There are a lot of terms for alternatives to industrial food production: organic, beyond organic, biodynamic, eco-agriculture, regenerative farming, holistic land management, and so on. No doubt as I write this sentence some neologism is spreading through the agri(counter)cultural hive mind. Whatever you call this alternative, Gabe Brown is one of its most prominent advocates, and his North Dakota farm is one of its great success stories. By rotating crops, bringing animals back onto the land, and eliminating tillage, he has improved soil health, production, and profitability, while massively reducing fertilizer and chemical inputs.

But he’s not a bearded hippy using a horse-drawn sickle bar. Take a moment to picture a stereotypical American farmer, the sort of guy you’d see in a John Deere ad. You are imagining Gabe Brown. In many ways, he is a stereotypical farmer, specifically when it comes to scale. With his son he manages 5000 acres, a feat that can only be achieved by using plenty of big machines. He still uses herbicides on occasion. He is as far from a subsistence farmer as hybrid corn is from teosinte.

Gabe was very much on my mind as I read In Defense of Industrial Agriculture by D.A. Villar in the socialist publication Damage. The binary Villar constructs — efficient, large-scale, chemically enhanced agriculture capable of comfortably feeding the world, on one hand, and inefficient organic dirt-scratching unable to achieve subsistence levels of production, on the other — does not have room for the many farmers who seek to temper the worst excesses of industrial agriculture by introducing a more varied suite of practices than dousing corn in ever more fertilizer and glyphosate.

Before moving on I should introduce a caveat, as I did in my recent review of Small Farm Republic, albeit with quite a different set of political priors in mind. Villar is writing in an avowedly socialist magazine, which, as we will see, bears significantly on how persuasive non-socialists will find some of his arguments. But it also means he is far more familiar with the scope of discussions about farming in socialist circles than I am, and I have no reason to doubt his claim that in these circles there truly is broad support for something like a return to subsistence farming with exclusively organic practices.

“If one is primarily concerned with the need of human beings, it is impossible to object to industrial agriculture as such,” Villar writes, and on this point I wholeheartedly agree with him, at least if we define industrial agriculture as the use of large enough tractors operating at a large enough scale that a minority of the populace can ensure a stable food supply. Any attempt to rapidly convert thousands of industrial farms worked by machines into millions of smallholdings worked by hand would be a disaster economically and ecologically, and it would almost certainly result in widespread privation, if not outright famine. I also agree that many advocates of such radical reformations are unaware of the brutal realities inherent to subsistence agriculture.

But Villar conflates operating at the level of efficiency needed to support a stable food system with an unreserved embrace of industrial practices. In fact, he goes further, suggesting that any problems with industrial agriculture are due to the distortions of a rapacious market, which a properly ordered socialist system would remove.

Take GMOs. Seed companies have an interest in developing bespoke varietals, and then patenting them so that farmers have to buy new seed year after year. (Though lots of farmers would be buying seed for certain crops regardless, since, for example, producing high quality seed corn and producing a commodity corn crop are two very different enterprises.) This same incentive explains in part why Bayer focuses on engineering herbicide tolerance; selling the seed and then selling the treatment is doubly profitable. As Villar emphasizes, socialism would do away with such perverse incentives:

[T]he issue here isn’t with the GMOs themselves, but with the private production and ownership of them. A socialist agricultural policy would ensure that farmers could use seeds of one year to plant the next year’s harvests, even from GMO crops, and ensure that genetic modifications were geared towards the public good.

Or take the debate over whether a land sparing or land sharing approach to agriculture is more economically sound. The land sparing case, promoted by no less a theorist of agriculture than Albert Borgmann, argues that maximizing efficiency on one acre frees up other land for non-agricultural uses, including preservation as wilderness. The land sharing approach seeks to balance production with impact, requiring more land to produce the same amount of food, but producing it in a manner that leaves more room for biodiversity and requires fewer chemical inputs.

Researchers who study such things generally agree that, on paper, land sparing is superior. On the ground, it is not. It turns out that when an Iowa farmer doubles his corn crop, he isn’t moved to magnanimously restore half his acreage to tallgrass prairie. Instead, he and all his neighbors keep growing more and more corn, which the market finds a use for. Yes, it is a market distorted by ethanol and crop subsidies. But remove these and the farmland, some of the finest in the world, would still be used to grow something that could be sold for a profit. Villar says that under a socialist regime, this would not be the case:  “[I]f agriculture is controlled in a socialist manner, then what land is farmed, and to what intensity, can be planned in such a way that maximizes food production while minimizing loss of biodiversity.”

