ACRES USA. What is your background and what is the Bioscience Resource Project all about?
LATHAM. I am a molecular biologist. I got my PhD in England at the John Innes Institute, which is famous for genetic engineering and modern molecular biology. But my inclination is toward ecology. I wanted to be an ecologist when I was an undergraduate, but my professor told me that if I went into ecology that I would not get a job and I would end up being an accountant.
And I think he was correct, because hardly anybody is funding positions in ecology at this time, compared with the massive quantities of money going into sequencing DNA and making genetically engineered plants. For example, there are countries that are releasing GMOs that have effects on target organisms, and no one knows what organisms are in the fields and what species are there, or even has a rough guess about what the ecosystems are like. I am thinking of places like Brazil. So there’s a huge amount of work to be done in ecology that is not being funded.
ACRES USA. What direction did you take after your initial training?
LATHAM. I completed my undergraduate training in 1988. Our department had just hired their first molecular biologist, and genetic manipulation was becoming a big deal. My education pre-dated that era, so while the research field just got swamped in molecular genetics funding, I was funded to do a Masters degree in crop genetics and then a PhD in molecular virology. In that laboratory I used to make transgenic plants. But the problem with making these plants in the lab was that we never had any direct contact with farming. We never visited a farm field, no farmer ever came to visit the lab, and thus there was a profound sense of disconnection between the biology we were supposed to be doing and how this would benefit farmers. Some people in the lab had never even met one. The sense you got was that this was being done for the purposes of the breeding companies, not for the purposes of the farmers themselves. That’s what transpired – the whole molecular biology revolution that was being funded by the NSF and the USDA. Basically, I did my research so somebody could make a transgenic plant and patent it – there was really no other purpose for the research. Most of the research that goes on at Cornell right now is done with that aim. No one cares about why a particular chemical is made inside a particular plant unless the information is going to be useful to a genetic engineer.
ACRES USA. What did you do after this reality dawned on you?
LATHAM. I became quite disillusioned with the whole enterprise. Then I went to study genetics at the University of Wisconsin, but the same was true of medicine as it was of agriculture. Everyone was doing their research, chasing their tails trying to make products for the pharmaceutical industry, without really giving any thought as to what the patients actually wanted or needed or what would be good for society. That was also profoundly disillusioning, so I ended up quitting academia, though I kept getting drawn back into it. My partner and I published a paper about the genetic consequences of genetic modification. It was called “Transformation-induced Mutations in Transgenic Plants: Analysis and Biosafety Implications (2006)”. Then we had a child and went to work on a community organic farm in England. So we were basically doing farming, but we kept being drawn back into the whole genetic engineering/molecular biology scene because there were loads of people who wanted our expertise, with new crops coming along and new GMO laws being passed and some uproar in England about what the government was doing. We would be asked to talk to people or explain techniques or write articles. We ended up deciding that rather than doing this just on a reactive basis, we would do it on a proactive basis.
ACRES USA. You’re now based in Ithaca, New York, but you’re not on the Cornell faculty?
LATHAM. That’s correct, we have no formal connection with Cornell. My partner is from Ithaca and she has family here. Cornell is a fantastic place to keep an eye on molecular biology research and ag research and development research. It’s the home of malevolent organizations like the ISAAA and the Cornell Alliance for Science, who perform outreach and PR for the biotech industry. And it’s all deeply connected with international development. The agribusiness project is to bring these technologies to India and Indonesia and Eastern Europe and to South America, and that’s all tied into what’s happening at Cornell.
ACRES USA. You have written several articles describing the food movement (See: Why the food movement is unstoppable). What makes the food movement different in your view, globally, than other social justice or political movements like the civil rights movement, or the anti-apartheid or the early environmental movement?
LATHAM. In many ways it brings together the best parts of all those movements. Most of those movements have organizational structures and they have sources of money that funded them. For example the unions have pretty large institutions that everything is organized around, or the environmental movement has had groups like the Sierra Club or Greenpeace that they were organized around, and information was funneled through them, and money was funneled also through institutions like the World Wildlife Fund and others like the Nature Conservancy. One problem, though, is that the energy of any social movement can be corralled through its institutions, and that’s not a very good thing. Because they can be co-opted – the World Wildlife Fund has been co-opted, Conservation International has been co-opted, the Nature Conservancy has been co-opted by agribusiness, the oil industry, and so on. But the food movement is different, it is fundamentally broader and more distributed. It’s not even a grassroots movement, since upper-class people are members of the food movement as well. It’s also not organized through institutions, it’s organized mainly through individuals – individuals on Facebook, individuals making food choices for their school cafeteria, individuals starting gardens at their local school – almost everything is very local and very low budget. A packet of seeds and a plot of earth or a Facebook page is all you need to start something in the food movement.
