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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2011

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Editors' Picks - January/February 2011


Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2010.

This edited volume contains a collection of essays, articles, and speeches by philosopher/theologian turned farmer Frederick Kirshenmann. The book is in three parts. Part One summarizes the lessons learned in the author's return to the family farm, cutting short a distinguished academic career. There are spiritual ruminations on rural agrarian life. The vision, development, and implementation of sustainable agricultural regimes are reported and supported in full. Essays at the heart of this section articulate both the philosophical bases and an operational definition of the concept of sustainable agriculture. This stands in contrast with myriad instances in which the concept of sustainability is used as an undefined buzz word to garner correctitude. A major lesson articulated in this first section acknowledges that the world is complex, dynamic, and unpredictable, and this means that technology almost always has unintended consequences, which are frequently manifested as adverse environmental impacts.

Part Two is a critique of the industrial monolith that twenty-first-century agriculture has become. Several themes predominate. The first focuses on the relationship between modern agricultural practices and fossil fuels. The author argues convincingly that an agriculture in which soil fertility is maintained and pests are controlled with chemicals manufactured from nonrenewable fossil fuels—which are becoming increasingly scarce—is nonsustainable. A second focus contends that an agriculture dominated by globally monolithic corporations is marginalizing independent farmers economically. International competition and the monopolistic characteristics of the global agricultural enterprise combine to squeeze returns to growers to the point where increasing numbers are being driven off the land. Finally, the global organization of agriculture bears strong resemblance to the traditional organization of extractive industries in which the wealth created by the land or other natural resources and local labor is exported, resulting in the impoverishment of local communities and a weakening of social fabric.

An alternative vision of farming and agriculture is spelled out in Part Three. This vision is based on the twin propositions that agriculture (and indeed all activities that impact the environment) must be carried out in a “whole systems” context and that it is not possible to control an entire system or portions of an entire system in isolation. The author articulates a clear set of principles for minimizing the impacts of technology on the environment. These require the use of sustainable agricultural practices embodying rotational patterns that maintain soil productivity, finding balanced mixes of plant and animal production and the recycling of manures and nonmarketable by-products. The concepts of foodsheds and local production predominate. The monolithic corporation is replaced by grower-owned and -governed regional marketing cooperatives. All of this leads to the enhancement of economic welfare for growers and reinvigorates rural communities.

In its specifics, there is little here that is completely original. Rather, the contribution lies with the recognition that sustainable agricultural systems need to be recognized as managed ecosystems with regimes that incorporate well-established ecological principles. The author and editor have both done an excellent job of weaving the themes together into a compelling and coherent whole.

-Henry Vaux, Jr., University of California - Berkeley


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