Monday, December 31, 2012

Hope Is Why

Why are 30 degrees
So cold at night
And yet so beautiful
On snow in light?

Knowing how a sin
Can die
I would say that
Hope is why.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Gift for Jo



It was wrapped
In golden paper
With a deep red
Ribbon and a bow

Though small and not
As noticed as the
Bigger gifts that
Under-girt the tree

But it was big enough
For her to see

She didn’t want to
Open it at first
And so she held it
In her hand

And read the careful
Writing underneath
That simply said,
“To Jo from Dad”

A simple note that
Made her glad

And then for no
Apparent reason she
Began to giggle
Quietly

Then slipped the paper
From a cup
Half filled with soil
And a single seed

No fancy necklace
Or a book to read

But she could not
Escape the thrill
Nor keep the
Smile to herself

For there was something
In the gift
That carried there
From long ago

And lingered with the
Sanguine little bow

And flowers that she
Seemed to know
Were waiting in the
Packaged germ

A springtime colored
Just for her
A promise with
A small delay

A flower for an April feast
Beginning on a Christmas day

Monday, November 19, 2012

Race, Class and Christian Culture in America



Two weeks ago I watched an unsettling documentary on PBS TV about the future demographics of race in America. The program was professionally put together. Many experts were interviewed representing a wide range of minority interests. It was fascinating to see how the face of America has changed in the last couple centuries, and to see what it might look like in the future.  The most arresting datum for me (as a white man) was the change that will happen in the next few years: whites will no longer make up the majority of the American population.
 
This remarkable fact was meant to make a point. In fact it was meant to be the main point of the program. It was also meant to be alarming. And sadly, the conclusions to be drawn from this fact where made out to be somewhat sensational. They don’t need to be.

The PBS normally does a good job of not moralizing. It wasn’t so successful this time. Its argument was that race issues can be avoided (both now and in the future) if we focus on resolving class differences instead of worrying about race. Poverty and crime cut across all races and we shouldn’t stereotype. I agree.

But one of the implications of the program was that since we have been plagued with race problems from the beginning, we Americans will continue to be plagued by them if we don’t get our act together. And if we don’t, the tables will be turned. Instead of white supremacy, previous minorities will now have their say. Whites need beware.

The PBS should know better. And the reason it should know better is because America has a culture – believe it or not. It may not be a universal culture – certainly we come from many places. And many of us try to live beyond the constraints of this culture. But this culture exists nonetheless (both now and in the past) and it transcends both race and class. This culture is called Christianity.

The very fact of this Christian culture in America is studiously ignored in the public square. PBS is not alone in pretending that it makes little, if any, difference in our modern world. And besides, what many may call Christian culture really divides along racial lines anyway. It all boils down to race in the end – or so the argument goes.

But I disagree. Certainly we have local congregations that follow racial patterns. You don’t find too many whites in a black Baptist church in rural Alabama. Nor do you find too many black Mormons in central Idaho.  But here is my point: they do occur. And this racial mixing occurs a lot more commonly in metropolitan communities.

Even where this mixing is minimal, Christians are now more willing than ever to reach across racial lines in a shared community of faith. This last weekend I attended an inter-faith Thanksgiving service here in Fresno where I watched nearly a dozen faith communities accept and rejoice in our religious diversity. My son, who lives 3,000 miles away, occasionally attends a similar inter-faith community in Virginia. This is happening all across the country. Americans of faith are recognizing that the differences between their respective faiths are minor compared to the larger issues of rampant moral decay.

We see more and more that this widespread social concern is making the former issues of racial mixing less and less important. In many congregations race is no issue at all. The reason is simple enough: Christ teaches us to love all of our brothers and sisters. And in America right now, this Christian mixing is happening all the time, and in increasing amounts. The possibility of future inter-racial harmony in America is bright so long as we continue to follow Christ.

This may all sound historically na├»ve. After all, America was much more religious in former times when race relations were worse than they are now. How, then, can I claim for a mollifying Christian influence today?  Let me explain.

The first, and most obvious, argument is the compromises revolving around religion during the Constitutional Convention. Madison’s religious arguments, culminating in the First Amendment, allowed for a religiously diverse ensemble of states to join hands in a common cause. In fact this religious pluralism has probably done more than anything else to make America what it is today: the most religiously diverse and dynamic country in the world. And it is important that nearly all of the Founders were Christians. Even the few that may have had deistic leanings were morally grounded in the teachings of Christ.

