Pragmatism With Big Ag

Note: As a student in Marylhurst University’s Food Systems and Society master’s program, I am writing a lot. When I started the year I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t have time to also write my weekly blog posts. That concern has born itself out—it’s been a struggle! But I recently had an epiphany: I could use some of my writing from last quarter in my blog posts. So, the following is an essay I wrote, citations and everything!

My goal in considering solutions for the food system is to challenge Big Agriculture without becoming an apologist for it. As I noted in [a previous essay], I value small-scale farms and community gardens but doubt they alone can solve the food crisis. I feel that if Big Ag can be coerced to embrace more sustainable practices, as is being attempted within energy industry policy with solar and wind power, or the automobile industry with more efficient cars, more headway will be made than by trying to replace Big Ag with something else. In this way, I consider myself a pragmatist.

As noted in Bennett et al, being a pragmatist is somewhat dicey: “When praised, the pragmatist is credited with hard-headed attention to what it takes to get things done, combined, perhaps, with a necessary indifference to abstract questions concerning the good and the true. [Author’s note: I would put ‘good’ and ‘true’ in quotation marks.] When blamed, the pragmatist is contrasted with the ‘person of principle,’ who ignores the world’s political realities and holds fast precisely to those considerations of the good and the true that must not be slighted or compromised in the interest of achieving some desired end” (2005).

There is a tradition in the United States of supporting an entity until it becomes too powerful, at which time then it becomes reviled in popular culture (though still powerful). Examples: Microsoft; Britney Spears [substitute Justin Bieber in light of recent events]; Facebook; Science; Monsanto. This is made easier by the fact that entities that become too powerful almost always abuse their power. Monsanto is an interesting case, as it’s become the scapegoat for all industrial agriculture—Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, or ConAgra are rarely mentioned for similar pursuits. While Monsanto spent more than $8 million on the Prop. 37 campaign in California in 2012, DuPont spent $5.4 million (Voter’s Edge, 2012). But few protesters mention DuPont on their placards. Pointing this out sometimes makes me appear to be speaking up for Monsanto, when really I’m just trying to paint a more complete picture.

Along the same lines, I might appear to be defending Big Ag when I suggest that they might need to be included in, rather than routed from, a solution to our food crisis. As Holt-Giménez and Wang note, “If the history of U.S. capitalism and social change is a reliable guide, we can be assured that substantive changes to the corporate food regime will not come simply from within the regime itself, but from a combination of intense social pressure and political will” (2011). But it can happen. The successful photocopy corporation Kinko’s added Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified paper to its selection (GreenBiz.com, 2003). Nike changed its corporate policies to improve working conditions and compensation. The effect of scale when a corporation makes a change like this is much more significant than that of a bunch of smaller companies.

If Big Ag were convinced, via social pressure and/or political will, to halve its pesticide use, the result might eclipse all of the organic community gardens combined. The public never tried to eliminate Kinko’s or Nike (not to mention such effort would be futile); they simply sent a message to act like responsible global citizens. If Big Ag is approached in the same way, we might see similar results.

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2 thoughts on “Pragmatism With Big Ag

  1. Sybilla Cook says:

    Interesting thought–pragmatic instead of shrill! We usually work better when we work together instead of going to the opposte sides.

  2. Josh Rich says:

    The idealist can be a bit like a broken clock: Every once in a while they are right, and their vision is realized in its totality. Then that lucky person is put on a pedestal for the next idealist to ogle. A more consistently successful strategy is to see what’s there and work for gradual betterment. Ron Wyden is a good example of the latter.

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