The Amazing Technicolor Agriculture Revolution

Well I was standing doing nothing in a field out of town / When I saw seven beautiful ears of corn, uh-huh. / They were ripe, they were golden and / You’ve guessed it, / Right behind them came seven other ears / Tattered and torn, uh-huh. / Well the bad corn ate the good corn . . . / This dream has got me all shook up . . . / Hey, hey, hey Joseph / Won’t you tell poor old Pharaoh / What does this crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy dream mean?”

Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply

Vandana Shiva. 2000. South End Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 140 pages. 

The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer

Victor Davis Hanson. 2000. The Free Press, New York. 258 pages.

The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life

Eric T. Freyfogle (editor). 2001. Island Press, Washington, D.C. 291 pages.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical take on the biblical account of Joseph and his God-given ability to reveal the meaning of dreams is familiar to audiences around the world. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat recounts the story of Jacob’s favorite son, his sale into slavery at the hands of his brothers, and his eventual rise to power in Egypt. Joseph’s revelation of coming famine inspires the first agricultural revolution—storing from today’s harvest for tomorrow’s want—and leads not only to Egypt’s survival but to the survival of his brothers and his father as well.

Today we enjoy the bounty of multiple agricultural revolutions. Like Joseph’s legendary coat of many colors, they are described in Technicolor terms: Green (plant genetics), Red (meat), White (milk), Blue (aquaculture), and Yellow (edible oils), with genetic modification adding a shine to the entire enterprise. Yet the fabric of agricultural sustainability may be wearing thin.

As these modern revolutions continue to alter the traditional agricultural systems that support human civilization, authors Vandana Shiva, Victor Davis Hanson and Eric Freyfogle question the direction today’s agricultural practices are leading. While these writers have not necessarily seen a future characterized by literal famine, each recognizes that the human act of growing food produces more than simply something to eat: the “culture” of agriculture is about how people live in relation to each other and to the land.

Stealing From the Poor?

Nearly a decade ago, historian Paul Kennedy noted that “without another agricultural revolution, the fate of the peoples of the developing world especially looks grim” (Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, 1993).

According to Shiva, who is director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy in India, we are today experiencing another such revolution, yet the results are unexpectedly disappointing. In Stolen Harvest, she argues that the growth of agricultural production over the last 20 years has been an “illusion [that] hides theft from nature and the poor, masking the creation of scarcity as growth. . . . Industrial agriculture has not produced more food. It has destroyed diverse sources of food, and it has stolen food from other species to bring larger quantities of specific commodities to the market, using huge quantities of fossil fuels and water and toxic chemicals in the process.”

The Green Revolution, Shiva contends, was in fact the first wave in a series of assaults—not on famine but on traditional cultures, foods, practices and economies. It “narrowed the basis of food security by displacing diverse nutritious food grains and spreading monocultures of rice, wheat, and maize.”

In one example of this continuing assault, Shiva reports the circumstances surrounding a national shift in India from mustard seed and oil production to soybean importation following a suspicious episode of adulterated mustard oil in 1998. She notes that the mustard collapse became a windfall for soybean exporters such as the United States and other First World nations. To add further insult to the small farmer and the native culture, the only mustard seed now available is of the genetically engineered variety, patented and thus too costly to grow.

While Shiva focuses for the most part on India, her condemnation of corporate practices—those agricultural practices that create great profits for multinational companies through export-import imbalances—finds multiple targets. How can she miss? Clearly business seeks a profit; it may occur through providing the product that the poor need or that the rich desire. In either case, like a casino where the house always has the winning odds, companies that can buy farm produce at low cost (to the pain of the grower) and sell high (to the indiscriminate rich or the subsidized poor) will reap a handsome bottom line. But this harvest of cash is reaped only after the sowing of cultural and economic carnage.

This harvest of cash is reaped only after the sowing of cultural and economic carnage. 

Since the Third World is being told [by the World Bank] to stop growing food and instead to buy food in international markets by exporting cash crops,” writes Shiva, “the process of globalization leads to a situation in which agricultural societies of the South [Southern Hemisphere] become increasingly dependent on food imports, but do not have the foreign exchange to pay for imported food.”

