We Don’t Do Carrots

When asked about possible incentives that might cause North Korea (or Iran) to end its nuclear ambitions, John Bolton (then as the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security) famously replied, “I don’t do carrots.” Carrots as in sticks and carrots, of course, in this case leaving only the sticks, as in the big-stick, unilateral “diplomacy” that characterizes U.S. dealings with the rest of the world.

Presumably the stick works through fear. Often the left also thinks this is the best approach to getting what we want. But spending valuable energy echoing the daily messages of hopelessness only overwhelms most of us and paralyzes the best intentions.

So I was disappointed to read an article (Turning Your Lawn into a Victory Garden Won’t Save You — Fighting the Corporations Will) on Alternet by Stan Cox . Apparently Cox doesn’t think we should do carrots either.

He asserts that the swell of interest in growing food at home is misleading people into thinking they are doing something about the world food crisis and keeping them from getting down to the real work: fighting the agribusiness corporations. He is absolutely right that our entire commercialized food system needs a major overhaul. But where do we start? What is going to motivate people? I started researching the corporate control of agriculture about ten years ago, and started looking at people’s efforts to create an alternative food system about halfway into that. In the beginning, I found that most people are so out of touch with how food is produced that they don’t even know how to start thinking about it, so often they would rather not. The global food system is an incredibly confusing and daunting subject—like many of the problems that confront us today.

But I have also seen surprising change in a short time, specifically an increase in the number of people interested in where food comes from and the detrimental consequences of our current system. Ten years ago people really didn’t want to hear about what I was learning; today most listeners are eager to know more.

One of the great things about food is that it is immediate, so deeply integrated into our daily life, there are countless entry points to making changes. And the food system is so intricately related to so many other aspects of our lives – energy consumption, health, global relations—that increased awareness of food issues opens up consciousness of related questions, and the desire to take action.

But Cox explains to us that backyard and even frontyard gardening “won’t make a nick in the food crisis” because “the world’s diet is mostly grains and 75% of the world cropland is devoted to grains and oilseeds.” He goes on to calculate what a negligible contribution would be made to diets if everyone in the nation used half their yard to grow vegetables–as though the effects of these kinds of actions can be simply quantified. He then describes how the conveniently stored nutrient qualities of grains made accumulation of surplus possible and so gave birth to markets “which allowed the prosperous to exercise control over society’s have-nots. Eventually, states used control over grains to exert political power over entire populations.” Enter industrial agriculture under capitalist logic and we are as good as slaves.

After dating our grain-based oppression back to at least the Pharaohs, he adds that because of grains, we have been destroying biodiversity and “living with the resulting soil erosion and water pollution” ever since “the dawn of agriculture.” If grains have been oppressing us for “10,000 years,” you might think we could put quite a high value on learning how to grow some other things for ourselves. But the author can only think on the monumental scale—a few broad strokes reduce the history of agriculture to an inescapable trap, and the only solution is to somehow up-end this 10,000 year old tyranny in one insurgent leap, also offered in a few broad strokes:

“Whatever its benefits, replacing your lawn with food plants will not give Big Agribusiness the big poke in the eye that it needs, nor will it save the agricultural landscapes of the nation or world. To do that, the big-commodity market must be not just modified but overthrown.”

But given the rest of the article, perhaps the most confused statement is this:

“Only when we get more people back on the land, working to feed people and not Monsanto, will the system have a chance to work. Most home gardeners know that the root of the problem is political, but the agricultural establishment would like nothing better than to see us spend all of our free time in our gardens and not in political dissent.”

Where do you start to “get more people back on the land working to feed people and not Monsanto?” Why not in our yards? What kind of experiences are going to let people know if they are even interested in how their food is grown, much less getting back on the land and working to feed people? Unfortunately, other than fighting to get a better farm bill passed in five years, Cox doesn’t offer one concrete suggestion as to how people might launch the overthrow of the big-commodity market that he is advocating.

I realize that Cox is writing from a sense of frustration. As a participant in Fritz Haeg’s largely symbolic project (Edible Estates) of converting a few American front lawns from pesticide-dependent, water-wasting grass into aesthetically pleasing vegetable gardens, he has been placed in a position of advocating such changes on a personal level. He feels this is not enough and of course, in itself, it isn’t. But rather than trivializing the possible effects of behavioral change as “good vibes” and brandishing the stick of the enormity of the problem, he could spend some energy elucidating the way small, symbolic projects are just a part of a larger movement for changes in the food system, a movement which is already happening.