And this Christian majority continued to inform American culture into the 19th Century. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the mid-19th Century, argued that “all the sects in the United States are within the great Christian unity, and the morality of Christianity is everywhere the same… So, therefore, at the same time that the law permits the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”

But what about the Civil War, where both the North and the South claimed to be Christians? Doesn’t this argue against my point of a convivial Christian culture? Well yes and no. Yes the Civil War saw Christians fighting against Christians. But a very relevant point is to be made that religion was not the main driver in the war. Economics, states’ rights and the protection of a culture were the main points. Yes each side in the conflict justified their position by quoting from the Bible. But the Civil War itself was not a war about the Bible.

It just happens that the issue of slavery can be ambiguous in the Bible. Issues of civil rights are no longer so ambiguous. A slave owner could argue against treating property (his slave) with the respect due to his neighbor – as Jesus’ teaching of the Good Samaritan requires. But this is no longer the case. No nation in our time accepts this corrupted version of human dignity. Even in our most segregated white churches today, racial equality is taught as a Christian mandate in Sunday school – even if not everybody totally agrees.

America changed a great deal after the Civil War. It changed again significantly after World War II. Christianity became much more diverse and more political. It also went through various cycles of popularity. Even during the 60’s and 70’s, when the media portrayed any Christian affiliation in a negative light, America remained predominantly Christian. And it remains so today.

Some older members of our congregations may have grown up in segregated communities and still feel uneasy around anybody that looks different than they do. But their grandchildren are playing with a world community that completely transcends the provincialism of yesteryear.  In America’s Christian churches today, race is not a limiting factor – at least doctrinally. And it is becoming less and less of a factor culturally.

I remember several years ago attending church in Maui, Hawaii. I was amazed (and very pleased) at the racial diversity in the congregation. The leaders on the stand were of Anglo and Hawaiian heritage.  Others in the congregation were from Latin America, some were from Africa, some were from the Philippines, others were from South Korea and other Asian countries, still others were from different parts of Polynesia. I (as a white man) was not in the majority. In fact there was no majority – except for the fact that we were all Christians – Mormons to be precise.

Did this commonality detract from individual family histories? I mean did individuals have to give up their heritage in order to be part of the group? Not at all. In fact the Hawaiian gentleman who conducted the meeting wore the expected white shirt and tie along with a nice Hawaiian lava-lava. Christianity does not destroy local cultures – it enables them.

Maybe this sounds a little too strong. But think about what it implies. Most cultures identify themselves by their virtues. Of course they are not blind to skin color or other obvious differences. But if you ask someone to describe their own culture, they almost always tell you about a locality, a faith, a heritage. It’s when we think of other (i.e. not our own) cultures that we invoke skin color, bad habits, and incomprehensible behaviors.

And Christianity is an inclusive culture. It also happens to be the major religion among the growing population of America. The growing Hispanic population is predominantly Catholic (but with Protestant and Mormon elements as well). The Black community is primarily Protestant (often Baptist). The White population that continues to grow is predominantly Christian (with Catholics and Mormons having the most children).

Of this religious core (made up primarily of Christians) Russell Reno states: “Decades of survey results report that around 40 percent of Americans say they attend church more or less weekly. Some sociologists speculate that this cohort, what I call the “committed core,” has been pretty constant for more than one hundred years. Sociologists know that people over-report their religious observance. Fieldwork suggests that 25 percent of the population goes to church weekly. However one parses the data, the fact remains: For a very long time, the committed core has been stable and substantial. It looks to remain so.”

America may be headed for a changing demographic future but the Christian majority is not going anywhere. I do not doubt that we will have to deal with some ongoing racial conflict. But I do doubt that the declining white population will be cause for greater violence. Nor do I think that we have to focus on class parity, like PBS suggests. America’s changing appearance is not the concern. The bigger issue is to deny our Christian heritage. Sadly, we can’t expect the popular media to give this reality much consideration. But this is to be expected. Popular media have always been jealous of religion’s cultural significance. We just need to be wiser than they are, lest these sensational documentaries become self-fulfilling prophesies.

References

Tocqueville’s quote is from Democracy in America (The University of Chicago Press, 2000) Volume One, Part Two, Chapter Nine. For a look at American religion after the war see Patrick Allitt, Religion in America since 1945. Reno’s quote comes from the most recent issue (December 2012) of First Things, pp. 4-5.



