Part 4: The seeds of market failure

Admittedly, I sometimes lapse into bourgeois revere the agriculturalist’s life, like a groupie.  Time rising and falling with the sun.  The mood of the work changing with the seasons.  The fresh air of the outdoors filling the heavy-lifting lungs.  But farming is no luxury.

For many, it’s choiceless, thankless, servitude. Migrant laborers still plod the hard earth with their hard feet, troubled backs, desperate for decent livelihoods in modern exploitation–souring the savory tastes on our plates.  Daily, we eat out of their calloused hands.  We drink from the fruit of their sweat.  Have you heard their voices lately?  Consider this first-hand account from Leonel, a worker-organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers of Florida’s tomato fields.  Slice your citrus slowly, give thanks, pay witness, act in solidarity.

For more on farm labor organizing’s history in the South, here’s a video by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

For others, farming is fundamentally survivalist.  Many farmers, if not most, are vulnerable to the extremist whims of environmental change.  Greenpeace estimates that 2.6 billion small farmers, or about 40% of humans, grace the face of the planet with their blood, sweat and tools. These small farmers face drought, flood, erosion, depletion, destruction, corruption, genocide, warfare, domestic violence, seed patenting, ground poisoning, land seizures, forced relocation, and encroaching corporate plantations.  They are the most harrowing people in the world.  They live exposed to all forms civilization’s side effects, simply to grow civilization’s most fundamental sustenance.

As the world’s population mushrooms, the vulnerability of agricultural lands and its people grows continuously precarious in the face of climate change, lapses in knowledge due to disruptions in social fabric, and gaps in technological distribution accelerated by capitalist advancement.  Indeed, small farming is among the least celebrated occupations in the world.

Yet, the small farmer is also the hope of the world.  They are the keepers of the heirloom seeds; their wisdom and knowledge of the earth’s rhythms and resources is both thread to the ancient past and footpath to a more sustainable future. I perform my indebtedness to the garden, to the farm, as an aspirant, volunteer and advocate for sustainable food practices because of them.

Meanwhile, companies like Monsanto spin themselves as saviors to a perilously hungry world.  870 Million people are perceived to be chronically undernourished; the food they grow or receive does not provide enough of what they need to thrive.  Agri-industrial companies like Monsanto have not been immune to biting criticism levied by eco-warriors around the world, and now they appear to be morphing into champions of the small farmer’s sustainability (however Monsanto determines is defined).

Its website now touts its strategic commitment to sustainable agriculture.  But how does Monsanto define sustainable agriculture?  Is this purely a case of language co-opted?  How does its money-making mandate continue to put it at odds with the needs of the world’s poorest farmers?

Monsanto’s entre into sustainable farming raises ever-present questions on the role and involvement of multinational corporations in the field of agriculture.  The message to the public is mixed.  World Wildlife Foundation, often considered to be an advocate for biodiversity and environmental sustainability, has also advocated genetic modification as a means to intensify crop yield in the poorest agricultural lands of Africa and Asia.

If I find it valuable to my health and the health of the planet to seek ways of supporting alternatives to GMOs, pesticides and hormones, then what must I do stop them from infiltrating the most vulnerable societies on the planet?  Would doing so be unethical–thwarting potential crop yield increases from the hungriest of villages?

While I stand in good company with many Africans and other advocates throughout the developing world, ardent in my skepticism and declination of GMOs, pesticides, and hormones in the crops and commodities promoted by Monsanto and the like, there is a growing contingent of farmers, on the continent and elsewhere, turning to these industrial tools to improve their yields.

With no scientific tracking mechanisms to determine the impact of GM crops on the human body, activists have little ammunition to stop their spread from reaching the farthest corners of the developing world.   On the other hand, pesticides present known hazards that poor farmers in developing are ill-equipped with education, knowledge or literacy to handle safely.

Industrial agricultural businesses are able to take advantage of such information asymmetries:  lack of knowledge/experience/education, and the lack of ability to track the effects of GMOs (no clean scientific, longitudinal trial exists, nor may it be possible given the pervasive presence of GMOs in foods all over the world).  And as any good economist knows, information asymmetry leads to their most dreaded of all dreadfully, dreaded economic dreads:

W O R L D W I D E      M A R K E T      F A I L U R E    !! ! !  !

Save yourselves.  Save your seeds (if you still can).  And–support a market-correcting farm or garden near you, wherever you are.


About C. Sala Hewitt

C. Sala Hewitt
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