several years until it became completely barren, and then the people would move to another location. That has been the history of the world for centuries. Very few locations had conditions favorable enough to do agriculture that was not destructive to the land. (And these locations developed might civilizations and became a magnet for conquest.) Individual methods of organic farming have developed throughout history, and have been used, but never at a large scale, and never conclusively enough to maintain sustainability. Organic farming is not the ancient or conventional farming. It is a new thing. It is the modern way.
So, we have conventional farming, concerned with the fact that a growing population needs to have growing production of food, and all the help modern science and technology can offer. And we have organic farming concerned with food production as a holistic system which includes the land as its main resource, trying to assure the sustainability of the land, that is, its improved condition after the food is produced. And the two are in some sort of a debate, which is better and which needs to be supported. And I was asked about my opinion on that debate. Which side am I on? Am I on the side of conventional farming and its drive for production of more and more food, using every scientific and technological tool we have at our disposal? Or am I on the side of organic farming and its care for the land not just as a resource to be depleted but as a partner to be respected and taken care of?
Where should my answer start? From the Dominion Covenant, of course.
In the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and take dominion over it, there was an implicit command: make the earth itself fruitful. While man was created to be a steward over creation, under God, he was also made to be dependent on that creation. He could, of course, abandon his task of taking dominion over the earth, but that would come at a cost: he would starve. His body was created in such a way as to depend on the constant supply of new energy, in order to keep him going. A failure to supply that energy to his body would disqualify him from the task of taking dominion; forgive me for using such technical language for “die,” but from the perspective of the Dominion Covenant, that’s how it looks like. It gets even worse than that, given that God created innumerable ways in which energy can be transferred and transformed and utilized, but he didn’t make too many of them compatible with the functions of the human body. Man cannot absorb direct energy and use it for his bodily functions – if he could, we wouldn’t have any problem with radiation, it would be food for us. But bare naked energy doesn’t qualify as food for us, and in fact, outside a miniature band on the frequency spectrum, all direct energy is harmful to the human body. We can’t even take that energy stored in chemical substances: almost all chemical substances that have stored energy in them are toxic to humans – think strong acids and bases and active radicals. (This has nothing to do with political revolutionaries.) We can only use that energy when it is stored in special organic molecules, so complex that their production takes a long process, still barely understood by biochemists. We can’t even consume all kinds of organic molecules: the majority of common organic substances are either non-nutritional or even toxic to humans. Only certain organic molecules are capable of delivering energy to the human body. After the flood, God expanded the supply: certain organic substances are not edible for humans, but they are edible for some animals; and God made those animals edible for humans. But still, the same principle remained: the road from simple bare energy to energy fit to nourish the human body is very long and complex.
In simple words, God created the human body to have a need to replenish its energy, but He didn’t make it easy for man to absorb that energy. Even for one human body, the work needed to transform and supply that energy amounts to trillions of molecular transformations every day, from simple sunlight and the low-energy molecules of water and carbon dioxide to the incredibly complex molecules of our food. Not to mention the incredibly complex molecules of the apparatus in our body that takes the energy from the food and transports it to the cells. (Try to figure and understand the molecule of adenosine tri-phosphate, the substance that transports energy within our bodies.) That for one human body.
But the Dominion Covenant was not about one such body, nor about two such bodies. It was about becoming fruitful, and multiplying (reproducing) and filling the earth. That meant, billions of human bodies. Perhaps tens or hundreds of billions, who knows. And for all these human bodies, there has to be a sufficient supply of energy. That is, a sufficient supply of energy in the form of a very small set of very complex organic molecules, only capable of delivering energy to humans. And now you probably understand the vastness of the problem. That means that this gigantic process of building up complex organic molecules from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water has to be replicated trillions and quadrillions of times every single day. No, I am not being dramatic; it’s just all of us today in the 21st century West take it for granted that food somehow appears on our table. You need food? Just go to the nearest store. There’s plenty of food there, waiting for you to buy it. As if that was not enough, many different brands of the same types of food, competing for your attention. But stop and think: this abundance is rather an exception in history, and it has been around for only a few decades, and that only limited to a specific part of the world, the West. And it only appeared because the West had applied in practice the worldview that it inherited from Christendom; but today, that same West is abandoning the Christian faith that was the foundation of that worldview. It is possible, indeed, that the effects of that worldview are here to stay, as part of the growing Kingdom of God in history – such is my personal conviction. But could it be that we are living in a modern version of Joseph’s seven plentiful years, and the world – and specifically the West – is being stored up for judgment? And if this is the case, Christians need to start thinking of ways to use this abundance to store food. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to start building granaries; physical storage of food can be quite insecure. With our modern knowledge, a possible way of “storing” food may be to invest in more research to increase the productivity of the land, so that when the years of famine come, we can offer ways to keep the productivity of the land high, compared to everyone else around.
