Agriculture for a Living Earth
Presentation to Prairie Festival XXV
Salina, Kansas, September 26-28, 2003
I’ve been hearing about the legendary Wes Jackson and the Land Institute for years. That’s why I’m thrilled to be participating in the 25th Prairie Festival. By my understanding the work of the Institute is at the forefront of one of the most daring and important agricultural innovations since humans first learned the arts of settled agriculture. It is audacious, courageous, and visionary. I love it.
This festival is also very special. We gather here in America’s heartland from all around the country and beyond to have fun, engage in good fellowship, and save the world. You can’t do better than that in these troubled times.
The Prairie Festival is also special because it brings together so many pioneers working on the frontiers of deep change. You may not think of yourselves this way. So let’s do a check. Raise your hand if you sometimes feel a bit lonely in the work you do. [Many hands go up.] If you raised your hand, it probably means you are among the pioneers.
One reason events such as this are so exhilarating is because the work that many of us do is seriously out of step with the system and often leaves us feeling alone and isolated. At events such as this we find affirmation that we are not alone. There are a great many of us. Around the world there are millions. And our numbers are growing. Change is possible.
Make no mistake. Our economic and political systems are not just ailing, they are broken and badly out of step with the compelling needs of our time. Our politicians here in America devote themselves to cutting the taxes of the rich, undermining worker and environmental protections, and launching pre-emptive wars on devastated and virtually defenseless nations — while ignoring the fact that right here in America, 6.1 million adults and 3.3 million children experience outright hunger. Ten percent of U.S. households, accounting for 31 million people, do not have access to enough food to meet their basic needs.
The UN World Food Organization reports that the number of chronically hungry people in the world, which declined steadily during the 1970s and 80s, has been increasing since the early 1990s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that by 2008, two-thirds of the people of Sub-Saharan Africa will be undernourished. Forty percent of people in Asia will be undernourished.
Someone in the earlier session asked: “How will the dwindling fossil fuel energy supplies be allocated when supplies decline even as demand continues to increase.” The answer is much the same as the answer to the question who gets the available food: whoever has the money. Need has nothing to do with it.
This experience raises a sobering question. How receptive will these broken political and economic institutions be when the Land Institute is ready to release its gift to the world?
What Wes Jackson and his crew are doing looks harmless enough on the surface. A few seeds with the promise to feed millions of people while healing the environment. Surely, their gift will be received with jubilation.
Except for the answer to one key question: Where is the profit in it for the global corporations that now control our food and agriculture, biotech, pharmaceutical, and energy industries — and our politicians and universities — what’s the profit for them in an agriculture that once seeded doesn’t need to be reseeded, greatly reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, dramatically reduces dependence on fossil fuels, and greatly reduces the release of toxic agricultural chemicals into our soils, water, and food thus reducing cancer and other health problems and thus undercutting profitable markets for chemotherapy and other pharmaceutical and health care products.
While the Land Institute folks are working to get their seeds and farming systems ready for prime time, the rest of us need to work on putting in place an economic and political system receptive to the proper use of these tiny seeds of revolution. It likely means rebuilding our now devastated local family farm agriculture systems and spreading the sustainable agriculture methods already available. As Charlie Melander and Jan Flora explained to me last night over dinner, this means replacing an existing farming culture that measures success by maximum yield — which maximizes inputs and thus profits for the agribusiness companies that supply them — with a farming culture that measures success in terms of optimizing long-term return to the farmer. It may require that we consciously grow a new generation of farmers trained and acculturated in the ways of sustainable and natural systems agriculture. To do this we must either transforming our existing schools of agriculture or create alternatives to them. And of course these future natural systems farmers will need a support system of finance, technology, and markets that makes it possible for them to prosper. See how much trouble a few seeds can cause?
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that transforming the world food and agriculture system will be easy. But it is necessary, so we best get on with it. Fortunately, there’s nothing like a little challenge to put some spice in life. How could we better use the brief time we each enjoy on this beautiful planet?