Friday, November 2, 2012

Review of Spillover by David Quammen


During the last week of September, I found myself in Georgia looking for a good book to read. Knowing that David Quammen’s newest effort was about to be available, I walked from my hotel to a local bookseller and asked if they might have a copy.  In fact they did but it was in the back room and wasn’t supposed to be on the storeroom floor until the first of October. Fortunately, for me, they made an exception. I decided not to ask about the legality of it all and promised not to tell anybody.

Within a few chapters, I realized that this book will be a prize winning title when awards get ladled out for this season’s offerings. Quammen is a very good writer, for sure. But good writers don’t always win awards. The book, The Song of the Dodo (Quammen’s 1996 book about island biogeography) was written as well as Spillover but treats a subject that many fail to consider immediately important. My experience is that most awards are given to subjects of broader interest. 

Spillover is a book that has this broader appeal. It is about human diseases that originate in animals. Such diseases are called zoonoses. Unlike many diseases (take polio, for example) that are spread from person to person and only remain in the human population, zoonoses grow and develop in other animals and then jump hosts: on to humans. This is called spillover: when a disease agent gets to critical point in its non-human host that it makes this jump. These zoonotic diseases have great potential to spread rapidly and with devastating effect.


You are familiar with some of these zoonotic diseases: AIDS, West Nile fever, rabies, Lyme disease, some malarias, etc. If you were captivated by Richard Preston’s 1994 best-seller The Hot Zone, you will remember such maladies as Marburg virus disease and some of the hemorrhagic fevers. Quammen covers all of these and more: not as sensationally as Preston did, but with a researcher’s and a storyteller’s gift that makes this a real keeper.

Few writers put in the homework that Quammen does.  When he walks us through the complicated origins of HIV, for example, we get to meet scientists in lab coats, hidden closets in African hospitals, and animal traders that work the underground markets of Africa. Quammen also takes us to the corners of Cameroon where AIDS seems to have emerged into the modern world. Or to the jungles of Indonesia where we find malarial plasmodia living in macaques.

Quammen puts us into a different Heart of Darkness than we are used to. Conrad described an impenetrable jungle landscape that loomed mysteriously in the hinterland of civilization. Quammen lifts the canopied curtain and lets us see what dangers lie within. We find there a world of ecological disruption that disgorges the (perhaps) inevitable harvest of our previous ignorance.

These are big issues, indeed. But Spillover is also helpful in more immediate ways. The book’s discussion of Lyme disease, for example, is something that more of us should be aware of. Yes, the disease is spread by deer ticks; and yes, the forests of the Eastern US harbor the disease. But how many of us realize that deer are not the real problem?

Ticks that feed on deer will not feed on humans. The reason is fairly straight-forward: deer are the end of the tick’s life cycle. After a female tick lays eggs, the small ticks (smaller than a pin head) emerge and look for their first host which is neither a deer nor a human, but a mouse. This tiny tick will then drop off of its rodent host, develop a bit longer, and then look for another host. It is this errant arthropod that may find a human host (or perhaps it will find another mouse and feed again before it potentially finds its last host). Lyme disease is primarily a problem of forested areas that lack sufficient rodent predators. Small wooded lots can be prime examples of this. Deer are not our enemies.

Several things make zoonoses so important. Perhaps most significantly, they are very difficult (if not impossible) to eradicate.  Being able to “hide” in non-human animals, they can essentially disappear and show up at unexpected times and in unexpected places.

They are also prone to change. The very act of jumping host species creates an ecological setting for genetic change that makes many of these disease agents not only difficult to treat but likely candidates to get out of hand. Some of the most important examples that Quammen mentions are the flu viruses that are ideally constituted to this kind of change. Periodically certain forms evolve that cause us a great deal of grief.   

The punch-line of the book is when Quammen shows us a human population that looks very much like an outbreak poised on the brink of a pandemic – perhaps several pandemics. Quammen, fortunately, is not in despair – though he is clearly concerned. We have tools that other organisms experiencing an outbreak (before crashing) do not have.  We have our wits and our technology. The question remains whether or not we will decide to use them wisely.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

He Knows


There is a monk
Who wittingly
Goes on his way
Dispensing compliments

In embryo
That in their nurturing
Come fully flushed
Into the world

When he is gone
And no one knows his name,
Nor whence his children
And their fame

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Meekness and Faith



Meekness is one of the least understood principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We often think of meekness as a synonym of humility or patience, or with other non-Christian expressions of submissiveness. But these are not the same thing. Being told that you are patient or humble is a compliment. Being told that you are meek may not be. When was the last time you complemented your friend by calling him meek? You might as well tell him he is spineless.

