When he flies to the city next week, it’s to collect a Leadership Award from the James Beard Foundation for over half a century of campaigning for better methods of food production.
“I’m a writer more than I am a talker,” he says when I call him prior to his trip. In a life of extraordinary productivity, as well as his campaigning, Berry has authored more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays – he is most frequently compared to William Faulkner. And, in 2010, he received the National Humanities Medal.
Berry is still a committed activist, arguing these days for a 50-Year Farm Bill to address such deeply unfashionable issues as soil degradation and sustainable agriculture. Here are some of his thoughts on the state of the environment, and how the US, at any given moment, is nearer to a food crisis than most people imagine.
EB: Did you see Roger Cohen’s very hostile New York Times op-ed piece about organic food last month?
EB: He called it the “the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it.” I’d love to know your response to that.
WB: All right. Well, organic has never been a word I have willingly used. My label is just “good farming”, which isn’t something you can put on a t-shirt. My objection to organic is that it has always been defined negatively. That is, in terms of things that you don’t do. And I think good agriculture is always going to be defined in terms of things you do do: you make the farm provide as much of its own fertility and operating energy as you can.
If you have an organic monoculture of several thousand acres, as I think some California vineyards have, and you’re importing all of the fertility, then that’s not good farming. I don’t care how organic it is.
EB: And the accusation of elitism?
WB: That calls for a lot of careful criticism. If we can’t afford to take good care of the land that feeds us, we’re in an insurmountable mess. And at present, we’re not affording it. Cheap food is a great accomplishment of industrialization, but I think Michael Pollan makes a very good point: that if people eat healthy food, they will save enough to compensate for the food price being healthier and spending less on healthcare, so-called. For people just to wave good agriculture away as something only an elite can afford – as if it were some kind of a prissy fashion – is just missing the whole point.
EB: That’s how the organic movement came to be regarded by its critics: as a lifestyle choice.
WB: Industrialization advances on the same theme. If you don’t have the latest technology, you’re out of it. It’s largely fashion. The latest technology is not always good for anything except to the producers of the technology.
EB: How do you get consumers to give more thought to what they’re buying in the supermarket? At the end of a long day, that can be a tough sell.
WB: They think the way they breathe: they just take in whatever’s handiest. Well, this effort I’ve been involved in all these years has a couple of questions hanging over it. So, you know there’s not a mountainous pile of food anywhere that people can draw on if production fails for some reason? Food has to be kept coming; it’s more analogous to the flow of blood in our body than to a large bank account that can be drawn upon in an emergency, or an insurance policy. It has to be kept coming. We know how quickly famine could happen in the cities, where people are helpless to do anything for themselves.
Look at Phoenix, for instance; a large city in the desert where all the things they need are going to have to be trucked to them. Suppose that became difficult or impossible? People can be persuaded very quickly if there are shortages. Hunger is a powerful persuader if it happens, and it’s conceivable that it could happen. Country people have always known this.
I’m not exactly dodging your question on how do you persuade consumers: I’m saying that people are persuadable. Persuasion works. Whether it’s working fast enough, we don’t know. We have to do it because we know it’s right.
I tell the young: you can’t get into this on the assumption that you’re going to win, even in your lifetime. You have to get into it because you know it’s right and have all the fun you can while you work.
EB: You can actually envisage severe food shortages occurring in this country? Because farming methods are exhausting the resources?
WB: Yes. People sit around out here in the country and say, what are people going to eat? There’s a letter in my local newspaper this morning from a dairy farmer’s wife, writing in to say what do people think is going to happen to us? We’re buying stuff on an inflated market, and selling our milk for what we sold it four years ago. People like that find it very easy to ask: what are people going to do when we’re all gone?
We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. I’m only saying that we have finite supplies from a finite acreage that we are abusing by erosion, toxicity and so on. And a finite number of producers we are abusing, and there are fewer of them all the time – fewer than 1% in this country. Their vote doesn’t matter to anybody.
EB: What would you like the role of government to be in all of this?
WB: I’d like to see the subsidies to big industrial agriculture stop. The government could make soil conservation a priority, which would act as a kind of permission-giver to people to take it seriously. No one is talking about the land economy at all. The economists I read in the newspapers and magazines: it never occurs to them to speak of it.
Paul Krugman, for instance, thinks that the economy is the same thing as the financial system. And he couldn’t be more wrong. So, the first thing people have to do is examine their own economies and see how little control they have over it in terms of quantity and quality.
The next thing is, you’ve got to change the standard. The industrial standards are productivity and profitability. And people like Sir Albert Howard [English botanist and organic farming pioneer], J Russell Smith and Liberty Hyde Bailey said, on good scientific grounds, that the standard has to be ecological. The standard has to be health. To put it in more practical terms: you have to use the land in a way that doesn’t do more permanent damage to the local ecosystem.
EB: I think that, for many, the assumption is that the only way to provide enough food for a country this size is through industrial methods.
WB: But that’s exploiting ignorance. Plus, you have the reluctance of the genetic engineers to label food. They need people to be ignorant.
EB: How would you change labeling laws in the US?
WB: If a manufactured food or even a singular food product has genetic engineering involved in its production, then there ought to be a label that says so. That’s not too hard. There’s a terrific fight in this country to keep that from happening. And this is simply an acknowledgement that we want the consumer to be ignorant.
EB: Has Obama had a sympathetic ear to these arguments?
WB: Well, in the political climate that we now have, nobody is going to put soil conservation or the land economy at the top of their list. If Obama did that now, he’d go down as a kook. He could do it if he gets elected again. But what we need is politicians who are willing to educate the public, even at the cost of losing an election.
EB: Has Michelle Obama’s White House garden had some symbolic value?
WB: Oh, yes, I think that has some symbolic value and some force. She’s given that conversation a public status that it didn’t have before. She’s helped. There’s no question of that. That little old garden up there on the White House lawn has some authentic historical significance, probably. She’s come out for physical health. She can do that because she’s not running for office. I imagine her husband has to distance himself from that.
We wrap up the conversation and I ask Berry for his email address, to which he replies, “I don’t have a computer. I have a solar collector; three panels,” and laughs loudly.
He is honoured to be receiving the James Beard Foundation award, he says, but the city can be a chore. He really does prefer to go his own way.
“I can’t hear,” he says, “in the midst of a crowd.”