Saturday, September 4, 2010

Bioprocess Engineering

     I was playing in the dirt yesterday.  Generally not something I'd recommend doing anywhere in Los Angeles.  But here at St. Stephen's, I was asked to start some Fall seeds for our community garden.  What fun!  Here I was a bit overwhelmed by the endless concrete roads and sprawling urban undergrowth, and they asked me to rekindle my green thumb!
Soon to be yummy vegetables.
     Of course, all of this got me thinking.  As I sat there filling my little cups with dirt and carefully pushing some brussel sprout seeds into each one, I felt kind of powerful... Weird?  Maybe.  But the effort that I put in yesterday (I planted about 75 cups with easily over 100 seeds of different yummy vegetables) will allow those lifeless seeds to grow.  And some day soon, provided I don't kill the poor things between now and then, someone's hunger will be satisfied by those yummy vegetables.  It's as close to creation as I'm singlehandedly likely to get.
     Then the thought of creation opened a whole other can of worms in my brain.  Having more than a few close friends in the field of biological engineering, though admittedly most of them are biomedical and not bioprocess or agricultural engineers, I began thinking about the implications of bioprocess engineering.  Maybe not thoughts you'd expect me to have in the middle of a city, but with all sorts of controversy about the value of small organic farms run by immigrant workers in contrast to wholesale supergiants like Whole Foods, farming is maybe more an issue in Southern California than anyone wants to think.  It has been for a number of years - think John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.
     The issue seems to be the overmechinization of farming practices which, yes, leads to lower prices, but also to all sorts of problems - food that isn't well cared for and not high in quality, lower wages and fewer jobs for farmhands, and (you can argue with me about whether this is a problem or not) a fundamental disconnect with the land itself.  So what's the socially responsible thing to do?  I think it's to remember our relationship with each other, to support our neighbors in their efforts, and to prize that over saving a few extra cents at the chain grocery store.  Chew on this for a while:
Material goods and the way we are developing the use of them should be seen as God's gifts to us. They are meant to bring out in each one of us the image of God. We must never lose sight of how we have been created: from the earth and from the breath of God. In this way we are related to the rest of creation,  and we are asked to use creation according to the will of God, to whom we are related too.      On Social Concern, Pope John Paul II 1987
It's about our relationship to one another.  And isn't that what got me thinking in the first place?  I was planting those tiny little seeds, and, yes, I was moved because I was helping life to grow, but more moved because it would eventually nourish another person.  These goofy little thoughts of mine, however, probably wouldn't have been inspired if it hadn't taken me a few hours to do all the work, if I had used some sort of mechanical process to inject the seeds into prepackaged potters. 
The fact is that most farmland requires close care to be used well. That is the agricultural justification for the small holding. It permits close care in a way that large holdings farmed by hired people or even owners on large machines can’t be farmed well. The moral benefit of independent small farmers is that it broadens the connection of the whole society to the land, and it increases the number of self-employed people.     An Interview with Wendell Berry
 Hmm... all of this from planting a few seeds.  Maybe Thoreau was onto something after all...

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