ACRES USA. Are you arguing that an extremely dispersed movement makes a much more difficult target for opponents of the movement? Here we have conservative farmers in the Midwest and Berkeley academics and the Prince of Wales all in fundamental agreement. It’s less of a moving target than an impossible target?
LATHAM. Yes, the history of social movements is to have been subverted by the establishment. What happened with Earth Day is that it was infiltrated by institutions, and Senator Gaylord Nelson, and those kind of people, so instead of Earth Day becoming a vast educational movement, it became about picking up litter. Movements are ripe for taking over. The whole history of anti-elitist movements in the U.S., but also in other countries, is that one by one they’ve been taken out by the establishment. Unions would have succeeded much better if they’d been left alone by the FBI. The civil rights movement was undermined by the Ford Foundation. Feminism almost certainly by the CIA. In many of these cases the compromising of movements was organized by the U.S. government.
ACRES USA. You talk about its leaders being mainly thought leaders instead of traditional movement leaders. You also write about how the food movement challenges the dominant thought patterns of our day. Can you elaborate on that point?
LATHAM. At the dawn of the industrial era, in 1600 or so, Europe underwent a philosophical transformation that went hand-in-hand with industrialization. The two things were entwined with each other. Merchants and other wealthy figures at that time basically wanted to adopt industrialization, but at the same time they needed a justification for changing the way society was organized. You start with a feudal society, and all of a sudden you need to have people moving around, people competing with each other. These merchants needed an understanding of society that chimed with machinery, things running on time, things being hierarchically organized and people showing up to work at nine a.m. and all that. The industrialists and other people behind this revolution more or less adopted the politics and philosophy of the Enlightenment, which was reductionist, atomistic, and materialistic. It no longer worked for them to have the Church in control, and it didn’t work for them to have people making their own decisions. These two transformations – the industrial transformation and the Enlightenment transformation – the one supported the other. The West developed the ideology of the Enlightenment around the machinery people wanted to use, along with the idea of a clockwork universe and so on. They developed a philosophy, in short, that disregarded biology. They didn’t need biology because it was all about machines, and gadgets. It continues to this day – our world is run as if biology is not important. As if crops and crop cycles don’t matter, as if your own biology doesn’t matter, as if your body doesn’t matter, as if your mind doesn’t matter. People are working up to three jobs a day, for example, without any recognition of the fact that they have families. Our whole society has become organized around this mechanistic way of thinking about people that is essentially inappropriate to who we are. We are biological organisms, and the natural world is based on the co-existence of biological organisms, not the competition between them.
ACRES USA. To play devil’s advocate, couldn’t we argue that the interdependence of biological organisms was not obvious at the time to people who lived lives or hard physical toil, and the appeal of the machines was understandable? People wanted to be relieved of onerous tasks, and the tragedy of unintended consequences plays a huge part in this story.
LATHAM. Yes, I don’t wish to argue that the motivations of people were all bad. A lot of people could see that human misery could be relieved by this system. But a lot of human misery that existed in feudal times was self-imposed because people were oppressing each other. The lords and the nobles were oppressing the peasants and not sharing what they had or frittering it on war. Later, the oppression and misery that happened in the 1850s, the Dickensian times and so forth, led to people using materialism to justify releasing people from that oppression, from the disasters of the pollution and the hard working conditions. There were people at the time, like Thomas Huxley, a famous biologist, who had a materialistic conception of how you could improve people’s lives. He was to some degree motivated by a humanitarian perspective. But these people were not fitting biology into their understanding of things, quite the contrary. Not much has changed today. Our understanding of the climate, for instance, is not in keeping with how climate comes to be. The climate movement is all the time discussing smokestacks and fossil fuel burning, i.e. man-made sources and man-made solutions to pollution. Whereas climate itself is generated by biological organisms. Every element of our climate – the nitrogen created by bacteria, the carbon dioxide released by living organisms, the oxygen created by photosynthesis – every element of our atmosphere is generated by the organisms that live on our planet. So it would seem to me, as a biologist, that the obvious solutions to climate change are biological – you look after the soil, you look after the forests and so forth. That plays no part, or little part, in the deliberations of the people who want to solve climate problems. They essentially disregard those factors and think about smokestacks and fossil fuels.
ACRES USA. What about other causes and movements?
