"The Agricultural and Medical Priesthoods"

Ken Taylor's Writings

Taken from Ken’s last report in the MFA Digest, June 1994
“Founder’s Report” page 2

For more than a decade, I have immersed myself in an exciting and rewarding learning experience in the context of the Minnesota Food Association. The food and agriculture world has been a rich area of change, conflict, and challenge during that period. And it’s been a time when good people have stepped forward to confront the food and agriculture system—a system made almost sacred by those whose interests are served by its radical industrialization during the last half of this century.

Today, thanks to the April Fools news that I am hosting an unwelcome guest inside my brain, I am beginning another major “learning experience,” but now it’s a completely different course of study. I am now intimately engaged with the highly organized and powerful system of conventional medicine. Its roots are in the same basic belief system as the one that shapes the behaviors and policies of our conventional food and agriculture system—the system we are trying to reform.

That reform effort has created the subjects of my learning, which have been varied, complex, and difficult: hunger, food safety, sprawl, community gardening, biotechnology, land grant university accountability. It’s a confounding array, in fact, and knowing how to apply that learning is difficult in the face of powerful foreces that seem to care little for either people or the planet.

My comparison of the conventional systems of agriculture and medicine goes something like this: both systems are based on the assumption (perhaps subconsciously) that death is the enemy and can be defeated. Through human cleverness (technology) we will be able to identify the problems and fix them, and because we think we can, we should. The language in the two systems is different—in medicine, it’s called a “cure.” In U.S. Agriculture, it’s called “feeding the world.” This assumption, however, represents the fundamental flaw in both systems, because it violates a basic law of nature—that death is a part of life. Denial of this reality only delays action and increases consequences.

In medicine, this belief that death is the enemy to be defeated at all costs tend to put physicians’ focus on the disease entity, not the human being who is the patient. In this scenario, the patient becomes the medium or the pathway to the problem to be solved. (My doctor calls it the F2 Syndrome-- Find it, Fix it.) This very linear approach tends to neglect all other inputs affecting the situation—family, alternative options, quality of life, etc. These are externalized in the relentless pursuit to cure the disease within the strict protocol and magic technology made available.

In agriculture, the enemy is death from starvation, and exploding <global> population growth is the “disease” to be cured. Food production becomes the treatment to defeat that disease, and as this treatment is relentlessly pursued, the plant (or patient) is put at risk with wondrous production-enhancing tools. Whatever gets in the way of production is zapped with some poison or tool.

There are other parallels. In both cases, ordinary people have surrendered much of their power to an expert class of people who occupy a sort of priesthood in our society. The physician, the agricultural scientist, even the extension agent—all are titles and positions to which we give meta-influence, reducing our own sense of power and responsibility. We allow ourselves to become clients and consumers—in their eyes and in ours. This diminishes us all and leads to the resentment and hostility that we have seen develop in both medicine and agriculture in the last quarter century.

And that, of course, leads me to the final comparison. Both systems are in trouble. The promised cures are not showing up. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the planet is beginning to rebel to the constant insults these two systems are visiting upon all forms of life. It’s probably time we started thinking a little differently.

My hopefulness on this June morning springs from my learning from the people I have encountered through MFA and from those I am getting to know in my new “academy.”

Throughout my time “in school” at MFA, I have experienced the wisdom and courage of people who have consistently stepped forward in the face of ridicule and career threats—irreverent heretics who have asked the hard questions and challenged conventions. I have seen this group grow in numbers and develop strength through their connections with each other. I count myself fortunate to be able to say, “These are my classmates and my teachers.” These “ordinary people” are a constant source of encouragement, creating a hopefulness that we can expect great changes to continue and develop “on the ground.”

Similarly, I am aware of growing numbers of people who are hard at work on either changing the dysfunctional medical system or developing alternatives to it. The sustainable agriculture movement and the alternative health care movement have a lot in common and much to learn from each other.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful for an unlikely coalition to form of urban and rural exiles of both the agriculture and medical priesthoods? It is time for a community-oriented coalition of people who have identified their common ground as concern for their food and their health, with a commitment to reclaim responsibility for the complete cycle of their lives and for the life of the Earth. Will this require a miracle?

Editor’s Note:

For those of you who did not know Ken Taylor, he was the founder of the Minnesota Food Association (1982) as well as one key leader in the success of the Minnesota Project—as a Board member from 1986 to 1994. He died too young (57) of his brain cancer in January of 1995. Ken was instrumental in forming the Sustainers’ Coalition and MISA, and many other key elements of the sustainable agriculture movement. He carried a real template for community-building processes, and challenged the community to live and work together around food and farming issues.

This essay by Ken compares the world he knew best—food and farming—with a world he was coming to know—medicine. Ken was also an early Board member at the HMO then called Group Health (today Health Partners.) Today, with the newly coined “integrative medicine” and with myriads of alterative modalities available for healing, we see that some of his hopes are coming true. It is still up to the patient or family, however, even in 2006, to press the system, to work the alternatives, and to find the personal path of healing. More options are available, but I think food is now seen as more integral than ever before. I believe that Ken’s discussion of the root assumptions about conquering death is valid and is an intriguing one for us all to consider, whether we are concerned with food production or healing. It is all one.