Caring for Creation through Agriculture
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Christians of every profession must, at some point, ask themselves the role of their work in God’s order. Invariably, this discussion must center on three fundamental truths: we are created in the image of God, we are fallen, and we are redeemed through Christ’s death and resurrection. The purpose and value of any field of inquiry can only be found in its relationship to these truths. My field of agricultural science and plant genetics is no different. Through agriculture, we have the potential to participate in the redemption of our fallen world, and in so doing more fully live in the image of God.
Following the creation of mankind, God provides clear instructions as to our purpose: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heaven and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28). The command of dominion over creation has elicited much discussion over the course of human history. Some have taken the stance that dominion means creation is ours to do with as we please, and thus environmental concerns can be ignored (Van Dyke et. al.,132). However, a better interpretation of the work of dominion is that of “stewardship” (Pope Francis,116). It is important for us to remember that all of creation belongs to God. Everything in it has a purpose, and that purpose isn’t just to serve human needs. In the 104th Psalm, Solomon speaks of the mountains and rocks as being for the wild goat and the hyrax, and of God making springs flow to provide water for the wild donkey. The sea exists both as a place for ships to travel, and as a place for Leviathan to play. Creation is not ours to do with as we please.
Stewardship requires the care of something, protecting it and maintaining it for its own good. However, stewardship in the context of mankind’s role as stewards of creation, should not be interpreted as preservation. Preservation implies a kind of stasis, that things should be left untouched and maintained as they are. If this were the case, the job of humans would be to avoid interference at all costs. Dominion and stewardship, on the other hand, include and even require use. It is the job of humans to facilitate the flourishing of creation, which includes the flourishing of human societies.
Agriculture is one of the most fundamental and intimate ways mankind interacts with the environment, supporting societies by taming natural organisms and processes to our ends. Therefore, agriculture may be the realm in which both the potential of creation stewardship and our human failure to fulfil our mandate are most obviously present. As Christians, we understand agriculture as one of the first ways mankind is called to take part in the process of creation. In the second chapter of Genesis, the Earth is devoid of plant life because “the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land and there was no man to work the ground” (Genesis 2:5). From the very beginning, the growth of all things green and beautiful is an act of co-creation between man and God. For a perfect image of what agriculture should be, we should look to Eden. It is no accident that Eden is a garden, a place where the beauty and bounty of nature is ordered in such a way that plants may reach their fullest flourishing, and simultaneously best provide for human needs. When creating a garden, the gardener chooses very carefully where to place each plant. He must pay attention to the amount of light each type of plant needs, what sort of soil suits it best, and so on. The goal is to design the garden in such a way that every plant in it has the best chance to grow well and live a healthy life. However, the health of each plant is not the only goal of a garden, as it must also be beautiful and functional. Plants are chosen that complement each other visually, or that provide fruit or fragrance. By both providing for human needs and growing well, plants in a garden may be brought to a fuller and truer flourishing then they otherwise could. In a similar way, agriculture is a tool through which mankind brings creation into a fuller flourishing than would otherwise be possible (Dyrness, 53). Agriculture in its perfect form has the potential to transform the entire Earth into an Eden.
Because agriculture has the potential to be a powerful way to alter creation for the good of all things, it is all the more disastrous when it is tainted by sin. Immediately after the Fall, two curses are placed simultaneously, one on Adam and one on the ground itself: “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat of the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:17-19). Just as sin corrupts our relationship to God and to each other, sin destroys our relationship to creation and our ability to serve as good stewards. Thus, our relationship to all creation has become adversarial, and the work of cultivating the land has turned from joy to pain, the field of grain has become a battlefield.
Through the course of Israel’s history this battlefield has taken on different forms, and the health or depravity of the land has been innately tied to the righteousness or sinfulness of its people. Agricultural flourishing is seen as part of the proper order of things and the sign of a righteous king: “May there be an abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field!” (Psalms 72:16; Davis, 11) Likewise, the sin of Israel was manifested in impediments to agricultural production. Through the prophet Amos, the Lord proclaims to Israel that because they did not turn to Him, He “withheld the rain from you when you were yet three months to the harvest” and “struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locusts devoured” (Amos 4:7-9). Both the specificity and severity of these curses are striking. Successful crop production is utterly dependent on God, and requires a number of factors to all align. Rain must not only come, but come at the proper time and in the proper amount. Countless pests, from insects to fungi, must turn away from the crop. These curses remind ancient Israel, and us, that just as God holds in His hand our agricultural success, every part of our lives is wholly dependent on Him.
To this day, agriculture is based in vulnerability to God. Churches in the dry regions of our country regularly pray for rain during the summer, just as the Israelites would have thousands of years ago (Zechariah 10:1). This vulnerability, and therefore opportunity for faith, was key to the plan for agriculture laid out in the Levitical laws. God instructs the Israelites that every seventh year was to be a Sabbath year, in which all fields lay fallow (Leviticus 25:1-5). This has been interpreted as an early form of crop rotation and soil health maintenance (Davis, 110). While this interpretation is valid, God’s command more importantly requires complete trust in Him. If the people keep His statues, only then will they “dwell in the land securely” (Leviticus 25:18). Despite not sowing or reaping crops in the seventh year, God promises to “command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years” (Leviticus 25:21). This Sabbath command provides a tangible reminder that all provision ultimately derives from God, and that any success or security comes only from His blessing.
