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Multiply Smallnesses - American Agriculture - From Consumption to an Ecology of Hope
In Issue 44 of Alternatives, we featured Part I of an interview with Gary Holthaus, long-time activist for sustainable agriculture and author of From Farm to Table: What All Americans Need to Know About Agriculture. Gary opened with an explanation of the mechanics of sustainability, and the machinations of the corporate giants that control modern agriculture today. We pick up the interview here with an observation on a values approach to problems in agriculture.
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Are you saying that the best course may be to leave that which is unsustainable to its inevitable fate? In other words, not spend a lot of energy fighting the giant institutions and corporations because they are, by definition, unsustainable and will collapse anyway, of their own weight? I’m thinking of Cargill, Monsanto, ADM, and the others. They buy the politicians, and they’ll write the Farm Bill as they please. But never mind them, let’s get to our work, which is about sustainable local and organic food, building up the soils, and teaching people about urban agriculture that works. Is that what you’re getting to?
Absolutely. It’s about finding out how to feed ourselves healthy food, and to heck with those other guys. I’d say to heck with Congress, we can ignore them, too. We can ignore the Farm Bill, we can do fine without Monsantoin fact we’re going to have to learn to do that.
So, if the transnational corporations cannot create the future of agriculture, then it’ll have to be a local solution. Tell me about the work of your non-profit, Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS)?
Well, NPSAS has been in existence now for 28 yearsthat takes it back to when organic farmers got rocks thrown at them by their neighbors whom they’d known for two generations. I mean, it was risky to call yourself organic, and it stayed that way for a long time. And only recently it’s become about half respectable.
That’s because the organic industry is the fastest growing edge of US agriculture now, right?
Exactly. NPSAS has been trying to do the right thing, in the sense that it’s been supporting people trying to farm sustainably, all that time. And it’s had its accomplishments. It’s one of the players that got GMO wheat stopped in North Dakota. But even when you win, you’re not done. GMO wheat is coming back. Monsanto’s getting geared up again because the price of wheat has gone up so high this past year that there’s no way they can stay out. So NPSAS is running programs to educate people about the problems with GMO’s. We’ve got to go stir that pot again and get folks to thinking about it again, alert them that it’s coming.
Can you comment briefly on the pros and cons of GMO’s? The corporations, government and some faculty at the agricultural universities extol the virtues of GMO’s, you know, ‘it’s going to save the world from starvation through reliable productivity and shelf life’. You’re going to Fargo and Minot and other places in the Great Plains countering that spell. What do you say?
I won’t be doing the talking this time. We’ve got the guy who organized the lawsuit against GMO alfalfa in California, and a rice grower from Arkansas whose crops wound up contaminatedhe lost thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars. These are the ones that the farmers need to hear from.
One of the problems with GMO’s, and it’s been known from the beginning, is that there is no way to control the contamination or the pollen flow from GMO crops. There’s no way to keep them from contaminating organic food. And Monsanto knew that from the beginning, in fact there’s some evidence that they thought, if they did it right, within seven years there would be no un-contaminated crops in North America, and they would get control of it all.
Monsanto could then say, ‘That’s our patented DNA in every plant of your crop, so now you Mr. Farmer must pay us for everything that’s growing in your fields.’
Yep. And, ‘You have to come to us to get the seed, and we can set whatever price we want.’
Oh, absolutely. These are the guys who brought you Agent Orange. These are the guys who brought you PCP’s. These are the guys who brought you RBGHrecombinant growth hormone for dairy cows which gives them mastitis and weak legs and means you milk ‘em three times a day and then you send them to the slaughter house when they’re two and a half, three years old. Life, in the form of animals or plants, means nothing, except as instruments. Cows are nothing except mechanical things to produce milk. And when they no longer do that … which happens fast because of the growth hormone …
Recently, I read a “Gaps” analysis, a title that I just loved! This report got generated when Monsanto wanted to bring RBGH to Canada. Canada put together a great team of scientists to look at this and they decided that Monsanto had simply ‘left out’ of their recommendations to the United States Department of Agriculture and Canadian Food and Drug Administration all the negative stuff that they had found in their own tests about RBGH. And so, the Canadian scientists said, “There are these gaps,” and they called their report “The Gaps Analysis,” which is where they published the evidence that was left out.
Yeah. These guys walk into a congressional office and are welcomed as if they are the finest people on the face of the Earth. As far as I’m concerned they’re child abusers. I mean, Agent Orange is still resulting in malformed kids, and then you think about what they did with their own employees with PCP’s ... I get upset when I think about what those guys have wrought in this world.
You’re going to be visiting Oregon State University tomorrow. OSU is an AG school, heart and soul behind GMO’s. What are you going to be saying to those classes?
Same thing. I’m a one-string fiddle when it comes to that stuff. It’s the only song I’ve got to sing. One of the things that the folks who asked me to help with this book said was that they thought their job was to ‘try and make a land grant university out of our land grant university’. Now that is the best one sentence description of what we ought to be about that I can imagine. But it’s the same everywhere. Minnesota’s got a new Cargill Hall, so you see there isn’t a land grant university that doesn’t have that corporate infection in it. On the other hand, there isn’t a land grant university that I know of that doesn’t also have a little cadré of faculty who know this is craziness and are working to educate their students about these issues. They do this without any rewards or recognition from the institution, and my hat is off to those guys. They are remarkable people, and they’re really doing good work.
Some who hear you talking about going back to local, to smaller acreages, to less sophisticated technologies … they’ll call you a Luddite.
What I would say to that is: maybe I am a Luddite! I mean, Luddites have gotten a bad rap in history, for just being against technology, period. But that was never the case. What they could see was the impact that some technology was going to have on society, and they opposed itand they were right and everybody else was wrong. So, it doesn’t bother me to be a Luddite.
