It is hard to think of any aspect of our times as potent as agriculture in revealing the insidiously destructive side of capital development and showing us the most dramatic result of the global process that continues to be called “economic growth”: the progressive diminishing of the diversity of life forms and the trend towards their annihilation. A broad, multifaceted view of the point this process has reached – with examples mainly from the agriculture of the USA and the developing countries – is now available in Fatal Harvest. The Tragedy of Insustrial Agriculture (Island Press, San Rafael, California. 2002), a thick volume edited by Andrew Kimbrell and containing contributions from dozens of writers with a variety of backgrounds and specialties. It covers all the elements of the abyss into which intensive agriculture around the world is hurtling.
The first and perhaps the leading lesson to be learned from almost a century of industrial cultivation methods, is how greatly they have impoverished the biological heritage passed down from earlier generations. The apparent prosperity and abundance of food in the advanced countries hides a loss of real wealth. For example, as Vandana Shiva records (p.71), even a superficial glance down supermarket shelves would seem to show that the American consumer is in a privileged situation and has a wide variety to choose from. ‘In reality, however, this is an illusion of choice rather than a real opportunity to experience food diversity.We certainly have a wide variety of brand names from which to choose. Unfortunately, the “variety” of corporate brand logos does not reflect biological variety. In fact, almost all of our processed food products are made from the same few raw food materials—corn, wheat, rice and potatoes.’ (p. 71)
Nevertheless, dwelling on Shiva’s example, one could reiterate that American supermarkets today do indeed offer greater variety, due to rapid food transportation. You need only think of the fruits that can reach every corner of the world in a matter of hours. But even this is partly sham: after the various preservation and refrigeration processes they undergo, the real variety these fruits offer is often more their color and shape: in many cases their flavors are depressingly uniform. Such abundance, in quantity terms, hides what is no less than a real biological catastrophe, the irremediable loss of thousands of fruit varieties, which we inherited after tens of centuries of selection and intense labor by farmers. A large proportion of the plants and fruits available at the beginning of the 20th century have now disappeared. In the 1800s, for instance, there were over 7,000 varieties of apple grown in the USA. Today around 80 percent of these are classified as extinct and over half the production comes from just two varieties.
There is a great deal of material on the developing countries. ‘On Chiloé Island off the coast of Chile,’ writes Helena Norberg-Odge ‘there were enough strains of potato to eat a different kind each day of the year.’ (p.14) Now there are no more than 30 left, all grown for export.
Yet there is a justifiable counter-argument to such recriminations, which are common in environmental literature. Supporters of industrial agriculture may well claim that the abandonment of all these varieties and the selection of just a few, highly productive strains, has been the means of providing enough food to satisfy a growing population and quality had to be sacrificed for quantity. In reality, though, this argument, although logical and persuasive, simply doesn’t stand up. Quantity increases could equally well have taken place without limiting diversity. Why not grow high-yielding potato strains as well as those that are less productive but have other attractions: a particularly fine taste, disease resistance, a different ripening time and so on? Retaining varieties that are resistant to parasites, for example, could have helped reduce expenditure on pesticides, a significant item in farming budgets.
In fact, wherever markets operated locally, even within industrialized countries, crops and cuisines remained intact for much longer, partially as a result of the close relationship between producer and customer. But in the end even they were swept away by the standardization imposed by the commercial powers that be. In effect, there were several causes for the decay of genetic heritage but the main one was that modern agriculture, like any other branch of industry, was led solely by profit motives. Now, up to a certain point, profit motives are a great incentive for improving technical efficiency and production levels, but they lead to an inexorable conflict between maintaining biological diversity—which means maintaining life itself—and turning out goods.
Piero Bevilacqua teaches contemporary history at the University of Rome and is an expert on the history of agriculture
Adapted by Maureen Ashley