And yet whether we ignore it, think of it as an inappropriate synonym, or otherwise misunderstand it, Christian meekness remains a critical virtue. In fact it is one of those uncommon diagnostic doctrines of Christ. I mean by this that it is unique, among world religions, to Christianity. And it is a key component of Christian faith.  

Part of our misunderstanding comes from the fact that there are only a few references to meekness in the scriptures. And one of the most important references doesn’t even use the word meekness at all. It is found in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells His disciples to “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye meet, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7:1-2.)  Let me explain.

I hope to convince you that the closest single word to meekness is forbearance. And that Christian forbearance (meekness) is possible when we let Christ be the judge, as the New Testament clearly defines His role (see John 5:22). In other words, meekness requires of us that we stop being critical of other people – even when they have harmed or otherwise offended us.

Trust me on this for now and open your dictionary. You will find that forbearance means an act of refraining. It can also mean tolerance or restraint when being provoked.

Imagine an angry driver causing a traffic jam that nearly involves you in an accident. You get flustered, prepare to lean on the horn, and then stop yourself. Maybe this driver is experiencing a medical emergency, you tell yourself. Perhaps there are circumstances I am not aware of. Your heart rate goes down. You have just exercised meekness.

This simple story is not necessarily an example of Christian meekness, although it might be. For it to become Christian meekness, it needs to involve faith in Christ. Let me give another example.

Suppose that someone steals your watch. You aren’t absolutely sure who it is, but you have a fairly good idea. It’s the fellow two cubicles down from your office. You ask around to know if anyone has seen it – making sure that your suspect hears you. But the watch remains lost. You stew over ways to confront him – or to turn him in. You get pretty upset by the whole thing.

And then you stop yourself. Maybe you misplaced it? No, you’re certain where you left it. Is it worth making an enemy over a lost watch? Probably not. Then you remember the words of Jesus about not judging, and then that very challenging commandment, “but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mathew 5:39.)

At this point your anger is mellowing, or maybe it is just simmering at a lower temperature. And then a remarkable thing happens. You turn the situation over to Christ. Yes you lost a watch. But the promises of the Son of God to those who follow Him are so much more significant than a mere timepiece that such frustration no longer matters. But faith in Christ’s promises does matter. Suddenly you feel at peace. You have just exercised Christian meekness.

You can see from these examples that meekness is not the same things as humility or submissiveness. It very often involves active forbearance. And surprisingly, it is a precursor to faith. Mormon (in the Book of Mormon) is clear on this.

“And again, behold I say unto you that ye cannot have faith and hope, save ye shall be meek and lowly of heart.” (Moroni 7:43.)

This is an interesting verse, coming as it does from a man experienced in war and the exigencies of wilderness survival. Mormon (and his son Moroni who copied this verse) just doesn’t seem to be the kind of person that gets walked on – that feels the need to submit to anybody. That such a man would think so highly about meekness should give us a clue that maybe we haven’t been thinking about meekness the way we should.

A perceptive analogy of meekness and its power was given years ago by Michael Wilcox who recounted the story of an automobile crushing machine that was kept from destroying a man’s watch by a knowledgeable control officer. When the crusher came within inches of the watch and suddenly stopped, a wise leader explained that this was an example of meekness: “great power under complete control”.

This is a wonderful example but I have occasionally heard it misinterpreted. The power of meekness does not reside in an imperfect man or woman. The power comes from Christ himself. The power of meekness comes in knowing that Christ is with you, that He will help you, that you can, in fact, turn your troubles over to Him. This is why Christian meekness is so intimately associated with faith.

Consider Isaiah’s words : “But with righteousness will he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth…And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reigns.” (Isaiah 11:4-5). Righteousness, meekness and faith – and notice the way judgment is associated with meekness. Christ’s role as a just judge is for the benefit of the meek. It begins to make sense how it is that the meek shall inherit the earth (Mathew 5:5).

Obviously the meek aren’t going to muster a global coup. Instead, they will gain the world by refusing to arrogantly judge others or to enforce equity even as they follow the Master Himself.

Neal A. Maxwell has written more on meekness than any other person. His book Meek and Lowly (the title of which was taken from the scripture in Moroni) is the most important discussion of this principle of the gospel that we have. He provides three scriptural examples of real meekness and how it is tied with faith. All three involve the relinquishing of one’s will to God.

