Free Thought Resistance

Free and rigorous analysis, discussion, and argument on the moral catastrophes of our time. Drawing connections and revealing truths in a culture spellbound by apathy, dogma, and propaganda.

GMOs for Profit: The Missing Context of Industrial Agriculture

It is not what GMOs are that should demand so much attention but, rather, what they do: They lead to corporate control over the food system.

An editorial in Science from September 2013 has come out in strong defense of GMO biotechnology, criticizing the destruction of experimental GM Golden Rice fields in the Philippines by protesters, or “vandals.” Since then, the blogosphere has erupted with condemners and defenders once again accusing each other of ascribing to bad science, being ideologically driven and profiteering from their respective movements.

But while the narrow debate rages on about the inherent safety or harm of GMOs to humans and the environment, the more fundamental issue of the specific role GMOs play within the greater context of a globalized and industrial agriculture is left without comment.

The editorial, titled “Standing Up for GMOs,” is sponsored by 11 scientists and focuses on the potential utility of Golden Rice, ultimately using it to portray GMO technology in general as a valuable tool that society should use because of its “potential to save millions of impoverished fellow humans from needless suffering and death.”

This type of narrow analysis, focusing almost singularly on the dormant ability of GM crops to feed and nutritionally supplement the world’s growing population is astoundingly selective and therefore significantly misleading. It is a far cry from seeing how GMO technology actually functions within the broader framework of industrial agriculture, a model of production that is completely focused on profits, efficiency and yields, rather than the health of people and places.

Ignorance of this broader framework is revealed in the editorial when its writers claim that “precisely because they benefit farmers, the environment, and consumers, GM crops have been adopted faster than any other agricultural advance in the history of humanity.” Although it is certainly true that GM crops have been “adopted” rapidly the world over in recent decades, it is a mistake and a deception to claim that this is because of supposed benefits to farmers, consumers or the environment. A look at the general characteristics and history of agriculture in the past half century quickly sets the record straight.

Farmers and Consumers

It is difficult to fathom at this time how GMO technology could be construed to be a boon to farmers. For decades, the American countryside has been gutted of its farmers and farming communities by the relentless march of agribusiness’ imperatives to produce more food, more efficiently, whatever the human or environmental costs. In his book Deep Economy, Bill McKibben drives the point home: “Since the end of World War II, America has lost a farm every half hour. … The number of farmers has fallen from half the American population to about 1 percent.” [1]

This mammoth feat of rural Diaspora has been achieved by replacing diverse small family farms with homogenous industrial monocultures as the basic unit of agricultural production. Monocultures are (usually enormous) fields or farms that grow only one thing at a time, with minimal crop rotation implemented between seasons, maintained by tractor power and high doses of chemical inputs. GMO technology has played no small role in facilitating and capitalizing on the transition to monoculture, because GM crops are most often genetically manipulated to do one of two things: a) resist potent broad-spectrum chemical herbicides   , like Monsanto’s Roundup, which is designed to kill any and all non-modified plant life, or b) harbor bacterial genes that produce toxins lethal to pests that consume the GM crop.

Both of these biotechnological innovations provide invaluable services to the industrial model of agriculture because they remedy – in the short term – inherent vulnerabilities of monoculture production. Continual tilling, watering and fertilizing, as well as leaving broken soil bare without cover, invariably will lead to weed problems. Similarly, planting the same one or two crops in constant repetition invariably will lead to pest and disease problems, something diverse farms with a deliberate crop rotation strategy easily can mitigate. Thus GMO biotechnology, as it is most commonly applied, is wrapped and bound within the context of the industrial monoculture, which by its own inherent qualities of lacking diversity, eroding, compacting and depleting soils, and requiring enormous quantities of petroleum for fuel and chemicals, is deeply destructive and unsustainable.

These monocultures have forcibly replaced the energy and intelligence of farmers with the energy of oil, the insights of biotechnology and the shortsighted profit-seeking of agribusiness, resulting in millions of farmers being driven off the land by capitalist economic imperatives for growth, efficiency and maximum production.

As a further insult to farmers, GMO biotechnology has evolved along parallel lines with a set of legal protections that have codified GM seeds as intellectual property, that is, as the patented products of the GM seed and chemical companies that developed their genetic modifications. These multinational corporations make enormous profits selling farmers their GM seeds year after year and yet more profits off the royalties charged for the use of their seed at the expense of farmers, who now cannot legally save their own seed, making them entirely dependent upon a private corporation for the most the fundamental part of their livelihoods.

This perverts a tradition central to agriculture, which has existed since its inception: seed-saving. Farmers, saving seeds from plants that displayed favorable traits and replanting those seeds season after season, have developed diverse varieties specific to the climatic and socio-cultural needs of nearly every bioregion on Earth. GMO patents, along with the economic pressures of a modern market that demands high yields at the expense of diversity, effectively have ended this tradition for the vast majority of farmers working in industrially developed nations, and are making great headway in accomplishing the same in the “developing” world. This undermining of seed diversity renders agriculture radically more vulnerable and less resilient to ecological and climatic variations, thus endangering global food supply and narrowing the component crops of that supply to what is profitable rather than what is healthy or culturally and ecologically appropriate.

