Globalization and Agriculture

Globalization can be viewed from a very negative perspective in industrial agriculture.  This ideological struggle considers not jobs or cultural problems, but the treatment of man as a machine and the effects of industry on human culture as a whole.  While this issue can be applied to the United States, its assertions transcend the world as a whole.

In “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems,” Wendell Berry argues for a return of the organic and natural practices of farming by exploiting the shortcomings of an industrial vision of agriculture.  He contends that the treatment of man as a machine has negative implications both for the nature of agriculture and for humanity itself, including consequences such as ecological destruction and the deterioration of man’s relationship to nature and even to himself.  However, agriculture is only a microcosm of the global problem of technology and industry.  Globalization and industrialization are destroying both nature and human culture at a more rapid rate than the earth and the people living on it can preserve, protect, or replenish these elements.  Yet, the discussion of industrial agriculture’s wastefulness, its problem of quality, and its treatment of man as a machine brings about key issues plaguing the globalizing world at large.

The wastefulness which occurs as a result of industrial farming proves not only to be an agricultural problem, but an ideological one as well.  Berry contends that naturally, “waste does not occur” (31) because everything is part of a natural and inclusive cycle which enriches the next generation of life.  Yet, he continues, waste “has always been intrinsic to industrial production” with “unusable ‘by-products’” and the characteristics of “exhaustion and contamination.”

However, cotton farmers could argue against Berry’s assertions because this network of people leaves virtually no “unusable by-products” throughout production.  Because cotton farmers are mainly driven by profit rather than the conservation of their land, they have invented “creative and profitable uses” (Rivoli 50) to sell almost every part of their cotton.  While most of the by-products of cotton can be converted in some way to suitable animal feed, there are also several more unconventional uses for what would otherwise be garbage.  The bolls, stems, leaves, and dirt – or the “gin trash” (Rivoli 51) – are “being converted into briquettes (to be burned for fuel), building materials, fertilizer, and ethanol.”  Cottonseed can also be used as fertilizer.  Cottonseed oil is utilized for many processed and packaged foods that can be found in supermarket aisles for human consumption.  Additionally, the meal of the cottonseed is used not only to feed cattle, but “just about any critter at all” (Rivoli 53).  The hull of the seed can be used for fertilizer, garden mulch, and soil conditioner.  Finally, cotton fuzz, or linters, are collected to create large bundles of fuzz which is sold to manufacturers for pillows, automobile upholstery, and other stuffing (Rivoli 51-55).

The example of cotton production exemplifies a prevalent, yet narrow cultural viewpoint based primarily on the economic value of agricultural undertakings.  Although cotton producers waste little to none of the crop’s by-products, Berry’s assertions concerning “exhaustion and contamination” (Berry 31) still stand.  Cotton farmers use fertilizer and industrial equipment, which contribute to increasing agricultural pollution.  Machines powered by nonrenewable resources are part of an “energy industry” which is “destructive and self-exhausting.”  From an economist’s standpoint, however, wastefulness is nonexistent since every part of the cotton harvested is utilized for some practical purpose.  Producing cotton, then, is both profitable and recyclable.  Pietra Rivoli, along with many others, views agriculture as an industrial endeavor.  Her argument is “contempt” (Orr 134) for nature and human culture “disguised by terms of bamboozlement” such as “needs, costs and benefits… [and] economic growth.”  Wastefulness of the earth and its resources represents a widespread inconsistency in the current cultural ideology: while many focus on efficiency and profitability, an emphasis on quality and waste reduction would prove more efficient and profitable in the long run.

The advancement of industry and therefore wastefulness goes hand in hand with the evolution of how man views himself.  Prior to industrialization, man was a nurturer who used raw materials to take care of himself, his family, and his property.  With the innovative technology which floods our markets today, man acts more as a puppeteer who manipulates these machines that perform the hard labor because “technology now allows us to move much further toward total domination of nature than ever before” (Orr 132).  Berry, then, defines the evolution of man from a natural or organic creature to as “interchangeable as machine parts” (Berry 29).  Man, in this rapidly evolving world, is becoming as obsolete as last year’s software.  The term ‘pedestrian’ and even nature itself “pales by comparison” (Orr 134) to the evermore powerful machines.  Technology is globalizing the world, which spells doom for poor countries which cannot compete technologically, economically, or scientifically against dominant nations (Rivoli 25).  Man is no longer a self-sufficient being; instead, he depends on industrialized materials to increase efficiency and profitability not only in agriculture, but in all ways of living.

