8 May 2013

Last night I finished watching the PBS documentary The Botany of Desire based on Michael Pollan’s book of the same title. The film focuses on four different plants: apples, marijuana, tulips, and potatoes. Though the story of domesticated plants is often thought of in term of man’s control over nature, Pollan asks the viewer to consider how plants have “used” human desires to fulfill their own evolutionary impulse. It is an interesting and in many ways useful way of considering agriculture. If not for human’s desire for a sweet fruit, the apple would not have traveled beyond its native region in the Caucasus Mountains of Central Asia.

I was happy to see that, for the most part, the film did not fall prey to Pollan’s usual reactionary stance towards modern agriculture. The bit on potatoes though, was a little unsettling. They tell the story of Monsanto’s Bt containing potato plant, and the public outcry that put an end to it. Much to PBS’s credit, they include voices from both sides of the issue, and end up giving a fairly balanced picture of the question of GMO crops. One of the potato farmers they interview was dismayed that he could no longer grow Bt potatoes, because he thought it preferable to spraying pesticides. This interview and others with pro-GMO people was unique amongst Pollan propaganda in that it did not demonize those who support industrialized agriculture.

The counter-point to the pro-GMO voices was someone from the Union of Concerned Scientists. This scientist saw the end of Bt potatoes as a great victory. One thing that she said gave me great insight into the anti-industrial agriculture delusion. She argued that Bt potatoes only benefited Monsanto, and that it was only logical and good that consumers should reject it. This argument is central to the organic movement’s critique of conventional farming. In this worldview, all of the negative consequences of conventional agriculture fall upon the average citizen, while all of the benefits are realized in the form of profits for agribusiness.

I’ve always been aware of this piece of the organic worldview, but I’ve never quite grasped its significance. It has always been difficult for me to grasp how organic advocates can possibly have such a lack of self-awareness about how their live fit into the history of agriculture and industrialization. Before national and global markets began influencing agriculture, there was little impetus for greatly improving the way food was grown. Most people were farmers, and grew much of their own food. As industrialization spread, the need for factory workers pulled farmers off of the land. A growing urban population and a dwindling rural population meant that fewer farmers needed to grow more food. Science and efficiency came to the farm both through merchants peddling their products and university extension workers peddling ideas. The system worked and fewer and fewer farmers were able to grow more and more food.

This has been the story of agriculture for the past 150 years or so. The efficiencies created by the industrialization of our food system and production system mean that we have more leisure time and more freedom to choose a career. The organic worldview requires a disregard of this history, and creates the need for an alternative narrative. This is where the evil corporations story comes in.

Though corporations disregard for human decency has been a central part of the progressive narrative since the beginning of industrialization, the organic movement has a special spin on it that has its origins in the 1960s counterculture. The counterculture sought change not through group action, but through individual action. They saw mainstream culture as incurably corrupt, and chose to reject it with the goal of creating a new culture that would exist alongside mainstream culture.

Though the most utopian dreams of the counterculture are mostly dead today, the intellectual framework of their worldview is held by much of the intellectual elite today. Nowhere is this more evident than in the organic movement. Now spending a summer working on an organic farm is fast becoming a rite of passage for a certain type of college educated liberal. Young adherents to the organic worldview are free to exist in a world where they see no contradiction in their rejection of industrialized agriculture and their love of travel, say, or mass literacy. Even the choice to reject industrialization and return to the farm is one only granted by modernity. The third world farmers whom so many in the organic movement are concerned about being able to preserve their traditional farming methods, have no such choice.

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