Plants as Persons: New Science Meets Enduring Ethics

By Madronna Holden

In his groundbreaking Plants as Persons:  A Philosophical Botany, Matthew Hall reveals botanical discoveries that indicate plants have individuality, self-recognition, self-direction, learning capacity, self- preservation and self-initiated movement.  Does this make them persons?  Hall’s conclusion is a resounding yes.

But if plants have the traits of persons on the list above, this does not make them persons like human persons.  Though Hall argues plants have a mind exhibited in the communication between plant parts by means of neural hormones, for instance, he stresses that they do not have a mind like the centralized human brainInstead they have a kind of “network mind”.

And though they may learn and adapt in the course of their lifetimes, their choices are not analogous to human free will.

What we have here is a contrary view to either the anthropocentrism that lays the world at the service of human ends or the anthropomorphism that projects human qualities on other natural lives.  Instead the particular qualities of plants challenge humans to expand their sense of personhood to include natural lives very different not only from humans but from all  persons in terms of a “zoocentric” bias that Hall argues permeates too much of our science.

Many indigenous peoples also attribute plants with the characteristics Hall outlines—in their worldviews the perception of plants as persons is commonplace.  Importantly, as Hall underscores in his detailed cross-cultural and historical analysis, those cultures with worldviews that see plants as persons also characteristically treat plants—and the living biosphere of which plants make up the substantial part—with respect and care.

The traditional Chehalis of Washington State, for instance, did not cut cottonwood or burn it for firewood, since they observed that it moved on its own—when there was no wind. Their respect for the cottonwood, that is, led to both careful observation of it and ensuing special treatment.  Notably, the water-loving cottonwood grows along river banks and in wetlands– and not cutting that tree helps preserve and cleanse local water tables protected by its roots.  A parallel case is that of the fig that grows along river and stream banks in traditional Kikuyu territory in Kenya.  Wangari Maathai, founder of the Greenbelt Movement responsible for the planting of a billion trees, inherited the Kikuyu belief that the fig is sacred and should not be disturbed where it grows along such watercourses. Thus she learned the relationship between these trees and the preservation of precious water resources.

Such examples are legion:  I was told by an herbalist at Makah (on the Olympic Peninsula) that local loggers refused to cut the alder which their tradition considered sacred.  Not incidentally, the alder is a nitrogen-fixing tree that plays an essential role in re-establishing tree growth in areas ravaged by fire—or clear cut logging in the modern era.  The respect for the alder’s healing power was such that when native loggers learned alders were due to be cut in a modern logging operation, they would stay away from the job to avoid having any part in this.

Further north, in the Koyukan lands, the birch was thought to carry out reciprocal relationships with its human users. This idea limited the harvesting of birth bark so that trees were not harmed in the process.  In terms of its contract with humans, the birch would retaliate with environmental depravation if its bark were overused or wasted.  Such reciprocal relationships between humans and plants prevailed throughout native North America, where cloth weavers, basket makers, canoe makers, and house builders used plants according to human-plant contracts in which plants were thought to give permission for their use—which they would never do if humans wasted or overused them—ruined their habitats or harvested them in any other destructive way.

Altogether, the perception of plants as beings with minds and choices of their own led to both the careful observation and the respectful treatment of plants and their habitats—as well as special sensitivity to the interdependent relationships between humans and plants.

All knowledge of nature might be considered a form of story—a paradigm, as modern philosophy terms it.    What Hall’s work raises for consideration is the question of which stories are in line with the scientifically observed dynamics of the natural world and also elicit ethical consideration of that world from humans.  He argues that the idea of plants as persons fills both these criteria. By contrast, the story of plants as “automatons”, as Hall argues, is not only wrong on scientific and rational terms—given the characteristics of plants that make them very different from automatons– but wrong on ethical terms—which license humans to treat these living creatures with such carelessness.

So why do the members of modern industrial society often miss these special characteristics of plants outlined by Hall—and thus fail to treat the natural world that sustains us with the respect and care that such a view engenders?  According to Hall we can chalk this up to a mistaken turn in Western thinking that took up Aristotle’s dualistic and hierarchical philosophy, dividing humans from nature as it set humans above all else on earth. There were other choices:  for instance, pre-Socratics who argued that all natural life should be accorded equal consideration since it shared the same natural sources.

But Aristotle’s views went well with a culture based on empire—whereas the view of the equality of all life did not.  Not incidentally, Aristotle’s views of the natural world mirrored his views of humans, which divided them into classes allotted at birth—with male urban Greek landholders placed above the farmers from conquered cultures and slaves originating as war captives. And all men placed above women whom Aristotle saw as soul-less vessels good only for reproductive purposes—unlike some pre-Socratics who held female thinkers in high esteem.

