Why can't we all just get along? Mike Smith sifts through the new-age philosophy behind today’s resentment toward Big Farming.
In the coffee shops of mid America, the aisles of farm shows and the pages of ag websites, you hear, repeated often, an honest confusion: How have otherwise apparently intelligent city people come to believe that the world would have more food, not less, if we only farmed the way my great-grandfather did; or that the coyote would lie down with the lamb if only permitted their natural, free-range paradise; or that livestock are somehow magically healthier without benefit of medicine?
The stock explanation typically runs along this track (to paraphrase the educational mission statement of the American Farm Bureau): The average urbanized, suburbanized American--now three generations distant from any firsthand knowledge of how corn turns into Cheetos, how pigs grow into McMuffins, or which cows give the chocolate milk--simply believes that food, like electricity and water, appears at the flip of a switch or twist of a knob. And Farm Bureau’s solution, naturally? They just need more educatin' about what farmers do and why they do it.
Good thinking. But Farm Bureau's right by only half.
For modern agriculture’s vulnerability is this: Today's farmer is just as generationally divorced from the modern, urban liberal-arts university as his city cousin is from the farm. Unlike Thomas Jefferson’s ideal yeoman farmer of early America—the philosopher with dirt under his fingernails who would contemplate the mysteries of the soul while turning the soil—today’s typical ag-school grad is a telescopically programmed physical scientist who has, for the most part, happily escaped the research institutions of a land-grant university without ever having darkened the halls of an anthropology, sociology or philosophy building. His is too often a tightly focused vocational, technical training, unclouded by the frills of art, literature and humanities.
|'The critics of modern farming have a street-level mastery of your language, while agri scientists and farmers remain functionally illiterate in theirs'
The problem is that in today’s often heated argument about whether and how American industrial agriculture should lead, follow or get out of the way when it comes to feeding a planet of 7 billion, those are exactly the corners of the universities where all the action is at. In the mixed bag of “interdisciplinary research” fashionable today—as illustrated by the 2006 Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which empanelled not only veterinarians and animal scientists to ultimately conclude America needs an immediate return to 1950s farming, but also a monk, animal-rights philosopher and a movie starlet—the public turns as often (more often) to the philosopher and artist for advice on their food than they do the scientist. And if, as a recent National Academy of Sciences study on facilitating such interdisciplinary research advised, scientists should “… immerse themselves in the languages, cultures, and knowledge of their collaborators,” then it would appear the sociological and philosophical critics of modern farming have at least a street-level mastery of your language, while agri scientists and farmers remain functionally illiterate in theirs.
That is to say, those on the agriculture side of the fence could stand a little educatin’ themselves.
So in that spirit of knowing your adversary, Truth in Food takes you inside the modern liberal arts university “Food Studies” programs to list the top 10 reasons today's food-consumer-activist complex so despises what you see to be nothing but the innocent pursuit of fruitfulness. Why do they hate you so?
They hate you because you trust in science.
For the past three to four centuries, from the 1627 publication of Sir Francis Bacon’s utopian New Atlantis, in which scientist inherited from priest the monopoly on power to absolve human misery, up to last week’s prediction by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization that 90 percent of the growth in food production needed to feed the projected 9.1 billion world population by 2050 will come from higher yields and increased cropping intensity, modern thought has been led by a nearly religious faith in science and technology as the path to human betterment.
But a funny thing happened on the way to technological utopia. Disenchanted by unequal distribution of the post-WWII wealth boom, blinded by the unpleasant side-effects of technology sometimes aimed by the less virtuous aspects of human nature, guided by an adolescent petulance simply about being told what to do by parental authority, the so-called "post-modern" academic of the late '50s and '60s began first to question the benevolence of science and, later, to express outright hostility toward it.
As today’s poster child for saving the world through chemistry and other high tech, the modern farmer has inherited the wrath of those like poet of the pastoral Wendell Berry. Berry and his philosophical allies see not just quaint naiveté in your faith that farming can grow the food pie for everybody without draining the Earth of resources, but in fact insist that farmers who trust science over feelings are simply slaves to the socially corrosive dollars of crop chem, agripharmaceutical and agribusiness giants.
Science is no longer an objective means of discovering truth, the postmodernist argues. It’s nothing but an alternative way of describing an alternate reality. That makes the fight today not about good science vs. bad science. It’s about science vs. “other ways of knowing.” They hate the fact that when you insist on clinging to your science to view the world, you negate their own chosen prism.
They hate you because you're messing with their kids.