Producing “cash crops,” such as shrimp and beef, is in itself a costly operation. Growing these foods creates a dark environmental shadow in that they consume more resources than they deliver. Intensive farming of these species results in more ecosystem insults: waste-water runoff containing high levels of salts, pesticides and antibiotics. While the immediate economic payoff may be high, the true and full costs are borne by the indigenous population as the frozen carcasses of seined or slaughtered creatures are airfreighted away. It is in reality a harvest of cash stolen through ecologically unsustainable practices.

In the ecological worldview,” Shiva continues, “when we consume more than we need or exploit nature on principles of greed, we are engaging in theft. In the anti-life view of agribusiness corporations, nature renewing and maintaining herself is a thief. Such a worldview replaces abundance with scarcity, fertility with sterility. It makes theft from nature a market imperative, and hides it in the calculus of efficiency and productivity.”

Shiva hopes and rallies for the time when consumers—especially the economically rich—will understand their role in maintaining this agricultural profiteering and ecologic fraud and will take action to stop it.

Solidarity between producers and consumers is also necessary,” she says. “Since most people in the South are farmers, and only 2 percent of the world’s farmers survive in the North, movements for food democracy will take the shape of consumer movements in the North and both farmers’ and consumer movements in the South.”

Consumer Demands

In the North, however, there doesn’t appear to be much interest. In The Land Was Everything, Hanson offers little hope for this scenario of unity and consumer-driven change. Hanson, a professor of humanities at California State University, Fresno, and a fifth-generation family farmer, notes in particular a lack of interest on the part of the American consumer. “I worry,” he says, “about the middle-class American of the present consumer society, who has become a transient servant of his appetites.”

I worry about the middle-class American of the present consumer society, who has become a transient servant of his appetities.” 

Victor Davis Hanson,The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer

According to Hanson, the consumer is simply happy to consume. Where that which is consumed originates is of as little consequence as the means by which the goods are produced. The modern consumer is now so distanced from the land itself, so distanced from actually growing his food, that he has no awareness of the process at all. So long as the shelves are full of food available at low cost, what else matters?

Hanson observes: “The destruction of agrarianism, which has a certain logic in economic terms . . . makes no sense in its aesthetic or cultural ramifications. Our genius in America can provide the entire planet with all the food, goods, safety, schlock culture, and hygiene it wants, with everything except how to employ that bounty so that we are better, not worse, souls for our success.”

This loss of perspective is alarming in itself, but the aesthetic and cultural changes brought on by the changing scale of world agriculture are not isolated to a few poor nations. The all-consuming American, suggests Hanson, has lost touch with the importance of the farmer within the functioning of a democratic culture: “Consensual government can continue in the vastly transformed conditions of great wealth, urbanism, and rapidly changing technology never foreseen by its originators; but whether democracy can still instill virtue among its citizens will be answered by the age that is upon us, which for the first time in the history of civilization will at last see a democracy without farmers.”

Thus, as Shiva petitions for a return to cultural sense in India, Hanson laments the extinction of the small-scale American farmer and his pragmatism, on which the democratic ideal was founded. Writing from his small orchard and vineyard in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Hanson documents the many factors that conspire to slowly devour his own land, and he reflects on the practical lessons that will soon be lost.

When the Valley’s farms are gone, as they must be,” he writes, “I worry: without the challenge to tame nature, where will the citizen of this current society learn of his true potential, and where will be the physical space—away from town and yet not the empty wild—to refresh his soul? Where will a man learn that if he just works, he can still plant, still grow, and need not feel impotent before nature or man?”

We have become too accustomed to the economic comforts the revolution has afforded and fearful of the consequences of its absence.

Can the destructive nature of today’s agricultural revolution be changed? Hanson is not optimistic. It appears that we have become too accustomed to the economic comforts the revolution has afforded and fearful of the consequences of its absence: “In a world without integrated corporate agriculture, without chemical poisons, and without enormous vertically integrated chains of supply and distribution, the produce section of the supermarket would not be open at midnight, and it would not have papayas, guava, bananas, and red grapes in February. There might be three television channels, not five hundred, given a viewing audience in large part exhausted by shoveling until dusk on their small tidy farms.”