The worldview that sees things in terms of domination and hierarchy can also inhibit scientific understanding—as Hall argues that it does in what is misses in botanical life. Further, the worldview that separates humans from other natural lives has historically given little attention to the interdependent or reciprocal quality of that world– in which each action has consequences. This worldview, that is, often licenses the dismissal of ethical concerns with respect to the treatment of the natural world.

The stories we tell of the natural world are not accidental, but set in cultural contexts:  they both serve and reflect social purposes.  The best science transcends the limits of the dominating worldview—as did Nobel Prize winning geneticist Barbara McClintock, who attributes her brilliant results to her “speaking with the corn”. Though presently recognized with this award, she at first had a good deal of trouble publishing her work, given both the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field and had such a holistic, reverential attitude toward the corn she studied.

It is no mistake that societies that sustained their ways of life for tens of thousands of years had a worldview that encouraged both the careful observation of plants as living beings—and the ethics that flowed from such a view. And Hall points out the ways in which modern science parallels such ancient ethics.

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Madronna Holden’s review of Plants as Persons  was published in the newsletter of the International Society for Environmental Ethics ( summer 2012).

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

An Oregon boy’s experiences working alongside migrant farm workers

By Madronna Holden

Sixty per cent of US citizens, according to a recent poll, support the controversial Arizona immigrant law. They want consistent law enforcement on the immigration issue.

But this law is not likely to get it for them. A sticking point is the law’s requiring police to check registration status of “suspected” immigrants– but just exactly how does an immigrant in a nation of immigrants look suspicious?   The Arizona Republic ran a page full of pictures—and asked its readers how they would pick out the “immigrants”.

Impossible to do without racial profiling.

There are others issues here:  low cost migrant labor is a mainstay of US agriculture.  If one really stopped all illegal immigrants from reaching or staying in the US, this sector of our economy would likely collapse.

There is the issue of justice involved when multi-national corporations in which US parties have substantial interest buy up lands in Mexico—ousting the residents from traditional subsistence farms. There are also market shifts created by our rush to produce ethanol, which has inflated the price of corn for mainstays like tortillas in the Mexican diet beyond the reach of the average family budget.

But for all such legitimate analysis,  the one perspective often missing in this debate is the story not of dollars or images or abstract legal standards, but human lives.  This is the story shared  by my student, Ohdran McGonagall, who relates his childhood experience working alongside migrant workers:

I worked on the hot summer farms as a kid for years. I did back-breaking work the way my dad and grand-dad did harvesting vegetables by bending over and picking them with my two hands. It was hard and dirty, it was everyday, all summer long. We hired high school kids who wanted summer jobs for a few years until they stopped showing up and started spending their summers indoors playing video games. Most kids didn’t want those kinds of jobs, so we had to replace them with people who did. People need food, farmers grow it, harvesters get it to the stores and canneries. Farmers are nothing without the work of the people harvesting.

On the farm, our new employees needed money and we gladly paid them. We drove around Salem in a van and picked them up from their meager homes, and they got up damn early (4am most days) to make sure they had jobs every day and that someone else didn’t take those jobs from them. We had the best crew around, and other farmers hired us to bring our crew to harvest their farms after they put in a whole day on ours. None of them ever said they were too tired. They asked for more work. They worked twice as long and sometimes four times as long in the fields as I could when I was half their age. Some of these people were seventy years old, yes, seventy!

I learned some of their language and discovered that not all of these people were just Mexican citizens, but indigenous people with their own language in addition to Spanish. They brought their traditional food to work and shared it with me, and they taught me a lot about family and sticking together. Many of them were saving up to buy a house for one family and then when one family was situated, they would do this for the next family and so on until they were all living in better homes.

My family even learned some farming tricks from them which they gladly shared without demanding anything for their expertise. We paid them better wages than other farmers did because they were good at their jobs and our success was theirs and we knew they all had families south of the border. Imagine being a couple thousand miles away from your family just so you can provide for them.

Were they illegal immigrants? Who knows? I never cared to ask. They were as much from America as I was. Were they friends? Absolutely. Were they busting their backs to feed people in my home town who in turn discriminated against them and wanted to send them home? Every day.

I always thought if we turned over the entire agricultural process we have today to those folks, we would be healthier. Of course we would as a nation need to drop the NIMBY approach. I doubt we would need to chemically “enhance” our fruits and vegetables thereby putting toxins in our bodies. I doubt we would allow large strawberry corporations to undermine true farming of indigenous peoples. We would be culturally enriched by just dropping the idea of putting up a wall, and by having our co-American neighbors here where we could work and learn new things together. And of course, they would find jobs and opportunities they aren’t currently finding south of lands we stole, lands that were formerly THEIR best.