Finally, it is difficult to imagine the benefits farmers and consumers may enjoy from consuming herbicide residues like those from Monsanto’s Roundup (developed specifically for Roundup Ready GM seeds), with its active ingredient glyphosate being strongly linked to an increased rate of birth defects and with even one of its “inert” ingredients now shown to be capable of killing human cells. For farmers and farmhands, brief exposure to herbicides containing glyphosate may result in minor or moderate symptoms such as eye, skin, nose and throat irritation, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, while chronic exposure may be connected to increased rates of cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Also difficult to imagine is the benefit consumers enjoy as they are fed increasing amounts of cheap, heavily processed GM “foods,” often made up of little more than various chemical recombinations of GM corn, soy and wheat that are remarkably and obviously deficient in the various micro and macro nutrients required for human health.

But it is not just nutrient deficiencies that render GM foods inadequate or even dangerous to health, but also nutrient excess. The overwhelmingly abundant quantities of sodium (salt) found in processed foods, which accounts for about 75 percent of our total sodium intake, is likely to result in high blood pressure, which is the leading cause of stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.

On top of salt, there is sugar. With the glut of cheap GM corn that our industrial food system relies upon, food scientists have created high-fructose corn syrup, which, because it is so cheap (because subsidized corn is so cheap), is put in just about every processed food and drink one may come across, to make it sweet. The result is that Americans are consuming far more sugar than they ever have before, increasing their chance of heart disease, obesity, cancer, dementia, liver failure, tooth decay and more.

The Environment: Soil, Water and Air

The claim that GM crops have benefited the environment is perhaps even more absurd than that they are a boon for farmers or a blessing to consumers. The negative environmental effects of industrial monocultures are staggering, radically endangering the planet’s soil, water and air.

By compacting and eroding soils with heavy tractors and machinery, destroying soil microbial and invertebrate life via the spraying of toxic chemicals (again, often used in explicit association with GM crops) and replacing organically derived fertilizers that would replenish the soil’s organic matter with synthetic fertilizers that over time negatively alter soil composition, monoculture farming systematically depletes the soil, a process that ultimately ends in desertification.

To summarize with some figures taken from John Jeavon’s How to Grow More Vegetables*:

“Current agricultural practices reportedly destroy approximately 6 pounds of soil for each pound of food produced. United States croplands are losing topsoil about 18 times faster than the soil formation rate. This loss is unsustainable. In fact, worldwide, only about 33 to 49 years’ worth of farmable soil remains.” [2]

That point bears repeating: This loss is unsustainable, for the soil, for the ecosystems of which they are part, for the planet, which those ecosystems collectively form, and for us humans, who live and thrive or fail on that planet.

The damage done to the Earth’s soil as a result of industrial agriculture is closely tied to the contamination of its waters. Erosion caused by excessive tilling with heavy machinery, exacerbated further by bringing under the plow more lands adjacent to streams and rivers in the attempt to maximize efficiency, means that mammoth amounts of topsoil, synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides are being dumped into Earth’s waterways, wreaking havoc on aquatic ecosystems on their path to ocean, where they continue to cause environmental harm.

Even if soils are not tilled too often and farmers leave ample space between croplands and waterways, the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are so heavily used and relied upon by industrial monocultures will still end up polluting watersheds. This is because most of modern agriculture’s contribution to water pollution is what is called “non-point source pollution,” that is, pollution that is not traceable to a determinate source, precisely because the source is broad and diffuse. The water from rainfall and snowmelts run through and over fields, creating runoff that deposits chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as natural pollutants, into rivers, lakes, aquifers, estuaries and, eventually, the sea. Effects of this runoff include serious health problems for humans and livestock who eat the crops irrigated or sprayed with contaminated water and the destabilization of watershed-based ecosystems.

Air pollution is axiomatic to industrial agriculture. Heavy applications of chemical pesticides, usually sprayed from planes or tractors, results in pesticide drift, the movement of pesticide droplets to areas outside the field, including nearby neighborhoods and wildlife habitat, where they endanger the health of humans and animals who may breath in the droplets or absorb them through their skin. 

Furthermore, monoculture operations help drive global warming and escalate climate catastrophes by emitting massive quantities of three of the most common greenhouse gases into the atmosphere: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide, which together help make agriculture responsible for up to one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

On the farm, tractors spew tons of CO2 into the air as they make pass after pass over immense seas of commodity crops, plowing, disking, mowing, tilling, cultivating, planting, spraying, harvesting and applying fertilizers. Manufacturing those fertilizers for farmers across the globe accounts for up to 575 megatons of CO2-equivilant emissions per year. And of course the fleet of transport vehicles and masses of processing machinery and refrigeration needed to prepare and carry the harvest to the distant corners of globe emit a formidable amount of CO2.