Either way, no matter what happens in the near or distant future, this is about the most important question of the Dominion Covenant: given that food is the most basic necessity of mankind, and given that mankind is commanded to be fruitful and multiply, and given that the amount of land available is limited, we are brought to the most basic reality – and the most basic aspect of the Dominion Mandate – namely, that we are supposed to throw a lot of effort into increasing the productivity of our agriculture. We have no other choice, if we are to fulfill that Dominion Mandate; no matter how much effort we throw in anything else – transportation, machines, cell phones and TV screens, clothing, tools – in the final account, our land must produce more and more nutrition per square meter, or we won’t be able to fulfill the purpose we were created for. That’s non-negotiable.
Of course, we can’t afford to become victims of the delusion that the productivity of the land can be increased indefinitely. There is a limit to it. That limit is the amount of sunlight energy that hits the surface of the earth. In the episode on pollution, we saw that when an object is at its lowest energy state, it can’t give away anymore energy – like a ball at the bottom of the hill that has no more down slope to roll. It takes energy to take it from its lowest energy state and move it to a position where it can give away energy. The two raw materials for building organic molecules, water and carbon dioxide, are at their lowest energy level. The only source of energy in the process of producing food is sunlight, nothing else. Of course, you can say that nutrients in the soil are a factor, too, but then again, they come from organic matter, and it is previously produced from sunlight. The inorganic fertilizers do not provide net energy to the process – they are only catalysts, that is, they only provide energy short-cuts for the energy transformations, but no new energy. Thus, our theoretical limit is how much energy from sunlight hits the surface of the earth.
That theoretical limit, surprisingly, is quite high. On a clear sunny day, the energy density of sunlight per square meter of perpendicular surface is 1 kW per square meter; that is, translated into the system unit of energy, joule, every second, a square meter absorbs 1,000 joules of energy. (If you want it in units closer to home, every hour, one square meter absorbs 1 kWh of energy.) The need of the human body for energy is not that high: a minimum 2,500 calories for an average man and 2,000 calories for an average woman per day. That’s not much: it is about 10,000 joules per man, or less than 3 Wh (equal to the average electricity consumption of your household for two hours). To make the comparison with sunlight, if the human body was perfectly capable of absorbing pure energy from sunlight, one square meter of land could have provided all the daily energy for one man within 10 seconds. Imagine if we could do that: 10 seconds of direct sunlight on your solar panels, and you are full. One or two minutes, and your whole family is fed. But we can’t do that. Only plants can absorb sunlight and transform its energy. So we need to find ways for plants to reach as near as possible to that theoretical limit of absorbing all the sunlight and transforming it all into energy. Of course, of course, I know this is only a theoretical limit. Under the Second Law of Thermodynamics, transformation of energy from one form into another never happens without some dissipation of energy into heat; the little energy transformers within those green leaves are not an exception, and what we get in calories from any food-producing plant is not even one-millionth of the sunlight hitting it over the course of one year. The most productive plant in terms of calories – sugar cane – only produces 3,500 calories a year from a square meter; which means that if a man was to survive on sugar cane calories alone, he’d need 260 square meters of sugar cane. And the numbers are much worse for other crops: for example, it will take 1,500 square meters, or one-third of an acre, to keep a man fed. This doesn’t sound awfully much, but then you need to multiply it by 7 billion people, and the numbers become overwhelming.
No matter how you look at it, increasing the productivity of our agriculture is a non-negotiable mandate; we just can’t stay at the same level, and we can’t return to earlier levels of productivity. And no matter how nostalgic we may be about the past and its idyllic times of free peasants producing their own food within local communities where everyone personally knows the farmers who produced their food, such vision is impossible to sustain practically, and, also, it is oriented towards the past, which means, in covenantal terms, that it is barren and unfruitful. Those days are gone. They are gone just like the days when you could personally know the person who made your shoes, or the person who bore the barrel of your musket, or the days when your wife made all the clothes for your family out of cloth you bought from your local weaver. The necessity of increased productivity will mean that every producer on the market will become more and more specialized in his own trade, and therefore will become more detached from the trades of other producers. That’s the inevitable consequence from the increasing division of labor; and division of labor is the main factor for the increased productivity of anything, including agriculture.
