Saturday, October 4, 2014

Trotskyists Down on the Farm

I respond to an article appearing in Counterpunch, written by Carmello Ruiz-Marrero, entitled Toward the Agro-Police State. That title is over-the-top. The content is succinctly represented by the sub-heading: "You'll need an iPad if you want to be a farmer."


Mr. Ruiz-Marrero reports that Monsanto is buying some small technology companies, none for more than a billion dollars. (For comparison, Monsanto is capitalized at around $18 billion, and Apple Computer at over $500 billion.) The first company is The Climate Corporation. Mr. Ruiz-Marrero quotes from their mission statement:
The Climate Corporation aims to help farmers around the world protect and improve their farming operations with uniquely powerful software and insurance products. The company’s proprietary technology platform combines hyper-local weather monitoring, agronomic data modeling, and high-resolution weather simulations to deliver, a solution that helps farmers improve their profits by making better informed operating and financing decisions, and Total Weather Insurance, an insurance offering that pays farmers automatically for bad weather that may impact their profits.
Farmers are more likely to earn money and less likely to lose it. Consumers will get cheaper prices. The environment benefits because fewer resources are wasted. It's hard to find fault with this. What's Mr. Ruiz-Marrero's problem?

It gets worse.
In 2012 Monsanto bought a similar company, Precision Planting, for $210 million. The biotech behemoth was after the company’s FieldView platform, a hardware/software package that monitors the performance of farm machinery and pretty much tells the farmer how to do everything, determining even the spacing between crop rows.
Yet another evil plot to make food cheaper and better, using fewer chemicals while wasting less land and water. These awful capitalists! What will they think of next?

Mr. Ruiz-Marrero lays out the benefits of this new technology rather clearly.
Welcome to the brave new world of precision farming, in which every farmer will need a wifi connection and an iPad. Precision ag, as it is often called, is the collective name of a series of new agricultural data and crop monitoring technologies. The alleged benefits of these new techno packages include increased yields, better information for decision making in the farm, reduction in the use and overuse of agrochemicals and fertilizer, and increased profits. It relies on cutting edge technologies like geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, wireless internet, portable computers, high-speed data processing, and global positioning (GPS).
Again, I still fail to see the problem. How can he possibly be against any of this?

I'll summarize his complaint in bullet points.
  • It employs military technology, specifically drone aircraft. The connection is to Big Data in the cloud. The farmer will be cut out of the loop. Further, data will be readily available to adjudicate patent violations or lawsuits.
  • Farmers will be deskilled. There will be a "loss of local farm knowledge and the erosion of farmer's rights." (Though probably with less erosion of the farmer's land.)
  • On the other hand, many farmers in Mr. Ruiz-Marrero's native Puerto Rico are illiterate. Only 14% have college degrees. Deskilling notwithstanding, they won't be able to cope with the intellectual demands of wifi and robotic drones.
  • Adopting this new technology, at the low end, costs  $1,000,000, $100,000, $20,000. Frankly, that's just not a lot of money--not even for a family farm. A farmer without that much capital has a title: subsistence farmer. Mr. Ruiz-Marrero's fears that farmers will be forced into debt seems unwarranted.
But the main problem is all this benefits the wealthy. Only rich people will be able to buy the wholesome, freshly-grown, organic vegetables at the local farmer's market. The rest of us shlubs will be stuck with cheap frankenfoods, plastics on a stalk. But Mr. Ruiz-Marrero surely exaggerates the difference. There are no nutritional differences between so-called "organic" foods and their GM analogs. In a few cases there may be a taste difference, notably with tomatoes. Personally, I think the "organic" label is just advertising hype and I refuse to buy the stuff.

Cheaper food is better than expensive food. Farming that uses fewer resources is better than farming that wastes resources. Mr. Ruiz-Marrero has got his priorities all wrong.

Louis Proyect contributed his two-cents with a post here. Revealingly, it's an ad hominem attack on a journalist rather than any kind of reasoned argument. On science issues (where Mr. Proyect is resoundingly ignorant) that appears to be the best he can do. The Pulitzer-winning reporter, Amy Harmon, apparently has the moral backbone of a dead rat, what defending GM foods as she does. Mr. Proyect delivers the laugh line:
Her sordid record is worth examining, as is the question of genetic modification itself that she practically likens to global warming denialism or creationism...
The irony is that Mr. Proyect is himself a quasi-creationist, denying as he does the overwhelming evidence of evolution on human behavior.

Of course it's not necessary to believe lock-step in everything that so-called "scientists" say. I myself take partial issue with the so-called "consensus" on global warming. There may be good non-scientific reasons to reject evolution. But Mr. Proyect can't have it both ways--that the "consensus" is always true except when he disagrees with it.

But, since he's in awe of science, here's the statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on GM foods.
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe … The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
I agree with this. If all the bad things that the anti-GM movement predicted were true, they would have happened by now. In the meantime, over two trillion GM meals have been served, with no evidence either of bad health or environmental destruction.

Misters Proyect and Ruiz-Marrero need to find themselves some new windmills to slay.

Further Reading:

1 comment:

  1. Occam's Razor tells me (perhaps I missed it, Professor) that their problem with hi-tech ultra-efficient farming is an increasing inability to control or organize it. Hard to play the "war on (insert flavor of the month here)" when there isn't anything to control.