Review

We are what we eat, globally

The Spirit of Agriculture
Edited by Paul Hanley
George Ronald
Oxford

As Paul Hanley points out in his new book, the topic of agriculture sometimes conjures up more jokes than serious discussion, especially in contrast to seemingly more urgent issues like war, peace, poverty, education and human rights.

“Negative views of rural people are evident in a rich vocabulary of put-downs: rube, yokel, hayseed, bumpkin, clodhopper, hick, peasant, rustic, heathen, pagan, savage, and even ‘farmer,’” notes Mr. Hanley in the opening chapter of The Spirit of Agriculture.

Yet, Mr. Hanley writes, “food is the prerequisite of human development: What could be more basic to human dignity than an adequate diet? Can we have peace or even fellowship while multitudes starve? Is education possible when children are malnourished?”

On that premise, Mr. Hanley and a group of other essayists explore the teaching in the Bahá’í Faith that “special regard must be paid to agriculture.”

Their collective conclusion is that the whole subject — which they define to include food, farming, forestry, aquaculture and in general terms man’s interaction with the natural environment — badly needs closer attention by those who desire a prosperous global future.

Composed of 14 chapters by about as many authors, the 230-page book focuses on the urgent need to create a more equitable and sustainable system of agriculture if we are to eliminate poverty, meet the demands for global justice, and ensure the long term health of the earth’s ecosystems.

Specifically, writes Mr. Hanley, the world’s agricultural system currently suffers from two crucial defects: “The first is its inherent injustice and inequity, which results in the destabilization of rural communities throughout the world and in widespread poverty and hunger in much of the ‘developing world.’ The second is its inherent unsustainability, which results in the gradual deterioration of the soil, water and genetic and other resources on which productivity depends.”

Efforts to tackle these two problems, he writes, have failed so far not from a lack of technical expertise but rather because of the lack of moral will and long range vision. “Alternative methods of agriculture that are more productive and more environmentally sensitive have been identified and are being used with impressive results,” he writes, asking rhetorically why such practices haven’t been more widely adopted.

What is needed, suggests Mr. Hanley and the other essayists, is an application of spiritual principles, such as justice and equity within a global framework of human oneness. “Since a lack of food supplies and land is not the cause of hunger, the objective of agricultural policies designed with equity in mind would be to increase the inclusiveness of access to food and to the means of productivity, more so than to increase production,” Mr. Hanley writes.

Moreover, writes Mr. Hanley, it is important to understand the role of religion as a motivating force in the development of agriculture — and to explore why the Bahá’í Faith, as the newest of the world’s independent religions, gives agriculture such a high place in its sacred writings.

“The Bahá’í Faith is unique among religions in the emphasis it places on agriculture,” writes Mr. Hanley. “For Bahá’u’lláh, agriculture was a ‘vital and important matter.’ His commitment to agriculture is evidenced in his own agricultural endeavors and those of his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and in their extensive discourse on the topic.”

The essays explore the deep connection between agriculture and religion — a relationship that is too often unacknowledged.

“Every creature must feed and the way it does helps to decide its place in the world and its impact on other living things,” writes P.J. Stewart, a development specialist at Oxford University. “One of the things that most influences human food consumption and production is religion.”

“Every creature must feed and the way it does helps to decide its place in the world and its impact on other living things. One of the things that most influences human food consumption and production is religion.” 

—P.J. Stewart, Oxford University

Mr. Stewart, who is not a Bahá’í, suggests for example that the shift from polytheism to monotheism in the Judeo-Christian tradition increased the “distance” of humans “from the rest of the biological world” by creating a theology that held that “only human life was sacred.”

In modern times, this distance has been widened by scientific thought. “The consequences have included the Industrial Revolution, with attendant pressure on resources and outpouring of pollutants,” Mr. Stewart writes.

Other essays address the ways the Bahá’í Faith offers new principles to address problems that have emerged as the world has become more industrialized and interdependent. Along the way, the authors examine a number of hotly debated topics, such as genetically modified crops, the problems of rural-to-urban migration, and the role of diet in sustainable development.

Paul Fieldhouse, an adjunct professor at the University of Manitoba, writes that the Bahá’í perspective on food and diet, with its emphasis on moderation, simplicity, compassion and justice, augurs well for a future diet that is more sustainable.

He notes for example that although Bahá’í dietary law allows the eating of meat, vegetarianism is encouraged. He quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “‘The food of the future will be fruits and grains,’” and observes that “by reducing the demand for meat, land and resources that are used for intensive animal rearing are freed to produce larger quantities of plant crops.”

Gary Reusche, an agronomist and international development specialist, suggests that the Faith’s emphasis on environmental and social justice, community participation, diversity, and human-scale living offers a vision for a new kind of village life that is both spiritually and intellectually rewarding.

“As long as the village is considered culturally and intellectually backward, people will naturally move away to areas of greater potential for the full expression of the human spirit,” writes Dr. Reusche, suggesting, among other things, that Bahá’í teachings that promote diversity can help contribute to a “rural renaissance.”

“Diversity will be an important source of creativity, innovation, and synergistic productivity, and will be an important aspect of quality of life in rural areas,” Dr. Reusche writes.

Michel Zahrai writes that Bahá’í principles on ethics, cooperation, consultation, profit-sharing, and social integration taken together offer a framework for a grassroots-oriented management practice that can support the emergence of small non-farm activities that can restore “pride to rural livelihoods” and bring back “life into a decaying social structure” in the countryside.

Paul Olson, a geneticist who has worked and studied in the Philippines, Colombia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, offers his perspective as an individual Bahá’í on the genetic modification of crops, suggesting that “Bahá’í themes of unity, interdependence, justice, and consultation” lead to an approach that “neither glorifies nor vilifies the technology.”

“Instead,” Dr. Olson writes, “in assessing the risks and opportunities associated with this technology, [a Bahá’í approach] calls for a broad understanding of creation and an emphasis on building ethical values, institutions and process that promote and safeguard the interests of the entire human race.”

The last few chapters of The Spirit of Agriculture offer case studies of Bahá’í perspectives in practice. One is an excerpt from a 1944 book by Richard St. Barbe Baker, a Bahá’í whose pioneering conservation work won him the sobriquet “Man of the Trees.” It describes his early experiments with tree farming in Nigeria in 1927.

There are also descriptions of a Bahá’í scientist’s pioneering efforts to restore coral reefs through the promotion of community-based aquaculture and a Bahá’í-inspired effort in Mongolia to promote community gardens.

The book also re-prints two stories from ONE COUNTRY: an account of efforts at the Dorothy Baker Environmental Studies Center in Bolivia to encourage the use of solar-heated greenhouses on the Andean altiplano and a story about the Ruaha Secondary School in Tanzania with its “self-reliance program” that emphasizes “practical experience in agriculture.”

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