Life and thoughts from a small-scale organic farm . . . and its farmers

This is a blog that explores ideas around the growing of food and community at Glen Valley Organic Farm.

Friday, November 18, 2011

War, Agriculture and Remembrance

It has often occurred to me that November is an appropriate time for Remembrance Day. The days are generally bleak and the natural world is in a hasty decline as frost kills plants and trees shed their leaves. In short, the world around is a reminder of death.

This past week I have been thinking about the relationship between war and agriculture. More precisely, I've been considering the impact of war on agriculture.

The connection between war and agriculture is relatively new to me. My family has no history of veterans since most who were of service age during the world wars were farmers and thus exempt from military service. At the same time, I understand that war and political instability were motivating factors for some of my ancestors to leave their homes and travel to what they hoped would be a more stable future in Canada. War is at the root of many global migrations, particularly concerning rural peasants.

This understanding, however, is something I have pieced together gradually.

Landmines and Lasting Terror
My first lesson on war's impact on agriculture came over a decade ago while working of a project for Canada's Mine Action Team. Landmines leave a devastating legacy for agricultural communities around the world, often for generations following war.

The distribution of landmines in war-affected regions demonstrates that these weapons are not often used  as protective devices in the battlefield. Rather, they are used to provoke terror in the general population and to destroy local economies.

An injured or killed adult in a farming family would mean the end of subsistence for all those who depended on the individual's labour for food and income.

The Soviets manufactured landmines that look like toys, to attract Afghani children. A crippled child would consume a family's resources, taking them away from war efforts.

Of most significance to understanding the impact of landmines is recognizing the terror they induce, even in their absence. The number of landmines in a field is irrelevant; a family doesn't know whether there is one mine or thousands. Regardless of how many are present, the threat of one being there is enough to keep people off the land until the entire area is demined -- or until the family is desperate.

The full impact of this lesson didn't sink in until I started farming myself. Standing in the field one day I understood what it would be like to be afraid of the land. If each footstep held the potential for death or dismemberment, I could not take farming for granted. Desperation forces many farmers around the world to take a chance with their lives every day.

Seed Banks and Targets of War
That war could have as raw an impact on farmers as landmines might be obvious. But the impacts of war on agriculture can demonstrate the greater values of a society. The example of seed banks as targets of war underscore this.

Two years ago I began reading about Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian botanist and geneticist who established the world's largest seed banks in St. Petersburg. The seed bank consisted of hundreds-of-thousands seed varieties collected by Vavilov while traveling the world, searching for the origins of various cultivated plants.

When Hitler's Nazis began to approach Leningrad in 1941, the Soviets evacuated the Hermitage's thousands of cultural artifacts to remote locations across the country. By comparison, Vavilov's Institute, located nearby and containing 400,000 seed varieties, was given no attention or protection by government officials.

Throughout the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted 28 months, staff at the seedbank stayed at the institute, protecting the seed collection. By the end of the siege, during which 700,000 residents of Leningrad died of starvation, nine of the institute's staff also perished. These individuals died protecting a collection of seeds they could have eaten in order to survive. Instead, they recognized the greater benefit these seeds would provide to their society -- something their own government had failed to overlook.

In the end, documents uncovered after the war demonstrated that the Nazis had formed a tactical unit to capture the seedbank. While they failed to take the seeds in Leningrad, they did collect seeds from stations located throughout occupied territories.

Meanwhile, Vavilov died of starvation in a Soviet prison, the victim of Satlin's anti-intellectualism.

Contemporary Seed Targets
In his 2008 book Where Our Food Comes From, Gary Paul Nabhan explains that seedbanks are continued targets of aggression in contemporary conflicts.

In 1992, the Mujahideen destroyed an Afghani seed bank. Although Afghani scientists salvaged some seed samples, most were lost in subsequent fighting when the neighbourhoods in which they were stored were destroyed.

Iraq held a seedbank which, as Nabhan explains, held "some of the finest collections of ancient Mesopotamian seeds that had survived through the twentieth century." Although samples from the collection were relocated to Syria in 1996, the Iraqi seedbank was destroyed following the American invasion in 2003. Amidst this, media attention focused on the looting of antiquities at the Iraqi National Museum.

In the aftermath, the American military distributed seed and fertilizer to Iraqi farmers from American companies. The US occupation also introduced rules prohibiting Iraqi farmers from saving their own seed. Many Iraqi farmers no longer have access to indigenous seed varieties, developed in their region over thousands of years.

During the Egyptian revolution this spring, the country's deserts gene bank was attacked, damaging its cooling system and destroying some equipment. The seed collection itself was, apparently, unharmed.

Seed is the basis of food sovereignty. All of these examples demonstrate the long-lasting impact of war on a society's ability to function, long after the war has ended.

War and the Destruction of a Way of Life
War's displacement of populations and the subsequent occupation of land by opposing forces can change a society's way of life permanently. Gary Paul Nabhan recounts the example of Lebanon to illustrate this.

A country that had once been one of the world's breadbaskets, Lebanon's agricultural community has been decimated by war and foreign occupations. Napoleon III's arrival in the 1860s brought with it the displacement of indigenous agriculture in favor of Mulberry Trees for silk production.

