Sunday, February 14, 2016

2202. On a Leftist Criticism of Organic Agriculture

By Richard Levins, October 24, 2009

The series of four articles by Steve Clark (The Militant, August 13, 20,27 and September 10, 2002) discusses a number of questions about capitalism, imperialism  and agriculture on which we can all agree easily. But the focus of his polemic is against organic agriculture and his rejection of the suggestion that its adoption in Cuba may be something more than an emergency measure. It was in part motivated by a letter from Karl Butts who was worried that the ending of a previous article in the Militant seems to be giving "a certain political weight to the concept of organic production being preferable  to that where chemicals are used "and that readers "may also come away thinking Cuba generally chooses not to use chemicals in agricultural production."
I think he got it all wrong practically, in terms of the actual technical advantages of ecological agriculture, and theoretically.
The adoption of ecological (and more narrowly organic) methods of food production in Cuba started before the Special Period or its rapid spread would not have been possible. It started as experimental projects in a number of institutions because the researchers realized that "modern" high-tech agriculture:
  • undermined its own productive base through soil erosion, compaction, and salinization, reducing soil organic matter and nitrogen fixing capacity, increasing the need for irrigation;
  • increased vulnerability to pests and disease, requiring ever bigger and more frequent doses of pesticides;
  • increased vulnerability to the uncertainties of the weather and economy;
  • poisoned farmers and farm workers(for instance brain cancer is more prevalent in the areas that use the herbicide atrazine);
  • contaminated the ground waters and soil;
  • made the farm dependent on external inputs.
Projects in ecological pest management, polyculture, biofertilization, recycling of farm wastes, integration of crops and livestock and the redesign of farm tools and machines were undertaken at many different research centers. This is not "a reject[ion of] progress in agricultural chemistry and technology in favor of so-called natural or traditional methods of farming". It is a modern, scientific, dialectical activity of knowledge creation using and testing critically the knowledge of the peasants along with modern experimental, observational and mathematical approaches. When the special period came, we had at least a starting point for a new technology. And there is no doubt that it saved the revolution. But will this continue? Is it a second best improvisation imposed by the economic crisis  as Clark believes, or a better production system? Nilda Perez and Luis Vazquez, in a forthcoming book on Cuban agriculture deal with this:
"Everyone asks what will become of ecological pest management in Cuba as we emerge from the economic crisis of the early 1990s. As more foreign exchange becomes available for the purchase of pesticides on the international market it seems logical to some that Cuba will return to an intensive dependence on chemical inputs. Moreover, some think the current program of accelerated reduction of pesticides is simply a short-term, stop-gap answer to maintain production until pesticide imports are affordable once again. But others-- and they are more than a few-- have a very different analysis, looking seriously at economic, social, health and environmental factors, and conclude that the agroecological IPM (integrated pest management--RL) model developed to date is simply a better model…In light of recent history, it is hard to believe that Cuba would return to the calendar sprayings of the1960's and early 1970's or even to (chemical) dependence of the 1980s." (Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba, Edited by Fernando Funes, Luis Garcia, Martin Bourque, Nilda Perez and Peter Rosset. to be published in the US by Food First).
In 1997, the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment organized a  "Rio + 5" national consultation workshop to evaluate Cuban compliance with the Rio accords (Agenda 21) on the environment. For each aspect of the national environment plan such as resisting desertification, sustainable development of the mountainous regions, and sustainable agriculture, achievements were listed, difficulties identified and proposals made. One obstacle to the development of sustainable agriculture was " the existence of the opinion, at various levels, that the practice of a sustainable agriculture is only a consequence of the special period and is destined to disappear when the present limitations make it possible and there will be a return to the high inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, mechanization, etc." Thus there were people who shared Clark's views, but this was regarded as retrograde by at least the middle 1990's.