Food and the soils that grow it are the foundation of life and community. Food nurtures our souls, as well as our bodies. The bonding of family, friends, and community has long centered on sitting together at a table to share food. Food and agricultural practices distinctive to place are an essential source of the sense of identity and social bonding that are the foundation of family and community. How we grow and consume our food matters almost as much to a healthy society as the food itself.
So let’s put this task in its larger perspective. We live in what is arguably the most exciting time in the whole of the human experience. Having reached the limits of domination and exploitation on a small planet, we are called as a species to make an intentional collective choice to bring to an end a 5,000 year era of Empire and take the Step to Earth Community, the creation of a new human civilization based on partnership, caring, and mindful responsibility.
As a species, we hold in our hands both the opportunity and the necessity to accept responsibility for our presence on this planet and carry forward the work of creating a world that works for all people and the whole of nature. Theologian Thomas Berry calls it, The Great Work. No species in the experience of this planet has ever before faced a comparable opportunity to recreate itself as an act of conscious choice. What an extraordinary moment this is.
I like to begin with a brief overview of the work at hand, just so we can see how exciting this opportunity truly is. We need to:
- Bring the material consumption of our species into balance with the earth.
- Realign our economic priorities to assure all persons have access to an adequate and meaningful means of living for themselves and their families.
- Democratize our institutions to root power in people and community. ..
- Replace the dominant culture of materialism with cultures grounded in life-affirming values of cooperation, caring, compassion, and community.
- Integrate the material and spiritual aspects of our being to become whole mature persons.
We are constantly told that such goals are all well and good, but we must achieve them without changing anything of consequence — least of all upsetting the existing system of power and privilege. We are told there is no alternative to corporatized industrial agriculture. There is no alternative to the corporate global economy. There is no alternative to using U.S. military power to impose order on the world.
We’re gathered here today because we know the truth. It’s all a lie. Our institutions and values are all the result of human choices. It is in our means to make different choices. We can choose to create an earth friendly agriculture. We can choose to create local living economies that serve people and life. And we can choose to create a world system based on peace, cooperation among nations, and respect for the sovereign rights of all people. These choices are all ultimately is in our hands — starting with a choice for regime change in Washington, DC in the next election.
The immediate concern of most of us gathered here today is with a choice between a food system designed to maximize short-term profits for people who already have more than they need — and a food system designed to nurture all people sustainability — forever.
We now have a grossly inefficient corporate dominated food and agriculture system that commands massive public subsidies, is killing the planet, destroying family farms and communities, and alienating us all from the earth to produce tasteless, nutritionally empty, and toxic laden foods that poison our bodies — all so a few corporate executives can make millions on their stock options and major shareholders can enhance their position on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people. The system produces abundant delicacies for the rich; and starvation for the poor. Economists on corporate payrolls tell us it’sthe most efficient system of agriculture ever known. We ask, “Efficient at what?”
As other speakers on our program will elaborate, this destructive system has been the consequence in part of perverse government policies and misguided research programs at our land grant universities. We might wonder why public institutions would pursue policies, programs, and practices so at odds with the public interest. The answer has become all too evident over the past twenty years.
Corporations use their financial power to make political contributions to buy tax breaks and legislative favors from politicians desperate to raise money for TV ads to win elections. This has become so blatant that in many instances the corporate lobbyists literally write the legislation that favors their interests — including our agriculture policies. The costs of the subsidies combine with the loss of revenues from the tax giveaways to starve public institutions — including universities — of the funding necessary to do their work. So the corporations that have been enriched by this corruption step in as “benefactors.” In the case of our land grant universities they step in to fund research programs — ultimately gaining control over research priorities and the intellectual property the research generates. Obviously these priorities reflect the corporate interest in maximizing the sale of inputs and leads to a farming culture that emphasizes maximizing yield without regard to consequences either for the environment or the financial viability of the farmer.
I learned first hand about the consequences of the corporate take over of agriculture during my thirty years as a development worker in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
You are well aware of how agriculture policy here in the United States has devastated family farms and benefited agribusiness corporations. The agriculture programs supported by the World Bank, USAID, and other aid agencies have done much the same abroad. You know the story. It begins by introducing family farmers to farming methods that depend on seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides sold on credit by agribusiness corporations.