In approximately one decade, Lebanon became dependent on neighboring countries for two-thirds of its staple crops through imports. The notion of food sovereignty within the country's population was rapidly moving toward extinction.

When the Ottomans entered World War I, the country's male population was conscripted to fight alongside the Germans. One-fifth of the male population deserted the country.

Following a locust plague in 1915, the remaining population became subject to famine and disease. By the end of the war 100,000 residents of Beirut and Mount Lebanon had died as a result of the famine. Only 1 in 20 rural dwellers remained on the land in some areas.

Between 1955 and 1975 100,000 farmers were displaced due to agricultural modernization. The country went from half of its population living off the land after WWII, to only one-fifth in 1975.

The country continues to struggle with instability following the Lebanon War which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and the 2006 Lebanon War.

Ultimately, the presence of war in a society makes agriculture difficult, if not impossible to continue. Countries devastated by war are often additionally crippled by their dependence on international markets and aid to provide food in place of the disused and unusable agricultural land and a displaced rural population.

In the most brutal examples, land remains unusable due to landmines, intentional salination by departing occupiers or the destruction of orchards or groves of trees -- in the case of the olive tree, a sign of peace and a tree that can live hundreds of years.

The Transfer of War Technologies to Agriculture
Times of peace should be examples of sustainability and a return to non-violence. Instead, we now have an agriculture system that uses the mindset of war in its practices and philosophies.

Many of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in contemporary agriculture originated in the mindset of war. Fritz Haber's Nobel Prize-winning work on synthetic ammonia formed the basis for both a new generation of explosives as well as modern chemical fertilizer. His work on chemical warfare demonstrated the technique of gassing life using toxic chemicals, a common practice in conventional agriculture.

The fundamental problem with war's relationship to agriculture is that we have failed to transform the proverbial swords to ploughshares. Instead, modern agriculture applies the weapons and the war mentality to the earth.

Vandana Shiva underscores this problem:
The war mentality underlying military-industrial agriculture is evident from the names of Monsanto's herbicides - ''Round-Up'', ''Machete'', ''Lasso''. American Home Products, which has merged with Monsanto, gives its herbicides similarly aggressive names, including ''Pentagon'' and ''Squadron''. This is the language of war. Sustainability is based on peace with the earth. 
The war against the earth begins in the mind. Violent thoughts shape violent actions. Violent categories construct violent tools. And nowhere is this more vivid than in the metaphors and methods on which industrial, agricultural and food production is based. Factories that produced poisons and explosives to kill people during wars were transformed into factories producing agri-chemicals after the wars.
The very marketing of agricultural products pits farmer against pest, disease and weather. The earth and its seasons become enemies, rather than the provider of abundance.

Renewing and Remembering
The season of late-fall following Remembrance Day is a time when the natural world in the north begins to rest. Animals hibernate, plants are dormant and the days are short, making for more indoor time to humans.

At the same time, this point of remembering war in mid-November also marks the beginning of a frantic season of consumption and activity as marketers implore us to purchase for the holidays and people keep manic schedules of parties and special events. The hollow cliches of "peace on earth" bookmark this season of decline.

This period that should mark rest and renewal is when we, as a society, demonstrate our ability to undermine our own well-being through over-consumption (and over-production of waste), the accumulation of debt and proclivity to illness as our immune system is overloaded with cold and flu season and an accompanying sleep deficit.

Living with the seasons on the farm has made me more aware of the contradictions of the season. I enjoy the longer nights and period of rest. I avoid seasonal parties and celebrate the change of seasons in a way that's appropriate to levels of energy (and income).

The season also makes Remembrance Day -- or a general period of remembrance -- more pertinent in my mind.

I haven't worn a poppy or attended a Remembrance Day ceremony in over a decade. Until now, this has been a reaction against a ceremony I attended on Parliament Hill. The event was marked in my mind by a religious leader offering prayers of vengeance and hatred against the "enemy". I couldn't square this sentiment with my understanding of the day; that is, my hope for peace and reconciliation and collaborative efforts to avoid violence.

In recent years, as our government has made great efforts to re-militarize our country and culture and our country continues to send more troops to war and fewer on peace-keeping missions, my refusal to acknowledge November 11 was a form of personal protest.

Nonetheless, the period of remembrance is something that has stayed with me. It is only since starting to farm that I've been able to begin articulating what it is that I remember and how such a period of public remembrance resonates within me.

Things coalesced for me last year when I read Vandana Shiva's lecture upon accepting the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize. She presented a vision of peace that not only included an absence of war, but a struggle for political and environmental justice. In explaining her work, Dr. Shiva explained that monetary affluence is not an ingredient for peace in a truly sustainable society:

... people can be affluent in material terms, even without the money economy, if they have access to land, their soils are fertile, their rivers flow clean, their cultures are rich and carry traditions of producing beautiful homes and clothing and delicious food, and there is social cohesion, solidarity and spirit of community.
The health of the earth and access to the soil forms a very basic and essential building block for peace. It is in this light that I recognize the importance of practicing agriculture that is part of a vision of peace, not reliant on imagery of war.

In recognizing this vision for agriculture, I take time to remember all those who are displaced from the land by war in all its forms: military, economic and poverty. It is in this spirit that I cherish and long for peace.

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