06/25/2013 04:21 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2013

Traditional Sacred Agriculture

There are several methods of raising food that are unrelated to "modern" agriculture. These alternative farm methods are forms of applied biology that have nature as their primary model. They are desired ecological pathways that have the potential to heal some of the wounds industrialized agriculture inflicts on nature and humans.

Traditional farmers share a respect for the land and the people who eat what they raise on that land. This means they follow ancient traditions of agrarian knowledge and practice. Some even touch the gods with their farming.

The Greeks, for example, were inseparable from their gods, especially in the workings of the land. Family farmers, not philosophers, invented democracy.

In his "Laws," Plato controlled farm size, realizing how important relative equity was for the health of the polis. Plato said the largest farm could not be more than four times larger than the smallest farm.

The gods were in the crops and fields of the Greeks.

Demeter was the goddess of wheat. She and her daughter, Persephone, the goddess of the spring, sent a young prince, Triptolemos, around the world teaching people the art of agriculture.

Athena gave the Athenians the olive tree. Dionysos brought to Greece the grape vine and wine. Aristaios was the god of honeybees. Pan protected the flocks and Artemis the natural world. Zeus was the god of rain.

The Eleusinian mysteries were the Greeks' greatest religious festival. It took place during the sowing of the crops so that the honored gods, Demeter and Dionysos, would bless those crops for a bountiful harvest.

Indigenous people and peasants have detailed knowledge of nature. Their religion, just like the religion of ancient Greeks, is a spiritual form of farming - pleading to the gods to bring them a good harvest. Their celebrations, their fiestas, are prayers of enjoyment to the gods.

Indigenous people in the Philippines consider the land a gift of the gods. Land in the savannah grasslands of the Upper East region of Ghana is a sanctuary for the gods. The Dai people of southwest China protect and preserve sacred groves where they worship their gods - exactly like the ancient Greeks.

The Dayak Pasir Adang people live in East Borneo, Indonesia. If their reading of nature is auspicious, they use fire for clearing the land in order to plan their crops. They don't destroy or burn fruit-bearing trees on ground that has the graves of their ancestors. They sow seeds of spinach, bitter brassica, corn, and cucumber.

Rice is sacred to the Adang people. They place the first rice seeds in holes, each with a special name -- father, mother, captain, and guardian. At harvest time, men, women, and children sing and pray to the gods. The unhusked rice grains that will become the seed for the next growing season are cleaned first, and, then, the rest of the rice grains are trampled and dried in the sun for two to three days. Finally, the rice is thrown in the air, its chaff and impurities blown away.

The Mende rice peasants of southern and eastern Sierra Leone use rice varieties best adapted to the ecological conditions of their land and region. And since rice is a self-pollinating crop, the Mende peasants do the shifting and choosing of rice seeds. But they no more feel they own the rice varieties they develop than they own the breeze.

The ethno botanical knowledge of several indigenous people is remarkable. The Tzeltals and the Purepechas of Mexico recognize more than 1,200 and 900 plants respectively.

It was from that careful study and understanding of the workings of nature that traditional farming came into being.

The Mexican Chiapas peasants raise two tons of maize per hectare while the industrialized farmer next door produces six tons of maize per hectare. For this reason, the agricultural experts call the peasants backward and insist they leave the land or adopt the methods of the mechanical plantation.

Yet the industrialized farmer gets nothing more from his land but the six tons of corn, though in the United States the industrialized farmer gets more than nine tons of corn per hectare per year.

The Chiapas peasant, however, grows not merely maize but, along with maize, he raises beans, squash and pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables and fruits and medicinal herbs.

Traditional farming may not be the entire answer to the dead end of factory agriculture, its deleterious footprint on the natural and human worlds. But it is rich in ecological and social clues for another way of raising food, which is friendlier to the Earth and to the family farmer.