Over time, the fertilizers deplete the natural fertility of the soil, thus requiring yet larger applications to maintain output. The insecticides kill off the birds and beneficial insects that feed off the bad insects, which are stimulated to mutate into immune super pests that require larger pesticide applications. Expenses grow, debts from a bad year roll over to the next. By the time a farmer realizes what is happening there is no going back. The traditional seed varieties are no longer available. His land is depleted. He is contending with super insects. The bank is knocking on the door to foreclose on his land. The farmer internalizes the blame for his failure. And suicide rates skyrocket.
If this isn’t enough to drive him off his land, the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization demand that his government remove all protective tariffs and restrictions on agricultural imports in the name of free trade. The local market is then flooded with subsidized imports from abroad, depressing local commodity prices and putting the final nail in the coffin of the family farm. The banks take the land and sell it to transnational agribusiness corporations that are consolidating small farm plots into agricultural estates producing for export with the aid of government subsidies mandated by the World Bank and IMF in the name of providing incentives to attract foreign investment.
A prominent item on the current free trade agenda is a call for high income countries to eliminate their tariffs on food imports from poor countries, ostensibly to help poor farmers. It is an argument with no more validity than the bogus claim that tax breaks for the rich will create jobs for the poor here in America. The main reason poor countries need to export food to rich countries is to service their debts to foreign banks. Most of the earnings from these food exports go not to the poor, but to foreign bankers. The hungry poor of Africa, Asia, and Latin America don’t want their food exported to the United States and Europe. They want to eat it. Even more they want relief from foreign loans from which they received no benefit and they want their land back to grow their own food.
It isn’t just about agriculture. In every sector, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are using their power to do an end run around democracy and rewrite the economic rules in ways that favor the world’s most powerful corporations.
All three claim undying dedication to the poor, but their policies and actions tell a very different story. Look closely and you find that they apparently consider the ideal country to be one in which all important productive assets and resources are owned by foreign corporations and used to produce for export to generate foreign exchange to repay debts to foreign bankers. Their favored country has no public services; electricity, water, education, health care, social security, and financial services are all owned and operated by foreign corporations intent on extracting as much profit as possible. Food and other goods for domestic consumption are all imported from abroad and paid for with money borrowed from foreign banks — thus increasing foreign debt and perpetuating the cycle of debt and exploitation.
This is why millions of poor people have taken to the streets over the past few years to protest policies of the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization — severely straining their claim to be serving the poor. It is why there is a growing call among citizen groups to dismantle all three institutions and transfer responsibility for international economic affairs to the United Nations.
We humans live by stories and our stories differ — sometimes dramatically. The great global clash between corporate globalists and global civil society that caught the world’s attention during the historic protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, and was replayed in Cancun a week ago, can be characterized as a clash of stories so different as to be from two wholly different worlds — which in many respects they are.
The corporate globalists — corporate officers, PR spinners, media pundits, politicians and economists — inhabit a world in which their power and privilege are growing — leading them conclude that the policies they advocate are working just as intended. In their story the deregulation of economic life and the removal of economic borders is expanding human freedom and clearing away barriers to creating the wealth that will ultimately end poverty and save the environment. In their story they are champions of an inexorable and beneficial historical process of economic growth and technological progress that is eliminating the tyranny of inefficient and meddlesome public bureaucracies and unleashing the innovative power of competition and private enterprise.
Their story portrays global corporations as the greatest and most efficient of human institutions. They celebrate the Bretton Woods institutions — the World Bank, IMF, and World Trade Organization — for their role in expanding market freedom and driving the wealth creation process by increasing safeguards for investors and private property and removing restraints to a free movement of goods and services. They celebrate the consolidation of global corporate empire backed by American military might as the path to world peace.
