I've just started reading The Grapes of Wrath, but my wife and son have both
read it recently, and shared parts of it with me. This winter, about the time
one of the big vegetable grower magazines was crowing about the increasing
concentration and market share of the country's largest vegetable growers (I
believe that one firm grew half of the carrots in California) Suzanne was
telling me about the early chapters with tractors and concentrated control of
land pushing people away from a sustaining way of life into homelessness and
Dan read me an incredible piece of writing from Steinbeck's classic, the
description of the lush orchards where the fruit was destroyed rather than fed
to the hungry. Suzanne remembers armed guards around enormous tomato fields in
California in the 1980s. Around here there are food drives for the needy outside
enormous new suburban markets which give away two of an item if you buy one.
Buy one dozen eggs, get two free. and on and on, food item after food item.
I think the most critical difference is not right versus left, or industrial
versus biological, or capital-intensive high tech ( genetic engineering, etc.)
versus knowledge/experience-intensive high tech (biodynamic,and various
traditional agricultures) and not even not sustainable versus sustainable.
The critical difference is the role of the individual in his or her own life.
Mr. Avery's vision effectively removes / assumes that most people will not be
able to do anything to sustain their lives other than to try to find a job to
buy the necessities in a world where concerntrated control of automated
production produces a plethra of goods with disasterous side effects. His
agriculture is not participatory.
My recent search for a definition of agriculture was an earnest one. What are
we talking about when we are talking about agriculture?
The most official response (from usda.gov) was
**"AGRICULTURE is commonly understood to be any component of the industrial
segment which provides goods and services to producers of food and fiber,
production of food and fiber commodities, storage of food and fiber
commodities, processing of food and fiber, transportation of food and
fiber, marketing of food and fiber. American agriculture, like
agriculture anywhere in the world, is an industrial system. The primary
difference is that the production segment is highly dependent upon the
environment, much more than other industrial systems. Furthermore, a
breakdown anywhere in the system directly affects the lives of anyone
interested in eating. There is no other industrial system upon which
humanity is so dependent.
In my opinion one of the clear problems we have moving into the 21st
Century is to communicate with the public that agriculture is not simply
the growing of crops and livestock."**
I'm not sure that "agriculture anywhere in the world is an industrial system" as
this reply implies, and certainly I am not sure that this is desirable. I've
heard about some very interesting biological or even ecological systems.
Based on this definition, however, we'd have to say that the aluminum can of
corn-sweetener-based soda, dropping out of a vending machine is an example of
this broader definition of agriculture. This gives us a few things to consider
when thinking about sustainable agriculture.
We might be able to grow a genetically-engineered corn that resists insects and
an otherwise benign substance that kills all green plants, and which produces is
own nitrogen. It could even be grown in a way that conserved all the topsoil.
Even then, what effect would that have on the overall sustainability of that can
of soda as delivered. Salmon in Northwest rivers are facing extinction in part
to produce artificially cheap aluminum for this can. (What is life like near
the aluminum mines in Jamaica and Brazil? What is life like in the places which
receive toxic inks from the labels from the recycled aluminum cans?) The
natives of James Bay have been flooded out and had their environment poisoned
for the same purpose-cheap aluminum cans. I suspect that
cokepepsibudweisermiller (with about three quarters of the soda/beer market
here) and their smaller compatriots may be among the main beneficiaries of the
large dams that are displacing people from the land all over the developing
world. (Think about what effects on "Agriculture" a change from aluminum cans
to refillable glass bottles would have. The distribution technology and the
structure of the system are closely related. Refillable milk bottles imply local
The radioactive wastes from the electricity to run the soda machine (in order to
keep a few gallons of liquid a few degrees below ambiant temperature) and the
cfcs in its refrigeration system become part of the agriculture in need of
The rapidly falling percentage of the food dollar that goes to "Production
agriculture" indicates that over three quarters of agriculture happens off the
farm even before you consider the increasingly important
seed/machine/chemical/capital farm input suppliers. (I know that agriculture is
not just about food, but this figure is at hand. One of the great things about
having a small piece of land is that it can provide so many
benefits/services-building materials, firewood, fenceposts, beauty, flowers,
nutrituous weeds like lambs quarters, recreation, solar access for home, garden
and clothesline and so much more.)
Although certainly the sustainability of the soil, plants, animals and
environment of the farm is critical, sustaining the kind of growth and changes
that are happening with the industrial food system in Connecticut is going to be
very hard on the environment. It is constantly rearranging the land to make
larger and fancier food retail environments, and widening the roads to bring in
the packages needed to supply supermarkets and fast food restaurants.
Meanwhile the medical industry and its cost continues to grow as more and more
people suffer from the diseases either of excess food comsumption (see USDA, ERS
bulletin 711, The American Diet, Health and Economic Consequences) or of poverty
and the lack of availability of the healthiest foods (whole grains, fresh fruits
and vegetables) in the cities.
One of the most moving parts of Grapes of Wrath that Suzanne and Dan both read
to me, is chapter 14-apparently an editorial digression from the story. It is
very powerful. Averys' bombs thrown at organic and sustainable community food
security and other are probably evidence that those who want to control it all
Steinbeck's image of two men sharing what they have as the thing that must be
stamped out is haunting.