The initial natural and logical consequence from the Dominion Mandate, therefore, would be that mankind would have to think first of its own survival, and of increasing the productivity of the land and of agriculture, no matter what other long-term considerations may appear. After all, even if we wanted to preserve the land and make it richer instead of poorer, or rely on sustainable nutrition of the land, or aim at preserving biodiversity etc., we may find ourselves spending too much scarce energy into something that would leave us starving. From the very beginning, the clock of Adam’s stomach was ticking against him, and Adam had no time to think of preserving the land as a natural organism. (As a matter of fact, the “natural” state of the land was desert.) He had to draw everything he could, out of that barren land, and worry first about his own survival and about the survival of his family; and only later, when that survival is secured, work to improve the land as a capital resource. Adam didn’t have the luxury to go organic. While judicially, all the resources on the planet belonged to him, in practice, he was poorer than the poorest person today, because none of these resources were available for immediate use. All he could hope to get from one day’s work was one day’s survival. When a person is poor and can’t afford for more than survival, he doesn’t care what kind of food he eats – as long as there is food on the table. (Yes, that’s why McDonalds is good for certain people in certain circumstances, whether you like it or not.) And he certainly doesn’t care what side effects his agriculture produces – as long as it produces the main effect, namely, enough food for survival. And, also, keep in mind this: throughout history, the vast majority of human beings were dirt poor, and the main effort in the society was to produce food to put on the table. To give you a glimpse of what it was, today, most of us do not know too many people who work in agriculture; at the most, if you are a city dweller, barely more than 2 or 3 in 100 of your friends in involved in agriculture for a living. And yet, with so few people in agriculture, food is abundant. But if you lived 200 years ago or earlier, about 90% of your friends would be involved in agriculture. Why? Because, given the average productivity at the time, an agricultural producer would barely be capable of producing enough food to take care of his own household and workers, let alone have spare food to sell to the market. Having such a vast majority of the population on subsistence farming meant that the price of food was enormous, compared to the average income. As Deirdre McCloskey showed in Bourgeois Dignity, in year 1800, the average family in the world, no matter where they lived, whether Scotland or Bangladesh, survived on an average of $3 a day in today’s value. Enough for a pound of potatoes, a loaf of bread, and very little extra left for clothes, housing, or anything else.
For people in such poverty, Monsanto would be a savior. If you have lived your whole life trying to eke some miserable existence from the ground, a company that offers you the opportunity to produce 3-5 times more from the same ground, and that at affordable prices, is a company that is giving hope and life to your family. And it doesn’t have to be Monsanto. Any of the technological advances of the Western civilization would do: fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, growth control hormones, and of course, genetically modified crops. Why would a person care if, for them, the difference is the difference between life and death, hope and despair, prosperity and starvation? Would they worry first about the quality of the food or about the availability of food? And, given their level of poverty, would they be eager to adopt methods that make their food more expensive – that is, in economic terms, require more effort – or would they go for methods that make their food less expensive, thus freeing labor and resources for other undertakings that would help make their communities more prosperous?
This is what the agricultural revolution of the 18th century did to the West. It was more destructive to the land than before; although, if you take it per unit of produced food, it was about as destructive as before. But if anything, it increased the productivity of the land to the point where, first, starvation was wiped out from the list of imminent threats to mankind, and second, only a small portion of the population needed to work in agriculture now, freeing minds and hands to devise, develop, and operate new technological marvels that would increase the total productivity to levels unheard of before. In the process, the pace of depleting the soils accelerated in many places. (In fact, one of the worst was the American South. No group of landowners exploited its land as brutally and improvidently as the plantation owners in the American South. I guess, once you accept cruel exploitation of human beings as the norm, there is no reason to treat the rest of God’s creation any better.) But that wasn’t a concern for a while, for there were two factors at play now: more land was being opened to cultivation, and more people were being exposed to the new, technological way of producing food. And also, technology brought in chemicals. Whatever the land lost in natural richness, it gained in industrial chemicals. And then, more and more, anytime some ingredient is missing, the producers kept adding more and more chemicals to patch the land up.