For Villar, all the arguments I might make about ways to mitigate or incrementally reform the worst aspects of industrial agriculture, all the work of the world’s many Gabe Browns and Paige Stanleys, are irrelevant when a socialist system would be able to perfectly allocate resources and account for future needs. Obviously, I am skeptical of this claim.

Consider the case of Golden Rice, which Villar uses as a paradigmatic example of good genetic modification. Golden Rice produces beta-carotene, a critical nutrient, the lack of which leads to a wide range of vision problems, up to and including blindness in growing children. While I would prefer that all people everywhere have a rich diet so full of variety that crutches like Golden Rice or supplemental vitamins would be unnecessary, I would very much prefer the widespread adoption of Golden Rice to thousands upon thousands of cases of preventable blindness. But it is not the market that has limited the spread of Golden Rice. It is primarily activist organizations committed to preventing the use of GMOs that have fostered local opposition and advocated for governmental bans.

While people from a wide range of ideologies oppose GMOs, I strongly suspect most of the individuals instrumental in actually preventing Golden Rice from getting into the bellies of poor children would fall somewhere between ‘extremely liberal’ and ‘Marxist’ on the political spectrum. Indeed, Villar’s concern that the prevalent views on agriculture within the socialist movement are so dangerously naive implies a recognition that no system, regardless of its theoretical soundness, can be counted on to implement its own ostensibly good ideas if its most zealous advocates are misguided. If it is not the capitalists but the socialists who are now standing in the way of Golden Rice, why should we assume that a socialist system would ensure its distribution? (And if I’m wrong, if it’s the Koch’s who have been standing in its way, please let me know!)

There are many historical examples that add weight to this concern, from the Great Leap Forward to the de-urbinization of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge to the Soviet collectivization of agriculture. I am sure that Villar has thought about all of these and believes the immense human suffering they caused could be avoided in a properly ordered socialist revolution. Perhaps it would be unreasonable to expect him to address such obvious counterpoints in an essay with a far narrower scope. But for anyone who is not a true believer they are a grisly subtext to his techno-utopian vision.

Say what you will about the tenets of Monsanto Socialism, at least it’s an ethos. For those of us who agree that some degree of industrialization is a necessity but disagree with the claim that more is better, and who are skeptical of both the unfettered market and a totalizing socialist alternative, articulating a vision of change can be difficult. (For a classic attempt, see how the late, great Gene Logsdon tried to explain his support for genetically modified American chestnut trees.)

It may be wonderful that Gabe Brown is doing his thing on his 5000 acres, but meanwhile a couple hundred million acres across America are being farmed in the conventional way, and the interesting grazing practices studied by researchers like Paige Stanley are so complex and location specific that they are irrelevant to most livestock production. The current system does not allocate land well, does not care about the long term health of rural communities, and increasingly treats soil as just another asset to bundle and commoditize. Given these facts, how are things ever going to get better?

Narrowly, I do expect the market to improve on the current status quo, at least in America. Chemically supported no-till farming is already a growing trend, and I am betting that cover cropping and crop rotation, which Brown uses to radically decrease the frequency of herbicide applications, will spread for the simple reason that they will prove to save farmers money.

But I want much more than that. I want vibrant local farming communities, in which the lives of humans are connected to the land socially as well as economically. Even though the trajectory of agriculture over the past century has been driven by advances in technology, abetted by friendly government policy, it would be misguided to assume that the best response must begin with systemic changes, whether in the form of regulating those technologies, radically changing the form of government, or some combination of the two.

Farming is just one piece of the larger project of seeking accommodations with technology across any number of domains, accommodations that will have to be made at the level of the individual, the family, and the community. There is no single set of policies, from rethinking the farm bill to Villar’s socialist revolution, that could create a healthy agriculture, one capable of feeding humans, caring for the land, and especially providing a meaningful sense of coherence to the people living in a place.

It is the last of these that most interests me, because I view it as at once fundamental and almost completely neglected, perhaps due to the difficulty of proposing meaningful ways to foster something as complicated as real community. And if I’m honest, I am skeptical that the localist approach I advocate will bring about a quasi-utopian future of widespread flourishing, at least within my lifetime. But at least localism can materially change things. And while such changes will necessarily be modest, they will almost always be more impactful than all but a minority of a minority of policy arguments.