Yet, Hanson continues, we would all be the better for having made the change. “We would be a more moral, more law-abiding, and more humane society, but that would be so perhaps because we would have a more exhausted, poorer, and immobile citizenry.”

New Agrarians

While Hanson does not offer a means to that “more humane society,” the writers whose articles are collected in The New Agrarianism do lay out a plan of revolutionary agricultural reweaving. To these agrarians the land is still everything, and even though it has been greatly damaged, repair is possible.

Editor Freyfogle’s introduction explains the goals of this form of new agrarianism in terms that would be familiar to both Hanson and Shiva: “The product cycle, from earth to consumer good to waste, traces not just lines of dependence and causation but also lines of responsibility. Dissenting from the modern view, agrarians believe that those who buy products are implicated morally in their production, just as those who discard waste items are morally involved in their final end.”

Agrarianism, he believes, restores a wholeness that has been lost: “When all the pieces of the agrarian life come together—nutrition and health, beauty, leisure, manners and morals, satisfying labor, economic security, family and neighbors, and a spiritual peacefulness—we have what agrarians define as the good life. . . . Not high consumption nor the fastest speed, not the amassing of toys or wealth, but the healthy household stands as the agrarian ideal to which all other goals are subordinate.”

A “healthy household” also implies healthy land from which crops are raised through nonexploitative, ecologically sound and sustainable methods. Not surprisingly, sustainability is the topic of several articles in Freyfogle’s book. In the text’s first selection, writer Scott Russell Sanders explores the work of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, where researchers are developing perennial seed plants. Because the soil would not need to be plowed and planted each season, perennial plants would preserve the soil, reduce topsoil erosion, and mirror the natural biology of the prairie.

Stopping the runoff of “brown gold” is certainly commendable, but how would one go about creating the transition from current prairie monocultures of annual wheat and corn to new perennial crops?

The answer begins to emerge in later articles. In “The Common Life,” Sanders writes of his own household and his personal journey in discovering the responsibility of community. We have “grown up” over the last two hundred years or so, learning the power of the individual. Now, says Sanders, we must learn to work together for the good of the whole: “The framers of the Constitution may have assumed that we did not need a Bill of Responsibilities because religion and reason and the benign impulses of our nature would lead us to care for one another and for our home. . . . Few of us now feel much confidence in those redeeming influences. Only a powerful ethic might restrain us, retrain us, restore us. Our survival is at stake. . . . Nothing short of reimagining where we are and what we are will be radical enough to transform how we live.”

Back to the Land

How do we make our way toward this communal restoration? In another article, “Reclaiming the Commons,” Brian Donahue discusses the necessity of conservation by the rule of law with special attention to the acquiring of community-owned farmland. “Our strongest common interest,” he writes, “lies in simply keeping farmland from being lost to development.”

Government intervention seems a radical step. The new agrarianism does not claim that government ownership is the answer, but that some sort of lawful “encouragement” is needed. Freyfogle remarks, “Despite their embrace of the community’s moral claims, agrarians have generally been reluctant to transform moral duties into binding legal ones. . . . In reality, far more land-use regulation is likely to be necessary if agrarian practices and virtues are to survive in a day of accelerating urban sprawl and profit-driven manipulations of genetic codes.”

On Pharaoh’s behalf, Joseph ultimately became the type of administrator of which Freyfogle speaks. Although the people were progressively required to give up their crops, money, cattle and even land to Pharaoh, they survived the famine and were, in the end, thankful. Having migrated to the cities, the people were given seed and returned to the land (Genesis 47:13–26).

Today, under the banner of feeding a hungry world, the agricultural revolution and the globalization of corporate farming have not only taken the land but devoured it as well.

From different perspectives, these authors warn that the multifaceted industro-agricultural revolution now sweeping the world will not produce the anticipated feast of plenty; rather, one can expect that this continuing revolution will create greater schisms economically, politically and environmentally between both men and nations.

Simply dreaming or “reimagining” a new land ethic offers little hope that man may one day throw off his many-colored coat whose fiber is greed and exploitation. Truly what is needed is a new coat tailored with the fabric of selflessness —the kind of stewardship that cares for the best interests of all.