Perhaps Cox, a long time gardener, plant breeder and political writer, takes for granted in his own life the effects of growing a vegetable garden at home, and doesn’t imagine the lives of those for whom it may be a new endeavor. For many it may be the start of understanding how food is actually produced (and what life is like for those who do this for a living), what temperature and weather really mean to our sustenance (climate change is intricately related), a taste of autonomy (there are alternatives to shopping), a compost (how much value we waste and the absurdity of landfills), physical activity (obesity 1.1), pesticides (why should I poison the food I am making, the ground where my kids play), new forms of exchange (trading information and harvest with friends and neighbors), empowerment (if I can do this, why not that?), a different relationship to dirt (good dirt is a precious thing to be cultivated!).

Why should we assume that time spent gardening (organically!) is time detracting from being in the public arena fighting corporations? It is at least safe to assume it is not time spent burning fossil fuels, watching garbage on television and movie theatres, shopping, punching buttons on video games and other personal electronic devices, stewing in hopelessness about personal and global problems. I venture that it might even be safe to assume that growing a garden is more likely than many things to lead to the next steps “into the public arena” such as getting involved in a local farmer’s market, food coop, community supported agriculture, renewable energy projects, larger scale urban agriculture projects, agriculture programs in schools, campaigns to create support for small organic farms, campaigns to reform the farm bill, campaigns against pesticides and untested genetically modified foods, prosecution of criminal corporate acts…all those specific things that just might add up to a better food system and healthier people.

I’m not interested in picking on Stan Cox in particular (he did some fine reporting on the Steve Kurtz case). I do think we need to learn to read a familiar kind of cant for tendencies that are not just disempowering but are actually distortive. In as far as the point of Cox’s article is to alert us to how much in our food system needs to change I have no disagreement. But why undermine one of the things that might attract us into making those changes? Why load on more disempowering fear and discouragement? Why shouldn’t we do carrots?

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2 Responses to “We Don’t Do Carrots”

  1. Sarah Kanouse Says:

    As I was building my worm bin yesterday, I was thinking about how to describe my response to the Cox’s article. I agree with Claire’s critique that the logic at times is circular and entrapping, but I actually found the piece a breath of fresh, if contrarian, air. Probably a lot of this comes from my appreciation of people willing to pee in the soup, but I also think it’s important to be reminded periodically of what we already know – that personal solutions, if they remain only that, can be entirely compatible with capitalism. I like being reminded that I should be doing more than I already am, and I appreciate the implicit challenge for how to make sure gardening becomes a social movement, not a market niche.

    The recent spike in interest in backyard gardening, carbon footprints, local food, biking to work, etc. is a sign of an important, if still incomplete, change in consciousness, even if it took $4 gasoline to jump start it. Yet there is something I find obnoxious about the proliferation of articles and books on how to green your lifestyle (admission: our collection of “green living” books takes up more a shelf). A too-easy example is a recent NY Times article about the green honeymoon trend, but like a lot of this stuff it seems to be mostly about letting people feel not only less guilty but even self-righteous about consuming. There is clearly a huge market out there for this stuff. And some of it put out by the same people who brought you ag-as-usual, like Monsanto-owned Seminis, which sells seeds to retailers like Burpee, Jung, and Johnny’s (not to mention to the nurseries whose starts we can pick up at the farmer’s market) for us to plant in our sustainable backyard gardens.

    Cox clearly favors a quantitative critique in the article, but I am also somewhat cautious about the cultural imaginaries I am mobilizing in my fascination with backyard gardening. The rhetoric of self-sufficiency is has culturally deep roots, and they aren’t particularly progressive. I know I’ve talked about this with Bonnie before, but I perceive a link between the peak oil movement and a millennial-survivalist Americanism that goes back at least to the 1740s (and whose history is fascinating and not just “good” or “bad”). Even the use of the term “urban homestead” is weird – homestead is largely defined in this country by the congressional act that privatized public, formerly Indian lands and, currently, by the rule that allows you to pay less property tax for a house you live in. That settler imaginaries are powerful, even to people who should know better, is illustrated by the Iowa City New Pioneer Co-op’s line of “Be a Pioneer” t-shirts, on sale less than 75 miles from the state’s only recognized Indian nation. My point is not to dismiss backyard gardening as neo-colonial but to think through and be critical about the various reasons why I find it so compelling.

    I completely agree with Claire’s point that growing your own food is a potentially transformative experience, one that allows points of entry into many interrelated parts of the environmental & social catastrophe. One starting point for activism that reaches out from the garden might be to pressure Burpee, Jung, Johnny, and others to do what Fedco did and drop Seminis seed, rather than personally choose not to purchase from them. I find myself wishing that Cox had titled his article “Turning Your Lawn into a Garden Won’t Save Us” because that gets to the heart of the question – how to connect the absolutely necessary personal transformation to a project of broader cultural, social, infrastructural, and economic change.

  2. Alex Says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

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