Well, not their kids, necessarily, since studies show that the highly educated U.S. and European post-grad women you tend to find populating the anti-agriculture movement also have the highest rates of permanent childlessness. So when they say “our” kids that would, of course, mean your kids.
That fine point notwithstanding, protection of the children makes a convenient rallying cry for every new-age anti-tech advocate, from soccer mom-turned-overnight-nutritionist Robyn O'Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth (“Around 2000, they introduced genetically engineered corn – and this one is pretty darn scary! They took an insecticide and engineered it into the cell of the corn seed, so as the corn plant grows, it releases that insecticide. So before, as a mom, I could at least wash those ears of corn and clean off the insecticide – but now it’s actually inside the corn!”) to Berkeley hippie turned restaurateur Alice Waters and her mission to teach children socially revolutionary thinking just by hoeing schoolyard gardens. Anti-agriculture’s criticism of your impact on the children can be as subtle as Peter Mayle's Toujours Provence, in which he scolds the boorish English food tradition for spoiling children’s taste buds from the cradle by feeding them gruel unfit for “an undiscriminating chicken,” even as the sophisticated French begin the palate education early with brains, filet of sole, poulet au riz, tuna, lamb, liver, veal, creme caramel, fromage blanc and other cuisine précieuse. It can be as blatant as consumer studies that demonstrate shoppers are most likely to swallow the (unsubstantiated) health and safety claims of organic food when they are shopping for children.
They hate you in order to fight the power.
Even as the postmodern academic began to question the value of your science in improving the lot of man, he also began to question the motivations behind it, as well. New age historians of philosophy like France’s Michel Foucault argued that scientists didn’t just speak science to understand the world. They spoke science to shape the world in their image. By controlling the structure of the language, Foucault and his “post structuralists” argued, modern science controls society by making it impossible to legitimately form any questions that challenge that power.
In that sense, the powerfully productive machinery that is technologically driven American Agriculture is nothing but imperialism bent on subjugating the world by keeping its mouth full. Technology yoked to the service of ending world hunger, epitomized by the late Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug and his “Green Revolution,” was less about eradicating starvation as it was about keeping the Third World beholden to the West for sustenance. It’s a hatred of the imperialistic agricultural west nurtured for more than a century, as illustrated by late 19th century physician author George Beard, who wrote of his native country’s cuisine and its results: “The rice-eating Hindoo and Chinese, and the potato-eating Irish are kept in subjection by the well-fed English.” Today’s chafing at the chains of an imposed American cuisine of meat, potatoes, cooked (never steamed) vegetable and the ultimate WASP Jello-mold salad--whether expressed by teen vegan co-eds demanding Japanese bean-curd tofurkey for Thanksgiving or First Lady Michelle Obama gardening arugula on the White House lawn--is a post-structuralist rebellion against all things West that your food chain represents. In a world unsaved by the intellectual food critic, poet Berry writes, "The people will eat what the corporations decide for them to eat. They will be detached and remote from the sources of their life, joined to them only by corporate tolerance. They will have become consumers purely--consumptive machines--which is to say, the slaves of producers.”
And like Mahatma Gandhi arguing colonial India’s path out of British slavery lay in every home owning a spinning wheel, Berry and other of today’s “community supported agriculture” advocates believe small-scale, non-industrial, local farming a la communist (and starving) Cuba is the ultimate speaking of truth to the socially unjust power that is Big Food.
They hate you because you're white.
Never mind that the U.S. Census of Agriculture shows U.S. agriculture is becoming more diverse, as minority operation of farms grew at 2.5 times the average pace vs. the last census. The statistics are secondary to the argument. Never forget, today’s postmodern critics of food production deal in symbol and metaphor. There’s a reason the most popular book criticizing the safety and sustainability of the food system, now being used on in college courses from science journalism to environmental management on campuses from California to Wisconsin is written not by a food scientist, but by a Berkeley journalism professor. Today, the form is the content, as historian Hayden White aptly put it; the text is never as important as the context. That has elevated the novel to as powerful a guide for policy as the science text.
And in that context, the “whiteness” the postmodern academic foodist hates in the American food system is less about skin color than it is about the dominant authority of white culture it represents. And they hate modern, institutionalized, socially unjust, capitalist agriculture because it is the epitome of the white Anglo-Saxon protestant culture to which it owes its heritage. To some, notably University of the Pacific sociologist Alison Alkon and Whitman College environmental sociologist Kari Norgaard, writing in the September issue of the journal Sociological Inquiry, the food chain represents food chains, shackling minorities through its blatant, institutionalized racism, from its inability to provide poor blacks in Oakland with the healthy food they used to grow themselves to the removal of dams from the Klamath river to prevent native Americans from subsistence fishing. Likewise, to others, USDA’s recommendation to drink milk is a similarly racially insensitive bow to white culture, since the preponderance of lactose intolerant Americans who can’t digest the favored food are African descendents.