Two of the examples are from the Book of Mormon and one is from the Old Testament. The first is of Abinadi (in Mosiah 13:9) who is in chains before wicked King Noah because he refuses to follow the king’s evil commands. “But I finish my message,” says Abinidi, “and then it matters not wither I go, if it so be that I am saved.”

The second example is of Ether who, after watching the destruction of his people (Ether 15: 34), concludes his record with these words: “Whether the Lord will that I be translated, or that I suffer the will of the Lord in the flesh, it mattereth not, if it so be that I am saved in the kingdom of God.”

And then there is the profound story in the Book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who, after refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, consigned themselves to walk into a fiery furnace. They placed their trust in God to deliver them, “but if not,” they boldly stated, “be it known unto thee O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

These remarkable words “but if not”, “it mattereth not”, “it matters not” are hallmarks of Christian meekness. These are not words spoken by weak individuals who have given up on the world. They were spoken by men of great faith who were diligent in their individual circumstances.

And it’s important to point out that none of them was involved in the work of self-promotion. Nor were they so pre-occupied with their own positions that they felt compelled to administer justice. They trusted in God, and they let Him worry about the outcome. They had faith in God.

This is a doctrine particularly alien to our time. It isn’t a mystical Eastern doctrine of fate. Abinidi, Mormon, and Daniel’s friends were all men that were “anxiously engaged in a good cause”. But neither is this a popular Western doctrine of reformed and “enlightened” humanity. When was the last time you were instructed by your boss to be meek? Leadership – at least a certain kind of leadership – is the watch-cry of our time.  And meekness seems to be the antithesis of this leadership.

And so here we are, a small group of committed Christians, trying to follow the Master’s teaching: “judge not that ye be not judged”. We are commanded to be forbearing. We are to watch without complaining when, at times, the world takes advantage of us. Yet, surprisingly, this is not to be done with a fateful resignation.

When injustice becomes so apparent that it befouls so many others, our course is clear. We are to love and serve our neighbors. In fact we are to love and serve our enemies. Only a meek individual is capable of such a thing.

How does one gain such incredible inner strength? It is really all so simple – at least in principle. It comes from faith in Christ: faith in His fairness, faith in His justice, faith in His love. Who are we to presume judgment in this fallen world anyway? And besides, why should we complain when He has promised us the world? 

References

Michael Wilcox’s story of the car crusher and the watch can be found in the January Ensign (1991): The Beatitudes – Pathway to the Savior. Neal A. Maxwell’s Meek and Lowly was published by Deseret Book Company (in 1987). His examples of “it mattereth not” are found in a footnote at the end of Chapter Two. On Christ’s role as judge, please refer to my essay Living Beyond Judgment (August 27, 2010):  http://resrustica.blogspot.com/2010/08/living-beyond-judgment.html.



Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Organic Agriculture in Perspective


Earlier this month a handful of scientists and doctors hailing primarily from Stanford University published an article about the health benefits of organically grown food. What they found was quite controversial: that organically grown foods are not any safer or healthier than conventionally grown foods.

The response to this article has been substantial. Organic interests have quickly replied that the study fails to address many issues that make organic agriculture so necessary and important. Some of these arguments are thoughtful. Others are simply ridiculous – and amusing. All of them that I have read, however, fail to take a broader look at the organic movement and appreciate the reality of the world we currently inhabit.

Take the pesticide issue as a case in point. This is the main issue (of any credibility) that the organic apologists make against the Stanford study. It is argued that conventionally grown crops contain pesticide residues that are not found on organically grown crops. This is true for the most part. But this claim needs to be considered along with the fact that the residues occurring on non-organic produce fall below the danger zone established by EPA and FDA. They have to. It’s the law.

Well yes, argues the organic lobby, but what about the long-term effects of these pesticide residues? Certainly they can’t be healthy.

And the answer to this troubling question is that we don’t know for sure? And this is my point. Arguing about the dangers of miniscule amounts of chemicals on food makes about as much sense as arguing about the quality of the air we breathe. And I don’t mean this as an analogy. The air we breathe is probably just as dangerous to our long-term health as anything on the skin of unwashed apples. It may be more dangerous in some instances.

I don’t mean to poke fun at the organic movement. I would be a hypocrite to do so. But for a long time now, the purveyors of the organic gospel have been pushing an agenda that is quite different from the way their own movement got started. Special interests in recent years have focused on the evils of big business – the big chemical business in particular – whereas originally, the organic movement focused on the health of the soil.  

