Wednesday, May 11, 2005

review

Nothing personal, but I find Regina's "serious" books largely uninspiring. Here's a review I wrote for Slow Food of Julie Guthman, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (UC Press, 2004).

The ideology of organic food production, as Slow Food members are well aware, often draws on an arcadian image of the self-sufficient family farm. The American version of this agrarian imaginary came over with the English colonists, whose rhetoric of the patriarchal yeoman farm intensified as the way of life it glorified was eradicated by the industrial revolution. Its revival in the service of organic agriculture, with all its religious and historical baggage, is particularly anachronistic in the case of California, which, as Julie Guthman shows in her fascinating new book, never had an agrarian tradition.

Although she never says it explicitly, Guthman's powerful critique of the agrarian imaginary ultimately implies that the romanticized family farm is not sustainable. And she argues that there is nothing intrinsically unsustainable about large-scale farming. Her own numbers show that larger organic farms are in fact less sustainable (she rated 144 representative farms on a 5-point scale based on Miguel Altieri's Agroecology), but she insists that scale is not the determining factor. It is hard to say if either of these assertions is really true, but they are issues that we need to think about, and research, more clearly.

On top of this critique, Guthman throws in an extensive sociological survey of contemporary California organic farming, a history of the movement, and a persuasive economic analysis of the market forces that have shaped the movement. The paradox she identifies at the heart of organic farming is the way those market forces have reshaped organic farming in the image of agribusiness. But this is not a simplistic indictment of "industrial organic." Rather, Guthman shows how the inexorable logic of California real estate -- valued on the basis of "highest and best use" -- demands intense and ultimately unsustainable agricultural production.

The other half of the paradox is more complicated. By erecting barriers to entry to preserve their price premium -- in the form of the three year transitional period required to certify organic land -- Guthman believes that organic farmers have hindered a more widespread transition to sustainable agronomic practices. And they have re-created the rat race logic of market pricing in their own niche. Someone establishes a new crop (organic arrugula, say; a contemporary example is the "wild arrugula" that currently fetches $10/lb.), and rakes it in for a few years until the big guys get into the market and the bottom falls out. The effects on the organic market are more drastic because it is so much smaller than the conventional one.

I never figured out how Guthman would have us avoid the obviously destructive logic of this market cycle. She singles out the barriers to entry to the organic market, but it is unclear how eliminating these would help farmers in the long run. It would be nice to get rid of the bust, but do farmers have enough motivation to enter the market without the boom? Her conclusion, which seems half-hearted even in context, envisions state intervention, in the form of government subsidies, as the only real solution to this bind. If that is true, we are in trouble.

And Guthman never addresses the issue of food quality, which is of course central to Slow Food's support of price premiums for farmers. Shouldn't we pay more for better food? That wild arrugula tastes a lot better than supermarket romaine. Guthman's most valuable insight is that consumer alienation from agricultural production is a two-faced process. On the one hand, it leads to flavorless romaine, and the apathetic devaluation of food that Slow Food was formed to fight. But on the other hand, consumers who do care about food have no way to evaluate it outside of the mystified world of commodity fetishism. And Guthman insists that the structural problems of our industrialized food system are not going to be solved by the privileged throwing money willy-nilly at "artisans" or "family farmers," however deserving.

Labor is one of the most significant mystifications attending food production, organic or otherwise. Despite common perceptions to the contrary, organic agriculture depends on the same racialized cheap labor and unsavory contracting practices as conventional agriculture. Too many people are burying their heads in the sand on this issue. If organic farmers are heroes, as Alice Waters has said more than once, so are the men and women who actually plant, care for, and harvest the crops we all eat for heroically low wages. Can agriculture be sustainable in any meaningful way without providing a living wage for its labor?

The answers to many of the questions Guthman raises are currently unknowable. The market's invisible hand has forged the pervasive global agribusiness system we all live in today: a hegemonic discourse, in the words of another Italian Marxist, that stifles our ability to imagine alternatives. Would an exclusively organic agriculture, under the USDA's current rules, even be sustainable? To begin to answer that question, we need to carve out intellectual and agricultural margins where we can think outside of the market's suffocating embrace. Guthman's book is an important attempt to create such a space. Though she might not agree, Slow Food can do the same thing. But we have to think about what we're doing clearly and critically, instead of sinking into a different kind of complacency.

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