How long can this continue? We don’t know, but we know it can’t continue forever. It is like a cheap dormitory which never gets any maintenance, only ad hoc repairs when something breaks down. It may have solved the accommodation problem for many poor or homeless people, but it won’t do it for much longer. Eventually the building will collapse on the tenants. Or, in a better scenario, the cost of repairs will outweigh the cost for tearing it down and building a new dormitory. Except that, in the case of agricultural land, one can’t tear it down and build it anew. The process of restoring it to its naturally productive state takes much longer. Either way, business can’t continue as usual, even if that business may have been profitable in the past and has solved many problems. Something needs to be done. We need to start thinking about planned maintenance that prevents collapse. Some day, patching the land up with chemicals will cost us more than keeping it in a naturally productive state. And we better be prepared for that day.
This is where organic farming comes to play. I believe it is planting the seeds for that future state of agriculture where the land will get its maintenance rather that being patched up chemically, so that the land is equally productive as under conventional farming, and the prices are just as affordable. While it is true that technology has given us enormous advantage in knowing the inner workings of plant growth and nutrition, we also need to be aware of the fact that we will never be able to know all of God’s workings perfectly, and will never be able to know all the different factors working together for the production of our food and for the preservation of the productivity of the land. Just like the scientists will never be able to create life out of inorganic matter, I believe scientists will never be able to create truly nutritional soil out of inorganic chemicals. There will always be more to the picture than we are capable of discerning.
Of course, I also believe that modern “organic farming” is still in its baby steps, and it can barely provide any answers to the issues I raised here. Some of the practices promoted and associated with it are outright bizarre – and I don’t want to go into details here, it is not my purpose in this episode. It is still too small, and it lacks history and traditions, and it still lacks the scientific database that its competitors have. Its deficiencies are a multitude, but the ideology behind it is sound – it is straight in accordance with the Dominion Covenant. And given enough time, it will develop what it is lacking; the nature of God’s creation and the markets will force it. In the final account, if mankind is to fulfill the Dominion Mandate given to it in the Garden, we will have to come to a point where all agriculture is at its maximum productivity, not only short-term, but also long-term, so that we don’t use the fertility of the land as a credit card.
But until we get to that point, we will have to go with the conventional ways of producing food, to assure that we are not all dead of starvation before we get to that better way of doing agriculture.
To summarize, then: Within the context of the Dominion Covenant, there is no contradiction between conventional farming and organic farming. The two focus on the solution of different problems: conventional farming focuses on the scarcity of food, while organic farming focuses on the sustainability of production. Both problems are important and need solutions. But they are spread in time, and have different importance at different times in history. For a long time, the availability of food was the main problem. We are getting to a point where this problem is almost resolved around the world. (Perhaps, and hopefully. Again, this may be a temporary situation.) Its resolution, however, came with an increased use – and often abuse – of the land. Conventional farming accumulated the capital – in the form of increased productivity – for a more responsible stewardship. The next step is using that capital for such responsible stewardship. It won’t happen overnight, and for a long time – perhaps even till the end of time – we will have a combination of the two methods, combining both care for mankind and care for God’s creation. And there is no need to oppose one to the other.
The book I will assign this week is Mark Overton’s Agricultural Revolution in England. The beauty of that book is that it is not simply limited to the technological changes in the English economy, it also looks at the institutional changes that brought about the agricultural revolution. While the author has certain evolutionary presuppositions that are evident throughout the book, it is a good summary of how important that revolution was. A Christian covenantal reader will be able to make his own conclusions about the Dominion Mandate in history from the facts in the book.
In your prayers and in your giving, remember Bulgarian Reformation Ministries, a mission committed to building the intellectual foundation for the future Christian civilization in Easter Europe through translation and publishing of books that apply the Gospel to every area of life. Many years ago, when we were starting our mission, an American pastor asked me: “Why are there, among the books you want to translate, so many books on economics?” My answer was: “Because, if a nation has experienced the economic desolation of paganism and is looking for answers in that area, the best stepping stone for presenting the Gospel is to point to the economic productivity of a culture organized on the principles of the Gospel.” So far it has worked, and we are continuing translating and publishing. Keep us working. Visit BulgarianReformation.com, subscribe to our newsletter, and donate. And God bless you all.