Diversity is the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture. Industrial agriculture – based on monocultures – is anything but diverse. If we want sustainable societies and cultures, we're going to have to extend diversity into all aspects of our agricultural systems. And only then could we have authentic multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism is commonly regarded as a synonym for diversity. Yet this generally means diversity of skin colour, a bit of clothing, and a few comfort foods. Is there a lack of diversity in our generally accepted notion of diversity?
Does culture have anything to do with agriculture? To be ecologically respectful, yes, and this would imply locally adapted agriculture. Furthermore, since places are different, people adapted to their places would be different – and this would be authentic multiculturalism.
It's often said that "we are what we eat." But since the majority of the food that the majority of us eat is grown in monocultures, would that not then make us monoculturalist rather than multiculturalist?
We're immersed in film and television and for the most part can hardly imagine a world without them. But if we're to have much of a chance of psychologically and practically dealing with the changes coming due to peak oil, it's likely that we're going to have to leave film and television before film and television leave us.
Despite obvious advantages, the Internet aids governments and those with nefarious intentions to spy on us. Meanwhile, the Internet may very well be making us stupider. But perhaps even more pressing is that peak oil and other energy shortages will one day shut down the world wide web. It's time we start talking about the end of the Internet.
Although culture is certainly not limited to varying farming practices, the idea that it has something to do not only with the preparation and consumption of food but also with its production tells us that we must contemplate agriculture when we speak of multiculturalism. And if by multi we mean to regard a diversity, we would do well to regard the diversity of local cultures, diverse approaches to agriculture, and even diversity within agriculture and agricultural crops.
Not to romanticize farming practices of the past and suggest that they were in all ways better – which they weren't since farming often consisted of breaking new ground and then moving on anew once the fertility was depleted – but prior to the fossil fuel era of industrialization, traditional methodologies of growing food would have simply been called farming. That being said, we are fortunate enough to be without the need of a trendy new label for diversity-based practices as they are already referred to as being mixed farming, and in contrast to monocrops and monocultures we have polycrops and polycultures.
The great agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard made no qualms about this methodology of farming and began by succinctly summing it up on page one of his book An Agricultural Testament with a description of nature's workings:
Mixed farming is the rule: plants are always found with animals: many species of plants and of animals all live together. In the forest every form of animal life, from mammals to the simplest invertebrates, occurs. The vegetable kingdom exhibits a similar range: there is never any attempt at monoculture: mixed crops and mixed farming are the rule.
While doing a 6-week WWOOFing stint at Koanga Gardens in New Zealand, a seed saving and "Centre for Sustainable Living" establishment, one of the many things that I learned about was of the existence of diversity within types of plants. Being there in the spring, both a Japanese WWOOFer and I spent some of our time prepping the Mother Seed Garden by cutting leguminous cover crops at their base with a sickle-like Japanese tool called a shark. We left the roots to be rototilled under the soil (which would add nitrogen for next year's plantings), adding the rest of the plants to some nearby compost piles (interspersed with liquefied cow manures to assist in the breakdown).
We also spent time in the greenhouses seeding various vegetables in seed trays, in time transplanting little seedlings to small pots to give them and their roots more space to grow. Wanting to witness the fruits of my labour, I came back a few months later to their Harvest Festival and saw the Mother Seed Garden abound with all sorts of different fruits, vegetables and grains, including a variety of astonishingly different looking tomatoes.
What I was beginning to learn firsthand was that amongst various species – tomatoes, corn, apples, beans, chickens, cows, etc. – there is an immense amount of varietal diversity. Although their physical differences can initially be the most arresting, what is of greatest importance is their varying uses, and even more so, their varying growing qualities. (Yes, I do like the taste of food as well.)
In this modern, industrialized civilization of ours, questioning whether culture has anything to do with agriculture is bound to get you funny looks, yelled at for not realizing that "things change," or pittied upon for supposedly holding romantic ideals of a care-free existence with nature. (And yes, I speak of experience.)
