Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Toward New Models for the Scale and Practice of Agriculture, No. 3

Our first and second posts in this series are, respectively, here and here.
“The logistics of a just, equitable, and healthy agricultural landscape here in the United States would remain a problem if Michael Pollan himself, Wendell Berry, or better yet Fred Magdoff were appointed Secretary of Agriculture. Decades-long efforts pealing back agribusiness both as paradigm and infrastructure, however successful, would require a parallel program. With what would we replace the present landscape?
As a black hole about its horizon, a poverty in imagination orbits the question stateside. The vacuum is most recently felt in the developing animus between public health officials and artisan cheesemakers. What Europe has long streamlined into amicable regulation, the United States has lurched into clumsy opposition: cheese wheels are increasingly treated as suitcase bombs filled with Listeria.
After [more than] sixty years of industrial production Americans have quite forgotten the logistics of real food.
There are three broad classes of alternatives floating about the small but growing food movement. Prelapsarian fantasies widely prevalent would have us return to the family farm as it never existed. On the other hand, the microgeographic localism now emerging appears as much a victim of diminished expectations, provisional classism, and the constraints imposed by a scarcity of working examples as of agribusiness’s stranglehold on the market. If pursued to the logical and logistical conclusions, both options, as geographer David Harvey noted in a recent radio interview, would likely contribute to the kinds of famines that predated industrial development (as opposed to the very different famines that originate in today’s global capitalism).
There are, however, visionaries here and abroad who have blocked out broader possibilities tied to both the contours of our historical present and the globalized economy. This third class appears based on real-life experience and some intriguing, albeit often preliminary, experimentation:
1) In his campaign for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, dairy farmer Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee) described a regionalization encompassing trade policy, energy, farm structure, and environmental regulation. [….]
2) With the support of the Mexican government, Zapotec Indians have developed a certified-sustainable, community-controlled forestry. Plain pine is sold to the government and … finished goods, including furniture, are produced in an on-site factory. The Oaxaca cooperative, still a work in progress, plows a third of its profits back into the business, a third into forest preservation, and the rest into its worker and the local community, including pensions, a credit union, and housing for its children studying at university.
3) Dialectical biologist Richard Levins, collaborating with Cuban colleagues on ecological approaches to local agriculture and public health summarizes some of the many adjustments a new agriculture anywhere may require … :
‘Instead of having to decide between large-scale industrial type production and a ‘small is beautiful’ approach a priori, we saw the scale of agriculture as dependent on natural and social conditions, with the units of planning embracing many units of production. Different scales of farming would be adjusted to the watershed, climatic zones and topography, population density, distribution of available resources, and the mobility of pests and their enemies.
The random patchwork of peasant agriculture, constrained by land tenure, and the harsh destructive landscapes of industrial farming would both be replaced by a planned mosaic of land uses in which each patch contributes its own products but also assists the production of other patches: forests give lumber, fuel, fruit,, nuts, and honey but also regulate the flow of water, modulate the climate to a distance of about 10 times the height of the trees, create a special microclimate downwind from the edge, offer shade for livestock and the workers, and provide a home to the natural enemies of pests and pollinators of crops. There would no longer be specialized farms producing only one thing. Mixed enterprises would allow for recycling, a more diverse diet for the farmers, and a hedge against climatic surprises. It would have a more uniform demand for labor throughout the year.’
Rather than to the expectations of an abstract neoclassical or all-too-real neoliberal model of production, the scale and practice of agriculture can be flexibly tailored to each region’s physical, social, and epidemiological landscapes on the ground, interconnecting ecology and the economy. Under such an arrangement not all parcels will be necessarily profitable. As Levins points out, whatever reductions in income farms accrue in protecting the rest of the region must be offset by regular redistributive mechanisms. [….]
There is a dawning realization that Big Ag, whatever its power and infrastructure, is, to use an iconic Texanism, all hat and not cattle. Propping up the empire is little else but a raw greed and political power turning biology—human and animal—into cash at any and all costs. The paradigm behind the food and farming—ostensibly the industry’s raison d’être—is bankrupt to its core.
When the use value of food, of all things, is traded in for surplus value, humanity’s survival is nothing less than threatened (and the integral pleasures of eating abandoned). When most commercial grade poultry feed is purposely laced with arsenic to keep bird flesh pink over shipment and sale, there is seriously sociopathic denialism at work. When U.S. livestock are stuffed with up to 28 million pounds of antibiotics annually solely to accelerate growth to a finishing weight, providing stock enough protection only until their industrial diet kills them, perversity verges on perversion. When livestock monopolies manipulate already cheap and highly subsidized prices by forcing farmers to sell their animals all at the same time, a criminality masquerades as the law of the land.
And yet even in the face of such unprecedented power and a relentless propaganda, a swelling number of Americans are coming around.” [….]
Rob Wallace, from an article in Farming Pathogens, 16 December 2010 (Big Farms: 118-123)


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