TCS Daily

Beware the Agrarian Utopians

By Michael Fumento - August 23, 2004 12:00 AM

On the grounds of Versailles lies Marie-Antoinette's "Hameau" (hamlet) -- at once lovely and pathetic. It comprises about 20 fairy-tale cottages and small buildings. The Austrian-born queen never felt at home in her adopted land. And so during her free time, accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting, she pretended to be a milkmaid.

The Hameau is a timber and thatch metaphor for what's now called "agrarian utopianism." Its devotees look back with longing on the time when people lived in tiny villages, and virtually everybody was somehow involved in farming. They believe the world would somehow be a better place if we all just hooked a plow to a pair of oxen and eked out a living on a few acres of soil.

The most famous current agrarian utopian is another monarch, Prince Charles of Britain. While Marie Antoinette played a milkmaid, Charles plays a farmer. He has his own plot of organically-grown fruits and vegetables that he pays someone else to oversee. Like Marie Antoinette, he can go there whenever he likes, do what he pleases, and then take off his designer boots and become again a pampered prince.

His farm is not his livelihood; it's a game. Yet this is how he perceives agriculture. Like all agrarian utopians, Charles views the past through thick lenses of nostalgia, sentimentality, and romanticism. He has no worry that his family will starve if insects or weeds ruin his crops. He has no idea of the back-breaking work farming was less than a century ago, of the life 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes so aptly described as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Yet this cult of nature-worship and agrarian sentimentalism is a powerful one even in a day when shoes have computer chips in them and many children have never seen corn on a stalk or wheat in the field. It features prominently in the current blockbuster film The Village, in which maintaining the agrarian life is worth being devoured by monsters in the surrounding woods. It's also a potent force in the opposition to agricultural biotech and synthetic pesticides that's revealed in every anti- biotech promulgation by the Prince of Wales.

Margaret Mellon is now director of the Food and Environment Program of the staunchly anti-biotech Union of Concerned Scientists, which requires her to pretend her arguments are based on science rather than sentimentalism. But back when she was director of biotechnology policy for the National Wildlife Federation she said, "I feel an affection for the natural world the way it is -- the way four billion years of evolution have made it. I resist the notion of improving nature in the future, just as I lament the loss of nature as it was in the past."

But does she lament the loss of life in one of history's greatest slaughters, the killing fields of Cambodia? Between 1975 and 1979, over two million people died under the regime of Pol Pot. As the BBC put it, "When he came to power in 1975, he quickly set about transforming the country into his vision of an agrarian utopia by emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion and setting up rural collectives." Books and modern medicine were abolished; the professionals who could make use of them were executed. Today all that's left of this "utopia" are mountains of human bones.

Agrarian utopianism is inherently extreme. Its practitioners see nature as it never was. Yes, nature offers rain and sunlight to feed the crops and wind to blow the pollen. But it often gives that rain as flood, or withholds it and causes drought. It "provides" brutal winters that kill livestock and windstorms that whisk topsoil away forever. It brings hideous diseases of crops, animals, and people -- including carrying off a third of the European population in a single epidemic.

In his oft-cited little book Farmageddon: Food and the Culture of Biotechnology, former farmer Brewster Kneen admits, "I am against all biotechnology," including even what he concedes are lifesaving pharmaceuticals. "Not on principle," he says, "but because, as an artifact of society, an expression of a particular culture, I think 'modern biotechnology' is a bad attitude -- a bad attitude towards life, towards Creation, towards other cultures and other ways of knowing and experiencing the world."

Psychobabble? Sure. But at least Kneen is honest. He's also honest in admitting what so many of his fellow critics will not -- that he really is against progress for the sake of opposing progress.

In his "Farmageddon lexicon," Kneen defines "Novel Foods" as "something that would not be recognized as edible by Great-Aunt Sarah." Yet if you look in your pantry or kitchen, you'll find that the vast majority of things you eat would not have been available in that form or available at all when Great-Aunt Sarah was little. That goes for something as simple and fundamental as corn. Virtually all corn eaten in North America, biotech and otherwise, is descended from hybrids that only became available in the 1930s.

Our ancestors in the industrialized world once lived under the conditions the agrarian utopians glamorize and yet they abandoned it as soon as possible for the cities. People even now pulling a plow behind an old water buffalo in Africa or Bangladesh desperately wish they could trade places with a minimum-wage earning American.

The ostensibly charitable British organization, Christian Aid opposes biotech seed that makes herbicides more effective, saying women would be denied income derived from stooping over and yanking weeds all day long. Not that they'd want THEIR wives and children pulling weeds; they're rather happy that the modern farms in their country free up females to become doctors, teachers, and -- who knows? -- perhaps even prime minister.

The ultimate manifestation of agrarian utopianism is organic farming. It's hard to think of being sentimental towards manure, but that's the only "advantage" animal waste has over chemical fertilizers. Organic farmers' insecticides (yes, they use insecticides) are old-fashioned. Rather than poison weeds with herbicides, they dig them up, thereby loosening and ultimately losing the topsoil.

And what does organic food provide? More nutrition? No. More attractive food to steer kids from Snacky Cake Supremes to fruits and vegetables? "Not likely!" chuckles Mr. Worm from the comfort of your organic apple. Is it safer? No way.

A recent published report from the University of Minnesota measured the prevalence of the deadly bacteria E. coli 0157:H7 from over 600 produce samples collected from 40 organic and conventional farms. Those infected with this bacterium may suffer diarrhea, vomiting, kidney damage, and sometimes death.

"Organic samples from farms that used manure or compost aged less than 12 months had a prevalence of E. coli 19 times greater than that of farms that used older materials," it found. And while some organic growers claim there's no problem if fresh manure is avoided, even with the older stuff the researchers found the percentages of E. coli-positive samples in conventional produce was only 1.6 percent whereas it approached 10 percent in the organic food. The FDA recalls bean sprouts regularly, again because of E. coli contamination.

Well then, does organic food save consumers money? That's an unfunny joke. The Birkenstock yuppie set doesn't care, but by raising the price of fresh produce it hurts those already eating the least -- the poor.

Well then, does it save land for critters and hikers? Quite the opposite. As the "Father of the Green Revolution" Norman Borlaug has stated, "Even if you could use all the organic material that you have -- the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues -- and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people." Over a third of the world's population would starve.

Yet there are those whose princes insist that the paupers pay more to get less, and others who would say of those who can't afford organic bread that which the ill-fated Marie-Antoinette never did: "Let them eat cake!"

Michael Fumento (Fumento[at] is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology is Changing our World, and a nationally syndicated columnist with Scripps Howard News Service.


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