How to Feed the World: Sustainable Food Production

By Madronna Holden

Updated 10. 25. 2012

“Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same land”.

Science Daily, July 11, 2007


The quote above comes from a review of a University of Michigan study that finds that organic farming is especially important in feeding developing nations.  The video recently released (on “Food Day”:  October 25.2012) by the Food Myths program gives a solid outline of why industrial farming is not only not needed, but counter-productive in feeding the world.  In turn, if new technology, chemical inputs into agriculture, and genetic engineering will not feed the world, as I have argued elsewhere on this site, the propagation fair I attended in Eugene, Oregon illustrates what we need instead.

The fair consisted of a free exchange of plants and seeds.  It also offered free scions of hundreds of varieties of pears, apples, and plums, carefully labeled as to taste, keeping qualities, and disease hardiness.  Visitors could take these for free for grafting onto existing trees.  Or they could use root stocks and/or take advantage of the help of experienced grafters offered at cost.

Workshops entailed such topics as seed saving and winter gardening. And informational booths ranged from a focus on honeybees and native pollinators to a school gardens program.

Notably, Vandana Shiva has noted that the same kinds of fairs existed in traditionally sustainable farming areas of India, where growers (largely women) got together to trade seeds and ideas.

Here are the hallmarks of this fair that illustrate what we do need to feed the world.

Community values

This fair expressed sharing for all rather than profit for a few. The volunteer grafters, the workshop leaders, those who staffed booths and those who brought plants and seeds to give away were enthusiastic about sharing both information and food-growing resources. This contrasts sharply with Monsanto’s “terminator gene”, developed to protect its patent—which also threatens our food supply through unpredictable and uncontrollable gene migration.

The fair also expressed the value of care— for the environment, for community, and for the varieties of trees and seeds to be preserved locally.

Care is a productive value when it comes to such things. Care such as Barbara McClintock’s “speaking with the corn”, treating each plant as an individual, led to work that earned her the Nobel Prize. This echoes the care with which indigenous peoples tended their fertile “gourmand’s paradise” in the Willamette Valley:  care for both the natural lives that fed them and the human lives to come after them.

Indeed, such care sustained human communities and environments together throughout the indigenous Northwest.

It is such care that the government of Switzerland replicates in their constitution guaranteeing the “dignity” of all natural life.

Technologies

Here are the characteristics of sustainable food-producing technologies exhibited at the propagation fair.

Sustainable food-producing technologies should be place-based.

As opposed to the “one size fits all” technology of globalization, place-based technology is as flexible and particular as the individual yard into which it would be set—as special as each person’s choice of and care for a heritage tree or vegetable seed.

Such technology does not depend on a large plot of land.  As are many urban gardens today, a tree or vegetable plant can be placed in a backyard, on a parking strip, on a reclaimed vacant lot, or on a rooftop or terrace.

Seeds grown and saved from local gardens partnered with nature’s ability to adapt, rather than trying to force diverse ecological systems to adapt to human whims.

Sustainable food-producing technology should preserve biodiversity.

As Barbara Kingsolver observed, any society that relies on a single variety of an essential food source is one step from the devastating starvation suffered in the Irish potato famine when disease attacked the single kind of potato grown there.

Such a famine would not have happened in Peru, where the potato originated– and where traditional farmers grow uncounted varieties of this crop. Traditional farmers also keep wild areas open. There nature has a chance to grow whatever she wants—and farmers often find useful varieties arising in these wild places.

Maintaining this natural stock-producing area was also the practice of peasant farmers in Britain (where the hedgerows provided food to birds as well) and in Eastern Europe.

Sustainable food-producing technology should need few secondary material inputs.

Grafting needs no secondary technological inputs such as fossil fuels, pesticides and fertilizers, or expensive machinery.  Its tools are as simple as a grafting knife—and care in the hands and knowledge in the minds of those who tend grafted trees.

I would suggest that the complexity of a technology, as in the complexity of the grafting process, should center not on material input and fancy inventions, but on the complexity of knowledge and experience passed from one person to another.  Technology with this type of complexity relies not on depleting natural resources—but on the unlimited resource of human knowledge.

In an age of burgeoning human population and declining natural resources, we need this combination of complex knowledge and simple material input.

Sustainable food-producing technology should have a historical track record or careful research in terms of safety in line with the precautionary principle.

Grafting is an ancient human science. I once sat in an Arab garden on the Mount of Olives sustained by grafting techniques and local knowledge.  The caretaker of his tiny garden offered shade and comfort to guests, even as his garden offered up honey, olives, grapes and a dozen other varieties of fruit to the family that cared for it.  He told me that if something did not work on this land so densely planted that the leaves of the trees touches one another, he grafted other varieties that did.

