Glycosphate and the breakdown of discourse
A couple of years ago I was helping my family with some stuff in rural Australia by doing maintenance and laboring work. There was a block of land in town where there were some noxious weeds were growing and a few other repairs that needed to be done. A conversation at the time came up where we were talking about how to deal with a type of thistle. These are particularly annoying weeds and I had spent 3 days removing them at the time the conversation came up. The conversation with a neighbour went something like this:
"Those Milk thistles are a horrible weed, you should do something about those"
"Yeah, we are trying to clear them out at the moment"
"What you should do is just spray all of the area with a lot of roundup"
"By roundup are you referring to Glycosphate?"
"Yeah it's like a swear word these days, but yeah just cover it all with it and they will be gone"
My first thought was that I'd be far more worried about causing literal cancer than causing offense via vulgar language. I also considered that this might be some dry humor that I completely missed. But humor or not the context behind this sort of interaction is interesting. Perhaps if this block was far away from where everyone lived it might be more excusable to spray something as lethal as this (and lethal is not an exaggeration), but meters away from where people sleep seems unjustifiable. More disturbing to me was the notion that speech is being policed far more than it used to be and people know it. We need to be having informed discussions and debates about things like pesticides usage, demonizing farmers and people in rural areas is not only not a solution but will cause huge societal problems if it continues. Unfortunately for a number of reasons free speech is on the decline in Australia, people are more willing to shut down discourse than they used to be.
Were it not for the huge amount of reading and researching I've been doing lately into regenerative farming and financialization I might not have thought twice about this conversation since I've heard a similar line of thought expressed many times before. The other thing that has primed my mind to reconsider this whole topic is that my uncle who used to work in the farm chemicals and spraying business got a pretty bad kidney tumor and was hospitalized. Roundup, or glyphosate, is most definitely carcinogenic. Just looking at the balance of probabilities it seems likely this tumor was directly caused by his long term work with these highly carcinogenic chemicals.
Fast forward a few months and I was talking to someone who was working on a farm about the various plague situations we had going on. Specifically we had a few huge plagues in the last few years, mostly from non-native animals. It's been a wet few years in Australia, with the LaNina cycle causing much rain, it is so wet that we've now had widespread catastrophic flooding lately in multiple states. This wet weather has meant not much of a fire season and also a lot of vegetation growth. This has also led to an explosion of pest species in various places.
One of the suggestions that was made from a bureaucrat who'd obviously never dealt with these issues was to fly helicopters around to drop poison baits indiscriminantly. What is it with people who work at desks who don't understand practical implications suggesting using helicopters in absurd ways? Such an indiscriminate plan would have massive impacts due to poisoning livestock and native animals, something that's immediately obvious to anyone who's spent any time on the land. These are the sorts of plans people come up with when they have no practical knowledge or experience with working on the land. Unfortunately in societies that are run by a growing and increasingly centralized bureaucracy we get more bureaucrats who have power to impose changes without having the knowledge needed to do make positive change. Regarding farming there's another challenge, many of these centralized bureaucracies are highly urbanized. Voices of knowledge might not be heard on these decisions due to a lack of practical faming experience from anyone in those urban bureaucracies. It is clear that we are starting to see a breakdown of communications here.
These conversations reminded me of a discomfort often seen with these topics. I think the fear many farmers have is that if many of these (mostly urban) activist types were to completely have their way then we'd all starve to death. To be clear I really do think this is a valid fear, some of the suggestions I've heard from people who don't know anything about farming and the land would be absolutely disastrous were they to be implemented. People are very right to be worried about things like Lysenkoism, or any other examples of politically motivated but reality denying approaches to agriculture, due to the utter devastation such approaches inevitably create. These aren't hypothetical either, history is full of examples of how political intervention into agriculture can create entirely avoidable famine and catastrophe. I'm reminded of the horrors that can be inflicted on the people when urban elites with no practical experience impose their will on agriculture, the Russian famine of 1921 and the Holodomor are prime examples. The killing of sparrows directly led to the worst famine in human history is another example of pure arrogance causing great distress. There's a massive number of smaller examples which despite not leading to millions of deaths have ended up being hugely impactful over the years. The growing power of a bureaucracy with no farming expertise I think is a huge driver of the inflation crisis we have been seeing lately as it has pushed up the costs of food. Issues like bad water management leading to soil salinity and soil degradation can be huge, big enough that an entire sea can disappear off the map due to human intervention. I think some of the products pushed by "Big agriculture" can be just as disastrous, but for other reasons and over different time frames. The common connection here is that bureaucrats who work far away from the farms either in government or big corporations make decisions to benefit themselves and not farmers, then at some later time everyone pays the price for it. Because these bureaucracies are sufficiently removed from the farmers and communities there's little in the way of direct accountability for those making the decisions. This lack of accountability that really bothers many people because it is the enabler of terrible policy decisions that hurt the farmers and eventually hurt the populace. The disappearance of bees is a truly terrifying trend because so much of the food we grow is pollinated by bees, and there's a very good chance that the use of toxic products like glyphosate is killing off the populations of bees. Someone somewhere is probably making a lot of money out of this at the moment, but collectively we are far worse off if these sorts of things continue on. If bee populations collapse we are actually completely fucked and the resulting famines will kill many many millions, or perhaps billions, of people. Perhaps even more disturbingly there's a growing (ironically) group of neo-malthusians who actually cheer on this sort of death under the banner of "population management".
