India’s agriculture minister had some eyebrow-raising advice for the more than 600 million people in his country that depend on agriculture for a living. According to the minister, sending seeds good vibrations and the right feelings will help produce higher yields. The BBC reports:
At a function attended by farmers and agriculture scientists in Delhi at the weekend, [Indian agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh] stunned the audience by saying that “farmers should give vibrations of peace, love and divinity to seeds” to encourage growth and make them resistant to pests.
“Such exercise is accepted by my ministry essentially to enhance Indian farmers’ confidence. Indian farmers have, over the years, lost confidence in the age-tested knowledge of farming,” the minister was quoted by The Indian Express as saying.
It sounds like this Indian politician has a promising future in the global green movement. Western agricultural ideas are full of “yogic farming” type ideas—that organic food is better for you than regular produce, that GMOs are dangerous, that heavily subsidized and expensive ‘local food’ is better for the environment than more efficiently produced food grown where yields are higher and agriculture less difficult to carry out.
It’s not surprising; our relationship with the food that we eat (or the food we don’t eat, after declaring it taboo) stirs the depths of the human psyche. Like sex, another pivot of humanity’s spiritual and physical life, food is connected directly to the mysteries that confront every human consciousness. We experience ourselves as unique beings with a rich inner life, and we find ourselves in a world that is bigger than we are. The mysterious boundary between the ‘me’ and the ‘not-me’, what theologian Paul Tillich called the ‘ground of our being’ where we sense the dependence of our inner lives on the larger reality becomes, inevitably, a focus of our emotional and intellectual efforts to make sense out of our lives—why do we exist, what is life for, what does it all mean?
So it’s not wrong for people to feel a sense of awe and wonder about the food that we eat, to be aware of connections between food and health, and to seek some kind of spiritual harmony between the way that we raise and prepare our food and the values that we believe shape and give meaning to our lives.
Where ‘yogic farmers’, anti-GMO crusaders and other food faddists go wrong is in failing to integrate our scientific knowledge—limited and evolving as it is—with the spiritual quest. When we allow vague and fuzzy feelings to block our understanding of the actual facts of life, when we reject an agricultural technique that can feed the hungry even as it reduces the cost of human agriculture to the natural systems on which we all depend, then we aren’t just being untrue to science. We are betraying the quest for meaning and the aspiration toward harmony that shape our spiritual quests.
In Western history, one way to express the balance needed between rational thought, planning and the quest for efficiency on the one hand, and utter openness to the world of meaning and spiritual aspiration on the other has been summed up in the advice to “pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on you.” The yogic farmer or the green seeking ecological harmony with the earth aren’t wrong to see farming as connected with and accountable to ideas of morality and spiritual development; the mistake is in the failure to engage rigorously in the process of understanding and advancing the scientific knowledge that is available to us about how the world actually works.
It’s a difficult balance to get right. Integrating emotional and spiritual values with pragmatic and hard headed scientific thinking is a challenge for everybody. But it is exactly this challenge that human beings need to engage in. We don’t need a world of spiritual quacks or of scientists without souls.
At some level, most people understand this pretty well. That’s why ‘yogic farming’ and food nuts generally look so ridiculous to people not under the sway of the particular delusion at work.
Many religious traditions think of humanity as standing with a foot in two realms: we are spiritual beings with a capacity to perceive and be moved by invisible realities and abstractions like justice, truth and love—yet we are also creatures of the physical world whose lives are grounded in the muck and mud from whence we spring. The secret to success, as an individual human being and for human societies and cultures as well, is to find a way to integrate these two aspects of our existence.