By contrast, global civil society lives in a world of unemployment, sweatshop wages, violent social breakdown, and collapsing environmental systems. Civil society’s story tells of a world in deepening crisis of such magnitude as to threaten the fabric of civilization and the survival of the species — a world of rapidly growing inequality, erosion of relationships of trust and caring, and a failing planetary life support system. Where corporate globalists see the spread of democracy and vibrant market economies, civil society tells of the power to govern shifting away from people and communities to financial speculators and global corporate monopolies.
In civil society’s story corporations are replacing democracies of people with democracies of money, self-organizing markets with centrally planned corporate economies, and spiritually grounded ethical cultures with cultures of greed and materialism. Civil society characterizes the corporate global economy as a suicide economy that is destroying the foundations of its own survival and the survival of the species in the pursuit of quick profits. It sees a corrupt political process awash in corporate money and beholden to corporate interests rewriting our laws to provide corporations with tax breaks and public subsidies while eliminating the regulations and borders that hold corporations accountable to some larger public interest. They see the World Bank, IMF, and World Trade Organization as leading agents of this assault against life and democracy.
Global civil society has set forth its vision of the world that can be in a remarkable document called The Earth Charter that opens with these prophetic words: "We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future."
The Earth Charter was produced through consultations over a period of several years involving thousands of people of virtually every nationality, race, religion, and ethic grouping on the planet. It calls on humanity to unite behind the creation of a new human civilization based on the principles of an Earth Community dedicated to peace, justice, and the love of life. To create what we want, we need to be clear on the causes of the dysfunction we don’t want.
The institutional centerpiece of the suicide economy is a specific institutional form — the publicly traded, limited liability corporation. By law and structure, the publicly traded, limited liability corporation is a single purpose organization in the business of making money for its richest shareholders. It is not only incapable of acting with conscience, it is legally prohibited from doing so.
Human persons who behave in a similarly self-centered and destructive way devoid of conscience are called psychopaths and are confined to prisons or mental institutions as threats to society. The closest equivalent to a corporation in nature is the cancer cell that forgets it is a part of a larger whole and seeks its own unlimited growth without regard to the consequences.
Yet in the suicide economy, corporate psychopaths are regularly rewarded with rising share prices and their CEOs are rewarded with multi-million dollar bonuses. Corporate officers suspected of sacrificing share price to acts of conscience out of concern for workers, community, or the environment are commonly dismissed.
There is no rational basis for expecting an economy dominated by institutional psychopaths to work for people, families, communities, or nature. If you remember nothing else from this presentation, remember this point: The publicly traded, limited liability corporation is a pathological institutional form. There is no place for it in a healthy economy or healthy society.
If there is to be a human future, we must replace the culture and institutions of the suicide economy with the culture and institutions of a planetary system of life-serving, democratically accountable living economies rooted in communities of place and functioning in creative productive partnership with the living Earth.
As noted earlier, we face some difficulties in pulling this off. The good news is that fate is conspiring to shock our fellow citizens into a new political awareness and involvement.
First, a stolen election revealed the fragility or our democracy. Next a stock market meltdown unmasked the reality of the bubble economy. Then the 911 terrorist attacks shocked us out of a deep complacency regarding America’s relationships to the world. A wave of corporate scandals revealed the deep corruption of the system of corporate rule. The current U.S. administration’s repressive and flagrantly self-serving responses to America’s need for economic recovery and increased security revealed that we are being ruled by arguably the most corrupt, deceitful, extremist, self righteous, and dangerous administration in our country’s history.
Polling data make clear that the vast major of Americans want a healthy environment, peace, economic justice and security for all, freedom, and democracy. To get within half million votes of his opponent the man the Supreme Court appointed to be America’s president had to present himself as a compassionate conservative who would work for ordinary people, be fiscally responsible, leave no child behind, protect the environment, and pursue a peaceful, cooperative, and non-belligerent foreign policy respectful of the rights and interests of others. Remember these promises? These were central themes of his campaign. They represent what the vast majority of Americans want, but are not getting.
Our most immediate and obvious task is to achieve regime change in America in the next election. It will require a great deal more than regime change, however, to get us on the path to a just, sustainable, and compassionate world. And the leadership is unlikely to come from the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, or America’s corporate CEOs. It will come — if at all — from “We the people,” from civil society. There is no one else. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for.