I can see that people involved in agriculture are starting to want changes. People are starting to understand more about farming practices and just having this knowledge is a massive driver for change. People are also starting to become more aware of how financialization has started to impact agriculture because much like other industries hit by the financialization plague the profits are being diverted to financiers instead of the productive people who are actually doing the work. Financilization has spread through agriculture like a plague of locusts, but unlike the locusts its hard to see at the time, but the destruction of profits is much the same. We have reached a tipping point lately in the exploitation of farmers by outside interests, so much is the extraction of the wealth that the farmers are generating that there's not even enough left over for the farmers to support themselves in many places. You can see the pain that many people have with the concept that new tractor can't be repaired easily but yet a much older one can be. Many newer things are actively antagonistic to the needs of the actual farmers, instead of a sense of progress from new technology we get a sense of techno-dystopia. I remember in the late 1990s being in my uncle's new grain header and we were all commenting on how there were a bunch of technological improvements in it, also there was air conditioning in the cab too! This was an era before "internet connectivity" changed manufacturers research and development strategies from helping the farmers to extracting data and wealth from the farmers. In any case "progress" in this system is not going to enrich the farmers and it's getting increasingly obvious that this is the case. Perhaps the example of anti-featured farm equipment like tractors that are designed to not be able to be repaired will start some conversations about where things are going. I hope that more people get on board with the right-to-repair fight as this is an important battle for all of our futures. This is a fight that people both urban and rural could really benefit from getting on board with.
Cognitive dissonance is clearly felt on the topic of pesticides. If people can be honest enough to have a genuine conversation about it, they express that they aren't happy that these pesticides are extremely expensive and extremely unhealthy. Many farmers would love alternatives that were cheaper and less toxic but they sometimes find themselves falling into the deep despair of the thought pattern of "there is no alternative"1. But they are uncomfortable backing down on this position because it would give a lot of ground to other groups that frankly don't do much farming and might do a huge amount of damage to the food supply chain despite their best intentions. Backing down on the pesticides issue would give a lot of power to the bureaucrats to continue to intervene in farming practices. There's a dynamic of tribalism at play here where the "tribes" so to speak form groupings based on their interests to survive and the truth quickly becomes secondary or in pathological cases not a concern at all. Many people in farming see this as a line in the sand type of issue, resisting the growth in power of the detached bureaucrats is seen to be critically important, and the collateral damage of this is continuing to not discuss the downsides of certain agricultural products due to the risk of honest discussions being used in bad faith to consolidate more power away from the farmers.
We see this right now with the absurd policies being forced upon farmers with fertilizers and energy usage at the moment. Huge protests are going on worldwide right now about exactly this sort of farmer-hostile policymaking. Ultimately the stakes are high on this, much like the Holodomor there are psychopathic and uninformed bureaucrats that see the farming sector only as a tool for the accumulation of their own political power. For a power hungry bureaucrat fertilizers are seen as a tool of political power rather than a way to combat actual hunger by growing more food. Allowing these sorts of people to decide agricultural policy will not end well. Power hungry bureaucrats are the sorts that don't mind the populace going hungry.
To be clear many of these chemicals and anti-featured farm equipment are very expensive for farmers. Instead of being cheap the market in many cases has selected products that are expensive and are getting more expensive, and farmers know this. We now see things getting so bad that there's outright market failures, the market would step in to provide for farmers but the market is no longer being allowed to operate freely. A clear example of this is being seen right now with fertilizers. Instead of looking to build mutual wealth there's been a nasty shift to try to extract wealth from farmers and from the land. In this nasty extraction mindset farmers and the land are seen as disposable and to be exploited. This mindset really needs to stop before millions of people die from entirely avoidable famine and before the land gets degraded. There are a number of discussions about regenerative farming and fertilizer usage that could make everyone better off, but good faith discussions about these topics are exceedingly hard to come by these days.
