Updated: Sep 6
In 1989, Wendell Berry wrote one of his more famous maxims: "Eating is an agricultural act." Of the many cycles in agriculture like planting and harvesting, birth and death, and crop rotation, the one that might be most overlooked is cultivation and consumption. We plant so we can eat. And while not everything that's grown is eaten, nothing is eaten that isn't somehow grown.
Regrettably, we tend to consume ag products the way we consume everything -- unconsciously, uncaringly and uncritically. This is exactly as the food industry wants it; we are well conditioned to think as little as possible about the implications of our gustatory habits. Wendell wrote his famous statement to enlighten his vast, non-farming audience as to how, with every bite, they are involved in the Great Problem of industrial food production and land abuse. I'm sure he had grown tired of city folks asking "how can we help?" and he's always understood that the Great Problem contains a multitude of errors both in production and consumption.
Interestingly, the piece that contains the quote is called "The Pleasures of Eating," and it's not a scold as much as a kindly lesson on the joy of eating "off the grid." As in so much Berry, the right thing is also the pleasing thing.
That pleasure can come from knowledge about what you're eating, and how your meal came to be, is no longer a radical proposition. Thirty-five years ago though, there wasn't a local food movement. "Organic" was but a hippie holdover idea, burrowed mainly in odd smelling co-op groceries with long rows of bins.
To consume well and take pleasure in eating, Wendell writes, you should buy local, eat in, grow some food, compost, pay attention to ingredients and, if possible, get to know domesticized plants and animals. With the exception of the last, millions have taken heed. In this, it would seem, we've finally found a garland for Berryism.
Today's conscientious eaters seek the local, the fresh and the unprocessed. We relish the seasonal, grow some vegetables or buy them from farmers at markets, and we read labels. We want food that was free-range and drug-free before it became food, and we're deeply suspiscious of GMOs. Many city people pay dearly for the privilege of eating this way, and in most regions there are now chefs, growers, brewers and vintners whose livelihoods rest entirely on the mindfulness of a certain kind of enlightened eater -- a situation ripe for parody, which is the best evidence of how far we've come since 1989.
Responsible eating used to occur at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum as well -- poor people who grew food to save money. But if this still happens in this country, I suspect it's very rare. Processed food is just too cheap now. Land and time are too dear.
Rich or poor, we're still not a nation of responsible eaters, or at least not ethical ones. How we eat, explains Wendell, determines how the world is used. Yet despite the local food renaissance these past couple decades, very few are willing or able to follow the path of responsible eating to its logical end. Were we to do so, the food justice and climate justice movements would be massive. Vegetarianism and veganism would be commonplace. So would lobbying for community gardens and food forests in public parks, and for a 50-Year Farm Bill. We would teach our children it's not okay to use 80 percent of global farmland to raise livestock that supplies only 20 percent of the worlds' calories. Livestock farming contributes nearly one in five greenhouse gas molecules to the atmosphere and produces more water pollution than any other industry. The meals we'd serve our families would enact our desire for a healthy planet and a caring society.
In declaring eating an agricultural act, one can hear the echo of the famous feminist slogan that pre-dates Wendell's proclamation by 20 years: "the personal is political." Choices we think of as individualized, like eating, are predicated on, and have implications for, political, cultural and economic systems. Although Wendell chose to orient this essay on the pleasure of eating -- centering the personal experience -- there's really no way to avoid the political. Thus he would have us "reclaim responsibility for one's own part in the food economy.... To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as one can, this complex relationship." If eating is an agricultural act, so too is it a political one.
Always with Wendell, we arrive at a question of responsibility. In this instance, he means for us to address ourselves to the Great Problem. This we cannot do as consumers. Better to recognize ourselves as agriculturists. Whether we are the one or the other, it seems, boils down to a question of personal responsibility. How much should be assigned to us? How much should we accept?
When I wrote my blog post "Capital R Responsibility" four and a half years ago, I had recently come across the Bill McKibben quote that called Wendell Berry a "prophet of responsibility." I hadn't yet picked out that theme in Berry, and it struck me as dead to rights. I had just reread "Thoughts in the Presence of Fear," in which Wendell, post 9-11, draws a line of responsibility between all Americans and acts of terrorism. His argument is that we participate in and enable a violent economy which can only, in time, beget political violence. Inspired by Wendell's example, I urged us to "do like Wendell -- draw a bigger circle of responsibility." I wrote "the political actions that any one of us could do to improve the collective, we must do."