LATHAM. Even in the social movements of our day, we are very far from having a biological understanding of the world. Even to the extent that we do have a biological understanding, that understanding is backward. The post-Darwinian biologists, like Huxley, constructed a mental reality of how organisms interact that was basically competitive. Which fitted in with the politics of the time, and played its part in overthrowing the role of religion in the realm of philosophy and politics. But the new reality they constructed of how organisms interact was basically a negative view. It was all about competition and so forth. It sets up people as being in competition with each other, it sets up species as being in competition with each other, and it doesn’t leave any role for synergisms between organisms. If you really study biology properly, however, you find that synergisms are at the heart of every interaction. I accept that there are organisms that go around and eat each other, and there are organisms that compete with each other, but if you document interactions between and among organisms you’ll find that 99 percent of them are synergistic. We don’t see that, basically because it is too obvious, and we aren’t taught that in our biology classes. We see our interactions with other species as being negative and competitive. The food movement is overthrowing that whole idea. It says that interactions between species and organisms are positive and synergistic and constructive, like composting and families. That is a fundamental break with the whole ideology of the Enlightenment. It’s basically overthrowing neo-Darwinism and to a large extent materialism too.
ACRES USA. For the sake of argument, let’s consider growth in general. If an understanding of synergy is at the heart of agroecology and everything we want to do, how does it relate to the single, enormous problem of humanity, our addiction to growth? It’s not hard to see that perpetual economic growth is cancerous and wrecking the planet. Economic growth appears to recapitulate biology, the biological growth people have always seen all around them.
LATHAM. The analogy between biological growth and economic growth is based on a metaphor. It is as if the economy grew the same way a plant grows and an animal grows. That’s not strictly true. The purpose of an economy is to allow the accumulation of wealth. The powers that be would like us to conflate their wealth with our wealth, so they introduce all these concepts into economics that help us conflate those things. There is a difference between the flow of money through an economy, the accumulation of wealth and material goods, and the accumulation of happiness. Those three components of an economy are essentially independent from each other. But the powers that be would like us to conflate them, so that we identify with “the economy” as being something we need to protect and nurture and nourish, when what we really need to protect is our happiness and our need to be economically independent as we gain our fair share. You can have growth in your economy without any material benefit accruing to the people in that economy. At the same time, you can have material benefits to people accruing without any growth. They are separate concepts.
ACRES USA. Are you arguing that the biologically informed worldview of agroecology and the food movement enacts the latter idea in the real world, since the farmers involved participate in a cycle rather than in extraction? Even wasted food decomposes. It doesn’t end up hanging around forever in a patch of Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas.
LATHAM. Yes. You can conceive of two ways of running the world. One based on fossil fuels and mining and mechanistic concepts, or you can conceive of an entirely biologically-based system. And they can both meet the same needs. But one of those economies generates huge amounts of carbon, it’s hugely inefficient, it’s hugely destructive to the land, and almost inevitably hugely polluting. The other one is mostly beneficent and causes limited amounts of trouble. You can just about envisage destroying the planet with the latter form of economy, but it would be a pretty hard way to do it. While the one based on mining and extraction and so on – it’s hard to envision it not destroying the planet. The food movement represents that second economy.
ACRES USA. As an ideal, since it’s doggone hard to pull off in any form?
LATHAM. There are certainly ways of making each one contribute in some appropriate way. The biological one can exist all on its own, while with the mechanistic one it’s hard to work out how it would generate its own food supply.
ACRES USA. Speaking in practical instead of theoretical terms, though, we actually do have solid numbers showing how organic, agroecological or regenerative agriculture can feed the entire world.
LATHAM. It’s super-important for people to know that sane farming can feed the planet several times over.
ACRES USA. What is your view of the move toward more urban farming?
LATHAM. The way not to think about food in the cities is that we need to use all this urban land because we have food shortages. There’s no fundamental need for the cities to provide what the country provides. A lot of stories about cities providing food for themselves are excuses to spread the myth of food shortages looming in our future. They fall into the same basket as stories saying we need insects to feed the world, and everybody will have to start eating insects. That’s just ludicrous, and the same goes for the idea that the cities will have to start feeding themselves. They can feed themselves if they want to, or households can feed themselves if they want. It’s entirely a local choice. No one should be making these choices based on theoretical national needs or presumed international needs.
ACRES USA. But a lot of terrifically underemployed and underpaid people cluster in cities because that’s where they find work when it’s available, and social services when it’s not. Overcrowding and huge wealth gaps aren’t going away anytime soon. Doesn’t the food movement’s goals dovetail with the idea of such people growing some of their own food in the city to supplement their bad wages? If you can grow some of what you eat, you have an edge, and the process of growing is a better for you than just killing time with the standard urban diversions. Maybe it’s a foolish hope.
LATHAM. It’s not foolish. As a practical way for people to look after themselves, there are not many better ways than to find a way to grow fruits and vegetables. However, it’s important to understand that if you have a biologically based economy in which people are growing food and looking after the land, it takes a lot of people to do that. People have been brought to the cities under false pretenses. What we need to do is to make the countryside a more attractive and convivial place. And also make land available for people to look after themselves. Half the reason people all over the world are going to cities is that they are being kicked off the land. Then they become isolated from the countryside and can no longer go back again. But the countryside in many ways is the place where most people should be, and if we want to stop industrial agriculture we’ll need more labor in the countryside.
