The Ecology of Agro-Food Policy

In The Landscape of History, John Lewis Gaddis writes about the difference between reductionist research methods and ecological ones. Gaddis is a well-known and influential Cold War historian at Yale. This accessible and undergrad-suitable book is a brief foray into historiography and the practice of the historian's craft. His discussion of research methods comes along as he questions the social scientists' premise that one can separate dependent from independent variables, that one could hold all variables constant and look to just one to explain the rest. But all variables are interdependent, Gaddis writes.

I'm not entirely sure what got Gaddis so outraged at social scientists, but this is his take: "reductionism remains the dominant mode of inquiry within the social sciences: historians are still the principle practitioners of an ecological approach to the study of human affairs." Historians, in other words, and as a statement of professional practice, recognize and examine the interdependency of variables.

Of course, environmental historians have a double advantage here: they are not concerned only with human affairs, on the one hand, and they don't deploy the ecological perspective only as a metaphor, on the other. They actually study ecology in its historical context. But that wasn't what brought me here. I'm digressing before I even begin.

What brings me here is that all of this was on my mind yesterday when reading an op-ed by Jane Black, a food writer for the Washington Post. In "Go Slow, Foodies. It's the Way to Win," she comments on the promise and perils of food policy advocates in the face of the new Obama Administration. She quotes a lobbyist who notes that food advocates do not have a single message and, thus, cannot bring a strong voice to the policy room.

"They don't have a central, core message," James Thurber, an expert on lobbying and the director of American University's Center on Congressional and Presidential Studies, told me. That, or they're not getting it out. "Is this about reducing obesity in schools?" he asks. "Is it about pesticides on the farms? It's a wonderful thing to try to change policy, but what policy are they trying to change?"

Reducing obesity (food as nutrition) and reducing pesticide use (food-production as pollutant) are interdependent variables. I'd ask too, though the lobbyist doesn't, do food lobbyists want to promote a stronger connection to the land (agro-food as a problem of environmental ethics, eating as an agricultural act, to quote Wendell Berry)? Do they want to develop food that tastes better or food that holds a more prominent place in fast-paced American culture (eating as a cultural act)? Yes, I'd say.

But here's what struck me: The lobbyist thought he was diagnosing the problem of alternative agro-food lobbyists by observing the dilution of their message instead its singularity. What he was diagnosing, though, was the problems of policy making and its assumptions of a reductive philosophy as opposed to an ecological one. To take one aspect of Gaddis's view, the lobbyist is heralding the reductionist method of policy analysts (as social scientists) who aim to predict and define the future. They study human affairs with claims to independent variables. This, though, is why we need a historiographical account by an environmental historian, someone who does not presume that history is the study of human affairs alone. That would allow us to take Gaddis's point about ecological, interdependent methods, and apply them to studies of actual ecology and interdependency.

This goes farther, because it touches on the difficulties of environmental policy writ large. Historically, our most successful efforts at environmental policy have not necessarily been our most successful efforts at environmental health. Yes, we were able to develop a robust national park system but, as John Muir and scores of Native American cultres would tell you, it came at the cost of certain other areas. Yes, we were able to reduce pollution into the Cuyahoga River, but at the cost of increasing consumption and waste elsewhere. I dare not ignore Gaddis and claim these are causal features -- that one led directly to the other. My point, rather, is that the tensions between the practical (reductive) demands of policy setting and the ecological demands of environmental health are tensions I'm not sure we've done a great job at resolving.

Because let's face it, Thurber is right, if you can't get a clear and direct message across you can't hold sway in a policy room. Thus, alternative food proposals might not get very far, given their interdependent ecological nature. Unless, that is, we talk more about changing the very ways we see ourselves as ecological agents in a political world; we talk about changing the policy-making process in the face of problems that are interdependent; and, if I may say a word for nature, we see agriculture, food, and policy in a more holistic way.

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