What makes agroecology a better model? Contrary to the claims of the high-tech boosters, it is economical. For instance a comparison of costs of biological and chemical control of pests in Cuba showed that in horticultural crops biological control cost about 1/3 the cost of chemical control, in grasses 1/8, in plantain 1/10, in rice 1/3.
The biological control included the raising and release of beneficial insects, fungi and bacteria, application of extracts of botanicals, enhancement of local natural enemies of pests and other methods. One reason for the economical performance is that whereas spraying has to be repeated regularly, once ants are introduced into a banana plantation they spread throughout it in about six weeks and then protect the crop at least as well as the repeated spraying does. There is still room for further cost reduction as we move from input substitution to ecosystem design.
Intercropping of different kinds of plants in the same field is partly for pest control but also has other advantages, and in the right combinations is more productive than monoculture. We represent this increased productivity by the LER (land equivalency ratio), the amount of land in monoculture needed to get the same yield as one hectare of intercropping.  For instance one hectare of intercropped cassava , tomato and maize yields as much as almost 2 hectares of these crops planted separately. Finally, I want to cite the integration of animals with crops. For instance 7-13 sheep grazing in a hectare of citrus grove produce some 343-596 kg live weight without harming citrus production, while horses can play a major role in weed suppression in citrus. Geese did not work well-- they nibbled the leaves of young trees.
Studies in the United States and other countries also show that organic methods are usually at least as good as the high-tech, especially when the weather conditions are unfavorable.
Contrary to the capitalist notion of efficiency through specialized monocultures, the future of Cuban agriculture will be a mosaic of land uses in which each area, besides providing some harvestable products, also contributes to the production of other areas. Forests yield wood, charcoal,  honey, and nuts, modulate the flow of water so as to reduce dependence on pumping irrigation water, are a refuge for beneficial insects, birds and bats, and create special microclimates around their edges to a distance of about 10 times the height of the trees. Pastures produce livestock but also retard erosion compared to row crops, produce manure and house swarms of pollinators and predators, and so on. The sizes of these patches depends on the physical conditions, the landscape, the mobility of the relevant insects, and similar factors. So there is no absolute rule that large scale is economical and modern while small is backward, nor is there an absolute rule that "small is beautiful". The ecology dictates the sizes of units of production within the larger units of planning.
Cubans and researchers in other countries have shown that ecological and organic production methods can be more productive, more economical and certainly more protective of the environment and the workers and consumers than high tech methods considered as the most "modern" in the capitalist world. Organic methods are being extended gradually as the appropriate techniques are developed. There are now projects for the development of organic production of sugar, coffee, citrus and other export crops. The new methods have to be introduced gradually, with careful preparation of technicians and farmers so that it will be done correctly. Not any old combination of crops give good yield, desisting from spraying chemicals is not organic pest control, and careless introduction of what seem like O.K. ideas could discredit the whole program. Therefore at present most agriculture includes a mixture of organic and semi-organic methods with progressive reduction of chemical use, while urban agriculture is almost totally organic. Roughly half of Cuba's vegetable production is organic, as is all the urban production. Butts is right that chemicals are used in the production of sugar, rice, coffee and indeed of other crops. But for all of them, there are programs for the reduction of chemical inputs. Transplanting of rice and mulching of sugar cane are weed control methods that reduce herbicides. Wasps are raised in on-farm insectaries for use against the sugar cane borer. The whole strategy is one of progressive reduction of chemical inputs as the alternatives are developed.
Perhaps it is unfair to use data to which Clark had no access. And yet the core of the Marxist methodology is to start with the concrete and build theoretical argument from real experience. Clark got it all wrong empirically and also methodologically and theoretically. Perhaps the core error is his view of scientific and technical progress.
