Lady Eve Balfour

January 29, 2012

Just in case you don’t like my food ethics icons, a former Ohio extension agent named Andy Kleinschmidt wrote a blog back in 2009 in which he listed the 10 most influential people in the history of farming and agriculture. We have a bit of overlap: Norman Borlaug, George Washington Carver. Kleinschmidt’s “other notables” list includes Temple Grandin. Of course, I’m focusing on ethics in a way that Kleinschmidt isn’t, so it would be surprising if the overlap was total. His #1 is Fritz Haber, who developed the Haber-Bosch process for making synthetic fertilizer out of nitrogen freely available in the atmosphere. I’m not ranking my food icons, and I’m going out on this particular round with someone who fails to get a mention from Kleinschmidt: Lady Eve Balfour.

I know a lot less about Lady Eve Balfour than I do about any of my other food ethics icons. I know that she founded the Soil Association in the UK and that she is a revered figure among sustainable agriculture types from the British Isles. I know that she was involved in “the Haughley experiment,” a multi-year test of organic farming methods and soil fertility that took place northeast of London between 1939 and 1987. I know that Haughley is pronounced “Horley”.  I know that Lady Eve was involved in forming the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). I know that she died in 1990.

I’ve read the speech she gave in 1977 called “The Living Soil”. It’s regarded by many as a manifesto for the alternative agriculture movement. You can read it yourself. It’s not that long. I haven’t read her book by the same title from 1943.

The notable thing about Balfour’s speech from my perspective is simply the way that she connects agricultural research with ethics. Here’s a quote:

There are two motivations behind an ecological approach–one is based on self interest, however enlightened, i.e. when consideration for other species is taught solely because on that depends The survival of our own.

The other motivation springs from a sense that the biota is a whole, of which we are a part, and that the other species which compose it and helped to create it; are entitled to existence in their own right. This is the wholeness approach and it is my hope and belief that this is what we, as a federation, stand for.

If I am right, this means that we cannot escape from the ethical and spiritual values of life for they are part of wholeness. To ignore them and their implications would be to pursue another form of fragmentation. Therefore, I hold that what we have to teach is the attitude defined by Aldo Leopold as ‘A Land Ethic’. This requires that we extend the concept of Community to include all the species of life with which we share the planet. We must foster a reverence for all life, even that which we are forced to control, and we must, as Leopold put it–‘Quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem, but examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise’.

This is not, by the way, quite how Leopold put it, but never mind. Balfour is thought of as kind of nutty by some agricultural scientists because of her links to the Anthroposophical Society. Like Transcendentalism, I think that anthroposophy is more than a little too excessively magniloquent. But never mind. The point is a kind of intellectual discipline that comes from thinking of oneself working within a closed system. Farming has to proceed from the materials that can be generated within that system. Thinking that you can pull stuff out of thin air to increase soil fertility is a fool’s errand.

We can debate where the borders of that system really are, and we should. That would be a form of food ethics worthy of the name! If Lady Eve Balfour helps us get to that debate, she’s a food ethics icon in my book.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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