A Long, Long Row

“Hontar:  We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.

Altamirano: No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”

From The Mission

Cincinnati, OH. I’m not convinced the Internet has irreparably damaged civil discourse, but I’m sure it hasn’t helped. Ad hominem savagery, the Kudzu of blog comboxes, thrives in disembodied ecosystems, and what climate could be more congenial for flaming than the blogosphere’s steamy gnostic bayous?  Most of us, I hope, still quail at saying face-to-face the same harsh words typed gleefully at a keyboard, but even the best of habits can be unlearned with practice.

That’s why, in those rare, often ill-advised, moments I comment on blog posts (at sites other the FPR, of course), I’m pleasantly surprised by someone who retains, at long last, a sense of decency.

Some months ago, after once more breaking my promise never to wade into the combox swamp again, I entered a surprisingly civil online exchange about Wendell Berry and contemporary agrarianism.  The writer of the original blog post (a friend of mine) quietly stepped back and let the two commenters go at it.  There was a great deal of talking past one another, but the tone remained respectful, and for that I’m grateful.  It was refreshing to agree on next to nothing without descending to name-calling and invective.

To the extent I recall details of the conversation, my well-mannered sparring partner had two main arguments.  First, he insisted, relocalization of food production would require forced depopulation of cities. Second, corporate agriculture is necessary for the US to continue “feeding the world.”

For this post, I’ll dispense with the latter objection first, as I consider it a distraction.  A significant part of my work is in global child health, and on my frequent medical trips to Honduras, I fly into San Pedro Sula, the business and HIV capital of that part of Central America.  The valley in which San Pedro sits accounts for much of the country’s arable land (more than ninety percent of Honduran territory is considered substandard for farming).

On my way south to the Salvadoran Frontera, I pass huge, level plantings of sugar cane and bananas, largely corporate-owned and all destined for export.  The campesinos where I’m headed farm sides of mountains, scraping a living from thin, unterraced soil.  The primary obstacle to feeding the world is not absolute undersupply, but maldistribution fostered and sustained by poor and/or corrupt governance, ruinous IMF policies and absentee corporate profit.

American grain is sometimes, though rarely, a global lifesaver.  Even then, the underlying problem is often not how much food, but where it is.  The most recent Ethopian famine (A politically-created crisis in a country normally able to feed more than ninety percent of its people from domestic production.) included bizarre scenes of emergency convoys of trucks bearing US-grown grain past warehouses full of rotting, locally-grown food.

I don’t think I can put it better than Gene Logsdon, who dissects the “feeding the world” canard as “a euphemism for ‘Push American grain overseas and keep grain cheap here so the American consumer can afford to buy more cars, television sets, houses and ten trillion gadgets.’”

It was the first objection – the one about forced depopulation – that bothered me more, not because I found it persuasive, but because it got so much about agrarianism precisely wrong.   I answered my well-manned sparring partner that the Wendell Berry I’ve come to know through books and in person is not a Kentucky Maoist planning resettlement camps for the urban bourgeoisie. That elicited a good-natured chuckle, but our misunderstanding persisted.  As far as I can tell, our failure to agree on how to proceed arose from a more fundamental disagreement about things as they are.   For him, corporate monoculture is a given, the world as it is. I, however, understand it as an aberration, the product of fifty years of misguided policy and worse practice.

Yet –and there’s the rub – that half century of progressives and planners instructing, encouraging and forcing farmers to “get big or get out,” resulted in a food supply that is superficially desirable: cheap, if not economical in a broader sense; plentiful, if unsustainable; and unencumbered, as long as I value consumer choice over other, more tangible, goods.

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