ACRES USA. Let’s go through Barry Commoner’s four laws of ecology – 1. Everything is connected to everything else; 2. Everything must go somewhere; 3. Nature knows best; 4. There is no free lunch. You’ve argued that the first and fourth don’t really apply to the food movement while the second and third are right on point.
LATHAM. His first law needs modification because all things are not connected equally. My connection to you, for example – we’re physically distant but we happen to be on the phone, but my connection to my neighbor is much greater. My connection to my farmer is much greater, and my connection to my land is much greater. There is a chemical and social bond with those people that doesn’t exist with you, and equally my connection with the other seven billion people on the planet is even more tenuous than with you because we’ve emailed and spoken on the phone a couple of times. The principle of the food movement is that we’re connected by the food we eat. We all contribute to the ecosystem, but these connections are not adequately reflected by the simple statement that everything is connected. As for his fourth law, what the food movement is in-effect saying is that there are free lunches out there. There are virtuous circles going on in ecosystems, and if you understand the principles of permaculture and farming and ecosystems in general you can take advantage of those techniques and systems to generate massive amounts of food from a very small piece of land.
ACRES USA. Knowing how to use virtuous circles produces surpluses, and surpluses are a type of free lunch?
LATHAM. Yes, that’s precisely it. As far as Commoner’s second law about everything going somewhere there is no dispute between him and the food movement. We are now discovering, slowly, all the ways that synthetic chemicals and materials always end up somewhere. If you want to run an economy on extracting coal and oil and so on and synthesizing artificial substances from it, you have to be cognizant and very clear about where those chemicals and materials end up.
ACRES USA. Then the food movement is reinforcing and spreading all over the world the idea that since everything must go somewhere, you had better pay close attention to the transformations you set into motion when you let certain substances go from one place to another?
LATHAM. That is a totally true statement. I would not say it is very strong message from the food movement, but it is a true thing and the message could easily be made stronger. People do say it, and it is perfectly true – that is one of the reasons people want to do organic farming. Look at neonicotinoids, which we now know are affecting way more organisms than just honeybees.
ACRES USA. Which leads us to ”nature knows best,” the heart of the matter.
LATHAM. It is. The food movement doesn’t dispute that statement in any way.
ACRES USA. How does that make the food movement an unstoppable force?
LATHAM. Let me give you an example. People are making money because they’re following natural precepts in their businesses. The farmers who are moving their animals onto pastures and out of CAFOs, people like Joel Salatin, the people doing mob grazing – as a consequence of taking advantage of synergisms between organisms they are making money. A CAFO farmer basically uses fossil fuels to substitute for numerous ecosystem services and then relies on subsidies to bail themselves out, because such substitutions are expensive. CAFOs ignore the alternative model where if you operate the levers of biology properly, you can make money. People can make money, even in a hostile and unsubsidised environment, by creating a virtuous circle in which they produce food that tastes the best and benefits human health along with the environment and animal welfare. This combination of solid logic and practical power is difficult to resist and the food movement is putting it into action. It is not just in such practices that the food movement is succeeding and growing though. For example, the food movement has a low barrier to entry, plus it’s one of the few areas of the economy where voting with your purchases can be effective.
ACRES USA. Somehow, as you pointed out in your essay, this is being accomplished largely without wealthy backers spreading around important amounts of capital.
LATHAM. Some people with money are now moving into it, but it is not being funded at the level of the climate movement, for example. The food movement is people doing things for themselves because they really want to. Many of them are not being paid – they’re organizing things on Facebook, writing their members of Congress, helping feed the hungry, or whatever. This is a commitment by ordinary people, and that is an advantage. Another advantage is that it is much harder to co-opt those kind of people. It is difficult to conceive of how Monsanto could fund a foundation to persuade food movement organizations to do the wrong thing and benefit Monsanto. There probably are ways – the Kellogg Foundation gave Slow Food USA a million dollars about a year ago, just one week after Slow Food USA fired their CEO, who was being outspoken about food justice issues. You should expect to see things like that going on, but I suspect it will be difficult, maybe impossible,for agribusiness to infiltrate and destroy the food movement.
ACRES USA. Would you agree that the core idea behind the food movement – that food can be used as a way out of the traps created by centuries of trying to achieve technical mastery over nature – is a notion that translates easily across cultural barriers, language barriers, educational and class barriers?
LATHAM. Yes. Food is so fundamental to everybody’s life, whether they know it or not.
ACRES USA. What are your plans in the near term future?
LATHAM. We here at the Bioscience Resource Project see our role as trying to articulate the ideas that are necessary for a safe world and a just food system, and most of those resonate around the food movement. Sometimes that means articulating scientific critiques of GMOs or chemical use, sometimes that means helping people understand genetics, which is a core ideological concept of social control, and sometimes that will mean analysing the food movement further.