The desire to increase efficiency and profitability originated without knowledge of the widespread consequences of industrialization, yet now this cultural shift is “so thoroughly ingrained in us that we can scarcely conceive of any other manner of thinking” (Orr 133).   As industries continue to escalate in smarter, faster, and better technology, culture and man’s role on earth is continuously shaped by this trend.  With a narrow focus, this industrial vision does work very well: “it apparentl30Series_Sprayer-JD_535500_gpc_522x302y makes it possible for about 4 percent of the population to ‘feed’ the rest” (Berry 30).  However, a wider focus illuminates extensive problems of nature and human culture.  Some of these serious problems that demonstrably connect with industrial agriculture are: “soil erosion, soil compaction, soil and water pollution, pests and diseases resulting from monoculture and ecological deterioration, depopulation of rural communities, and decivilization of the cities.”  The industrialization of agriculture exemplifies the cultural trend menacing our world today: our increased dependence on technology rather than our own capabilities can have negative and long-term consequences, including the downfall of civilization (Brown 2).

The phenomenon of modernization has altered our way of thinking and thus our way of acting in terms of agricultural endeavors.  Some argue that continued modernization – that is, “the introduction of industrial standards, methods, and technology” (Berry 33) – will solve the environmental problems that plague our planet today.  Modernization, in fact, has earned a few accolades for its improvement of one of the failures of industrial agriculture: contamination.  For example, genetically modified seeds are designed with specific genes, like the Bt gene, that are fatal to major pests.  This, in turn, allows farmers to use fewer pesticides which reduce environmental concerns (Rivoli 40).  Another example is the environmental Kuznet’s curve, which is a theory that represents the effects of industrialization.  This curve suggests that as countries first industrialize, they experience environmental degradation as economic activity moves from subsistence farms to cities and factories.  Though, as incomes continue to grow, citizens become more and more willing to pay for cleaner water and air, and environmental quality begins to improve as cleaner technologies are adopted.  In short, poor countries appear relatively unpolluted, middle-income countries more polluted, and rich countries clean again (Rivoli 47).  However, both examples of modernization have their drawbacks.  The extermination of major pests clears the way for minor pests to multiply and wreak havoc on unprepared and unprotected crops.  The Kuznet’s curve is only a theory, and environmental deterioration may become too great for “rich countries” to fix.  This perspective finds it “naïve to assume…that such an agriculture can be improved by ‘modernization’” (Berry 33).  Modernization, like industrialization, pervades current outlooks that must be weighed both for its cultural and biological impacts.

Along with increased industrialization, the problem of quality becomes more prevalent as man is increasingly treated as a machine.  Berry defines quality as “indistinguishable from health – bodily health…but also economic, political, cultural, and spiritual health” (Berry 35).  Work on the farm used to be just the farmer, his animals, and his land.  While the labor may have been strenuous, the results were entirely organic.  The accomplishment, the profit, the subsistence, and the beauty of nature all contributed to a farmer’s overall health.  People’s health, therefore, was dependent on good work.  However, “industrial economics has encouraged poor work on the farm…because poor work can be easily priced.”  Cheap labor produces cheap items, as can be seen in the factories in China.  The work is mind-numbing; there is no capacity for mental or spiritual health.  These workers also have little to no economic or political freedom because they become trapped in the system and sometimes even trapped in debt to their employer (Food, Inc).  If multinational companies paid workers a higher wage, then a greater quality of work would be expected from them.  Good work, on the other hand, can be valued but not priced” (Berry 35).

A vicious cycle which undermines “the integrity, beauty, and harmony of nature” (Orr 135) also suffocates the quality of work produced by man.  Farmers in this cycle are trapped by “scientists and economists” (Berry 35).  For example, Monsanto owns the patent to their genetically modified seed, so farmers cannot ‘catch’ the seed to plant the next season.  Instead, they must purchase the seed each year from this corporation (Food, Inc).  This theme is also backed up in The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy.  Texas farmers benefit from “a highly symbiotic and virtuous-circle relationship [among] …private companies, universities, and the U.S. government” (Rivoli 25).  Again, from an economist’s standpoint, this relationship is “virtuous;” however, the cultural and biological implications are overwhelmingly negative.  Farmers are backed by major institutions, which allow them to compete in the global economy.  While labor in the United States costs more than in developing countries, these powerful relationships affect the quality and quantity of their crops.  Man is treated like a pawn in the corporations’ multinational game, and he subsequently regards his crops as products rather than as substantive materials for his survival and well-being.  Berry’s solution for the problem of quality is the re-implementation of the subsistence principle, “the use of the product by the producer” (Berry 35) because “people who use their own products will be as concerned for quality as for quantity.”  This solution would bring back practices of good farming and thus good production since “[g]ood production is merely the result of good farming.”

In his article, Wendell Berry argues for a reappearance of the organic and natural practices of farming, and he exploits the shortcomings of an industrial vision of agriculture with his discussion of wastefulness and the problem of quality.  The treatment of man as an instrument has negative implications both for the nature of agriculture and for humanity itself, including consequences such as ecological destruction and the deterioration of man’s relationship to nature and to himself.  However, agriculture is only a small sphere of the global problem of constantly evolving technology.  Globalization and industrialization are destroying nature and human culture without remorse.  Additionally, the current narrow focus on efficiency and profitability can eventually destroy both the environment and civilization.  Yet, a shift to an emphasis on quality and waste reduction would prove more efficient and profitable for the wider focus of biology and humanity.


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