Soiled schemes

SURVIVAL is still the most important factor in the lives of millions in the developing countries. Now is the time to look carefully at all its aspects. Recalling Darwin, learning to live with errors and malfunctions is essential to survival. Now, we are struggling to correct the previous errors of judgement.

Agriculture, like other human endeavours, reflects the dominant philosophy and culture of the time. As it is practiced in the rich West today, and sought to be emulated by developing countries, it is a sophisticated, highly energy-intensive system, transforming one series of industrial products into another. There is general agreement that this agricultural strategy has major problems; but when it comes to food production, unlike any other industry, these problems are not purely economic. They are about living and dying.

Modern high-tech farming is responsible for many of today's problems: it has caused massive pollution, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, a range of maladies in domesticated animals kept in concentration camp-like conditions; it demands high inputs and wastes on a criminally gigantic scale. It has also destroyed traditional successful farming methods and communities, resulting in starvation, famines and death. The FAO estimates the rate of deforestation at the tropics to be 17 million ha per annum. Consensus estimate of land degradation by waterlogging and increase in salinity is 20-30 million ha. Desertification, mainly from adverse human impact, affects 6 million ha annually. USEPA estimates that pesticides are responsible for 6,000 cases of cancer in the US annually. Excess nitrates in the water, caused by increased fertiliser uses causes methaemoglobinaemia in infants, particularly in the warm climates and in developing countries. Random hormone and antibiotic treatment of livestock have caused major epidemics like thelarche in Peurto Rico. Etcetera.

Marthe Killey-Worthington maintains that this has its origin in the Judaeo-Christian approach to life and its anthropocentric worldview. She points out that emerging from this anthropocentric philosophy is a deeper belief that humans can outsmart nature and evolution. Unfortunately, even the sting in the tail -- nuclear waste, AIDS, short life of the 50-tonne cow, ozone holes and so on -- "does not seem to cause the slightest dent in this anthropocentric arrogance".

Marthe Killey-Worthington contends that the solution lies in ecological agriculture -- "the establishment and maintenance of an ecologically self-sustaining, low-input, economically viable, small-farming system managed to maximise net production without causing large or long-term changes to the environment, or being ethically or aesthetically unacceptable."

However, movements promoting other "alternative agricultural methods" already exist and have done so from the '20s, when Howard thought of using waste material more sensibly. There are now "organic farms", "biodynamic agriculture", "permaculture" and, of course, the fashionable "sustainable agriculture". Marthe Killey-Worthington points out some of the important ones. She questions the morality of the disputable method of treating mastitis of cattle with garlic by anthrosophists -- quite importantly, she stresses against extremism and dogmatism.

She draws from her rich and varied experience in Africa and Britain and convincingly shows how modern agricultural practices have become a colossal waste. She specifically examines the case of famine in Sudan, the country that was supposed to be Africa's breadbasket, where agricultural policies focused on largescale agricultural ventures and ignored traditional sectors, with disastrous effects.

Then she presents not only the theory of ecological agriculture but also describes how she has successfully put these theories into practice in varied conditions of the Sussex Downs (Milton Court), the Isle of Mull (Druimhigha Project) and the Dartmoor National Park (Little Ash Eco Farm). She developed her theories there, including her new ideas on multispecies living. As she puts it, "this book summarizes the thinking, investigating, discussing, arguing and practical results of our ideas during those 20 years".