Put in concrete terms, which is more likely to improve the experience of food and place for any actual human beings: advocating for reforms to the farm bill, agitating for a socialist revolution, or planting an apple tree? I don’t know what farm policy for all of New York State should look like, but I have a decent idea of what it should look like on a couple hundred acres in the middle of it. I bet Gabe Brown’s neighbors are watching what he’s up to, and I bet some of them are experimenting with his methods.

This approach cannot, I recognize, resolve the tension between the real goods, in both senses of the word, brought about by efficiencies of scale in agriculture with the negative effects on rural communities and the healthfulness of the food system, any more than limiting electronic access for my own kids can resolves the effects of social media on the mental health of adolescents as a category. If I believed I had a solution to these sorts of hard problems I would not be shy about sharing it. But localism is a start, and I think there’s a chance, however slim, that if we gather to build healthy communities we will collectively arrive at healthier policies than if each of us attempts the feat on our own or as members of an abstract, too-online collective.

No doubt to someone bent on socialist revolution, this is so much mealy-mouthed blather, a quietist acquiescence to a morally repugnant status quo. And indeed, like the attempted ten hour day, there is an obvious logic to the idea that if a centralized, rational government could deploy centralized, rational methods of production everything would be better. But also like Decimal Time, mapping an overdetermined plan onto an uncooperative world does not always go smoothly. 

Land is particular, and how it should be farmed is too. Even in the context of industrial agriculture, planting times, choosing the best cultivar of hybrid corn, and fertilizer timing and dose vary significantly. This means that even Villar’s idealized industrial farming would need the expertise of individuals with some local knowledge, not just to grow crops, but presumably also to choose which particular GMOs would be appropriate for a certain area and which acres should be farmed so others could be set aside. Incorporating even modest improvements into industrial agriculture, like cover cropping or adding livestock to a crop rotation, would require farmers with significantly more knowledge and skill. 

And it is individuals with local knowledge who also have the best chance of building actual human communities while they make these decisions and do this work. Villar is right to insist that we should not let romantic ideals about “the land” lead us to entertain policies that might starve millions (although the same caution should be taken by socialists, given their history). Production does matter. Localists should acknowledge this, while nevertheless trying for much more than maximally efficient calorie production. 

When not only sustainable productivity but healthy community is our standard, we do not arrive at a single conclusive plan, the implementation of which will solve all the food system’s manifold problems. Instead, it is a starting point, one that encourages each of us, hopefully with a great deal of humility about what we don’t know and gratitude for all the bounties we so easily take for granted, to go plant something.

Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Good article. I particularly liked the debunk of “land sparing” based on real-life experience of how farmers generally avoid having unused land.

    Socialism already tried various industrialization practices in USSR nearly a century ago. Arguing for them without admitting inevitable flaws simply echoes past mistakes.

    As for golden rice, nobody here in Indonesia talks about it anymore. A quick google reveals this 2015 article enumerating its problems while pointing out that vitamin A shortage is hyped: “With inexpensive Vitamin A abundantly available from various natural sources, produced by small scale and backyard producers, it is a mistake to turn blindly to Golden Rice, a crop that the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) itself admits it has not yet determined if it can actually improve the vitamin A intake. (IRRI, 2014)”

    https://grain.org/article/entries/5177-golden-rice-is-unnecessary-and-dangerous

    If you read the short article, you’ll see that Gates donated $10 to the project. (Yes, I mean $10,000,000 but for him that’s like someone with $10k in the bank donating $10 to a “good cause” that looks nice but isn’t carefully thought through.)

    • Beta-carotene is vitamin A2. Humans use vitamin A1 retinol. A2 is a precursor to A1, so humans have to absorb A2 and then convert it to A1. Preformed A1 is only available from animal based foods. Many things impact the absorption of A2 and its conversion to A1 including other foods consumed and genetics. Fat is need for absorption, and many people are deficient in the enzyme needed to convert A2 to A1. Plus people can only absorb a capped amount of A2 and convert it to A1 at any one time.

      Or, in other words, simply engineering beta-carotene into rice or anything else for that matter doesn’t necessary address A1 deficiency especially if a person’s diet is still deficient in fats and other nutrients. Plus many people are poor converters of A2 to A1. So Golden Rice was always something of a charade.

