In the 20th century, humanity produced more food than at any other time in history. But while today’s agriculture and food systems are extraordinarily productive they have also created tremendous pressures on natural resources and eco-systems.
Agro-ecology applies ecological principles to agriculture. It tries to identify forms of agriculture which are based on restorative ecological cycles with techniques that enhance yields, rural incomes, and farmers’ control over seeds and local knowledge, while reducing the use of fossil-fuel based inputs and conserving soil and water.
Many farmers in the developing world are already adopting and practicing agro-ecological farming because of the benefits it offers to them: more food, less cost, an improved environment, healthier families and communities, as well as greater resilience to shocks such as climate change and droughts.
One of the strategies in agro-ecology includes improved fallow practices. María Elena Aradas, author of this week’s biblical reflection, reminds us that this concept already appears in the Bible (Leviticus 25:1 – 55), and of how this period of letting the Earth rest can be similar to our experience of Lent: a time of quietude and drought, but carrying the hope of resurrection and life.
Like a well-watered garden
A reflection by María Elena Aradas
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. Isaiah 58: 9-12
We could continue this description of the fast that is pleasing to the Lord in this way: ‘If you recognize that you are part of nature, if you meet with nature in a cosmic relationship, if you discover that you are part of nature and not its master; if you undergo a genuine ecological conversion, if you re-examine the forms of production and consumption of the society in which you are – then God will ‘turn his face towards you and give you peace’ (Numbers 6: 26).
This Lenten meditation concentrates on the ‘well-watered garden’, and enables us to reflect on and consider how we care for water, ‘our sister water’, in the words of St Francis of Assisi. In it we shall give particular attention to the farming methods used in the production of our food. Agro-ecology is a discipline that has an ecological approach to the study of agriculture. It is an attempt to identify those farming methods that re-establish the ecological cycles to be found in natural ecosystems, including comprehensive techniques of water conservation.
One of the strategies clearly evident in the Bible is that of allowing the land to rest (Leviticus 25: 1-55). In that passage from Leviticus we have a detailed account of how to manage crops and the need for the land to rest, what we usually call ‘leaving the land fallow’. That is the time when water builds up in the soil, a time for conserving water for coming days. It is like the time of Lent, a seemingly quiet and dry period, but one which contains within it the hope of life and life in abundance.
These themes appear often in the Bible, but we need ‘to be open to what the Spirit is saying in the other cultures and spiritual traditions of humankind. In Latin America, indigenous and black religions have an acute sense of communion with nature’ (Barros, Marcelo). As a Franciscan, I see there similarities between Franciscan spirituality and indigenous spirituality. For example, there is in Maya spirituality ‘an awareness of the sacredness present in the world. The land, rivers, forests, humans and animals – all are sacred because they are indwelt by divine beings.’ (That is the same as St Francis’ sense of his being brother with the created world.) Thus, in order to cut down trees, break up the soil or extract water, ritual offerings are made to seek permission and to express gratitude.
The theological challenge in this ecological vision has to do with life, with bringing freedom to the poor, and its close connection with bringing freedom to the earth and to water – which have been turned into commodities – and thus to rediscover them as a right of all living beings. It also shows the need so to order our daily lives and to demand forms of production that ensure that these rights can be enjoyed by all.
Finally, we read in Revelation: ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth’ (Rev. 21: 1). ‘The future that emerges at the end of the journey emerges as a new creation. It emerges as a gift from God…’ (Mesters, Carlos). This new heaven and new earth are in gestation in humankind. Humankind will give birth to them. As the people of Israel went forth with God at their head, so we go forth carrying this new reality within us. Amen.
María Elena Aradas is executive director of CEFEDER (Franciscan Study and Regional Development Centre) of the Pontifical Catholic University, Argentina. She is also a member of ‘Teologanda’, a study, research and publications programme of Argentine women theologians.
The principles of agro-ecology
An introduction to the principles of agro-ecology. [www.agroecology.org]
Congregational Supported Agriculture (The Other CSA)
There are many ways churches and congregations can get involved in supporting local fresh healthy food and ministering to those who grow and eat it. [http://sustainabletraditions.com]
Zero Draft of Rio Conference disappointment for sustainable farmers
This article from the AgriCultures Network for small-scale, sustainable agriculture describes the disappointment voiced by influential figures from the sustainable farming world and visitors of the BioFach organic fair with regards to the Zero Draft of the United Nations Rio+20 outcome document. A shared concern: the lack of recognition of the detrimental effect of conventional agriculture and disregard of the sustainable agriculture based on agro-ecological, multifunctional approaches. [www.agriculturesnetwork.org]
Can “agro-ecology” feed the world?
Simon Bradley of the international information platform swissinfo.ch funded by the Swiss government looks at the impact of oil prices on food and how it can be addressed. [www.swissinfo.ch]
Link collection: Sustainable agriculture
A collection of links to resources and initiatives related to sustainable agriculture. [http://www.cybercity-online.net] http://www.cybercity-online.net/worldwide/index.php?c=Science/Agriculture/Sustainable_Agriculture
Who Says Food Is a Human Right?
(The Nation, 14 September 2011) UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter discusses the need to empower small-scale farmers, the gross simplification of boosting production in order to meet global hunger, and dangers associated with the Green Revolution. [www.globalpolicy.org]
Bible Study: Food Security – how will we feed the world?
A Bible Study by TEAR Fund New Zealand on hunger and food insecurity [www.tearfund.org.nz ]