Most of the methane produced by agriculture is a result of the normal digestive processes of farm animals and thus may seem of little concern to an analysis of industrial agriculture. But it is precisely because meat and dairy production have become industrialized, fixed upon objectives of efficiency and profitability, that we have seen small pasture- and animal-oriented farms almost disappear, replaced by contained animal feeding operations (CAFOs), more commonly known as factory farms. CAFOs completely depend upon the cheap GM corn and soy surpluses of the monoculture system to inexpensively and unnaturally fatten the animals for slaughter. The result is a meat industry that can profitably sell huge quantities of its product at artificially low prices, kindling further demand for cheap meat, which in turn justifies and encourages further factory farm production. Meanwhile, the severely mistreated animals are spewing unnumbered tons of methane into the air, while their waste accumulates into a toxic mass, which itself releases yet more methane, as well as nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas.

Nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere mainly as a result of applying synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to farmland to supplement soils being systematically depleted by industrial monocultures growing GM commodity crops like corn, soy, wheat, rice and cotton.

Conclusion

The dominant conversation about GMOs is missing the point. To speak about GMO technology as such – its inherent harms, risks, or safety – might be an interesting and important discussion to have, but it is certainly not the most immediately relevant to our moral and political discourse. It is not what GMOs are that should demand so much attention buy, rather, what they do, what they allow and facilitate.

In our system of industrial agriculture, their role is unambiguous. To help destructive monocultures become even more productive and, thus, even more destructive to soils and communities; to make farmers increasingly dependent upon and indebted to profit-obsessed corporations; to put at risk the diversity and resilience of our food supply; to facilitate the propagation of disease from agricultural pollutants and unhealthy foods; to contaminate ecosystems and contribute to climate change.

These are the real and present functions of GMO biotechnology. They are not saviors of the poor and the hungry, nor are they gifts to farmers, consumers or the land. They are tools to grow biotech profits and consolidate corporate control over the food system.

Sources

[1] Bill McKibben, Deep Economy, p. 54, 64

[2] John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables*, p. 1-2. Figures “developed from U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics,” from P. Buringh, “Availability of Agricultural Land for Crop and Livestock Production” and “statistics from the United Nations” (p. 13)

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/19997-gmos-for-profit-the-missing-context-of-industrial-agriculture

Arguments Against Apathy

Introduction

There is no good reason to be apathetic.

We are awash amidst perpetual tides of broad and pervasive moral crises. Human beings suffer and die needlessly day after day, hour after hour, subjected to preventable hunger, disease, abuse, exploitation, slavery, poverty, violence, and war. Our planet, and the unimaginably vast web of life that it supports, is being systematically degraded and destroyed. [1]

We nearly all see the headlines. Some read the stories. A few take a take longer, deeper look at the issues. Hardly anyone moves. No one acts. Apathy rules the day.

Why is that? Why do decent people turn their backs on the dispossessed and disempowered? Why do we allow the world to be as it is when there is clearly so much to be done, not only to alleviate suffering and promote well-being, but to ensure our very ecological survival? No brief essay could hope to completely answer these questions, but I believe it may reasonably endeavor to articulate and dispute the common justifications that arise in defense of apathy. For while most people need not present any such defense in their day to day lives (so normalized is the expectation of public inaction), few that are aware of the world as it is will be able to persist long without posing the question to themselves, “Why aren’t I doing anything about this?”

For a long time I have listened to the different answers people offer up to this bothersome question and thought about responses to those answers. Here, I will attempt to systematically describe and (I hope, convincingly) disprove what I have observed to be among the most common and basic justifications for apathy, both so that readers can no longer hide behind them in the privacy of their own disquieted reflections and so that they may judge them, in conversation with others and within the broader public discourse, as without merit or substance, as cloaks which conceal our moral cowardice.

Apathy and Ignorance

I will define apathy as the lingering attitude or default mentality of inaction; it describes the failure to involve one’s self practically, emotionally, and/or mentally in the working out of recognized social problems[2]. It is significantly—though not completely—distinct from ignorance, which is the mere unknowing of those problems. Apathy and ignorance mingle and coalesce insofar as individuals in some sense choose to keep themselves in the dark about social problems that they could otherwise easily become informed about, thus perpetuating a form of sub-conscious or semi-conscious apathy through their voluntary ignorance. Such voluntary ignorance is usually not explicitly chosen or deliberately decided upon but unreflectively maintained by long-standing habit and encouraged by social conventions.