I don't quite believe this any more. I'm discovering that personal responsibiity -- as a response to systemic injustice -- is about the most vexing thing I've ever struggled with on these Walks.
To begin with, individuals are only effective change agents in great numbers, which is to say, only when they don't act individually. Second, the category of what we "could" do is as murky as it is immense. As humans, we're unfortunately condemned to a liminal state when it comes to what we could do; "could" is a sample space that we can only misjudge. Furthermore, individualism is a considerable and powerful poison in the Great Problem itself. If we expect societal repair to arise from the choices of individuals, we'd be wise to appreciate how the attention, appetites and aspirations of those same individuals are relentlessly conditioned by countervailing forces like fear, greed and one-upmanship. Indvidual responsibility for the greater good is a pretty bad bet, given the uneven playing field.
Finally, there is the problem of individual disparity -- often the result of the very systems that need to change. Nonwhite Americans have been oppressed and marginalized in this country since its founding; do we expect nonwhite individuals to shoulder personal responsbility equivalent to higher caste individuals who perpetuate (knowingly or unknowingly) societal inequity? There is something patently unfair and even presumptuous about appealing to individual responsibility as if all individuals are stamped from the same mold. That's especially so in matters of collective betterment, since it's a been a collective project to enervate the wills and skills of so many million individual souls. In other words, it's uniquely inequitable to expect vulnerable inviduals to overcome a nearly invulnerable fortress of customs, laws and biases that are in place precisely to keep vulnerable people insecure.
Like I said, it's vexing. The more so because there are also arguments that individual action is the only option. After all, systems change finally happens (when it does) because individuals choose to organize, advocate, vote, educate and speak truth to power. And if we substitute ethics for responsibility, we end up most definitely in the lap of the individual. Which is only to say that responsible behavior is almost always ethical behavior, and ethics are seated within individuals. It may be unfair to demand responsibility in all instances, but it is certainly fair to expect ethical behavior, which covers much of the same ground.
What does all that have to do with "eating is an agricultural act?"
In thinking through Wendell's seemingly straightforward axiom, I find myself chasing shadows. He says we should be responsible eaters -- a standard that isn't achieved simply by eating local. He means we should consume conscientiously. We're not to ignore how animals are treated, nor how land is treated, nor how growers and farmers are treated, since all are either helped or harmed by our eating decisions. Remember: how we eat determines how the world is used. We all want a better world; ergo, we should eat responsibly.
But we don't. It's too hard. Most of us can't fathom the connections between between consumption, food and land. Or we can, but don't change our patterns because we recognize the political insignificance of our individual actions. Many of us are addicted to meat or processed sugar or other foods that do damage. Many of us have cultural traditions that determine what we eat, with these the far more important factors in guiding our food decisions. Many -- too many -- do not have the economic security that permits any choosing whatsoever. Ensuring the family can eat at all is an act of responsibility, farmers and animals be damned.
Personal responsibility is problematic for other reasons too, like how readily it can be turned into victim-blaming or morality shaming. In resorting to its call time and again, it reveals a blind spot in Wendell Berry. Everyone struggles with attribution error, but I suspect the most gifted among us (and the luckiest) have the hardest time seeing how non-replicable their personal powers actually are. Wendell really is a prophet of responsibility, but that makes him a unicorn. Ghandi was a moral genius. Lionel Messi is a soccer savant. I am a moral, responsible, soccer-playing adult, but compared to these paragons, I'm a dust mite.
But I don't feel diminished when I read Wendell; just the opposite in fact. The reward of walking with him isn't only the rays of wisdom you catch -- he isn't right about everything after all. It's finding again and again his unbreakable worldview that no matter the adversity, people and nature matter most of all.
If you want to understand the impact of factory food production on the environment, or on rural neighbors or unprotected laborers, there are better sources than Wendell Berry. But those are just the sad facts of the Great Problem. They stir anger and indignation, but not sympathy and reverence. That's why we go to Wendell. To be reminded, deep down, that we are among friends and relations, always. The writers and poets, the animals and plants, the workers and children, the waters and skies -- we live with one another and from one another. There is a Great Community, and we are a part of it. We are all harmed in it -- we are all blessed in it.
We may fall short on responsibility, but it's okay. Pleasure is the path here -- pleasure that comes when we break free of ignorance and into awareness of our companionship. This I get from Wendell and this, he says, we can all get from eating with awareness of what's actually happening when we take a meal:
Pleasure that does not depend on ignorance is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.