And then to others, like Maryland food historian Warren Belasco, the racism is more symbolic, if no less real: “Whiteness was long considered a mark of refinement, sophistication, and cultivation,” Belasco notes of the typical American foods up to the 1970s. “Darker foods were considered more crude, primitive, and undesirable. White vs. brown was a central contrast. For [1960s counterculture newspaper] Quicksilver Times, underground nutrition could be easily capsulized in the admonition: “Don’t eat white; eat right; and fight.” Whiteness meant Wonder Bread, White Tower, Cool Whip, Minute Rice, instant mashed potatoes, peeled apples. White Tornadoes, white coats, white collar. Whitewash, White House, white racism. Brown meant whole wheat bread, unhulled rice, turbinado sugar, wild-flower honey, unsulfured molasses, soy sauce, peasant yams, “black is beautiful.” Darkness was funky, earthy, authentic, while whiteness, the color of powerful detergents, suggested fear of contamination and disorder.”
They hate you because you’re male.
Ditto the inconvenient reality that most modern family farms are husband-wife/husband-wife-daughter-son in law teams (etcetera), that nearly a third of farm operators are now women (and 18 percent are the boss), and that some of the best farmers I know are women, Big Food is a hated institution among today’s academia because it is another construct of the historically male-dominated western culture. Thus it has outlived not just its usefulness but also its welcome. To their eye, modern high-production farming echoes the old relic of gender-segregated society, in which men took the prestigious spots in the food chain, whether the operator’s seat of the new quarter million dollar combine, the endowed professor chair in animal science, or the head of the table—dining room and board room—even while women got shuffled into thankless home economics, dietetics and grade school teaching. But in the symbol-rich imagination of academia, that sexism runs much deeper. Modern, industrialized agriculture bent on taming (Mother) Nature is dominating, conquering, penetrating, deflowering, produce-at-all costs blind fecundity that stands in stark contrast to the nurturing, accommodative, cooperative, harmony with Mother Earth of the American Indian and Eastern philosophies popular on today’s campus.
|Modern, industrialized agriculture bent on taming (Mother) Nature is dominating, conquering, penetrating, deflowering, produce-at-all costs'
On one hand, food—growing, procurement and preparation—has historically given women power to shape their society, to guide their families, even to control their men, according to interpretations by social historians like Brooklyn College philosopher Annie Hauck Lawson. At the same time, it has also consigned them to the kitchen, the garden and the Home Ec department. But the power women gained by escaping the thankless work of the kitchen wasn’t real power, most argue. In the end, modern food provision only changed their masters, shifting the individual lordshop of husbands and fathers for the collective lordship of (male-dominated) McDonald’s and Kraft. And if male domination of women’s bodies for reproduction has been ended by the pill, abortion and freedom to divorce, it too has simply re-created itself in domination for production via a food system that encourages anexoria, addiction to irresistable fat and sugar that causes obesity, and loss of power to control ingredients that enter their bodies alimentarily.
The metaphor of food as sexual repression is never more raw then when directed toward the particularly hated American Meat/Industrial complex by today’s academic ecofeminist (really, I am not making that term up), those who have built tenured careers arguing for the parallel between male subordination of women and the environment. It is best epitomized by Dallas theologian Carol Adam’s Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, which holds that meat is a metaphor for all gender oppression by patriarchy woven through virtually all aspects of Western culture—literature, folk stories and popular works—which encourages objectified insensitivity to the suffering of animals that ends up as violence against women. In Adam’s world, vegetarianism, pacifism, anti-vivisectionism and women’s suffrage movements are intertwined crusades intended to support women by “destabilizing the patriarchy” founded upon demon meat.
It is a long, difficult journey from the farm and research lab to the halls of the liberal arts universities where criticism of modern food production has become the hot growth industry. But it’s one farmers and those who support them must learn to navigate, lest they be left behind in the discussion over their future. As historian Belasco says, “Specialists are useful to have around, of course, since modern life is far too complex for us to understand everything. [But] to help us sort out the issues and gain some needed perspective, we need generalists--people with a decent grounding in science and poetry, agriculture and philosophy…. Issues require that we think about matters political, historical, economic, sociocultural, and scientific all at once."