10/29/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Democracy and Farming

The industrialization of agriculture in late nineteenth century gave a new lease of life to pesticides. Now that machines made farms large, chemicals became convenient tools to maintain and expand the new industrialized plantations.

Second, the money and political power of large farmers convinced scientists to argue that pesticides are essential for food production.

This misuse of science made pesticides almost a religion. To this day, any discussion or policy of excluding pesticides from farming brings to the surface a storm of protest by the followers of this toxic but profitable religion.

The global annual earnings from pesticides are about $40 billion.

I have been a witness to this theological debate in dozens of farm conferences. But, in one of those conferences, in Minnesota, I was struck by the "popularity" of farm sprays, even among environmentalists.

This memorable three-day "retreat" near Minneapolis took place in June 1996. This was the age of Bill Clinton who, like Barack Obama, came to power promising liberal reforms, including better environmental protection. 1996 was also thirty-six years after Rachel Carson warned the country of the dangers of pesticides. However, as I observed in the conference, the chill of corporate power engulfed everything.

The conference was about pesticides and sustainable agriculture -- two antithetical options feeding the monster of agribusiness.

Two non-governmental organizations, the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, sponsored the conference. The EPA funded it. I was then working for the EPA, but I did not represent EPA at the conference.

The purpose of the conference was to mix environmentalists and agrotoxin merchants to come up with a "win-win" proposition. I immediately rejected such a preposterous scheme.

I proposed to my working group we forget the agrotoxins and address instead the burning social and political issues of how we could make agriculture sustainable once again. I understood "sustainable" to mean friendly to the small family farmers and to the natural world.

My conference colleagues, including a pesticides company representative, disagreed with me. As a result, we wasted three days over trivial, jargon-loaded platitudes over agriculture and rural development.

The poison lobbyist in my group, a person from the Midwest, was boiling mad with my defense of family farming and organic agriculture. She threatened me, saying I was the reason she commanded a high salary. She said it was inconceivable that anyone could envision an agricultural system without pesticides. She also admitted her company was behind the governor of Minnesota vetoing a bill designed to enlighten the people of Minnesota on the benefits of sustainable agriculture.

My colleagues, who had gone out of their way to accommodate the pesticide lobbyist, got angry. They were astonished by her hubris. The coordinator apologized to me because she and the other members of the working group had tried to restrain me in order to give equal time to the pesticide lobbyist.

Nevertheless, in all meetings the representatives of agribusiness were like the honor guests, the fountains of knowledge, the makers of policy, people of power.

The thirty or so members of the conference adored the makers of poisons that, fundamentally, have been destroying the small ecological farming of America. Bur three of my colleagues spoke to me confidentially that they appreciated my contribution, helping them to think about sustainable agriculture and its relationship to democracy.

Yet the conference voted against me overwhelmingly, rejecting my proposal that a healthy democracy needed a healthy agriculture of millions of small family farmers. My proposal received just two votes: mine and that of the Canadian woman coordinator.

The profit of the conference was in the people I met and the pleasure of spending some time in harmony with nature. The small lake facing the dormitories was like a huge liquid jewel.

I walked to the shore of the lake both days at six in the morning. I listened intensely to the music of wildlife. I enjoyed the aesthetic beauty of the deep green trees and the lilies and water plants floating on the water, the quiet waves kissing the sand at my feet. I also explored the lake with a canoe.

In the evening of the second day a small group of the conference participants enjoyed the company of each other, drinking beer in a close circle around a bright wood fire while a young "crop adviser" sang beautifully and played a cithara and a harmonica.

There, in the deep darkness of the woods, next to the glistering lake, underneath the bright trembling stars of a clear sky, I let the beauty of the space sink in to replace the daily ugliness of human affairs, the very tragic / comic discussion staged in support of the destroyers of both agriculture and civic life in this country.

But the gods must have been hovering somewhere near me. I felt light and happy.