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Are Farmers Commodified ‘Excess Resources’ to Food Progressives


A new article that has been circulating argues that “more than 90 percent of [the] U.S. could eat food grown or raised withing 100 miles of their homes.” ( https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://faculty.ucmerced.edu/ecampbell3/Locafoodpressrelease.docx ) This is then cited as good for the economy and for sustainability. It’s supported by a map showing where this could happen, with blue circles of varying sizes representing, apparently, where the 90% live.

This issue ties in to other views, from vegetarians and others, for example, who argue that large areas of the U.S. could be returned to nature, if livestock was no longer raised. Another side to the argument is the “food only” view, which criticizes farmers for raising nonfood crops, and crops fed to livestock instead of directly to humans. This, then, is a way to “feed the world.”

My view is that the linked article is excellent information for long term planners, but needs to be supplemented by a wide variety of other kinds of information, in order to address short-sighted

myths-gone-viral that might be exacerbated by the report.

More generally I see it as an inappropriate kind of essentialism, where narrow views are synthesized from an insufficient body of knowledge. I see a lot of essentialist problems in today’s new Sustainable Food Movement, which is a young movement. (I’m working on a related blog on “Essentialism in the Food Movement.” As an older man, (age 62,) who has quite a bit of experience with farm side issues, (academically and experientially, at the farm level and in the movement,) I see this as partly a limitation of youth. There is a huge need for input from older people, “elders,” from the farm side “Family Farm” or “Farm Justice Movement,” (and to a lesser degree, from the Sustainable Agriculture Movement,) of the past 60 years, (or 25 years, for the SAM).

In my view, the lack of this knowledge has been a major factor in the young Food Movement’s propensity, in the mind of a number of older “farm justice” farmers, not only to misunderstand the big issues of distributive economic justice, (which then leads to misunderstandings of sustainability,) but to then bash farmers in general.

In this case, “the farm subsidy myth” has been a major factor behind the misunderstandings. The new Sustainable Food Movement has misunderstood WHAT a farm bill is, (it’s not just a spending pie, but has another, much larger economic category, market management,) ideally, historically, and as measured by it’s (market management’s) absence today. (c.f. https://zcomm.org/zblogs/the-farm-subsidy-myth-scientifically-invalid-subverting-food-day/ )

Here are some points to keep in mind with regard to the new article (cited at the top).

1. If something is geo-physically realistic in these ways, that’s not at all to say that it’s realistic in terms of the social sciences, or other aspects of the natural sciences. For example, the farm economy is based upon a massive and complex infrastructure and infostructure, and such a proposal doesn’t address what such a change,(moving a lot of it toward urban areas–but then would we move some of the nonfood infractructure/infostructure back to more rural areas?) would mean on that account.

2. The issue of justice for rural people, (including minority farmers and women,) is a huge issue that is almost always left out of these kinds of simplifications. What would be the result of this massive change of the location of the farm economy for those regions that lost it?

3. Politically, of course, this would mean a massive withdrawal from the economies of rural states, in favor of urban states. This is like the neoliberal ‘free’ market, ‘free’ trade paradigm of agribusiness, where purists assign the farm economy to some countries instead of others, (with giant agribusiness corporations benefitting from the cheaper prices paid to farmers). As politics, it’s naive, showing little understanding of how countries actually think about so crucial an issue as feeding their populations. (See Daryll E. Ray, http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/163.html, http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/419.html, http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/423.html,) (As economics it’s immensely destructive, as it doesn’t address the fundamental realities of the farm economy, which “lacks price responsiveness” (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/248.html ) “on both the supply and the demand sides for aggregate agriculture” (http://agpolicy.org/weekcol/325.html ).

4. This leaves unaddressed the issue of the popular “food only” re-valuing of US agriculture, which is naive and short sighted. (See Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America for a general corrective.) It seems to be almost totally unknown among the new Food Movement “food only” advocates that such an approach, if actually implemented, would radically subvert a large number of their US and global goals (see below).

