WHEN AGRICULTURE BECOMES CRUEL
A long time ago, an insightful Greek physician named Hippocrates said, "The destiny of nations depends on how they feed themselves." That insight is more true today than ever before and is reinforced by the observation of philosopher Roger Scruton: "A country has no more vital asset than its agriculture, and no treaty should be signed, whatever the benefits it purports, that has the loss of indigenous, sustainable, and biodiversified farming as its price."¹
The "green revolution" and, more recently, genetic engineering have increased food production by large corporations while simultaneously relegating the small to mid-sized independent farmer ever closer to the halls of antiquity. Somewhere in the chaos of ever-changing technological, the distinction between a person and a corporation has been lost. This loss has led to valuing monetary gain over basic human necessities-including dignity. And no amount of lip service to the contrary can hide the truth.²
Agriculture is increasingly big business controlled by corporations that, in many cases, strangle the small, family farmer—both at home and abroad—by controlling the market and by making and keeping the small farmer dependent on expensive products. In this case, an example might be the world's ten top agrochemical corporations, which accounted for 82 percent or $30.5 billion of the global agrochemical sales in 1996, up more than fifteen percent since 1994. This type of corporate domination has led to a drive for "economic efficiency" in agriculture, which translates into highly capitalized technology, which has largely killed the soul once found worldwide in the agrarian way of life. In fact, today's intensive farming is like "eating oil" in that virtually all modern systems of producing, harvesting, and transporting food—to say nothing of processing it—are dependent on this increasingly finite resource.³
So what? you might ask. When the soul of our historical agrarian way of life is lost, so is humanity's most important connection to the soil and Nature, our umbilicus to the historical shadow of who we are as human beings. To wit: The Chief Executive of the Cargill corporation has stated that, "We bring Indian farmers smart technologies, which prevent bees from usurping the pollen." And someone in the Monsanto Corporation said that Monsanto's Round-up herbicide-resistant crops "prevent weeds from stealing the sunshine."
How far have we drifted from our connection to the soil? Without this connection to the land, birth and senescence, life and death, sowing and harvest, we become increasingly isolated—intellectually and spiritually—from our reciprocal relationship with our environment and thus isolated from the realities of life itself. Such isolation inevitably leads to economic decisions based strictly on short-term, commodity thinking, which not only is detrimental to the long-term health and sustainability of Planet Earth but also guarantees increased social-environmental poverty for the children and all generations.
Perhaps the most effective way a corporation can steal the soul of farming and simultaneously execute a hostile takeover of local economies and small, autonomous farmers is to render their production economically invisible: The critical importance of women, who produce most of the world's food, melts into social invisibility through economic discounting of their labor by large corporations and underscores the corporate drive to devalue women as much as possible—despite the fact that women farmers not only feed most of the world but also process most of the food within the privacy of their homes.
In August 1998, small-scale processing of edible oils was banned in India through a "packaging order" that made the sale of unpackaged oil illegal. This order effectively shut down tiny, local, cold-press mills and destroyed the market for India's diverse oilseeds: mustard, linseed, sesame, peanut, and coconut. In effect, global monoculture is being forced on people by defining everything that is fresh, local, and hand made as a health hazard. Human hands, the most ancient of all tools, are characterized as the worst of contaminants—which results in work for human hands being outlawed—to be replaced by machines and chemicals purchased from global corporations.⁴
Why all this corporate attention? Because women in the rural and indigenous communities of poor countries tend to cooperate with Nature's processes, which is seen as a direct threat to global commerce. In Bengal, India, for example, women use more than 150 plants as greens to feed their families, despite the contrived corporate mythology that says vitamin A can only be created synthetically. This type of biodiversity farming in cooperation with Nature—not at Nature's expense—is counter to the dominant market-driven, patriarchal development and trade policies, as well as the patriarchal control of science and technology.⁴
But it was not always that way. Farmers, many of whom were women sharing their husband's labors through the maintenance of household gardens, were revered by America's Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, and our economy was primarily agrarian-based until 1900. Farmers help the United States win World Wars I and II. Because of these things, farming was idealized as wholesome, productive, and secure. The family farm, be it a small to mid-sized enterprise that produced many varieties of crops and animals, reached its zenith around 1950.
But then the market forces began in earnest to work their magic, much of which turned out to be black magic hidden in the rules of agribusiness. One aspect of the black magic that darkened the lives of independent family farmers was the rapid increase in highly capitalized technology, which often allowed banks and corporations to hold small farmers hostage to monthly payments for equipment and other necessities of modern farming.