We necessarily and appropriately work on many fronts — including peace, civil rights, democracy, food security and agricultural reform, economic justice, and the environment — for in the end all our struggles with all their varied labels are one struggle against a predatory and undemocratic system that values power more than life.
Many of us engaged in these struggles have been inclined to think of ourselves as representatives of an alternative fringe. It is a self-defeating way of thinking that is both unnecessary and contrary to fact, for we represent the majority values of the people in America and beyond. Our work is to midwife the birth of an emerging new mainstream.
Let’s focus for the moment on the challenge of creating local living economies as an essential foundation of the vibrant life-serving communities we all want for ourselves and our children.
I noted earlier that there is no place in a healthy economy for the pathological institution of the publicly traded, limited liability corporation. Three characteristics bear primary responsibility for its pathological dysfunction: unlimited size, absentee ownership, and exemption from personal liability. A living economy is comprised of human-scale enterprises locally owned by people who have a direct stake in the many impacts associated with the enterprise and are accountable for any harm it may do to others. A firm owned by persons who have a direct interest in the firm, live in the community where it is located, and bear the consequences of its actions has a natural interest in providing:
- Employees with safe, meaningful, family-wage jobs.
- Customers with useful, safe, high-quality products.
- Suppliers with steady markets and fair dealing.
- Communities with a healthy social and natural environment.
One of my favorite prototypes of a living economy enterprise is Philadelphia’s White Dog Café owned an operated by Judy Wicks. Judy buys most of the food served at the White Dog from local organic farmers, serves only meat from humanely raised animals, pays her workers a living wage, devotes 10 percent of profits to local charity, and has mobilized other Philadelphia restaurants to join in rebuilding the local food production and distribution system. Judy has also turned the White Dog into a mini-university in social activism, featuring dinner seminars with visiting speakers and organizing tours for her customers to Chiapas, Cuba, the Maquiladoras, and the coffee cooperative in Guatemala from which she buys the fair traded coffee served by the White Dog. Business Ethics Newsletter recently gave the White Dog Café its newly established living economy enterprise award.
Organic Valley dairy cooperative was another of the Business Ethics nominees. It is owned by small dairy farmers producing organic dairy products with pasture raised livestock. In total it is a $100 million operation with a national reach. Headquartered in Wisconsin it is gradually enrolling dairy farmers across the country. It demonstrates a successful approach to national branding and marketing with accountability to independent family dairy producers with a commitment to equity and a healthy environment. The cooperative form combines the advantages of scale with locally rooted ownership and accountability.
"Living economies" is the theme of the Fall 2002 issue of Yes! magazine. You can find YES! on the web at www.yesmagazine.org. Every issue is filled with stories of people working for deep change and with lots of suggestions for how to connect with them. It is a regular reminder that there are a great many of us and we are making a difference. The theme of the current issue is “Government of the People Shall Not Perish.” It is about how people are mobilizing to assure the will of the people prevails in the up coming election. The next issue will be on water and how people are mobilizing to prevent global corporations from monopolizing access to water, which is likely to be the subject of more wars that oil in the near future.
The Fall 2002 issue of YES! has many stories of living economies initiatives around the country. One of my favorites is "From the Earth Up," a story from the Appalachia region of southwest Virginia about how local independent enterprises are building business relationships with one another to increase the value added locally to the region’s natural resources — in part by bringing together producers and the market place. It began with a community supported agriculture (CSA) project and a system for marketing local produce to local restaurants and a locally owned chain of supermarkets as local farmers were making the transition from growing tobacco to growing organic produce. Locally owned farm supply stores now carry organic fertilizers and pest-control products. A local egg producer provides high nutrient compost. They’ve established an incubator kitchen that helps local residents develop and market value-added food products that spin off to become independent businesses. A sustainable forestry and wood products program supports sustainable production and harvesting by local wood lot owners. Harvested timber is now milled and sold locally. There is a similar story from Black Hawk County, Iowa in the Spring 2003 issue of The Land Report.