Apathy that is to a substantial degree free of ignorance may be called reasoned apathy, or rationalized apathy, which takes the form of a conclusion that arises from an argument. This argument is usually supplemental and often subordinate to other factors that contribute in their sum to the inaction of the individual. Such factors include habitual inertia, selfishness, and internalized social, cultural, and political pressures. However, since it is the argument behind apathy that shapes and codifies public discourse as well as soothes the mind fond of reason and the heart warm with empathy, it is still a worthy and necessary task to identify and disprove those arguments.  For if only sub-conscious motivators exist to supply apathy with its impetus, then many more will be compelled to action and those still uncertain of their stance may become obliged to participate in the working out of social problems by witnessing the changing attitudes and behaviors arising about them.

There are four principal justifications for inaction in the face of a social problem. When individually refuted, each is likely to retreat to an even more basic justification. What follows is a typical regression of defense for apathy:  (1) that all potential solutions are impractical, (2) that any particular individual is impotent to affect real change, (3) that the individual in question is not responsible for addressing the problem, and (4) that morality does not or might not exist.

Practicality

This line of reasoning goes something like this: Solving or meaningfully addressing problem x is impractical and thus should not be attempted. This argument has within it at least two contradictions when applied to social phenomena.

First, it assumes an immense, exhaustive understanding of whatever problem is being considered, in all of its many facets and contexts, which is obviously an unlikely reality. Specifically, it judges some part or parts of the problem to be absolutely limiting, immovable factors, thus making the problem as a whole incapable of being changed. However if one then questions why that part of the problem is unchangeable, then he will necessarily need to point to another even more fundamentally limiting subpart that accounts for the first. This line of reasoning goes on ad infinitum which is absurd because there never arises a truly unchangeable foundation upon which a claim of impractically can be built. This is the case precisely because we are dealing with social issues, which are by nature the products of human beings and thus may be altered—though not always reversed—by human beings.

A brief example: the introduction of large quantities of “cheap” chemical fertilizers and “labor saving” tractors and machinery to American farms following WWII could be legitimately referenced as among the most influential forces for the country’s transition into practicing an industrial form of agriculture, characterized by systemic soil erosion and depletion, the depopulation and impoverishment of the countryside, an overwhelming reliance upon petroleum, and the concentration of our food supply into shockingly few hands. One may say that to change this state of affairs is impractical because we have now grown too dependent on chemical inputs and machines to feed ourselves. But it is we who create those dependencies and it is we who can disassemble them, by readopting an ethic of sustainable land stewardship and a culture that values and supports the work of small farmers and the importance of healthy food and good land. This is a social change that could be achieved through diverse social initiatives. Which is to say that there is nothing fundamentally limiting about our current “dependencies” on agricultural chemicals and heavy machinery.

If one then insists that social initiatives to change the state of industrial agriculture are impractical because of broader trends like urbanization and technological progress, then again there arise social responses to these trends, for example, designing cities to be economically tied to and reciprocal with their local agriculture, incentivizing new small farmers with affordable land and start-up loans, limiting the use of chemical, mechanical, and GMO technology, etc. Of course one could here object (as they always can) that these responses are also are impractical for reasons x, y, and z. The point is that these reasons are always social realities, capable of being changed by social forces, by people.

Any argument that states a given social problem to be incapable of being addressed by people is fundamentally disingenuous, since social problems are inherently subject to the effects of human actions.

One might contrast this situation to a purely technical problem, which will have definite limits as defined by scientific laws. Of course these laws are still the ultimate contexts of social phenomena as well, but not so directly that they could be referred to in order to prove a problem as being incapable of change.

The second contradiction is more basic and yet still rampantly ignored: that when one believes or concludes a state of conditions to be determinately incapable of change, that belief or conclusion instantaneously and directly contributes to its own fulfillment, since it functionally removes the individual a priori from any possible action. However if a different belief or conclusion were maintained then so too would the reality of those conditions—since there would then exist the potential for that person’s action—revealing them to be contingent not on objective, limiting factors but on the subjective attitudes and opinions of individuals. When a person decides to act to improve a social situation or solve a social problem despite apparent difficulty and popular apathy, their efforts change—albeit often in minor, immeasurable ways—that situation and make apathy, by definition, that much less popular.

In other words, to believe that social problems are intractable and their solutions impractical, and to behave in accordance with those beliefs, is exactly what threatens to make them so. Thus apathy works to create the very conditions of impractically that are supposed to justify it in the first place. Apathy based on the argument of impracticality is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Impotence of the Individual

This argument proceeds by allowing that although a problem is in theory possible of being meaningfully addressed, no single individual (especially not me!) is powerful or influential enough to make an appreciable difference. In addition to falling prey to the same basic contradiction of self-fulfilling apathy that was just noted above, this argument also reveals fundamental errors of empiricism and intuition.