Science and technology have a dual nature: they are certainly part of the general development of the knowledge and capability of the human species. But they are also the specific products of particular societies and meet the goals of the owners of those societies. This gives rise to a pattern of knowledge and ignorance chosen by the owners of the knowledge industry who recruit the scientists, set the research agendas and determine the uses of science. It is necessary to acknowledge both aspects of this contradiction and therefore both to appreciate modern science and to criticize it. Marx and Engels were enthusiastic advocates of Darwin, yet also criticized his Whig (that is, liberal) gradualism. The Science for the People movement in the 1960s-1970s in this country and similar groups internationally have struggled with this reality. Their perspective advanced from a criticism of the misuses of science for war, to a criticism of the exclusion of working class people, Afro-Americans and women of all races from scientific leadership, to finally an examination of the very content of  the science as it evolves according to the needs of industry and the prevailing philosophies. In the end, the struggle between high-tech chemicalized agriculture and ecological agriculture is also between mechanistic/reductionist  and dialectical views of nature and of science.
But too often socialists fall into a passive progressivism that sees only one side of the contradiction, imagines only one pathway of progress along which things are either more advanced or more backward. Then they imagine that capitalist technique can be adopted lock, stock and barrel to socialist ends. This admiration of bourgeois technology without also an active critique of that technology was one of the elements in the disastrous history of Soviet industry.(These technical choices in turn could of course be linked to evolving class structures in that country. The uncritical admiration for capitalist pathways of development reached their extreme in Brezhnev's reliance on the "scientific-technical revolution" to save the Soviet Union). With this approach it is possible to sneer, with Clark, at the use of animal traction as having been a novelty in neolithic times and to misrepresent the critique of capitalist technology as anti-science. The reality is that agricultural science and technology developed to invent those production methods which can be commodities for sale to farmers, and within the framework of capitalist reductionist philosophy.
The major steps in the advance of agricultural methods were : the adoption of the industrial steam engine as a stationary energy source for threshing in the 19th century; from the automobile industry the differential gear that gave us the tractor for mechanization; from surplus gunpowder productive capacity after the first world war to nitrogen fixation and chemical fertilizer; from chemical warfare in the first world war to pesticides, and finally with modern plant breeding a branch of research designed specifically for agriculture. Plant breeders aimed at the creation of hybrid seed not because that is the best way to improve yield but because hybrid seed do not breed true, and farmers would have to buy a new supply of hybrid seed every year. The particular pattern of research reflects the fact that not all knowledge is equally commodifiable. A toxic chemical can be bottled and sold to farmers whereas knowledge of predatory ants can at most be sold as a Hints for Farm and Garden column.
Even within the framework of capitalist development, new methods do not simply replace old ones. Rather the older forms that were universal now become specialized and continue to evolve. There is still a role for propeller aircraft, sailboats, hand tools. Modern medicine does not replace herbal medicine but can incorporate it. And Cuban farmers have found that animal traction has its place. Oxen have a different impact on the soil from tractors and are able to work after heavy rains where tractors would only destroy the soil. The idea is not to replace mechanization but to combine it with animal use as appropriate. In my youth I farmed in the central cordillera of Puerto Rico on land too steep for tractors or even oxen. So I have no sentimental nostalgia for the back-breaking work of preparing a heavy clay soil with a hoe nor yearn for neolithic simplicity. And I can tell the difference between reverting to less effective technologies and inventing new ones that incorporate past knowledge.
Every society develops its own way of relating to the rest of nature and of conceiving of that relation. Cuban socialism is creating its own ecology-- a landscape that brings agriculture into the cities and industry to the countryside, designs a food production system that is robust in the face of uncertainty, protective of peoples' health, preserves biodiversity, water resources and soil, that recycles within the farm and regionally, and is minimally dependent on external inputs. It is doing this in many ways-- through programs against desertification and salinization, through reforestation, integration of cropping and livestock, ecological agriculture, and is supported by a creative network of professional and nonprofessional innovators. There is a growing realization in Cuba that the rising standard of living to which we all aspire will not be achieved by unlimited increases in the consumption of energy and matter but in a rising quality of life in which a better relation with the rest of nature is an important element. Ecological agriculture is one aspect of an emerging socialist pattern of relating to the rest of nature, a new mode of eco-social production.
