by Mark Oshinskie

The past four summers, I have managed urban community gardens. When people ask me what I do for a living, I typically receive affirmation. Gardening — especially our organic, harvested-rainwater, non-GMO heirloom seed variety — is hailed because it is more natural than is conventional industrial agriculture. In our increasingly food-focused society, eating organic food is an article of faith for some and almost sacramental to others. Further, gardening is said to empower lower-income families. Some regard growing food organically and aiding poor people, while lessening corporate control, as latter day righteousness.

Many have observed that, despite its productivity, industrial agriculture is in crisis. Crops are bland commercial commodities, low in nutrients, genetically modified, perilously uniform and tainted with pesticides. Modern agriculture continually contaminates and depletes soil and groundwater. Food is shipped great distances, costing fuel, nutrients and flavor. Government subsidized corn and wheat are said to cause obesity and illness. Farm employment and rural communities have been in decline for decades.

Organic gardening is seen as a vote against, and an antidote to, industrial agriculture. Yet, many who praise organic agriculture simultaneously endorse synthetic birth control and reproductive technology. These practices are distinctly anti-organic. They reflect the same top-down, hard path, commercial model, and the dubious morality and downward spiral of industrial agriculture.

For example, birth control and reprotech are chemically driven. Aside from causing an array of harmful physical effects to the women who use them, the hormones in birth control pills do not vanish into the ether. They are excreted and become part of a broad-spectrum pharmaceutical brew that flows into streams and rivers and thus deforms and feminizes fish, frogs and other aquatic creatures. Similarly, a blend of strong, synthetic hormones is a cornerstone of IVF and egg “donation.” Follistim, a common IVF drug, is a genetically modified product derived from hamster ovary cell lines.

The problems of industrial agriculture are inter-related and build on themselves. In reaction to soil damage and depletion through tilling and failure to leave dead vegetation in place or to grow cover crops, more synthetic fertilizers are used. As the same crops are grown on the same land in consecutive years and because insecticides kill not only bugs but their natural predators, insect populations grow. Insecticide use expands commensurately. Consequently, groundwater is contaminated. So-called miracle seeds often deliver higher yields. But they require more irrigation and more chemical fertilizers, thus further depleting and damaging the water supply.

Similarly, many praise synthetic birth control and abortion for facilitating sexual activity. But these create larger, longer term consequences. As former Fed Chair Janet Yellen and others have observed, disconnecting sexuality from child-bearing has made men less willing to make, or keep, loving commitments to women. It has also encouraged women to seek the elusive perfect partner for decades. During this search, birth control users pass through their peak fertile years without conceiving and, culturally encouraged to stay “Up All Night to Get Lucky,” often get sexually transmitted infections that block Fallopian tubes and render them infertile. Delaying conception and STI scarring build IVF demand.

Conventional industrial agriculture seeks to eliminate human acceptance of life’s seasonality. Corporate agriculture enables supermarkets to sell every type of food year ‘round. This is energy intensive and facilitates a food-for-export model in places where many people go hungry. In contrast, a central benefit of organic gardening and farming is providing unprocessed, locally grown food, in season. Synthetic birth control and reprotech also seek to supplant reproductive seasonality with an on-demand model typical in our modern economy. Instead of couples being aware of the cyclical signs of a woman’s fertility and instead of breastfeeding — which can delay ovulation — chemicals and other commercial products are used to suppress fertility through peak fertile years.

Seeing, smelling, and putting hands in rich soil has been called a spiritual experience. Linked as it is to life creation, so is male/female sexuality. In contrast, reprotech bypasses intimacy and transforms life creation into a corporate, clinical, multi-party experience involving lab technicians and gamete sellers. One IVF clinic’s website home page says matter of factly, “When we generate your child…” Reproductive technology also entails eugenic embryo screening and gamete selection. These practices threaten the acceptance of each child as they are that is intrinsic to parenthood. They also enable more intensive, socially stratifying future eugenic applications. Joni Mitchell fans accept spots on their apples to serve a longer-term collective purpose. But human design is practiced and tolerated because sovereign consumers want it.

Industrial agriculture is reductive and near term-focused. It produces commodities based on market demand, not the needs of human communities or environmental sustainability. Reprotech is similarly reductive and short-sighted. Buying eggs and using surrogate mothers reflects the view that women are commercial instruments; they provide eggs that can be mined and wombs to rent. Sperm is sold for pocket money and as a form of irresponsible conceit. Manufacturing life via these practices disregards the male/female complementarity that exists in pollinated gardens and had, until recently, characterized human procreation. Selling and buying sperm denies the value of fathers. Egg buying and surrogacy are statements that mothers are fungible. Both sperm and egg sales disregard their future psychological and emotional effects on the offspring thereby conceived.

While organic food production uses fewer inputs and is economically progressive, reprotech is resource intensive and regressive. IVF costs twelve thousand dollars per cycle and multiple cycles are common. Its use often leads to complicated pregnancies and extra post-partum care. Just as modern agriculture relies heavily on government subsidies, many IVF users rely on medical insurance subsidies to cover conception and post-natal costs, even though IVF users tend to be relatively affluent.

Industrial agriculture and synthetic birth control are driven by short-sighted utilitarianism. They fulfill immediate individual desires at cost to the common good. Echoing Al Gore, Wendell Berry, Dr. Seuss’s Lorax and many other environmentalists, Pope Francis attributes the global environmental crisis to exactly this source: individuals, aided by corporations who can sell them products, place their near term desires above those of the larger society and the longer term. Similarly, to serve near term individual desires and commerce, the separation of sexuality from procreation has made lasting marriages and intact families much rarer.

The late Princeton/Chicago/Columbia Philosopher Jacques Maritain stated in The Person and the Common Good that the purpose of society is to advance the good of the community. The common good of the community is not the mere collection of private goods, i.e., the most goods for the most individual people. Instead, the purpose of society is creating the good human life of the multitude; society is the multitude’s communion in good living. The common good is therefore common to both the society and the people who comprise society. Common good flows back into, and benefits, those people.

In this way, the garden provides an apt metaphor for society. Healthy soil makes healthy plants. Not only does a healthy soil need macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium; it also contains essential, typically unmeasured micronutrients, trace minerals and microorganisms. Plants grown in soil that contains both the measurable, as well as seldom measured, essential components are more vital, less damaged by insects or plant diseases, and more flavorful. Each homegrown tomato or carrot is especially sweet and especially valued because it grows in better soil and because we have a hands-on connection to growing it. Organic agriculture requires knowledge-based, patient stewardship that respects nature. Net-destructive mechanization, irrigation and magic bullet chemicals undercut sustainability. From a distance, a cornfield looks good, or at least green and orderly. But this appearance masks serious environmental flaws and a destructive underlying process.

Similarly, because synthetic birth control allows sexual freedom and artificial conception often engenders offspring that look normal, and because the anti-conceptive and conception industries make money and facilitate on-demand sex, these technologies are deemed successful. But artificially controlling conception has altered the culture and attenuated male/female relationships. Making life a commercially driven, lab-derived commodity via reprotech has damaged the culture’s collective sense of wonder, enabled human design and further alienated us from nature and from each other. Just as degrading our soil and water make industrial agriculture unsustainable, an individualistic, commercial, short-sighted approach to human life creation profoundly damages the common moral environment in which individuals live.