5. It suggests a massive kind of “unsettling” of rural America. (Again, note Berry’s book.) It seems instead to be utopian. The classic utopias, however, were simplistic and authoritarian (Lewis Mumford, Utopia, the City and the Machine, http://habitat.aq.upm.es/boletin/n37/almum.en.html, & Authoritarian and Democratic Technics, https://sniadecki.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/mumford-technics/ ). While the utopias included important positives, they were also attempts to cram reality (or destiny) into a box, typically using authoritarian measures. (See Berry’s book regarding the future, and Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power, chapter on science fiction, such as where he interprets one such author as follows: “Against his will, against all his hopeful conscious beliefs, [he] kept on saying under his breath: No good can come of it.”) (This may be personal, but the picture at the top of the article here has a strange resemblance to the picture of the utopian agribusiness model for agriculture’s future, (in National Geographic, february 1970) that Wendell Berry criticized in his chapter on the future [https://www.flickr.com/photos/impactdixon/4321133210/?ytcheck=1 ].)

6. A key general point about these kinds of things is that they don’t adequately address dilemmas. (Cf Mumford, The Conduct of Life section or independent essay, “The Fallacy of Systems.” “Most ethical philosophies have sought to isolate and standardize the goods of life, and to make one or another set of purposes supreme. They have looked upon pleasure or social efficiency or duty, upon imperturbability or rationality or self-annihilation as the chief crown of a disciplined and cultivated spirit. This

effort to whittle down valuable conduct to a single set of consistent principles and ideal ends does not do justice to the nature of life, with its paradoxes, its complicated processes, its internal conflicts, its sometimes unresolvable dilemmas.” In contrast, most major farm issues involve ways of resolving large dilemmas (I hope to post a blog on 6 or 8 of the major policy dilemmas that farmers face).

7. The “unsettling” aspect strikes a particularly sour note among farmers. Historically, it’s been agribusiness which has viewed farmers and farm workers as “excess resources (mainly labor).” (Committee for Economic Development, An Adaptive Program for Agriculture;” cf. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/12/04/1349380/-Four-National-Farm-and-Food-Policy-Plans-Part-1, cf. Wenonah Hauter, Foodopoly, ch. 1) This is a kind of reductionism and a commodification of farmers. It’s what Erich Fromm called “balance sheet” thinking, in his critique of Herman Kahn’s book, On Thermonuclear War, which casually considered how many tens of millions dead in a nuclear war would be “acceptable losses.”

Today it’s more likely to be the progressive food movement, which has organic “favorite sons” and daughters, but which readily and naively calls for the unsettlling of farmers in general. This animus is surely tied to “the farm subsidy myth (see link above). (See especially Berry, Unsettling of America, on the meaning of farming in general for all of society, and also Mumford, The Transformations of Man, ch. on the agricultural pattern of history vs the urban pattern of civilization [the power complex, and see Mumford’s essay, above, on utopia and the city].)

8. All of this applies to the vegetarian aspect in the press release. “Food-only” and vegetarian utopianism, if implemented, would operate in exactly the opposite way from the way of economic justice, (given the “lack of price responsiveness,” in links above, in agriculture,) as it’s operated in the farm economy and as it’s been a concern of the US/global farm side movement over the past 60 years. Both (food only and no livestock) approaches would involve a radical oversupply, fostering massive value reductions, massive elimination of family farmers/campesinas, massive rural hunger (where 80% of the “undernourished” are rural already, and often women and people of color,) massive destruction of the infrastructure for ecological diversity, (a huge current problem largely left out of Sustainable Food Movement advocacy,) etc. US and global agriculture, including farming by minorities and women, is much bigger than mere food. A massive amount of US and global agricultural income is nonfood, or (40%) is from livestock production (i.e. “support [for] the livelihoods and food security of almost a billion people”).

Bottom line, this from the press release is good to know, and can encourage some very positive aspects of slow, long-term evolution, but such changes can also be quite reductive, authoritarian and destructive, if implemented in a utopian, purist, overly essentialist way.

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