What would you say to those who assert, ‘Technology will get us out of this mess. We’ll invent new ways to extract more oil, we will enrich the debased soil chemically, we’ll increase yields, all through technology.’
For me, the problem with technical solutions is that the problems aren’t technical problems. The problems are in us and, it’s that spiritual dimension that we’re never willing to addressuntil we get our hearts as well as our heads straight, we’re not gonna make it.
The problem with technology is that technology won’t ask the basic questions that have to be asked. When technology says, ‘We’ve gotta be objective here’, and I start asking my questions, the scientists say, ‘We can’t deal with those’. And I say, those are the first issues we have to deal with. If we’re pumping garbage into the creek it’s not because we can’t afford not to not do that, or we don’t have the technology to keep us from doing thatit’s because there’s still a little garbage inside us. So we’ve got to worknot only on all the real issues out there, but on ourselves at the same time. Fact is, we’ve got to work on ourselves first, and get ourselves right. This is just the simplest hip-pocket psychology‘You can’t change the world, all you can change is yourself’. We’ve got to start figuring out how to make ourselves more compassionate, more open, more honest, more caring about the rest of the world, and admitting that we are all in this together. That’s a start. But say this, and watch the corporate reps glaze over.
Another problem with technology is that it’s always short-sighted and so single-faceted. It sees an immediate problem, sets out to solve it with an immediate solution, ignores the long range. It doesn’t look at the impact of things down the roadthat’s too slow and who’s got time for that? The result is, we’ve got 80 thousand chemicals floating around in our rivers and ponds. We don’t have a clue about the long-range impacts of a single one of them, much less the cumulative effects of all of those chemicals put together like that in the environment. They haven’t been around long enough for us to know! So even if people were willing to study that, we haven’t because we haven’t had time.
No, technology can’t save us because technology’s not willing to ask the questions that have to be asked. Somehow or other we either have to get technology to say, yes, the value questions are importantor we’ve got to slow technology down and insist that it answer some questions before it applies its short-term fix. The time we need for things to unfold is genetic time, generational timeit isn’t crop-season productivity time.
Can we get over all those hurdles? That’s the part that I worry about.
Can you give an example of a specific hurdle?
There’s this image of a three-legged stool that’s used in all of the workshops on sustainability. One leg is the economy; the second leg is nature & the environment; and the third leg is society. I hate that image, it’s false. Because when you assign the economy a leg by itself, you’re saying it’s equal in importance to nature & the environment, or to society itself! The economy is clearly just one small construct of one aspect of our humanity, it has no business having the same authority as the environment or society. It’s just not that important.
But this image also leaves out the one thing that’s really critical. If our problem is, as I think it is, a spiritual problem, there’s no mention of that in our sustainability models. Everybody nods, and sort of acknowledges that as an issue, but they always change the subject back to something practical, like the economy or the environment. Environmentalists are just as prone to that short-term thinking as the economists are.
How do you propose doing that?
We’ve got to change our world-view. The difference between a sustainable agricultureor sustainable cultureand one that’s commodity-driven and short-term is a difference in world-view. Only when we change the story we’ve been telling ourselves about how the world works can we transform the culture. That’s what we have to do.
Information won’t cut it. For instance, we’ve known about global warming for the last three decades, and it hasn’t changed our behavior a bit. We’ve had all the information about the end of oil for three or four decades: hasn’t changed our driving. We aren’t going to win this with argumentsarguments just create defensiveness or aggression.
No, the most powerful tool we’ve got is to change the story we’ve been telling ourselves. That old story is as toxic as it comes‘bigger is better’, and ‘if you can’t get big, you’d better get out’. That’s the story of agriculture in the last fifty years. ‘Chemicals can fix anything’they obviously can’t. They do fix some things, but they create a heck of a lot of problems downstream. The story we’ve been telling ourselves is about speed, growth and chemicals. It’s destroying us.
The new story is about compassion instead of condescension or indifference. We are in this together, and we are going to take care of each othernot competition, but cooperation. Somehow or another we’ve got to find ways to spread that story, and we’ve got to spread it fast.
Now, one of the good things about that is, as soon as the world-view changes, the practice follows automatically. Good practice follows good form, just as bad practice follows bad formwhich is where we are right now.
One of my optimisms is that, we’re gonna multiply smallnesses, instead of encouraging bigness. Think about how rural America would look now if over the past fifty years we’d been encouraging smallness instead of ending it. We’d have lots of small farms, which inevitably give us prosperous small communities. And those prosperous small communities would be feeding us, and we wouldn’t be dealing with the urban sprawl, and all the problems that brings. That’s the story we need to tell and get out there.
Multiply smallnesses …
Yeah, for instance, we ran 16 meetings in libraries in small towns where we had readings posted ahead of time that people could pick up, read, then come ready to talk. Those conversations were really intense. People were hungry to talk about this stuff. And the best comment we’ll ever get came on an evaluation form from one guy, an organic sheep grower. He said, “I came looking for how-to info, and I’m leaving with more questions than I came with. I’m pleased. I got what I needed instead of what I wanted.”
I thought, ‘Oh, man, it’ll never get better than that’. If we could set up a conversation with that guy and his colleagues in Pelican Rapids, and have that result, then that’s the way to change the story we’ve been telling ourselves. I think if we could multiply those kinds of smallnesses, then we’re making some progress.
And, if worse comes to worst, years down the road, if we really are stuck for food, at least we’ve developed small support groups so we can gather as neighbors and feed ourselves.
Gary Holthaus is the Director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, a non-profit concerned with education, advocacy, research and community building and author of “From the Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know about Agriculture”. He is the author of several books, including Wide Skies: Finding a Home in the West, Circling Back, and Unexpected Manna.
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