This reliance on God in the realm of agriculture is not confined to the context of ancient Israel. Neither is our ability to stray from God’s commands when it comes to our use of creation. As our technological capacity has grown, so has our ability to harm creation through agriculture. Rather than maintaining agricultural systems which support the flourishing of all creation, we seek only to maximize our immediate security. We do not trust in God, but only in our own ability, and environmental devastation is the price we pay. We see this manifested in water resources rendered unusable by agricultural runoff. We see this in the extinction of species and ecosystems displaced by agricultural fields. We see this in huge swaths of land rendered infertile by soil loss and erosion.
We know that the ultimate remedy to these evils lies in Christ’s return. All creation “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God”, ready for the day in which “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19, 21). In that day we will see the new Heavens and the new Earth, where all will be set right. We are promised that “He will wipe away every tear” and that “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning […] nor pain” (Revelation 21:4). We also trust that in the remaking of the Earth, the scars of the land and the poison in the rivers will be no more.
This hope does not give us license to wait idly. Grace compels and demands that this healing work begin today. In Christ, we have the grace to begin healing our interpersonal relationships. Likewise, we have the grace to begin healing our relationship to creation. What does this look like? We are many, differentiated members of one body and so this work is different for each. Perhaps it means recycling, or biking to work, or eating locally. It means teaching our children to cherish God’s creation as an awe-inspiring and precious gift. But there is also work to do beyond the personal level. The challenges and destruction caused by our agricultural systems must be addressed. I believe one facet of redeeming creation lies in the emerging field of perennial grain agriculture.
Crops where the main product harvested is the plant’s seeds, referred to as grain, form the foundation of most modern agricultural systems. The vast majority of grains are grown in annual agricultural systems, where a farmer plants seed in the spring, the plants grow throughout the summer, and crops are harvested in the fall. This model, while producing huge harvests, is almost unknown in nature. Most of the world’s agricultural land was previously covered by grasslands or forests. In these ecosystems plants are generally perennial, living and growing over the course of many years. In perennial plant communities, leaves or stems are almost always covering the soil, and deep root systems are always present. This means mean that the soil is always protected and held in place, rather than being vulnerable to erosion. Compare this to a Minnesota corn and soy farm, where the soil is barren during the late fall, winter, and early spring months. Unfortunately, we currently have no way to produce the valuable products provided by plants such as corn, wheat, or soybean while also maintaining continual cover and protection of our soil resources.
My research seeks to address this issue through the development of a perennial grain crop. Such crops would allow us more closely mimic the ecosystems naturally found in agricultural areas while still producing the starches, oils, and proteins provided by annual grains. My research deals specifically with domesticating a wildflower called “rosinweed” or “silflower” (Silphium integrifolium). This wild relative of the sunflower is found in prairies throughout the central United States. It is a perennial flower with deep roots which can prevent erosion and access water and nutrients that other crops cannot. It also is popular with pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, providing them with a valuable source of nourishment often not found in agricultural areas. However, unlike other wildflowers which have these characteristics, it also has the potential to produce a cooking oil similar to sunflower oil.
Imagine what a farm of silflower would look like: it would be buzzing with bees and other insects, a sea of beautiful yellow flowers. Little waste would flow from the field. While a farmer may still use fertilizer, the extensive roots of the silflower plants would ensure that most would not make it to nearby streams and rivers. They would also hold the soil in place, slowing erosion. It would require little or no irrigation, even in dry parts of the country. It would not require replanting every year, thus reducing erosion by reducing the need to plow, and could be planted in companionship with other crop species to reduce the presence of weeds. It would be like a prairie, but a prairie that still produced oil that a famer could sell. To my mind, this sort of farm would be a step towards the redemption of agriculture, and thus a step towards redeeming our relationship with creation. While not perfect, such a farm comes a little closer to supporting the flourishing of creation and humanity. It is humble because it mimics the natural prairies that were already present, but it also produces a crop for human use. It is also works towards complete flourishing, because it seeks a good beyond human profit. Creatures great and small, from birds to fish, from butterflies to soil microorganisms would also benefit from the silflower farm. There are other crops that would likely make more money for a farmer, but they would require more harm to creation. Silflower, as a part of a larger vision of agriculture that works with natural systems, can bring the human work of agriculture more closely in line with God’s will for creation.
In this work, as in all work done by human hands, we must remember that we alone cannot bring about the redemption of creation. No matter our intentions, sin will always taint our motives and cling to what we create. We are imperfect creatures, and can only be made perfect in Christ. More important than the material outcomes of our work is that this work should bring us closer to Christ. The process of sanctification is our ultimate work, and we should pray that in learning to care for creation and to serve ends beyond our own, we would ourselves be made more perfect and more holy. Only then will the image of God show with full clarity in our lives, and will be finally remade into the people we were created to be.
Davis, Ellen F. Scripture, culture and agriculture: An agrarian reading of the Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Dyrness, William. “Stewardship of the Earth in the Old Testament”. Tending the Garden: Essays on the Gospel and the Earth. Ed. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Pope Francis. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si' of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home. The Holy See: Vatican Press, 2015.
Van Dyke, Fred, et. al. Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.