I only finished two books in March but I did dip in and out of a few. The big one was Charles Massey’s tome on regenerative agriculture; Call of the Reed Warbler: A new Agriculture A new earth, a comprehensive overview and critique of historical farming practices, emerging regenerative practices and Massey’s desperate call for change in face of land and water degradation and increasing climate change threats. It is both an eminently researched and academic book while also remaining deeply personal and impassioned.
The book is not without controversy but to me, what he argues makes perfect sense, although I am the first to acknowledge that regenerative practices and organic farming add significant costs to production. Ultimately though, I would argue as Massey does the the cost we pay for our food and shelter should not cost the earth itself in a very real literal sense. There are a lot of issues at play in Australian agriculture and there is little denying our traditional approach has often failed to address the needs of the landscape or the water cycle in our fairly unique environment. Massey’s “five landscape dynamics” are a useful lens for understanding the function and interconnection of environmental and social processes, he usefully illustrates his argument with extensive case study’s and examples, making this an extremely accessible text. His own personal observations on his own and other’s farming experience adds to the readability of the book, as does his very personal journey to regenerative farming.
He uses some curious terminology to describe our relationship with agriculture and the environment, dividing our farming thinking into “organic”, “mechanical” and “emergent”. With organic relating to our earlier relationship with the environment, a more hunter gather approach. Mechanical relates directly to our industrial scale efforts to control the natural world, exploiting it for maximum economic gain. Mechanical is human centred, and profit driven, with little regard for the wider environment and the needs of species other than humans. Massey’s argument is that ultimately such an approach is destroying the very environment we are relying on to meet our needs. He further highlights the destructive effect such production has on the psyche of primary producers linking mental health impacts to the stress of managing land with such an intensive and exploitative relationship to the environment. Massey sees mechanical minded farmers, as much as the rest of society, divorced from the natural world and that is a big part of the problem.
Wider implications for human health are also linked to this intensive and toxic rate of food production. Mechanical mind thinking is poisoning the land and ourselves with its intensive reliance on chemical farming; herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. The chapter that had the most impact for me was the penultimate chapter; “Healing ourselves”, where Massey really hammers home the damage modern, (mechanical), farming has done to our health as much as to the environment. His, is an impassioned argument for change.
Emergent thinking is a more responsive and creative approach to farming, it is essentially a holistic approach, that takes the best of the organic and the mechanical in order to respond creatively and effectively to the challenges the agricultural world, our world is facing. Massey champions Indigenous knowledge, and advocates for greater engagement with such knowledge. Championing the idea of “country” and our role as custodians of land, suggesting what we should ask is the indigenous question “what can I do for country”.
This is a rather weighty work in many respects, Massey covers a lot in terms of regenerative agriculture and he backs up every element of the book with examples from farmers who have addressed real world issues in farming this country. His own personal story also acts as powerful evidence for a move towards a more holistic and natural approach to farming. He suggests that it sometimes takes a direct and life changing experience; drought or illness, to fundamentally change our thinking away from the mechanical, forcing us to look for better solutions.
In this process of change there is a role to play for us, the consumer, and it is through a work like this that we become better informed as consumers of primary produce. To an extant health concerns are already starting to drive change. This change is about more than health or agriculture, it is about more than just the environment, it is about fundamental cultural and social change and the kind of change that may yet safe the planet.
This is a weighty and yet very accessible book, almost conversational in tone, perhaps in parts a little repetitive at times and more of an overview and introduction to some of the ideas in regenerative agriculture than a detailed instruction guide to the practices. It is a manifesto for change, a personal but educated and experienced call to action. It is a book that has something to offer any curious citizen whether they make their living form the land or consume it’s produce. I found Massey’s close engagement with his environment personally engaging and his ability to write about the environment as much as agriculture, eloquent and rewarding, combined with the extensive scholarship this is a very remarkable book.
If you are curious and would like to know more about Charles Massey I can highly recommend The episode of Australian story: Breaking new ground or check out the video below of Massey in conversation with Costa Georgiadis at the State library of New South Wales.
I will add this title to my completed reads for the 2021 non fiction challenge and since it is about food production I will tick off the food topic for the challenge. I may yet read something else for the topic of food but for now I will use this one. This amazing book is also undeniably a nature read so it also qualifies for the Gaia nature reading challenge.
8 thoughts on “March reading – Agriculture and the fate of the planet”
It sounds like another important voice out there to slowly work changes into our traditional practices that will only do better for our country. Here’s hoping more and more traditionalists will come around and see that change is a good thing and necessary in the long run.
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I am feeling quite hopeful these days, people might not be making big changes but slowly we are seeing little changes here and there, hopefully, things will snowball and there will be hope for the future.
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I agree, I think subtle changes are happening around us too 🙏
Excellent review, Sharon, and I’m definitely going to chase down a copy. I think Paul would be very interested to read it too, although I might have to just highlight parts of it for him – not really a reader. I really liked that term “regenerative agriculture” and his three terms, organic, mechanical and emergent are really interesting, but also make a lot of sense. Unfortunately I think it is true that it takes a crisis for real change to be considered.
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Hi Karen the library has an ebook of it and I will lend you my copy except someone else has it at the moment. Paul might like the youtube video.
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Thanks Sharon. 😊