The empirical error has to do with the implicit assumption embedded here that there exist forces of action that are of greatly varying magnitudes. Specifically, it rests in the mistaken assumption that there are forces other than individuals— governments, corporations, international agencies, NGOs, etc.—that are the only appropriate entities for addressing problems since they are believed to have the requisite amount of power and influence to affect change, something mere individuals supposedly lack. But of course all of these social bodies are made up of individuals and are allowed to function only insofar as individuals maintain and support them. So while it is undoubtedly true that certain individuals have more power and influence than others depending on their social position and level of privilege, and that organized individuals wield more power than solitary ones, there are no non-individual forces of action; there is no other unit for action than individual action, action executed by people.

If one admits only individuals to be at issue but still maintains that only those super-powerful individuals are capable of solving problems, that only CEOs and politicians and specialists can do anything about anything, then they swiftly fall back into the fallacy of self-fulfilled impotence, for it is solely by the compliance—whether implicit or explicit—of the wider public that an executive’s company or a politician’s party or government is allowed to exist and function as it does.

If one denies the individual’ s active role and insists that even the most powerful people are helpless to alter the effects of those broad social, cultural, political, and economic structures that dominate the trajectory of society, then the same empirical error rears its head, since every “greater” force that is conjured to render the individual impotent is also shown by social analysis—since they are social forces—to have been authored, maintained, and developed through the course of history by individuals.

The intuitive error built into thinking of the individual as basically impotent to affect change is due to a common inclination to formulate our personal orientations toward social problems as an all or nothing relationship. So that one usually asks one’s self, “Can I solve the problem by my action?” or “Can I make a meaningful, measurable difference by my action? Because if not (and I am quite sure I cannot), I might as well not try in the first place.” But this framing of the question completely misrepresents the reality of an individual’s place in society, which is one individual living amongst many other individuals. Just because any one person is incapable of completely altering or undermining pathological social realities does not mean that she therefore cannot or should not attempt to contribute to such changes, since that is all any one person can do.

Indeed, most every individual is already actively participating in many of the social phenomena that they would find morally problematic. Voting, paying taxes, and obeying the law are all forms of implicit approval concerning the government, just as shopping, driving, and eating (unless you grow your own food) are implicit forms of approval regarding the capitalist-market economy. We are already intimately involved with systemic social problems by our roles as citizens and consumers. Every action we take within these roles has moral relevance in relation to the problems that our political and economic systems generate or contribute to. With this understanding there is not really such a thing as inaction. To irresponsibly consume or comply with an unjust government at the cost of destroying our environment and degrading the well-being of others is to contribute to harm; it is to ally oneself with the very kind of social problems that most recognize as needing to be resolved. We are all morally relevant participants of social phenomena and thus we are all integrally involved with the problems that are part of those phenomena. No individual is impotent to affect change on account of being an individual; individuals are the only things that may create such change.

Responsibility

Here is the next line of retreat: Ok, so there are social problems capable of being practically addressed by individuals, but I am not the one responsible to do so. This of course begs the question, who is? Certainly other individuals, seeing as they are the sole unit or force that affects social change. So then what would make some individuals more or less responsible for solving social problems than others? There are at least a few ways to answer that question, but they all have to do with the particular relationships that exist between individuals and the conditions that make up social problems.

The first relationship is causal; one may answer the above question by saying, those who started and/or authored the problem are responsible to resolve it. This clearly has an element of truth to it but it is still not a comprehensive answer to the question, nor is it always applicable in the first place. For example, the individuals who often have the strongest causal links to certain social problems are also often dead or do not have the means to resolve the problem they created.  But what is even a greater obstacle for this line of reasoning is determining with any accuracy exactly who is causally responsible for a given problem and where one can draw the line between those who started a problem and those who merely perpetuated or contributed to it by their compliance and participation. And then we must ask if there is even moral relevancy or legitimacy to that distinction. For it seems obvious that those who benefit from and participate in a social phenomenon that causes harm to others or to the environment are still in part responsible for that harm even if they did not originally conceive of that phenomenon.

The ongoing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is a readily available example.  The destructive consequences of this accumulation cannot be overstated. Entire small island nations and coastal cities face the deadly and displacing threat of rising sea levels; the world’s food supply is endangered by broad and erratic weather changes, disrupting agricultural systems everywhere; severe and unseasonal storms and droughts stress global infrastructures and threaten the cities and communities they connect and service; wildlife migrations shift to adapt to weather alterations, thereby severely disrupting otherwise balanced ecosystems; the list goes on.  But what happens when we ask, “Who is responsible for anthropogenic global warming and climate change?” If we appeal to causality, then the answer must include a condemnation of those who emit greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2). Or would it be of those who first started emitting those gases in the context of an industrial economy, since we know that pre-industrial revolution atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were more or less stable throughout the course of human civilization?

If we answer yes to that second question, then we face the challenge of holding a lot of long dead businessmen, industrialists, and politicians accountable for a very urgent contemporary crisis. If we forgive them their folly or recognize the irrelevance of condemning them, then we must look towards those currently emitting greenhouse gases as those most causally responsible for their destructive consequences. But in a society built upon a fossil-fuel energy economy, where virtually every participant in that economy contributes to the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas, where does responsibility lie? Could we agree that some low-level emissions—like those of an average individual—are permissible while those of heavily polluting corporations are not? Where would one draw the line to quantitatively make that distinction? Would everyday consumers then be off the hook regardless of their carbon footprint, even when they are most often the beneficiaries of the products that corporations burn such copious amounts of dirty fuels and clear such vast tracts of carbon sequestering ecosystems to produce?

