Soil fertility, food production and the faith community. Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann’s new ecological conscience

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“We need a new ‘land ethic.” FK

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Ask any farmer today for a job description of their vocation, and you’re likely to get a wide variety of answers, from raising crops and tending livestock, marketing and selling commodities, to feeding the world and fueling the future.

But not too many would probably call their relationship to their work a spiritual journey. And that, says sustainable agriculture expert Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann, is one of our biggest problems.

Thursday evening, at the annual Benedictine lecture held at Marian Auditorium at Mount Marty College, Kirschenmann urged the faith community to get involved in the development of a new “ecological conscience” to save natural resources and alter industrial ag production to more sustainable practices.

The ideas presented in his lecture were from years of extensive study in sustainable ag practices which led him to write his most recent book, “Cultivating An Ecological Conscience.”

“There are currently two schools of thought in this issue,” Kirschenmann said. “We can do more of the same and try to keep increasing production in the face of rapidly depleting resources, or we can change our systems to ways that are more sustainable.”

Kirschenmann, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and has written extensively about ethics and agriculture, is a Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. A longtime national and international leader in sustainable ag, he also serves as president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., oversees management of the family’s 3,5000-acre organic farm in south central North Dakota, and is a professor of religion and philosophy at ISU. But before all that, Kirschenmann began his studies as a student at Yankton College in the 1950s. He later returned to become a faculty member there.

“It feels a bit like coming home to be here,” he said.

A self-proclaimed “big-picture thinker,” Kirschenmann said in the context of history, we are nearing the end of our current food production practices — that very soon, we won’t have a choice.

“We’ve lost half of our top soil, depleted and poisoned our fresh water sources; we’re using up phosphorus and potash stores at unprecedented rates, as well as losing the biodiversity in our ecosystems,” he said.

He added that of these losses, and climate change issues aside, the loss of soil is the most critical.

“It’s the foundation of all else,” he said. Soil fertility and water retention is largely determined by the level of organic matter in the soil, he added.

“With just 1 percent organic matter, the soil can hold only 33 pounds of water per cubic meter. But if you increased that organic matter to just 5 percent, the water level held goes up to 195 pounds.”

That’s a significant factor when you consider that worldwide, 70 percent of all our fresh water is used in agriculture irrigation.

Another pressing issue, Kirschenmann said, is the declining farming population.

“In the U.S., 75 percent of all production is accomplished by 194,000 farms,” he said, adding that the vast majority of those are farmers over age 60.

“We need research to explore ecological answers, and programs to encourage young people to get involved so we can increase our farming population,” he said.

Though some emphasis was given to the importance of programs and regulatory support, Kirshenmann’s message focused more on individual responsibility and spiritual development of a new “ecological conscience.”

“Aldo Leopold said an ecological conscience cannot come from regulation or the free market system,” Kirschenmann said. “We need a new ‘land ethic.’”

He added that the right land ethic would preserve the integrity, resilience and beauty of the earth.

“To tend to anything else is wrong,” he said, adding that the health of the people is in direct relationship to the health of the land.

“Fifteen million children die every year from hunger and hunger-related illnesses,” he said. However, only 1 percent of U.S.-produced corn, and less than one percent of our soybeans actually goes to the world’s 5 hungriest nations, he said.

“Health of the land is found in its capacity for renewal,” Kirschenmann added.

“All over the world, and even here in the U.S., models exist that are not dependent on our limited resources for energy — that use biological organisms for sustainability,” Kirschenmann said. “Our current structure isn’t working.”

He added that here in the Midwest and in the South where there is the heaviest concentration of commodity farming, there are many people committed to furthering the existing systems.

But Kirschenmann is hopeful that a new generation of ecologically-conscious farmers will find better ways of feeding the world.

“It’s about our relationships to the land and to each other,” he said. “And the faith community has a very important role to play in this journey.”

Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture was the featured speaker at MMC’s annual Benedictine Lecture

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