He followed an ancient tradition that is all too little utilized in this war torn area.

Sustainable food-producing technology should have no deleterious side effects, for either the environment or other humans.

Side effects that negate the benefit of high-end technologies used in corporate farming include use of toxic chemicals and fossil fuels, drawing down the water table, and/ or carbon production.

Instead of such negative side effects, planting trees has the potential to ameliorate climate change and recharge ravaged water tables.

It is a wonderful that this process feeds us as well.

We have such technology and we can refine it.  We have no need to use technology touted as part of the “green revolution” that devastated lands such as those in Bangladesh reclaimed by the traditional and diverse farming methods of New Agricultural Moment or similarly in Mexico by Jesus Leon Santos.

It is a fool’s bargain to trade away temporary profit for a few for the destruction of the land we need to sustain us. Indeed, it is clearly irrational to give economic rewards to those who undermine the sources of our survival and spread toxins to any part of the planet we share.

By contrast, any robust economic system and the technology it develops must reward those who produce what we need for the flourishing of humans and other lives on this planet:  things such as nourishing food, secure livelihoods, clean air and water, good health, and a secure future for our children.

The more rare and precious are our natural resources, the more we must protect and care for them.

Night-Mares and Horsepower: Domestic Partners in the More than Human World

march 2013 006

By Madronna Holden

Why should we call our bad dreams nightmares?

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves related an ancient story from the British Isles that tells how– after men captured wild mares and kept them in stalls and bred them at their whim– the Night Mare visited these men’s dreams with her long teeth and punishing hooves.

As a girl, my family once had a mare who was a nightmare for a man who wished to control her, a huge thoroughbred with her ancestral wildness still in her. Since we were moving two thousand miles away, we sold the mare to a man who wanted to train her as a jumper.  But I got a phone call from him complaining she was unrideable.

I went immediately to the stable and the ring—the like of which the mare had never seen—to show just how well she handled.  I let her reins go slack as she read my body, turning on a dime and cantering like a dream.

As I slipped off her back, the trainer drawled, “No offense, but you can make that mare look like an old plug”.

That odd complement was centered in the Western worldview: the idea that I was a good rider because I made that mare look so tame.  I knew this man was wrong.  I didn’t do it. The mare did– as many other examples in the Tao of Equus demonstrate other horses as doing.

Though this mare would do anything you asked her to do if you asked properly, she refused to be manhandled.  She broke my heart with her grace that last time I rode her.  I hope she somehow understood it was out of my hands to let her go—and that she taught her new “owner” something about getting along with the world larger than himself.  In this case, about 2000 pounds larger.

After all, it was the job of mares to socialize others in their wild herds.

There is danger involved in assuming that such creatures are at our service just because we purchase  them– as this man found out.  And as we ourselves find out in our attempt to control the natural world with inappropriate technological development– though we still try.

As illustrated  in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we and our technology inevitably shape one another.  Human life in the machine age has become increasingly mechanistic even as we project our own psyches onto our machines. Advertisers know this as they sell trucks with the not so subtle claim that they will increase the masculinity of their drivers.

But the understanding of our psychological entanglement with our technology is not complete if it stops and starts at the human psyche.  There is something else to consider:  we are not alone in the world.  Domestication does not merely shape our consciousness.  It is about the relationship between human consciousness and other natural life.

Such lives cannot be simply reduced to the energy we measure as the “horsepower” of our machines.  Different cultures have very different ideas of domestication than the contemporary industrial impulse to count “horsepower” as force harnessed on our behalf.

Indigenous peoples in Western Washington very much valued the horses introduced into their territory after the coming of whites to this continent. They loved to race them and sometimes, to travel with them—though canoes made better vehicles of transport on landscapes so crossed with rivers. Horses were more useful for travel in the open areas across the Cascades and along the Columbia River.

Stories from pioneer families I gathered in Western Washington record astonishment at how an Indian might labor for months to obtain a horse he  favored from a white family—but then never keep that animal under fence.  One Indian man explained that if the horse came back after he turned it loose, that was great–and if it didn’t—well, it had a life of its own.

At the Walla Walla treaty proceedings in the mid-nineteenth century, the Nez Perce entered with a display of horsemanship that left the US cavalry in a state of wonder, as reported by a cavalry lieutenant who observed it.  But he also wondered at the fact that those who rode such magnificent mounts let them graze the open prairie without any human restraint.

Local native people on the Oregon coast indicated their attitude toward horses in their lack of bridles and reins.  Coquille elder George Wasson came to speak in my Linfield College class shortly after the film Dances with Wolves was released. He pointed out the glaring cultural misstep in this film in the portrayal of Indian riders as using bridles.

