We were on the Lebombo Mountains, looking over a spectacular bushveld panorama. The sunset, enhanced by twinkling reflections of light through thousands of sprinklers irrigating the sugar cane, was breathtaking.
I was hosting some high-society visitors, and had driven them to a viewpoint for a sundowner.
I proudly pointed out the farm’s boundaries and the areas we’d recently cleared for new sugar cane and citrus plantings.
Expecting to hear gasps of amazement at the view, there was a strange silence. As I turned to see if there was anything amiss, one of the ladies in the party said, “Peter, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
I was dumbstruck. Recognising my discomfort, she quickly continued with a smile: “Don’t take it too personally. But I can’t understand why you take such pride in being part of the process of destroying such beautiful and pristine bushveld.”
As her words replayed in my mind, apart from thinking of some smart retorts I could have made, what she said to me triggered an epiphany: it awakened me to the need for a greater personal environmental sensitivity.
The memory of that evening came back to me recently while reading Yuval Harari’s acclaimed book, Sapiens. He refers to the period during which humanity started farming as ‘History’s Biggest Fraud’.
He debunks the views of scholars who proclaim that the development of agriculture was a great leap forward for mankind.
“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than foragers,” he writes.
“Hunter-gathers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. [Agriculture] certainly enlarged the total of food available, but that extra food didn’t translate into a better diet and more leisure. Rather it translated into population explosions and a pampered elite.”
Elsewhere, he writes about habitat destruction and desertification caused by agriculture, especially large-scale commercial agriculture, enterprises from which I and many of the readers of this column make a living.
To add insult to personal injury, I was a sugar cane farmer, and with sugar being the latest food item to be targeted as the ‘new tobacco’, a phrase coined by chef Jamie Oliver, I’m becoming more and more concerned about the increasing denigration of the noble career of farming.
Only yesterday I read an article in The Telegraph, headlined, ‘Island of widows: The mystery disease killing sugar cane workers around the world’.
It’s about sugar cane workers in Nicaragua and parts of El Salvador who are afflicted by chronic kidney disease in large numbers and early in life.
But while it’s prevalent among manual labourers working in tough, hot conditions, there’s no evidence that the disease is in any way connected with sugar cane!
As for being responsible for killing workers around the world, the only areas where it’s a cause for concern are Central America and Sri Lanka. So much for accurate reporting!
Farmers have become popular targets for anyone wanting to make the headlines these days, and it’s time to fight back.
I have seen occasional bumper stickers proclaiming ‘If you ate today, thank a farmer’ and ‘No farms = no food’, but where are the programmes to get these stickers onto every farm vehicle, every farm gate, and every location at which food is sold?
Why have we not seen campaigns launched by local farmers’ organisations such as Agri SA, TAU SA, and the African Farmers Association of South Africa?
Where are the international farmers’ organisations, such as the World Farmers’ Organisation, when it comes to ‘fighting back’?
As a farmer, you can help by galvanising your farmers’ organisation or industry to take some definite action to help build the reputation and image of farmers.