Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
A Seasonal Reflection On the Soul of Our Food System

Publications \ Articles for Reprinting \ The Soul of Our Food System

by Jean English. Copyright 2009.

Quiet winter days offer a good time to consider the spiritual aspects of how our food is grown. That spirituality of farming was central to John Ikerd’s keynote speech at the Farmer-to-Farmer Conference held by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and University of Maine Cooperative Extension in November.

Ikerd is Professor Emeritus of economics at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and author of Sustainable Capitalism; A Return to Common Sense; Small Farms are Real Farms; and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture. (See

At Farmer-to-Farmer, Ikerd noted that sales of local foods in the U.S. are projected to reach $11 billion by 2011, and organic food sales are now almost $20 billion. Ikerd believes that the growing popularity of local foods is the latest phase in a long trend that is fundamentally transforming the American food system as consumers consider many factors in choosing foods: freshness, flavor, safety, nutrition, supporting and trusting local economies and farmers, security, and reducing fossil energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The Slow Food watchwords good, clean and fair embody these principles, said Ikerd, as does the Chefs Collaborative promotion of the “joys of local, seasonal, and artisanal cooking.”

The local food movement’s quest for food that has ecological, social and economic integrity continues a movement begun in the ‘60s when back-to-the-land enthusiasts produced their own food, bought food at farmers’ markets, and formed cooperative food buying clubs and natural food stores. The movement spread during the ‘70s and ‘80s, as more people became aware of potential health, environmental and social problems associated with industrial foods—and, more recently, of some nutrient deficiencies in industrial foods. Consumers became more selective about animal products in the late ‘80s amid concern about the widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones in industrial livestock; about inhumane treatment of animals in large-scale confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs); and about exploitation of family farmers and farm workers in large operations.

Organic farming was originally rooted in the values of biodynamic farming, articulated in 1924 when Rudolph Steiner said, “Central to bio-dynamics is the concept that a farm is healthy only as much as it becomes an organism in itself – an individualized, diverse ecosystem guided by the farmer, standing in living interaction with the larger ecological, social, economic, and spiritual realities of which it is part.” Biodynamic farming was clearly spiritual as well as biological, said Ikerd, adding that Steiner was concerned that food grown on increasingly impoverished soil could not provide the inner sustenance needed for spiritual health.

Organic pioneer and publisher J. I. Rodale wrote that the farmer “must realize that in him is placed a sacred trust, the task of producing food that will impart health to the people who consume it. As a patriotic duty, he assumes an obligation to preserve the fertility of the soil, a precious heritage that he must pass on, undefiled and even enriched, to subsequent generations.”

The soul of organics, said Ikerd, includes a social commitment to family and community; spiritual values; ethical and moral values; integrity among people; and trust.

Recognition of these values is seen in the increased number of farmers’ markets in the United States--from 1,755 to 4,385 between 1994 and 2006; in the increase in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms from fewer than 100 in 1990 to an estimate of 1500 to 2000 now; in the growing number of discriminating restaurants, supermarkets and other retail food markets committed to sourcing as much food as possible from local growers; and in more and more public schools, colleges and hospitals that source local, healthful foods.

Ikerd thinks that our society is in a period that he calls The Great Transformation. The model for the sustainable, local food system of the future may resemble a multi-farm CSA or local food buying club, offering vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, cheese, baked goods, flowers, soaps and herbs, with Web sites allowing producers to coordinate with consumers, and with local assembly and distribution systems (like UPS and Fed-Ex) to pick up products at local farms and assemble and deliver customer orders. Local food associations could maintain personal connections between farmers and customers through food events, farm visits and dinners at the farm. “Even regional, national or international networks of local food systems could offer personal relationships to connect communities,” said Ikerd, “with the relationships within each of those communities ensuring the integrity of the system. (Gary Paul Nabhan offered a similar vision of a local food system seasoned with global/local connections at his keynote speech at MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair in September.)

Ikerd said he’s accused of being idealistic, but he sees today’s industrial food system as unsustainable. It requires some 17% of all fossil energy used in the United States and uses more than 10 kcals of fossil energy for each kcal of food energy it produces. Also, farmers, farm laborers and food industry workers are among the lowest paid and most mistreated of workers, receiving few if any benefits. “Only a true organic agriculture, carried out by farmers who are committed to permanence, farming that has a soul to it, as well as efficiency in productivity, can provide long-run food security,” said Ikerd. Various organic farming strategies reduce fossil energy use by 30 to 60% and can sequester about 50% more CO2 and greenhouse gases than agriculture is releasing today.

Ikerd predicted that the food system will change as much over the next 50 years as it did in the past 50, “but if we’re going to achieve that great potential that’s there to recreate a system that has ecological and social integrity, then we have to reflect that integrity within our relationships with each other and our relationships with the earth. We have to create a system of farming and a whole food system that reflects those ethical and social values if it’s going to be economically viable over the long run.”

This article is provided by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), PO Box 170, Unity, ME 04988; 207-568-4142; [email protected]; Joining MOFGA helps support and promote organic farming and gardening in Maine and helps Maine consumers enjoy more healthful, Maine-grown food. Copyright 2008. If you reprint this article, please include this reference, and please let us know that you have reprinted. Thanks!