A Good Field

I live in a city liberally salted with corporate ideals—in other words, a modern city. You can’t walk far, even in Winnipeg, before you encounter a logo, whether spread across a building like butter on toast or decaying at a snail’s pace on boulevard litter. Make no mistake: I happily consume the resources that come—and only come—patented and stamped somewhere up the line with intellectual property protection. But recently the reach of these logos has begun to frighten me.

For a while I worked for a company that introduced me to the power structures within the agriculture industry. I learned a few significant lessons on the job: that you should never underestimate the intelligence, integrity, and business acumen of farmers; that farmers necessarily work differently than they did two or three generations ago; and that corporations, rather than farmers, dictate the ebb and flow of goods across borders. And the goods themselves are no longer referred to as “food,” except in corporate brochures, but rather as “technologies” that are patent protected.

I now work as a freelance journalist who, for my own bread and butter, must sometimes write production-oriented articles for agricultural publications. It is my job to know the basics of agriculture. And agriculture has become, quite obviously, corporate. I would argue, along with many others, that the power that naturally arcs from the ownership of goods—or the technology used to produce the goods—has made agricultural corporations the world’s most powerful companies, as well as the world’s most powerful political movers and shakers. And I’d argue that the world’s greatest political powers are necessarily too powerful. They have the power to take names and turn them into numbers.

The importance of a name cannot be overstated: a name grants identity, and vice versa.

My father’s father was named Anthony, and he came from Holdeman Mennonite stock in southern Manitoba. He was expelled from the local church during a cleanse for, among other things, continuing to shave his chin clean against policy. Although he left the family farm to study chiropractic practice in Chicago, his family continued to farm, year in, year out. The fields that would have surrounded him as his beard grew in were probably fields to boast about: only a few volunteers between the rows, only a few weeds, and decent yields from year to year.

These days, “only a few volunteers, only a few weeds” is too many for the modern farmer hoping to get a return on massive investment. It’s also a rare situation.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning short story “The Calorie Man” presents a vision of a not-too-distant future in which fields of genetically engineered crops cover the entirety of the southern U.S. and the Mississippi serves as a heavily trafficked channel for transporting loads of TotalNutrient Wheat and SoyPRO. The seeds are densely packed with energy, to be used for food and fuel, and the fertile southern states hold the keys to the world’s calories. Intellectual Property (IP) police patrol the riverbanks, shooting potential energy pirates, burning fields with missing IP certificates.

In the world of the Calorie Man, it is near impossible to grow a crop that is not engineered and licensed to the hilt, for both legal and environmental reasons. The pests have grown too fierce to be controlled, and the Third World is on the brink of starvation, entirely at the mercy of energy companies.

At one point in the story, Bowman, a savvy old geneticist, explains the locus of power for the corporations that own the technologies:

“Difficult to make a plant that fights off the weevil, the leafcurl rust, the soil bacterium which chew through their roots . . . so many blights plague us now, so many beasts assail our plantings, but come now, what, best of all, do we like about SoyPRO? We of AgriGen who ‘provide energy to the world’?” He waved at a chain of grain barges slathered with logos for SuperFlavor. “What makes SuperFlavor so perfect from a CEO’s perspective?”

He turned toward Lalji. “You know, Indian, don’t you? Isn’t it why you’ve come all this distance?”

Lalji stared back at him. When he spoke, his voice was hoarse. “It’s sterile.”

Bowman’s eyes held Lalji’s for a moment. His smile slipped. He ducked his head. “Yes. Indeed, indeed. A genetic dead-end. A one-way street. We now pay for a privilege that nature once provided willingly, for just a little labor.”

Bacigalupi lacks the poetry of Orwell but his vision is sharp and his warning vital: the future he sees is a direct successor to the present age, unless we can find a third way—one in which crops are not treated like technologies, but are named—corn, wheat, lentil, barley, rice—not numbered, not licensed, but fertile.

For the average city dweller, who should never be underestimated, questions of ownership and intellectual property protection are normal. It isn’t a stretch to see food as commodity as technology. But at the risk of sounding nostalgic, I wonder if we should be remembering the way a good field looked to my grandfather, the way saving seed—the best of the seed—used to be common practice. The oldest agricultural science, to be precise: the science of selection, left to the farmer to practise so he could feed his family.

For the modern farmer, who should never be underestimated, questions of ownership and intellectual property protection should remain uncomfortable. She cannot participate in today’s markets if she does not grow competitive crops. But it behooves her to remember the way a good field looked to my grandfather. It behooves her to teach her children that crops are not technologies, but are named: corn, wheat, lentil, barley, rice. Insofar as it is possible, she should resist numbers, licenses.

The bottom line, it is repeated thousands of times a day within the corporate offices powering agricultural industries, is every farmer’s biggest concern. The bottom line, of course, means that income must exceed expenditure by more every year, or the farmer is not successful.

If the third way is not obvious, it is still a necessary goal. It might involve something as simple as remembrance—that people do not require permission to grow food. That crops are food. That they are named. That we have known how to grow them since Adam.

Success, of course, is measured by different standards. My grandfather successfully shaved his handsome chin and walked away from a political system that could no longer sustain the tension of his questions and his thirst for grace. I know there was no dramatic moment of leaving, and I know he didn’t break trust with his community, but I like to picture him walking a dirt road away from the farm, thumbs hooked in his suspenders, enjoying the sight of wheat waving unevenly, flowering weeds blooming here and there in the shallow ditch beside the road.