But regardless of most of us being blissfully unaware or staunchly in denial, the reality of the matter is that we and our cultures live in a time that is fast approaching the limits to growth – limits to freshwater supplies, energy resources, minerals, agricultural fertilizers, and much more, including limits to how much longer printing presses and lending institutions can prop up what is essentially a false economy.
While this all implies a Long Descent from our current industial civilization to whatever it is that comes next (which is another story in itself, covered by John Michael Greer in his book of that very title), suffice to say that if we don't pre-emptively realize the importance of culture to agriculture, reality will soon have its own way of correcting our ignorance. That being so, a proper understanding of the term multiculturalism could go a long way in contributing to the alleviation of much of our misunderstanding.
The upcoming book from which these blog posts are excerpted and adapted from is the result of a question that popped into my head after spending the better part of a year volunteering and working on a variety of farms in New Zealand.
To give a bit of back story, whenever I volunteered on farms and such (via the WWOOF program – Willing Workers on Organic Farms) they were nearly always broadly diversified systems – be it with fruit and nut trees, animals, honeybees, vegetables, and so forth. Whenever I worked for money, the only opportunities were on monoculture farms – just apples, or just asparagus, or just grapes, etc. Within a week of returning to Toronto, a place that is often referred to as "the most multicultural city in the world," a seemingly odd question then popped into my head:
It's often said that 'we are what we eat.' But since the majority of the food that the majority of us eat is grown in monocultures, would that not then make us monoculturalist rather than multiculturalist?
Not really sure where such a question would take me, and having no previous writing experience to speak of, I nonchalantly decided to answer the question via the writing of a book.
Fish don't know they're living in water, nor do they stop to wonder where the water came from. Humans? Not much better, as we share a world engulfed by television. And the deeper our immersion becomes, the less likely it seems we'll poke our heads above the surface and see there must have been life before someone invented TV.
Those are the opening words to the article "The Forgotten Edison of Television" which recounts the little known history of the television and its inventor Philo Farnsworth. Far from being a household name like a Thomas Edison or an Alexander Graham Bell, Farnsworth lived and died in relative obscurity in regards to being recognized as the inventor of television.
Unlike the flatscreen LCD and plasma televisions that are all the rage today, the no-longer ubiquitous cathode ray-tube-based television (those bulky TVs with the big bulge at the back) is based on an idea of Farnsworth's whereby a series of combined horizontal lines would produce an image. The first demonstration by the self-taught inventor came in 1927 at the age of twenty-one when he transmitted the image of a single line to a receiver in the next room, while the first image ever transmitted was, lo and behold, a dollar sign. Illuminating factoids aside, what particularly interests me is the locale in which Farnsworth first got his idea.
Let me be upfront about one thing: I don't particularly want to be writing this blog. But as I am an unpublished writer completing his first book in this early twenty-first century of ours, for what should be obvious reasons, I am.
Why don't I particularly want to be writing this blog?
For one, I'm not a very big fan of the Internet, and beginning in mid-2008 had spent more than five years (mostly) not using it – nor computers in general. To be more specific, I did still use computers at libraries to access their catalogues, after three years I did very sparingly start using email again, and after the fourth year I did occasionally ask a few people to look up various pieces of information for me online. (To be more specific, I wrote the first draft of my manuscript by hand, edited on top of that with a red pen to complete the second draft, typed that out on a circa-1930s Remington typewriter, then had an ever helpful cousin of mine transcribe that over to a computer for me.)
Secondly, when I say I "mostly" didn't use the Internet, I'm fully aware how intertwined our lives are with the online world and the virtual impossibility of completely separating oneself from it. In this flush-happy modern world of ours, I have no doubt that the chlorine in the drinking water used to make my bodily "waste" go away was purchased, ordered, and delivered by services dependent on the Internet, and that the lever on the toilet might as well have been an "enter" button (or better yet, an "out of sight, out of mind" button).