Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The UN and the genius of industrial agriculture

"The genius of industrial agriculture is to take a solution and create two problems," writes Wendell Berry. On a small, integrated farm, animal waste enriches soil that will be used to grow vegetable crops or grazing grass. Under industrial agriculture, vast-scale animal farms, reliant on feed grown elsewhere, create huge amounts of waste that cloud entire counties with unhappy smells and need to be hauled away long distances for disposal. Meanwhile, huge mono-cropped vegetable farms, bereft of animal herds, rely on massive inputs of chemicals to enrich the soil.

That division, and the huge amount of energy and inputs needed to sustain it, lies at the heart of the Green Revolution--the post-World War II effort, financed largely by U.S. foundations, to codify industrial agriculture and take it international. Here's a link to a superb article on the Green Revolution by Harry Cleaver, econ professor at the U of Texas. (Click the link marked "The Contradictions of the Green Revolution.") Cleaver may be the only openly Marxist economist working as a full professor in the U.S. academy. In this 1972 article, he traces the Cold War foreign policy interests that lay at the heart of the Green Revolution campaign.

[Manifesto-in-progress interlude: Missing from Cleaver's analysis is any discussion of the broad destruction of local foodways wrought by the Green Revolution, or its casual ruin of delicious things. Industrial agriculture, whose genius seems nearly limitless, has succeeded in convincing middle-class Mexico City residents to make salsa verde out of a packaged mix (I've seen it with my own eyes) and in turning one of the great gifts of the earth--the tomato--into a highly profitable commodity of no more culinary value than the water used to irrigate it.

One of the goals of Bitter Greens Journal, and of its mother project, Maverick Farms, is to bridge the gap between political economy and aesthetics. We want to bring a hedonistic regard for flavor and respect for local foodways to the center of the critique of industrial agriculture; and to make sure the artisinal food movement we've aligned ourselves with retains a sharply honed political edge.]

Now the Green Revolution finds itself in tatters, its environmental and social ravages quietly acknowledged. Here is the UN, that bastion of and great hope for sustainable-development ideology (according to some): "The Green Revolution ... is not without its detractors, who argue that it promoted overuse of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, making poor farmers dependent on these inputs and in some cases seriously damaging the environment in the process."

Strong stuff. The answer? What the UN hails as the Gene Revolution. Through broad adoption of GMO, declares the UN's Food and Agriculture (FAO) wing, "it may be possible to increase the availability and variety of food by improving agricultural productivity and reducing seasonal variations in food supplies. Pest-resistant and stress-tolerant crops can be developed to reduce the risk of crop failure due to drought and disease. More nutrients and vitamins may be bred into plants, combating the nutrient deficiencies that affect so many of the world's poor. Crops could be made to grow on poor soil in marginal lands, increasing overall food production. ...Biotechnology also offers the possibility of reducing the use of toxic agricultural pesticides, and may also improve the efficiency of fertilizer and other soil amendments."

Thus the genius of industrial agriculture is to sell policy makers a solution to the problems it created. That this solution will fatten the profits of transnational seed giants and exert further downward pressure on agricultural commodity prices (meaning more profit for industrial food processors, less for farmers) is beyond dispute. What it will do for the environment, local foodways, and the flavor of tomatoes remains to be seen.


Blogger Paul Hue said...

Here's an article from today's media about the problem of burning enormous industrial manure piles. What a shame that this great resource of animal manure becomes a dangerous waste problem thanks to Americans prefering undustrial foods.


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