Questions such as these point to the fact that causal responsibility is only legitimate when applied to all those involved in the perpetuation of a harmful phenomenon. In the case of climate change, this means that all greenhouse emitters are guilty of the harm their emissions help cause, in exact proportion to their quantitative greenhouse contributions. But this is not the whole story. Causality is not and cannot be the only kind of relationship between individuals and social conditions that determines responsibility. If it were, then every individual would have to possess equivalent power to influence a social problem. But this is obviously not the case; it is a person’s role in society that most enables (or prevents) them to affect social problems.

Thus, another basis for determining responsibility is tied to one’s social role or occupation. One may say, those charged by society with the proper orderings of the state, of domestic and international policies, and those members of powerful corporations and organizations are responsible for solving social problems. Again, there is common sense in this idea that is of merit, but by itself it is again insufficient. Built within it are two false assumptions; one is about the relation between individuals and institutions; the other concerns the very nature of those institutions.

The most powerful institutions are the modern nation-state and the for-profit multinational corporation. Though most individuals do not labor directly on behalf of these institutions, they are nonetheless in a regular and permanent relationship with them as citizens and consumers.

Politically, if one is a citizen of a democratic, republican, or parliamentary government, then they are, at least formally and in principle, exactly the people charged with moral decisions, by the power of their vote, which should be the culminating action of a much broader political life of discourse, reflection, activism, and debate. If one lives in an authoritarian government, which includes those states that are democratic in name but who violate its principles in practice and policy, then the government has no moral legitimacy in the first place, since the people have neither autonomy nor representation. In such cases, every individual is responsible to work to overthrow or radically reform their government, since those individuals whom compose the government have little or no notion of responsibility to the welfare of the people, being interested rather in preserving and expanding their own personal or collective positions of power.

Economically, if one lives in a capitalist-market economy, then they use the selective power of their consumption to directly contribute to what is available within the marketplace, since their purchasing of a good or service creates demand, to which the market responds with greater supply. And since the production, distribution, and consumption of commercial products vary greatly in respect to their moral consequences (treatment, safety, wages, and autonomy of workers, environmental sustainability or lack thereof, distribution of profits, usefulness, safety, and resilience of products for consumers, etc.), choosing amongst such products is itself an intrinsically morally relevant act. Thus, to be a consumer is also to be responsible for the production and viability of what one consumes.

However, the responsibilities of citizens and consumers stated here depend upon specific and somewhat idealized conceptions of political and economic institutions. We must still ask more fundamentally, can modern nation-states and capitalist-market economies actually function to develop and secure the public welfare? Can structures that have historically been wielded by a relatively small group of individuals to hold power over the majority, much to their own economic and political advantages, be expected to pursue a free, open, and more equal society, for the betterment of all?

If they cannot, then the question of responsibility becomes nonsensical when applied to those invested with institutional power; their imperative is not that of the people, but that of their institution; they strive not towards public health or happiness but private power and profit. Thus the responsibility for change lies on the oppressed people themselves, upon the majority who have little to lose and much to gain by dismantling established social structures in favor for ones that better address their needs and improve their lives.

Morality

We have thus far been discussing apathy and action as relating to morally significant social problems. Thus the final argument for being apathetic puts morality itself in doubt and roughly proceeds, though there exist problems that I am capable of acting upon and that I would be responsible for addressing if morality existed, I am unconvinced that it does.

Few come this far in public discourse. Though we may disagree about exactly what morality means and what gives it authority, most all accept its reality.  This common ground is tied to the universality of holding values and having experiences. Values can be fulfilled or failed; experiences can be better or worse. This is enough to construct a common sense and self-evident conception of morality, as actions that fulfill common values and improve common experiences are therefore good, while those that fail common values and create common experiences of suffering are likewise bad. This is enough to take the idea of responsibility seriously, as one’s actions or inactions affect the status of values and the quality of experiences, thus making them morally responsible for that affect.

Conclusion

There is no good reason to be apathetic. In the face of so much suffering, destruction, and death that we produce through our economic and political structures, cheered on and normalized by a perverse dominant culture, it is clear that bold and radical action is needed. When one recognizes the groundlessness of their apathy they must see it for what it is: cowardly, selfish, and deeply immoral. To recognize this and internalize its significance is to take the first and perhaps most challenging step to living an ethical life of meaningful action and virtuous intention.  Let us take this step together and urge others to do the same.


