Technics and Agriculture

Technics and Agriculture

            Norman Borlaug makes a powerful argument for the application of high technology to agriculture in his Nobel Address of 2002 - Technics and Agriculture introduction. His views are merely a very recent fusillade in an ongoing debate about agriculture, population growth, culture and science. Borlaug’s view is that the application of high technology genetic modification to seeds and crops helps save the environment, uses less land and water as it increases not only yields, but nutritional levels (Borlaug, 2002, 14). He maintains that such technologies are environmentally safe, and that regardless, further technological developments will work towards making them safer. He challenges environmentalists in that the application of genetic modifiers uses less land and resources more efficiently, hence making it a boon to the environment. It should not be feared. Furthermore, the development of safe chemicals has made it possible to bring soil under cultivation that was uncultivatable before. With the current level of population growth, such forces of efficiency that only chemical and genetic engineering can provide are the only means of feeding this population without a destructive waste of resources.

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            Such arguments are common in the debate. The basic ideas are that genetic and chemical engineering can increase yields per acre, thereby leading to a greater land use efficiency and hence, less stress on local ecosystems.  It assists local populations by making the soil more fertile, bringing more land into cultivation that was considered “waste land” previously. He holds that the environment can only benefit.

            Hugh Lacy (2003) takes a more nuanced view. He accuses the likes of Borlaug of refusing to take into consideration the nature of economic power relations that are created given the nature of genetically altered seeds. The creation of such seeds removes the seed form the normal process of harvesting, and places them at the mercy of corporate science and profit (Lacy, 92). It reduces collective farming to that of corporate dominance, where food is placed at the whim of often foreign corporations where food is not the priority, but profit and market share. It politicizes seeds and agriculture in general, alienating it from its roots.

            Bur Lacy challenges the convention scientific view at a deeper level: the views of Borlaug revolve around maximization yields and efficiency, yet that is not the whole story. The entire ecological movement is based around not merely feeding people, but about building community; a new form of community where the natural world is a partner, an equal, a member of the community itself (Lacy, 97-98). Sustainability, integrity, culture and social health, to paraphrase, are the basic touchstones of the ecological movement. The locality is what is stressed rather than the national and international plane of Borlaug. The community, its culture, and its shaping by the natural topography are part of community building. Hence, under this view, Borlaug misses the point: maximum efficiency abstracted from culture and the integrity of a specific way of life is false: it is the accounting book approach to agriculture. Where the ecological approach is holistic.

            Furthermore, lacy reminds the corporate scientists that increasing yields has already been a fact in small scale farming. Such increasing of yield per acre is as much as part of traditional agriculture as the modern, mechanized version (Lacy, 100). Local farming cooperatives have made strides not only in yield increases and basically balanced nutrition, but also in basic sustainability and rational land and water usage. The view of Borlaug assumes that traditional land husbandry is irrational, while the scientific view is rational. But this view is straining under the evidence (Lacy, 99).

            A similar view is produced, in a far more abstract form, by Robert Clark. Clark opposes a merely scientific/Enlightenment view imposing itself upon agriculture, and sees the agricultural community as a part of what he calls “co-evolution.” This is the idea of a constant process of mutual adaptation of human culture in reference with topography and the local ecosystem. Success is largely defined as developing a “mutualist” understanding of land use. Mutualism is defined as a state of affairs where two populations interact in such a way that they produce mutually beneficial end results (Clark, 2000, 15). They no longer compete: their struggles for survival are mutually beneficial. Stable land use procedures must follow this order. In many respects, Clark seems to be a synthesis of the above views, bringing about a method of understanding agriculture that incorporates community o the one hand, with scientific rationality, on the other. It, however, redefines rationality in such a way that it does not emphasize profit or yield maximization, but redefines rationality in that the products of the populations’ striving are beneficial to the other.

            In Clark’s view, a community might be defined, locally, as the continued interaction between human culture and the natural environment. It may be that Clark is hinting that a judicious use of chemical and genetic engineering is a part of this “culture’ and will eventually have the ecosystem adapt accordingly. The trick is for the imposition of human culture (such as it is) creates a balanced natural response, thereby leading to an eventual balance. Clark provides no solution to this, but an abstract metaphysic that hides more than it reveals. In other words, to speak of “human cultures” and its adaptive responses is to mystify these cultures: power and the relationships of inequality and imbalance must be part of the equation: an unbalanced culture will create a synthetic, not an organic natural response; a distorted nature symbolized by the city.

            Murray Bookchin argues that this sort of assumption is precisely the problem. Along with lacy, Bookchin, though in a more systematic way, links power relationships to the natural world in a way that Clark would not. Bookchin (1964) reminds the supporters of Clark that “culture” also contains relationships, and many of these relationships are base on power inequality. The lack of balance in human affairs is mirrored in the lack of balance in the ecosystems where this system as extended itself. In 1964 as in 2008, it has extended itself to the entire planet, creating a notion of a global ecosystem (something accepted by Clark), but a global ecosystem that is out of balance, dominated by a system fo production and consumption that is spinning out of control.

            Modern social ideologies are based on a concept of “mass society” of private and public enterprises creating for the maximum of market share and profit. Things such as soil and water are viewed as mere resources to be exploited for short term gain. Like Lacy, Bookchin reminds his readers that prior to the Enlightenment, social conservation and land husbandry were well advanced, but these societies were based on value systems that did not value consumption and possession as ends in themselves. The modern obsession with commodities is precisely the ideological imbalance in social life that demands the earth be plundered as a resource to create more and more commodities for an insatiable market. Hence, the philosophical approach of ecological science is that there is no separation between social science and the natural sciences, there must be a “field theory” of science that connects human behavior as manifest in institutions (such ca the market) and its resultant natural consequents. This is the “revolutionary” nature of economy.

            To conclude, this debate is very complex and nuanced. But it seems that all are in agreement that science, as separated from human behavior is no longer a working model. Borlaug provides a very simple approach to agriculture, one where the direct imposition of modern scientific methods will increase yield ans thus feed more people. But the responses to him (so to speak) seem to accuse him of refusing to countenance that the very modern mentality that is promising to end world hunger is the very mentality that created the natural imbalances in the first place. It is precisely modernity’s stress on efficiency that has led to the plundering of the planet, and a very different approach to human needs must be laid out philosophically before any kind of reconstruction can begin. That form of reconstruction is laid out briefly by Bookochin: local democracy, decentralization and the human scale of technology. This and only this can solve the problems that mass markets and globalization has created.


Figueroa, Robert and Sandra Harding. Science and Other Cultures: Issues in Philosophies of     Science and Technolgy. Routledge, 2003.

Borlaug, Norman. “The Green Revolution Revisited and the Road Ahead.” 2002 Nobel Prize Lecture. (Accessed from on December 20, 2008)

Bookchin, Murray. “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought.” Anarchy, (no v.) 1965. np. (Accessed from on December 20, 2008.)

Clark, Robert P. Global Life Systems: Population, Food and Disease in the Process of                Globalization. Rowan and Littlefield, 2000.


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