  2. When I read content about defense of either agricultural approach (let’s just assume there is a binary approach to agriculture, which there isn’t), it seems the argument for increasing large scale industrial production is in order to feed the growing world. This is always laughable for those who are actually steeped into rural farmland of our nation (not the produce valleys of California). When people think of and talk about and write about industrial agriculture, their reference mostly is corn, wheat, soy and oil crops. Let me break everyone’s bubble. This is not food. Or rather, these crops are not the volume of food some people think. For example, the corn grown in the U.S. goes to feeding livestock and ethanol production. Neither of these are direct food for humans.
    Without going into a litany of diversions these crops go into, there is far, far less food for humans than people think from these crops when people think about industrial agriculture. Secondly, the food that is produced for this country has a significant percentage that never makes it into a human mouth. According to the EPA, “30 to 40 percent of the food supply is never eaten” in the U.S. If we think about it carefully and watch what happens in our own homes, it will make sense that “food waste is the single most common material landfilled and incinerated in the U.S.,” according to the EPA.
    We don’t have a production problem in this country. NEVER let anybody tell you that we must increase industrial production of agriculture in order to feed the world. We already produce more than we need to feed the entire world comfortably. However, if farmers didn’t increase industrial production, share value of agrochemical and seed companies would flatten and value traders would look elsewhere to put their investments. This disucssion has not been about feeding people since the post-war era. This discussion has always been about share value. Do not be fooled.
    What if all the neighboring farms around Bismark, North Dakota, decided to follow Gabe and Paul Brown and their approach to agriculture. What would happen to the economy of the Greater Bixmark area? Less diesel would be sold. Fewer tractors and ag equipment would be sold. The market for agriculture-related chemicals would dip. Water infiltration would increase. Soil compaction figures would lower (measured by penetrometer). Dry matter yield would increase. Biodiversity would dramatically increase. Livestock would return to the same land where cash crops are also produced. But, most importantly, the profit-per-acre for farmers such as the Browns would increase, while reductioins of other economic elements would balance themselves to new levels.
    Who woiuld fight against better per-acre profit? It’s not a pipe dream, it’s happening all across the country on farms of thousands of acres — we’re talking scale, not subsistance farmers. Why would anyone not want to increase their per-acre profit by a very noticiable percentage? Who is trying to disuade farmers from making more money and improving their land? It is the same ones who will experience market loss and share value descrease.
    Additionally, farmers such as the Browns won’t need subsidies anymore! Think of the savings in tax dollars that would be. But, I don’t want to digress too far. When people discuss industrial agriculture in the U.S. and the need for increased production, it is not about food production. For we already produce more food than can be consumed. Let’s at least all be honest with our readers about these topics.

    • Really good point, Dan, about profit per acre.

      But where do you think waste comes from? People blame consumers, but even if everyone ate everything they bought, waste would be way above zero.

      Look at fruit harvest-to-market as a simple example. The fruit on a tree doesn’t all ripen at the same time. So either harvest early and have less tasty produce, or harvest when ripe and lose those that ripened early.

      As a gentleman farmer, I can’t tell you how many mangoes we lose compared to the hundreds we harvest each year. There is no “magic robot” which can (cheaply) go to a tree every day and pick only the ones at max ripeness. Timing is never perfect and zero waste is a pipe dream for ideologues.

  3. “Punching left” has long been a way for the media and other “very serious people” to show their alleged nonpartisan bonafides and to assuage Republican’s fears that these institutions are overrun with Democrats. Villar proves that it’s possible to be a socialist yet still punch left, sneering at those who may want to deindustrialize agriculture; let’s call them ecosocialists or degrowthers, if we need a label.

    The people who suggest this are not doing so because they believe it will usher in a socialist utopia. They’re doing so because they believe industrialism will eventually collapse under it’s own weight. In this, they share much in common with Wendell Berry or Chris Smaje, to name just a couple.

    Villar and other advocates of industrialized ag, whether left or right, IMO fail to make a persuasive case for it’s indefinite viability, being dependent as it is on global supply chains, finite natural resources, stable climate, and stable politics, all of which seem to be in increasing trouble.

    This is not an argument for everyone ditching their tractors tomorrow, but it is an argument for thinking through how we can unwind our overwhelming dependence on industrial ag in the least harmful way.

    How can we have thriving rural communities when one man owns and is able to farm 5,000 acres? How can we have regional food security when commodity crops and meat that provide the majority of human calories are not sold to people in that region, but to the highest bidder on the global market? Industrialization makes these things possible, and it’s hard to see how they’re reversed unless we have a paradigm shift away from that industrialization.

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