[1] I could here reference the latest OXFAM, IMF, WTO, World Bank, WHO, ACLU, NAACP, IPCC, United Nations, etc. etc. statistics (which are often problematic in their own right for a number of reasons) along with a virtually endless selection of excellent full-length works of history and contemporary analysis on the proceedings and unfoldings of human and environmental degradation, but will instead refrain for the sake of brevity and focus, taking for granted that readers accept the truth that all is not well in the world.

[2] “Social problem” is here being used to describe an existing or potential conflict that is inherently of moral significance, i.e., that affects the lives and well-being of sentient creatures, humans first and foremost. They are not merely technical problems. Examples obviously abound and are usually interrelated: climate change & global warming, worker exploitation, poverty, government corruption & crimes against democracy, systemic corporate malfeasance, ecological & environmental destruction, the oppression of women, institutionalized racism, wars of aggression etc., etc.

 

An Analytic Synopsis of US Industrial Agriculture

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This essay was written as a result of a conversation I had with a friend when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer working with small farmers in rural Paraguay. We were discussing the violent imperialism that is US foreign policy in the context of its many military aggressions when I brought up US industrial agriculture as a similarly grave and multi-faceted problem with tremendous moral consequences. He flat out disagreed with this assessment but told me he didn’t have time to get into it. He never made that time, but I was incensed enough to more systematically lay out some worthy grievances against big ag, informed by my work and experiences in Paraguay and by the astute observations and analyses of the authors listed below.

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Modern day US agriculture, which is at base an industrial enterprise, is fundamentally broken. It has been found to be an overtly destructive, corrosive force when brought before nearly any standard of analysis, save for those narrowly defined values of industrial capitalism, of efficiency, productivity, and profitability, values that have no explicit correlation to moral goods of well-being or health and which implicitly run counter to such goods. Certain standards of particular importance are attended to below and should give evidence to the above claim.

Ecologically, industrial agriculture has resulted in an astronomical and largely irreversible loss of soil fertility and biodiversity as tractors and heavy equipment erode and compact soils while the chemical pesticides and fertilizers they apply destroy the microorganisms, insects, invertebrates, and fungi that compose a healthy, living soil. Artificial selection and use of genetically modified crops have resulted in a biological monopolization of agriculturally utilized plant species, making crops less resilient to diseases, pests, droughts, frosts, and other stressors. The frequency and impact of diseases and pests are further encouraged by the depletion of our soils brought about by mechanically and chemically farmed monocultures, thus “requiring” more fertilizer to replace fertility and more pesticides to kill pests and combat disease. This cycle of applying remedies to problems that those remedies primarily cause continues until the land is exhausted. Additionally, the CO₂ emissions from tractors and other farming and processing machinery, as well as the fleet of transport vehicles that distribute produce across the country and US corn and soy around the globe contribute significantly to global warming, as do the abundant methane emissions released through cow belches and manure, thanks to our beef and dairy industries.

Nutritionally, and in relation to public health, industrial agriculture and its close and indispensable ally, “food science,” have provided consumers with relatively nutrient-poor food products, replacing fresh produce with chemically preserved, genetically modified “food”, the health effects of which are largely unknown and potentially dangerous.[1] Chemical pesticide residues, found on most all (even washed) conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and present in the meat of animals fattened on chemically-sprayed feed crops as well in many rural areas’ water supplies are toxic and strongly linked with an array of serious health problems including: “early-onset Parkinson’s disease, shortened attention span, memory disorders, and reduced coordination; reproductive problems including miscarriages; reduced infant development; birth defects; depression; and cancer.[2] Scientists at the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Environmental Health Science  found that their “studies show that chronic low-level pesticide exposure is associated with a broad range of nervous system symptoms: headache, fatigue, dizziness, tension, anger, depression, and impaired memory, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease” and that in regards to “the cancers non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and prostate cancer”, they conclude that there is “a link between pesticide use and cancer.”[3]

Economically, the agricultural system is immensely wasteful in its resource use and unjust in its distribution on profits. Factory farms systematically fail to utilize manure as fertilizer, thus transforming a potentially valuable resource into a sanitation hazard. Livestock is regularly lost to disease and brought to slaughtering weight only with the aid of antibiotics made necessary by an unnatural grain—rather than grass—diet. Urban areas fail to utilize unnumbered tons of compostable organic material now being treated as waste. Large-scale monoculture operations depend entirely upon petroleum for fuel, chemicals, and product transport, thus rendering it vulnerable to unstable global oil prices that will, in the long-run will only increase due to peak-oil (the leveling off and eventual decline of global oil extraction; global discoveries of petroleum peaked decades ago) related scarcities. Multinational machine, seed, and chemical corporations and their sponsored experts reap huge profits while farmers are kept in continual debt and dependence as they are pressured to outgrow and out-compete their neighbors with more expensive, “laboring-saving” technologies.