Norman Dick was a pioneer child whom Siuslaw man Andrew Charles sat in front of him on his horse and took for long rides.  The Indian man used his arms to hold the toddler securely, since he rode his horse “Indian style”– without reins.

There is an essential lesson in the attitude toward “horsepower” that does not forget that there is a life behind it —a life that is more than the harnessing of it for human purposes.  It is better to cooperate with such life than fight its rebellion.

To try to  “break” any other life for our use, as the old West terminology has it., is bound to cause  us problems.  We may try to “break” a horse—or a cow that stands unmoving in a milking stall all day given hormones and antibiotics to keep it alive and maximally producing– or a plant that is genetically engineered to rein in its DNA to our use.  But there are results that are not predicted by those whose vision of  natural  life starts and stops in the barn or the laboratory—or the pocketbook.

There is mad cow disease that results from feeding these captured cows rendered brain and spinal cords from other mammals.  There is the spontaneous migration of genes between plants over unforeseeable distances in a process we have no idea how to accurately predict, much less control.

Natural life may shrug us off its back as easily as it slips houses down the hill below a clear cut—as has happened throughout the lower Umpqua River drainage.

The genetics of plants is better observed by those who,  like Barbara McClintock, derive their insight from speaking with the corn. Though her findings eventually won her the Nobel Prize, she could not find funding or professional placement for decades.  As both a woman and a scientist with this novel approach, she struggled to do her work in isolation until her colleagues finally recognized the importance of her finding.

Such scientists have much in common with traditional farmers all over the world– like the Czech farmer (her grandfather)  my student Iveta Habartova eloquently describes:

“My grandpa knew every branch and every tree so intimately; he spoke to the trees. He always told me that he had to talk to the trees to give them love so that they would grow well. Every time I entered my grandpa’s orchard, it was like entering a church. It was where all the wisdom, love and years of experience that my grandpa collected were kept. It was where he shared all those things with me. “

This is a profound expression of Wendell Berry‘s “agrarian mind” and its intimacy with the land–and contrast with industrial farming.

Domestication in its root means to bring something into our home with us:  to make it a part of our family.  As opposed to Monsanto’s battle for secrecy to prevent its agricultural products from being labeled for their consumers, caring for a Palestinian olive tree is a public affair, whose care is inherited by particular family members, and whose harvest is undertaken by a whole community.

During the year I lived and taught under Israeli Occupation, I once had dinner with a Palestinian family who used traditional methods of grafting to turn less than an acre into a garden overflowing with abundance.  As I sat in the shade of the trees this family cared for with such tenderness, I was for the moment sheltered from the winds of violence that blew all about us on this land.

This is certainly a profound lesson of appropriate domestication:  if we tend the land, it will shelter us.

And it will teach us about the vital processes  of natural life.

If we learn to “domesticate” with integrity as we bring other natural life into our homes and hearts, we might also learn to treat other  natural life—including humans—with respect, tenderness and generosity.

It is certainly past time to turn our technological nightmares into these better dreams.


I have received many wonderful comments since this essay was recently published, but I wanted to call reader’s attention to this one in particular from my student Susan Riley:

“Like Iveta’s grandfather, my grandmother treated her plants and livestock as reverently as she did her family. I distinctly remember her talking to her pansies, cupping them in her old weathered hand and telling them how beautiful their ‘faces’ were. Of course we laughed and thought she was being eccentric (heading toward senile) but no one could deny, that woman could charm a stick into growing into a beautiful, productive tree. Grandma’s chickens and her one old cow also got the best of care and attention and gave her eggs and milk long after what might be considered ‘normal’. Mostly I remember her wonderful vegetable garden. She had to share with the deer that wandered freely through her property but always managed a bumper crop of peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini. Nothing has or ever will, I think, tasted as good as grandma’s fresh spring peas creamed with Betsy’s fresh whole milk. While I’m sure Grandma felt she owned her property and animals, I’m also sure she considered that ownership more of a caretaker position than one of domination over the land and livestock. From her we learned to appreciate and respect even the smallest of creatures and we learned to talk to the pansies.”

Telling the Stories of Consumer Products

updated 2.10.13

“Ag Gag”  laws attempt to stop us from knowing a product’s story:  see below.

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“We have to remember our source of nourishment. Or we will starve.”

Elizabeth Woody, Warm Springs Indian Reservation (A Song to the Creator)

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In spite of Elizabeth Woody’s warning, modern consumer society is geared to making us forget the natural sources of our nourishment.  Supermarket stacks of saran-wrapped hamburger packages disguise entirely their resemblance to their natural source.