The social role of organic agriculture in the United States is quite different from that in Cuba. The present organic movement represents a coming together of organic growers, looking for reduced dependence on the corporations, some of whom are of urban origin and chose farming for life style reasons, consumer co-ops and other groups concerned with quality food, health advocates who saw pesticides as carcinogens and destroyers of biodiversity, and agricultural scientists who would have liked to farm but can't afford to buy land, who dedicate themselves instead to serving the organic community.
In the northeast, NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) links small producers, artisans, consumer groups and innovators in a generally progressive movement in conflict with monopolized agriculture. They have been inventing ways of reducing costs so that the working people of our cities can also get the better quality food they deserve. But as organic farming becomes more popular, big investors become interested and there has been a struggle within organic farming between capitalist commercial growers and the initiators of the movement. Recently this conflict has focused on the rules of certification of organic food. The USDA has taken control of certification away from the organic farming organizations and has pushed for lower standards more congenial to the big producers.
Clark rejects organic farming as an idealist solution. But a solution to what? He sets up a straw petit bourgeois when he suggests that organic farming under capitalism is offered as an alternative to revolutionary struggle. It is "merely" a struggle for safer food production and better quality food.
Finally, there is the question of the genetically modified organisms (GMO's). Clark endorses them as a way to produce abundance in a hungry world. He thinks he found a great inconsistency in the critics of genetically engineered crops when he points out that critics of GMO's in agriculture did not criticize the use of genetically modified bacteria to produce insulin. The obvious difference between these two cases is that if something goes wrong in the industrial production of insulin it is possible to shut down the fermenters ands clean them out, but if things go wrong in nature they cannot be recalled so easily. The issue is not one of principle, "for" or "against" GMO's. Rather it is one of applying four tests before accepting a technology:
  1. Is it necessary?       In this case, is world hunger caused by the lack of food or productive capacity? According to the UN's World Food program, there is enough food in the world today for 12 billion people. Despite local and regional crop failures that do cause hunger, the basic cause is that food is a commodity and that the need for food is not supported by "effective demand", that farmers are displaced by agribusiness aiming at high-value export crops, that people are displaced from the land by wars and price squeezes, and that production is aimed at profit, not feeding people.
  2. Would the new technology do what it promises? Here the results are ambiguous. Initial successes in laboratory trials are sometimes offset in the field when other factors enter.
  3. What else does it do? We know some of the obvious effects: tightening the control of the chemical monopolies over food production and over farmers, promoting monocultures that increase the dangers of pests. By building into the crops genes for pest resistance the new varieties present the pests with pesticides even when they are not a problem, encouraging a more rapid evolution of pesticide resistance. The transfer of herbicide resistance from crops to weeds can produce herbicide resistant weeds. And there are other, less probable but more disastrous possibilities coming from the fact that introduced genes are mobile genes and that when genes change their location in the genome their effects can be quite different from what they did at home. The point here is not that any particular introduction will cause a disaster but that the urge to patent and market products in a hurry makes industry and their allies in government belittle potential harm, not look for unexpected consequences and cover up hints of harm.
  4. Are there better alternatives? Here the answer is a definite yes. Even with so much less research going into organic methods than chemical methods  the results are comparable. Ecologically sound agrotechnology is more stable, protects the environment from pollution of ground waters and the air, protects farm workers and consumers, reduces farmer dependence on the chemical companies and therefore slows down the impoverishment of the countryside.  
On the whole, Clark replaces a socialist view of the complexities of scientific and technological development with a one-sided liberal progressivist approach that accepts capitalism's claims that There IS No Alternative. But a revolutionary movement has to challenge the destructive, alienating nature of all aspects of capitalist society in order to build the kind of movement that can liberate the working class and the whole of society.
Richard Levins: Harvard School of Public Health and The  Institute of Ecology and Systematics of the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment

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