Politically, global exports of corn and soy help perpetuate the myth of American international benevolence (our military interventions in the Philippines, Haiti, Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iran, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan being but a few choice examples from this century to the contrary), increase the dependence of developing nations on foreign aid, give the US undue leverage to influence policy abroad, and incentivize farmers to contribute to the already irrational surplus of corn and soy with government subsidies, without which most could not keep up with their debts. These subsidies also force small farmers in developing nations to lower the prices of their products so that they may compete with US monocultures, driving millions from the countryside to the world’s cities as local food economies are forcibly replaced by a glut of cheap foreign commodity crops. Industrial monocultures replace sustenance-farming communities, substituting the great multitudes of traditionally planted seed varieties with genetically-modified seeds that are patented as the intellectual property of US-based multinational seed and chemical corporations such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow, making it illegal for farmers to save their seed from year to year and therefore mandating that they annually repurchase the GMO seed from those above mentioned companies, as well as the chemical herbicides that GMO seeds are most typically modified to resist. This situation gives profit driven and politically connected corporations an unprecedented amount of control over the global food supply, while leaving local farmers and communities utterly incapable of acquiring or maintaining food security.

Ethically, industrial agriculture has abolished the well-being of conscious, sentient (i.e., being capable of suffering) and thus morally-relevant animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. These animals have been itemized and made mechanical; this view has resulted in the hellish phenomenon that is the modern day factory farm or “contained animal feeding operation”, where animals live to be fed and medicated only enough to be slaughtered and sold at a profit and eaten by a consumer populace that is predominantly ignorant of what it supporting when it consumes conventionally “raised” animal products. These animals live virtually without space, in unsanitary environments, eating foods their bodies have not evolved to break down and utilize well.

Culturally, industrial agriculture has brought about a profoundly damaging disconnect between consumers and producers, people and the land, rural and urban realities, as well as between eating food and understanding where it came from and what it took to grow, process, and transport. This disconnect has promoted and exacerbated the aforementioned problems, allowing the destructive industrial model to develop as rampantly as it has. Values once widely—though far from uniformly—maintained and cultivated on family farms and within rural communities of responsible and skillful land stewardship, humility before nature and neighbor, and economic thrift and independence have been lost, as has their ability to check the contemporary evils of ecological degradation and human and animal exploitation.

This is not an exhaustive account of grievances but rather one representative of the profound scale of failure that the industrial approach to farming embodies. The land and the incredibly complex biota that it supports and is composed of—including human beings—cannot be understood nor interacted with through the narrow lenses of economics and industry. To attempt to do so is folly.

What is needed is both a methodology and a culture of farming that sees the land as an ecological system, organized by natural principles of life, death, decay, and renewal in which the farmer is a participant, student and caretaker. Many forms of farming already take this ecological approach, trading in the industrial metaphor of the machine for the biological metaphor of the organism to guide and describe their efforts as “organic”. Many do so in name more than in practice. Yet it is this collective body of alternative farming that is demonstrating the immense capacities of well-cared-for land to provide an abundance of healthy, nutritious food, to improve community sustainability and independence, improve the lives of farmers and farmhands while respecting those of other animals, all while reconnecting untold numbers of individuals with the natural world of which they are part and on which they depend. Developing and popularizing these alternative forms of agriculture is of the greatest importance, for in doing so we work towards broadly securing those self-evident moral goods of health and well-being in a way that strives for harmony with—rather than dominance over—nature.

 

Other Sources:

Berry, Wendell. (1977, 1996). The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Engdahl, F. William. (2007). Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Agenda of Genetic Manipulation.  Montreal: Global Research

Howard, Sir Albert. (1947, 2007). The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture. University Press of Kentucky.

Jeavons, John. (2012). How to Grow more Vegetables*. Ecology Action GROW BIOINTENSIVE Publications. Ten Speed Press.

Leapold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press.

Poland, Michael. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press.

Singer, Peter. (2001). Writings on the Ethical Life. New York: Harper Perennial.

Zinn, Howard. (2003). A People’s History of the United States. New York: Perennial Classics.


[1] Arpad Pusztai, “Genetically Modified Foods: Are They a Risk to Human/Animal Health?,” 2000-2009 American Institute of Biological Sciences, ActionBioscience.org, http://www.ask-force.org/web/Pusztai/Pusztai-GM-Foods-Risk-Human-Animal-Health-2001.PDF.

[2] National Resources Defense Council, “Trouble on the Farm; Growing Up with Pesticides in Agricultural Communities,” chapter 1 from an article on http://www.nrdc.org/health/kids/farm/chap1.asp. http://www.puristat.com/standardamericandiet/pesticides.aspx.

[3] Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, “Health Effects of Chronic Pesticide Exposure,” Alavanja, M.C.R., Hoppin, J.A. and F. Kamel. 2004. Health Effects of Chronic Pesticide Exposure: Cancer and Neurotoxicity. Annual Review of Public Health 25: 155-197. http://www.pesticide.org/the-buzz/health-effects-of-chronic-pesticide-exposure.

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