Modern markets also give us the sense that money rather than knowledge is the key to our survival.  And in the capitalist system– in the short term– it is.

But in the long term, it isn’t. There is a limit to the ways in which we can force the land to yield more—even though we are still trying, with such schemes as vertical farming. Without healthy water and soil, food will not grow.  It comes to market from somewhere and the way in which this happens is a story we need to hear and to tell.

If that story is one of abundance and diversity and continuance, it is also a story of grace.  Thus, Wendell Berry once remarked, we should not eat any food we are not willing to pray over.

By contrast, most modern stories of the food we eat are profoundly lonely ones— for humans are the only actors within them.  In these stories we are only consuming, not sharing.  These stories tells us humans made up the cartoon cows that appear on milk cartoon– and humans can make up our food as if we did not need the cooperation of the land to do this.

Thus I applaud Barack Obama’s proposal for a farmer’s market at the White House: for such market’s tell us a different story.

We can never have too much healthy food, too much of the community created by such markets and the urban gardens like that currently at the White House.  Such markets and gardens exude the spontaneous sense of celebration that harvest always engenders.

They illustrate there are human hands and other natural lives involved in producing “the sources of our nourishment”.

At the Eugene Farmer’s Market last year, a booth selling goat cheese and goose eggs displayed a large egg and invited the passing crowd to guess what animal it came from. The farmer was amused at the number of passers-by who blurted out “goats” in answer to this question—evidently since there was a picture of a goat at the booth. Though there was no picture, obviously, of a goat laying an egg!

But perhaps the story of a goat’s egg is better than the story of an egg laid by a corporation with the intersession of a few feathered machines so closely housed that they need antibiotics to survive—and regularly resort to cannibalism.  Or formerly grass-eating machines that never move from their engineered milking stations and are turned into cannibals by the food their human managers give them.

And there is the tragic story that tells how both of these animal-machines in factory farms are slaughtered–under conditions in which humans are maimed and (all too often killed) along with the animals they process.

These stories are documented in books like Fast Food Nation and the film Food, Inc.—and in the lively Story of  Stuff. But they are not told in that supermarket package, where the stories available to consumers consist of things like ingredients and percentage of fat.  These hardly give us the full story.

But this is changing. Grassroots labeling campaigns are a way of telling more of the story of our food.  These stories include “sustainably raised” and “humanely raised” beef and “free range” chickens.

“Organic” itself was not originally a government label, but one created and standardized by farmers’ organizations like Tilth in Oregon.  There was a considerable battle when this label became a federal standard a few years back—since certain corporate interests wanted to water it down so much it would have been a meaningless label that did not distinguish organic from commercial products.  But those who originally instituted it—as well as a vocal percentage of the US public—fought to continue it as a standard that consumers can trust.

The battle continues as Monsanto wants to add genetically engineered foods to the list of those certified as organic.

There is also “fair trade” to combat the “free trade” propagated by the World Trade Organization whose rules specify nations cannot discriminate against products based on the means of production—so that it sued Massachusetts for boycotting products from the terrorist regime in Myanmar.

The label “fair trade” urges us to go more deeply into the stories behind our luxury goods from elsewhere.  How many of use would pick up that Hershey bar at the supermarket checkout lane if it had on it the story of the child’s hands that produced it under slave labor conditions in Africa?

There are other stories that the labeling of sustainably raised lumber, the labeling of buildings with LEED certification, and the proposed LEAF program for labeling of fabrics urge us to think about.  Some of them are gathered on community-based websites under consumer information links here.

The economic effects of such labeling is indicated by the pitched battle Monsanto has waged against labeling genetically engineered foods in the US for the last two decades—since their research tells them US consumers will buy far fewer gmo foods if they know they are buying them.  Monsanto’s dirty tricks included pressure on Fox News to fire two investigative reporters who uncovered the corporation’s unsavory tactics.

Meanwhile, dairy farmers in Oregon collectively agreed to refuse to use the bovine growth hormone—and labeled their products Bgh-free.  Monsanto also fought a losing battle to make it against the law to label milk products in this way.

Such labels signal a move to tell the stories of the products we use—stories that are all too often hidden by the corporate interests that manufacture those products.  Grassroots labels have standards upheld by transparent community groups—as opposed to the decisions deliberated behind the closed doors at the WTO.

Such labels are an important way of telling the story of the products we buy in a global arena in which consumers are often separated from the products they purchase by geographical and social distance.

They remind us all that we are a living part of a living world:  that there are human and natural lives behind all the food we ingest and the clothes we wear—and our houses shelter us with a story that began in the ancient joining of sunlight and trees.