I think the common ground that a lot of people could have on this topic is to thoroughly rethink the nature of financialization in the production of our food. Another aspect of common ground is that, at least in the 21st century, many people now recognize the importance of dealing with imported weed species, we all want this problem to be dealt with. Noxious weeds like milk thistle are terrible for cattle and have a rather toxic effect on many animals. They aren't a native plant but unfortunately have a large range in Australia now. A stronger focus on the productive aspects of working the land rather than finance would help form a much stronger common ground for which we could all work to improve the land of our country. People could come together if they realized that farmers are for the most part a hard working honest group of people that just want to be able to do their job and be left alone.
I understand the hesitancy some might have for embracing a more collaborative approach to dealing with these issues. The people with totalitarian collectivist tendencies tend to not want to have good faith discussions with farmers because to them farmers represent a libertarian philosophy that people with totalitarian collectivist ideologies despise. The famine and starvation of Ukraine many decades ago was partly as result of the events that included the dispossession of the Kulak farmers but was very much driven by a system whereby decision making power was removed from farmers and local communities in favor of being moved to a far away centralized bureaucracy. This was a terrible loss for everyone, expect perhaps in the extreme short term for a few psychopathic bureaucrats who temporarily gained some power over people. The short termism is important to acknowledge because even those bureaucrats ultimately lost power due to the enormous economic destruction that their policies caused. At some level rural people really do value productivity very closely, because without real productivity you can't have success in farming. Farming is a brutally hard occupation and if you make mistakes you are held directly accountable by reality. For people who work in jobs where there is no accountability due to a buffer between their actions and the outcomes of their actions the pressures on a farmer are harder to understand. In a world where bullshit jobs have become increasingly prevalent the experiences of those who are working in a low-impact job are diverging from those who are not. Not everyone is aware of this however. My work in areas where there's not much separating decisions and their outcomes had a profound impact on how I saw the world. You start to see the very real mechanisms behind productivity and once you see that you simply can't un-see it. Forming a deep respect for the hard work farmers do becomes easy when you step up and attempt to live a productive life. I wonder if people who are working in bullshit jobs are being robbed of this experience?
A system that takes from the productive people and redistributes it to those who are not productive is something that farmers, as a group, tend to be very united in their opposition to. They know that such a system will lead to societal collapse and their day to day experience make that understanding abundantly clear to them. As a result many people in agriculture are driven towards political ideologies that tend to align with free market capitalism. These day to day experiences tend to shape the world vision of those people which then creates the mental landscape that lends itself to a particular cluster of ideologies.
And this is where we get back the the cognitive dissonance of financialization. This is exactly a redistribution of the wealth created by the hard work of the farming community that gets redistributed to those who are adding no value. The sneaky mechanism by which this works is the slow and gradual corruption of the system of capitalism with which farmers are inclined to be partial towards. By corrupting this system slowly and gradually we do the same as boiling the proverbial frog. Eventually events happen which force people to reconsider, one of which I've been following very closely is the massive amount of corruption and fraud that's occurring on the commodities futures exchanges lately, especially the Comex. The futures exchange was set up originally for the purposes of reducing risk to farmers and other primary producers against the inherent uncertainty of the seasons. But like many other financial markets this has been increasingly taken over by speculation and all manner of derivatives that don't benefit farmers. Derivatives used to be small and the productive economy large, now we live in a mostly upside down world where the value of the derivatives are much larger than the real economies in which they are built upon, the tail is now vigorously wagging the dog. This is so severe now that we have farm equipment that is equipped with sensors to detect various things about the crop yields that are directly piped to financial analysts so they can make more on the markets. The farmers themselves may not even get access to the data the machinery is collecting from their own farms.
By engaging in a number of frauds like spoofing many groups can make money by manipulating the commodities markets, but the money has to come from somewhere as there can only be a trade when someone takes the other side. Unfortunately this is an area where the farmers (and other primary producers) do lose out. But one has to ask what real value these people engaging in the spoofing and other frauds are really producing?
I think we have to as a society really start to reorganize how we structure the rewards for productive work like farming. Farmers do extremely hard work that's extremely important but increasingly those rewards are being skimmed by non-productive intermediaries.
The feeling of "there is no alternative" often referred to by it's acronym TINA is this growing shadow over the world. The narrative gets pushed when people know that things are not quite right but the alternatives are not easy to see or move to. When people realize there's an alternative there's this palpable sense of hope that you see come across people. I suspect regenerative farming might offer a viable exit from this sick system that basically abuses farmers for the purposes of other rent seeking groups. This is by no means the only option, but the idea that there's this unbreakable cycle of reliance on these ever more expensive farming products is a myth that's propped up by those groups who stand to gain the most from this dysfunction. ↩