Highly capitalized technology, which has proven monstrously inefficient and ineffective in solving human-environmental problems, can be subtle in its destructive power as it quietly sucks the dignity out of people who were once largely self-sufficient, as exemplified by the extinction of domestic animals, such as the "Taihu pig," "gembrong goat," and "choi chicken."⁵ These domestic Asian animals, along with as many as 1,500 other farm breeds worldwide, are as endangered as their wild relatives. The demise of biological diversity on the farm could prove equally damaging to the loss of biological diversity in the wild.
Causes for the decline in farm breeds, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, include loss of habitat due to growth in the human population and wars. But the greatest threat comes when farmers in poor nations discard native breeds and switch to Western commercial livestock, which is highly productive.
Western breeds like Holstein cows, Rhode Island red chickens, and Yorkshire pigs are alluring to Asian farmers because of the great quantity of milk, eggs, and meat they produce. For a poor farmer barely able to feed his family, they seem heaven-sent. The problem is that Asian farmers invariably cannot afford the high cost of maintaining and feeding such specialized Western breeds.
Livestock that are bioengineered in Western laboratories for the technology- and money-intensive agriculture of Western industrialized countries may not be suited to other environments, cultures, or methods of farming. Local breeds may well prove better and more profitable in the long run than those marketed by the West, but in the meantime, local breeds are increasingly dying out because those from the West are displacing them.
Local breeds are the result of successful adaptations to particular environments that began when people started domesticating animals more than 10,000 years ago for food, fiber, the power to work, and for their droppings as fertilizer, to wit: China's min pig tolerates extreme temperatures, the pygmy hog of northern India is ideal for small villages, and the zebu cattle of Java are disease resistant and prolific. But now, 105 such domestic animals are endangered in Asia—and Asia is not alone.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that thirty percent of the 4,000 to 5,000 breeds of domestic animals thought to exist in the world are threatened with extinction and that three breeds become extinct every two weeks. Half of all the domestic breeds that existed in Europe at the beginning of the 1900s have vanished, and more than one-third of all breeds of poultry and livestock in North America are rare, which may well have a tremendous impact on rural economies in the future.
The loss of diversity among well-adapted livestock and poultry, particularly in foreign countries, raises some disturbing questions. When someone or some agency from a Western industrialized country introduces specialized breeds of livestock and poultry into an Asian village, for example, the assumption on the part of the person or agency introducing the animals is that the people both want and need our Western-style help.
But who said such communities either want or need our help? Who said we should impose our values on them? If the people of a particular village have not, in fact, specifically asked for our help, are we not simply stealing their way of life, which may be perfectly adequate for them, by stealing the adapted diversity of their indigenous animals? Who or what gives us that right? Who really benefits from such noncompatible introductions—the villagers who must live with the often-devastating results or those who sell the animals and the technology that goes with them? In my experience, it is almost inevitably the latter.
Can biotechnology really help farmers remain or regain a measure of their self-sufficiency? Not according to the following advertisement in The New York Times by the Turning Point Project in Washington, D.C.: " The biotechnology industry promotes itself as the solution to world hunger. In reality, the industry's practices may drive self-sufficient farmers off their land and undermine their food security-increasing poverty and hunger,"⁶ which can hardly be considered a social-environmental improvement. In fact, farmers in Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, India, are eating the pesticides they once used on their crops as a means of suicide to permanently escape their unpayable debts owed to the global corporations that forcibly destroy their self-sufficiency.⁷
But even as the soul of farming withers on the illusory altar of cost efficiency, another corporate maxim of black magic is in the offing, genetic engineering. According to Dan Verakis, "defender-in-chief" of genetically engineered plants and spokesman for biotech giant Monsanto, genetic engineering can "reverse the Silent-Spring scenario" by requiring less pesticides to protect agricultural crops. But what other long-term, detrimental affects does such simplistic, intellectually isolated, commodity thinking portent for the generations of the future?
Roger Scruton. 2000. Herbicide, Pesticide, Suicide. Resurgence 203:30.
David Ehrendfeld. 1998. A Cruel Agriculture. Resurgence 186:24-25.
(1) John A. Baden. 1999. Has efficient agriculture cost the farm its soul? Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. March 11 and (2) Andy Jones. 2003. Eating Oil. Resurgence 216:39-45.
Vandana Shiva. 2000. Globalization and poverty. Resurgence 202:15-19.
The discussion of domestic farm animals extinction is based on: The Associated Press. 1996. Should we save pandas AND pigs? Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. January 21.
Turning Point Project. 1999. Biotechnology = Hunger. The New York Times. November 8.
Vandana Shiva. 2001. Caring in Agriculture. Resurgence 208:42-43.
This essay is excerpted from my 2004 book, "The Perpetual Consequences of Fear and Violence: Rethinking The Future."
©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.