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One of the signs of a farm with ethical production practices is its transparency– its willingness to share the story of its production practices with us.  On the opposite end of the spectrum are those factory farms lobbying for “Ag Gag” laws,  in order to hide their practices from the public, levying jail sentences, for instance, for photographing what is done there.

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And here is a great comment on this point that sums it all up, written by Valerie Fowler:

Ethically produced food is important on several levels. As mentioned here, fair trade food protects workers. Organic food protects the land and the consumers. Humanely raised food protects the animals from abuse. There are so many reasons to support “real” food and only one reason not to- which is money. Yet eating industrial food is actually cost-prohibitive because of the negative health effects. How much does diabetes, heart disease or cancer cost a person? Or even a simple doctors visit because the food they eat is so devoid of nutrients?

The Green Revolution–Whoops! The Women of Bangladesh Offer an Alternative

The more we try to manage a problem with a technological magic bullet, the less effective we may be in meeting our goals. Take, for instance, the case of high producing variety (HVP) rice in Southeast Asia. The HVP rice provides more calories, but its introduction several decades ago wound up amplifying both vitamin A and protein deficiencies among those who grew it. Not only were the HVP rice strains lower in protein than traditional varieties, but the mono-cropping of HVP rice did away with carotene-laden greens that formerly grew in the rice paddies, along with the fish traditionally raised there.

In a parallel fashion, genetic engineering today may look good on one level, but work against its own purported goals on another.  Take the current “roundup ready” soy sold by Monsanto.  It works in conjunction with the herbicide Round Up to prevention competition in soy fields.  But the “round up ready” gene is spliced into a low-producing variety of soy-a variety rejected some time ago in hybrid breeding programs because of its low yield.

If we want to increase yields, as the “roundup ready” seed promises, why not return to higher yield varieties along with care of the soil– as opposed to low yield varieties plus with Round Up with all its health and environmental hazards?  Of course, then there are no profits for Monsanto?

There is another serious problem with genetically engineered crops:  one that caused British farmers to burn test fields of genetically engineered soy-and the European Union to reject imports of genetically engineered grains.  Through a  mechanism we can neither understand nor control, genes migrate from one plant or field to another. That is, gene reproduction in plants is not entirely contained within single plants.  This is a serious issue with the Monsanto “terminator” genes engineered to create sterility-as a protection for the Monsanto gene patents.  But what if the terminator genes migrate to crops whose seeds we want or need to save?

To return to Southeast Asia and HVP rice, bioengineers are currently working on “golden rice” containing carotene to address the problem of vitamin A deficiency there. But as some local people understand, what they need is something entirely different from a more heavily engineered super-rice.

Thus the women of Bangladesh began the Nayakrishi Andolon, or New Agricultural Movement, practiced by 25,000 households by 1998. This movement fosters biodiversity in the context of the Hindu belief that all life is interconnected through the single spirit that animates it. This movement has come to its striking success, two of its members recently told Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, co-author of The Subsistence Perspective with Maria Mies, by simply doing what brings them joy even as it makes their land beautiful.

These women have led a local movement to replace the beesh, or “poison” of the Green Revolution with a diverse ecosystem which uses no pesticides or chemical fertilizers (phasing these out if necessary); practices mixed cropping; multi-cropping, and agro-forestry; integrates habitat for livestock, poultry, and semi-domestic birds and animals; and practices seed saving and genetic conservation. The farmers in this movement assess the productivity of their fields not by the yield of a single super product, but by the sum of their diverse products. They have not gotten back all 12,000 varieties of rice indigenous to this area, but some individual farmers grow more than 110 varieties. And their methods have been so good for the land that some now grow rice using only surface water rather than drawing up ground water. This movement is an obvious success.

It takes a local community in partnership with nature’s diversity– rather than a single technology developed somewhere else-to reclaim a land. As in this case, global development projects which purport to bring “progress” to a third world community might well take a moment to learn something from the communities they hope to serve.  Maria Mies’ “subsistence perspective” offers some guidelines for doing this.

It is important to note that though the women farmers of Bangladesh have reclaimed their lands in these ways, areas of Bangladesh are currently hard pressed to deal with rising waters in the Bay of Bengal resulting from climate change. As the documentary, “Afloat”,  indicates, what the people of Bangladesh face will be faced by all of us if the global community does not join in ameliorating climate change.

Gilgamesh and other pioneers in paradise

11,000 years ago the country where modern Iran is today was a “paradise”, according to the archeologists currently investigating the world’s oldest Stonehenge-type religious site there.  This site is thousands of years older than the famed one in the British Isles.  In the most recent issue of the Smithsonian, archeologists speculate that the landscape filled with lakes and leaping gazelles amidst fields of wild grain so inspired its human inhabitants that they raised this religious tribute to its ineffable beauty. The carved stones there include images of vultures that traditional mythology tells us carried off the souls of the dead to heaven. A splendid heaven it must have been, scattering light onto the fertile earth below.