Sir Albert Howard is generally recognized as the father of organic agriculture. His book, An Agricultural Testament, published in 1943, is a clear statement on the importance of composting to good health. Howard was an agricultural adviser in India during the early part of the 20th Century and faced the challenging problem of low soil fertility in a land that did not use cow manure in agriculture (manure was/is used as a fuel for cooking and heating homes). His solution was to use so-called “green manure” or decomposing plant material to add fertility to impoverished soils.

Howard named his composting method the Indore Process, after the village where he worked. It was a great success and became the basis for many books and articles published by J.I. Rodale (via Rodale Books and the Rodale Press).

Some of this early literature does address the importance of limiting the inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but these issues seem to be mere tangents. The clear message is that healthy soils produce healthy food; which, in turn, produces healthy people.

Then the environmental movement came along. And after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, many things changed within the organic movement. Pesticides became the causa belli. During the decades following the 1960’s many pesticides were banned and the Environmental Protection Agency became a powerful organization deciding what could and could not be used to protect the nation’s food from pests. The widely active biocides and pesticides with long residual activity were the first to be taken off the market. Many others have since followed in their wake.

This has been a positive thing for the most part. Growers are better educated on how to manage pests, and they generally have more products to choose from than they used to. Of course, it’s more expensive now to kill pests and the long-established problems of pesticide resistance continue to plague us. But the future of agriculture is promising – in spite of the many more mouths we have to feed.   

And through all of this the organic movement has felt the need to adapt its message. From healthy soils it now focuses on pesticide-free food. Unfortunately (for them) this will turn out to be a poor course to follow. The credibility of the organic movement (already limited) will become even more limited. Claims to better health and living can hardly be justified anymore.  The Stanford Study is a clear case of this.

But there have been hints of this for some time now. You may have been part of taste tests that used to be popular. Two plates of carrots (or apples, grapes, or other food) would be placed side-by-side. One plate would hold organic carrots, the other would hold conventional carrots. The challenge was to taste a difference between them. If you could taste a difference, then you had to rank them by preference. In the tests I participated in, there were often differences detected, and conventional produce tasted best. You may have experienced the same thing. The reason for this is that food tastes best when it is kept from spoiling. And the truth of the matter is that organically grown foods spoil quicker than conventionally grown food.

Another popular series of studies have looked at the productivity of conventional farming compared to organic farming. In many of these studies, organic farms produced less in acre-by-acre comparisons than conventional farms.

So the question becomes, if conventionally grown food is tastier, is just as healthy, and is less expensive than organically grown food, why should we bother with organic foods at all?

The answer may not be what you expect. We need organically produced food because it is old fashioned. Or rather, the answer lies with old fashioned organic agriculture. It lies with the soil. Organic farms that fail to compare favorably with conventional farms do so because they are trying to copy conventional markets. A dedicated organic grower that focuses on Albert Howard’s organic method of composting can out-compete conventional growers in both the quantity and quality of food produced. But this almost always happens on a small scale.

The farm that focuses on organic soil fertility can harvest fresh produce over a long growing season. If this is supplemented with modern pesticides (if they are needed) a farm will out-compete conventional growers.

You may say that this does not count as “organic” and you would be right. The rules of the organic movement (having started in California) are now official nationally (and are expanding globally). Using un-certified pesticides disqualifies a product as “organic”.

My response to all of this may seem harsh: Who Cares? If “organic” produce is not healthier, is less tasty, and costs more than my grocery store produce, I’m not going to buy the organic food. It doesn’t bother me to wash my vegetables.

But there is still a big need to improve the soil. And I still keep my own vegetable garden (and compost pile) because I much prefer the taste of fresh garden produce. I promise you that my fresh garden salad tastes better than conventionally grown salads (which taste better than flagging organic salads).

This is because I use tastier varieties (that aren’t “tough” enough for shipping) that come straight from plants that have been fed from rich compost. We may have a lot of sandy soil here in Fresno but my garden is full of organic matter and my plants love it. And they taste really good.

I think it’s time to give Sir Albert Howard a closer look. We’ve learned our lesson from Silent Spring. It’s time to move on. If we’re really serious about our health, let’s go outside and start a real organic garden. Let’s build up our soils.

References

The Stanford Study: Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review, was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (vol. 157(5)) in September of this year (2012). My copy of Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament is a reprint published by Oxford City Press in 2010.