Living economy enterprises may be organized as partnerships; individual- or family-owned businesses; consumer- or producer-owned cooperatives; community corporations; or companies privately owned by workers, other community members, or social investors. They may be for-profit or nonprofit. Just about the only thing they cannot be, is a publicly traded, limited liability corporation.
Most efforts to hold economic institutions accountable to the public interest have centered on increasing the accountability of corporations though such measures as appeals to the conscience of corporate managers, establishing state ownership, introducing regulatory reform, or some combination thereof. Such measures, however, only variations on the imperial theme of the central concentration and control of economic power. For this reason they rarely provide more than marginal improvements in accountability and responsiveness to life needs. The world needs a truly democratic alternative.
The goal of political democracy was not to create a more accountable monarchy; it was to replace the institutions of monarchy with new institutions appropriate to democratic societies. We need a similar approach to economic democracy. The appropriate goal is not to reform the institutions of corporate rule. It is to replace them, through an emergent process of succession and displacement, with systems of economic relationships that distribute power by localizing ownership and control. Ironically, given America’s professed commitment to market economies, it means creating economies that actually honor real market principles — which corporate capitalism, with its drive to monopolize markets and externalize costs — systematically violates.
The idea of displacing the suicide economy with a system of local living economies would seem hopelessly naïve, except for the fact that millions of for- and not-for-profit enterprises and public initiatives around the world are already aligned with the values and organizational principles of living economies. They include local independent businesses of all sorts from bookstores to bakeries, land trusts, local organic farms, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture initiatives, restaurants specializing in locally grown organic produce, community banks, local currencies, buy-local campaigns, suppliers of fair-traded coffee, independent media, and many more. Indeed, independent, human-scale businesses are by far the majority of all businesses, provide most jobs, create nearly all new jobs, and are the source of most innovation. The problem is that these potentially healthy enterprises generally function in a dependent relationship to the publicly traded mega-corporations that dominate the suicide economy.
Imagine the possibilities if these enterprises were to free themselves from their dependence on the suicide economy and grow webs of business relationships with one another to create corporate free, living economies that give us new choices as to where we shop, work, and invest. Imagine a world in which every person has an ownership stake in the assets of the enterprise on which their livelihood depends and has a say in the management of those assets. It’s called economic democracy and it is an essential foundation for equity, democracy, and a true market economy.
It’s more than a dream. People are already working all across America and around the world to bring it into being. A new national organization, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), is forming chapters around the country to advance the formation of local living economies. Find it at www.livingeconomies.org. BALLE is a natural ally in your work as many of the BALLE chapters find that rebuilding the local food economy is the obvious starting point for their work.
For those who want to facilitate the emergence of local living economies it is helpful to focus on clusters of related businesses. We call these clusters building blocks. Start with a few simple questions. What do local people and businesses regularly buy that is or could be supplied locally by socially and environmentally responsible independent enterprises? Which existing local businesses are trying to practice living economy values? In what sectors are they clustered? Are there collaborative efforts aligned with living economy values already underway to bring these businesses together? The answers will point to the most promising opportunities.
Food is usually the logical place to start. Everyone needs and cares about food, and food can be grown almost everywhere, is freshest and most wholesome when local, and is our most intimate connection to the land. In many communities, a farmers’ market or a restaurant serving locally produced organic foods provides a focal point for organizing. Healthy local family farms are the back bone of a healthy community.
In some communities, clusters of businesses devoted to energy conservation, environmental construction, and the local production of solar, wind, and mini-hydro power are forming living economy webs devoted to advancing local energy independence. There are many more examples relating to forestry, media, health care, materials recovery, finance and others.
In these turbulent and frightening times it is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment in the whole of human history. For this is the moment when we are being called by the deep forces of creation to awaken to a new consciousness of our own possibilities and to embrace the responsibilities to one another and to the planet that go with our collective presence on the living jewel of life called Earth.
The time is now. The choice is ours. We are not alone. We have the power. The work starts here. We’re the one’s we’ve been waiting for.
Thank you all for the wonderfully important work you are doing to create the world that can be.