Another tribute to the immense forest (remember the biblical cedars of Lebanon?) on this land remains on tablets of stone that tell the tale of Gilgamesh.   This ancient king  of Uruk has more power over other humans than he knows what to do with–and dangerous arrogance with respect both to his subjects and to the natural world.

The moving poem of joy to this forest on these stone tablets sits amidst the chronicle of the forest’s destruction by Gilgamesh. After he “conquered” that forest and its guardian spirit, things didn’t go well for this king and his wild-man companion (and only equal among men) Enkidu.  Enkidu died shortly thereafter– after all, what is there for a wild man when the wilds are gone?

Gilgamesh defeated the forest and its guardian, but he ended his life in desperation.  He had immense logs brought from  the sacred forest to raise the mighty gates of Uruk where he ruled.  But his heroic escapades did not save him from coming face to face with his own death in the cycle of nature.

The land he deforested as a heroic adventure has fared no better in actual history.  The people of Uruk constructed  elaborate irrigation canals which resulted in the salination of the water table. And their once-paradise became a desert. But for their stone homage to a land now gone dry, the people themselves have disappeared.  Even their language has not been passed on. It is unrelated to any other language in the world, ancient or modern.

Bearing some resemblance to the paradise Gilgamesh came upon in the sacred forest,  George Yount’s 1833 description of the Napa Valley went like this:

“It was more than anything a wide and extended lawn, exuberant in wild oats and the place for wild beasts to lie down in. The deer, antelope, and the noble elk held quiet and undisturbed possession of all that wide domain. The above-named animals were numerous beyond all parallel, and herds of many hundred, they might be met so tame that they would hardly move to open the way for the traveler to pass. They were seen lying or grazing in immense herds on the sunny side of every hill, and their young like lambs frolicking in all directions. The wild geese and every species of water fowl darkened the surface of every bay and firth, and upon the land in flocks of millions they wandered in quest of insects and cropping the wild oats which grew there in the richest abundance. When disturbed, they arose to fly. The sound of their wings was like that of distant thunder. The rivers were literally crowded with salmon. It was a land of plenty and such a climate as no other land can boast of.”

In 1850, Thomas Mayfield’s description of the San Joaquin Valley includes these words:

“As we passed below the hills, the whole plain was covered with great patches of rose, yellow, scarlet, orange and blue… some of the patches of one color were a mile or more across… Several times we stopped to pick the different kinds of flowers and soon we had our horses and packs decorated with masses of all colors.”

I like to imagine this moment, when a family of pioneers on their way to the California gold fields (as they were) were stopped in their tracks by the loveliness of the land.  Can you imagine these pioneers so stunned by natural beauty they stopped the incessant journeying that caused the peoples of Oregon to term them the “moving people”–and covered themselves with flowers?

Something of the land stayed with this family.  Mayfield, a child at the time, was adopted by the local peoples after his mother died and his father went on to the gold fields.  The Indians raised Mayfield with love–and passed on their own love for the land to him as well.

But the land and people that nurtured him into manhood have not fared so well.  If the Choinumni people fed the Mayfield family so that they would not hunt with their firearms and scare the game, their tribe is tiny and fighting hard for federal recognition. And the land they once cared for is no longer a place to accommodate herds of wild game.  It has been plowed into vast irrigated fields for the mono-crops of industrialized agriculture. These fields today are becoming salinated in the same way as the fields of the ancient Middle East.  Further, in some areas of the Central California Valley, chemical fertilizers and pesticides have had such a profound effect on the land that nothing will grow on its own. This land, that is, is biologically dead.

Taking down the forests is more than a matter of axes and saws or modern chainsaws, as the tale of Enkidu and Gilgamesh tells us.  when we attack the spirit of the forest something vast in the potential legacy of human community dies with it.  In the same way, remaking the land for industrial farming is  more than a matter of plows and dams. These things are matters intertwined with the human soul. And something of “paradise” is lost when we change the land beyond its ability to care to revive itself and nurture wild things.

Clear cutting and industrial farming are not new things on the human horizon. As the tale of Gilgamesh indicates, humans have for thousands of years wrestled with the idea of taking down a forest–and they have not always won the struggle of conscience involved.  The tale of Gilgamesh is a cautionary tale in this respect.  as are the journals of Thomas Mayfield.

And so is the salt-laden biologically dead farmland of the Central California Valley waiting  to be reclaimed by a species of human care like that which the Choinumni once exercised.