Monday, May 13, 2013

Milk and Marxism

As I've mentioned in past posts, last year I worked for a time giving sustainability workshops for dairy farmers.  I was very happy with this short-term job, because it allowed me to interact directly with farmers, and I felt I was doing them a good service.  Namely, I tried to help farmers to improve their profitability and environmental and social responsibility.  I was trying to find realistic ways of improving life for farmers, which meant promoting some things that were recommended by academia or government regulations, while quietly ignoring other suggestions that weren't feasible in the actual conditions of Colombian dairy farms.

In this job as in many agrarian issues, I tend to go for very practical, almost technical responses to social problems.  Whenever participation in my workshops devolved into discourse, into dramatic but unfocused denunciations of current political or market conditions, I always tried to steer the discussion back to small, practical measures that farmers could take to respond directly to the problem at hand.  Such measures ran the gamut from changes in milking or feeding practices on an individual farm, to banding together with neighbors to make demands of the local mayor's office, but I always insisted on concrete proposals over grandstanding and political discourse.   

Obviously I understand that you can’t fix a social ill with a new gadget or simply by following "best practices", and I realize that sometimes the only solution to a problem is to take grassroots political measures.  But I guess that more concrete proposals seem more realistic and sincere to me, while the social proposals (and especially the verbose denunciations) that come from civil society groups often seem like empty discourse that is pretty to hear but not to actually implement.   

I have been pretty firm in my conviction that this is the right way to proceed.  In the radical left-wing environment of the university where I work, where the walls are adorned by murals of Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, and even a Christ of the Sacred Heart wearing a Subcomandante Marcos-style balaclava, and many student groups are committed precisely to the type of big revolutionary declarations that sound noble but propose little in terms of practical change, I have stood strong in my way of doing things.  This has at times earned me the scorn or at least the misunderstanding of colleagues and especially students; in a real Leninist-Marxist’s view, I guess I’d be qualified as a petty bourgeois reformer as opposed to a revolutionary.

Recently for work I read the book "El Hombre y la Tierra en Boyaca", Fals Borda's seminal study of the social and economic conditions of peasant farmers in our region.  When I took it out from the library, I noticed that the subtitle to the 1957 edition translates to "Sociological and Historical Bases for Agrarian Reform".  It is a reformer book, not a revolutionary one.  The author is on the peasants' side, and uses his findings to support an agrarian reform to improve their life.  He is a bit condescending towards peasants, describing certain of their practices and customs as backwards and undeveloped; it is the position of a charitable interlocutor.  In the foreword, Fals Borda even justifies the need for reform by advise that, if the peasants' living conditions continue to deteriorate, the government and larger landholders will possibly face their revolutionary wrath.  He is trying to warn these large landholders and the government to avoid such a situation.

I understand that after publishing this book, Fals Borda was named Agriculture Minister or something in the national government, and along the lines of his book's proposals, he implemented the system of Juntas de Accion Comunal, which are citizen councils in urban neighborhoods and rural hamlets that bring some control of daily affairs and local government to the peasants and local people themselves.  He was also behind a very ambitious agrarian reform by the government in 1961, which took land from large landholders and distributed it to landless peasants, organizing these latter into strong popular political groups.

Perhaps it was the eventual sabotage of this reform by retrograde elements that terrorized and dispossessed the newly-formed peasant groups (which sometimes responded, rather effectively, by working militarily with the guerrillas), that disillusioned Fals Borda and turned him off of the reformer track.  Maybe it was his having worked since then at the National University with Camilo Torres Restrepo, the left-wing priest who eventually joined the ELN guerrilla group.  

At any rate, by the 1973 and 1978 editions of "El Hombre y la Tierra en Boyaca", Fals Borda was a raving revolutionary.  The subtitle of these editions changed to "the Historical Development of the Minifundia Society", and though he didn't make any major changes to the text itself, his new foreword calls for absolute change, radical revolution.  He is no longer warning the powers that be in order to avoid revolution, but rather calling on peasants to enact this revolution.  His new approach seems more full of hot air to me than his prior, practical solutions; indeed, he expresses frustration that peasants in Boyaca don't become as incensed and radical as he is, that they don't take drastic measures.  But what strikes me is that, even though I am not rationally convinced by it, the fiery revolutionary discourse will always seem much stronger and more admirable, while the reformer's approach seems complacent, bourgeois, compromised.   

At any rate, my sympathy with Fals Borda's first, seemingly naïve attitude of reform and compromise, made me wonder how I must look to a real radical.  I have said that in my dairy workshops and many other fora, I pride myself on shying away from discourse and focusing on concrete proposals.  Should I continue to be proud of my practical, anti-political approach, or should I be more self-critical?

I see the same conflict between fiery (yet ineffectual) discourse and practical (though uninspiring) solutions in the differing approaches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Malcolm X was a discourser, with a very pure, internally-coherent vision and argument that threw blame clearly at the white man.  King was more realistic in many ways, as he proposed a peaceful coexistence as opposed to an African exodus or an empowered segregation that was never to happen.  So in practical terms, King was thinking more soundly.  Of course Malcolm seems more pure, more noble, less compromised, and rightfully so; racism in the United States was and is an unqualified evil, and it is coherent to make severe judgments of the racist establishment.  But King achieved the more concrete objectives through his mix of practice and moral reasoning.  Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were not instrumental in passing any Civil Rights legislation, and frankly they weren't interested in that.  They didn't want to negotiate with white devils in order to mildly palliate the black man's suffering.  King, on the other hand, achieved dramatic changes in both written laws and in human attitudes in the South.

That said, in this respect, Malcolm was perhaps more realistic in the long term—he was protesting not the laws and social norms of Southern oppression, but rather the economic oppression that existed in the North and would remain even long after the end of legalized oppression.  It is arguable that the changes King and his ilk achieved were more symbolic, and didn't change the underlying fact of poverty and inequality.  In fact, behind the fiery rhetoric, the Nation had perhaps a more realistic program for economic liberation through local economic development.  They did propose practical measures like local ownership of businesses, neighborhood-based programs for social improvement, and the like (and the similarly radical Black Panthers after them had even more of a social program with their free breakfast programs and other anti-poverty measures).  It's just that, since Malcolm's and the Nation's vision didn't see a place for participating in national, integrated politics, their concrete proposals remained at the local black level, and never became nationwide programs.  King started to turn his sights on economic injustice toward the end of his life, but I don’t imagine his method of marches and prayer vigils (which were so effective in changing laws and human morality in the States) would be very effective in resolving with hard, faceless, amoral economics.

A very distantly related tangent--recently when we were watching Spike Lee's film version of Malcolm X, I asked Caro if she recognized who was singing "A Change is Gonna Come".  She did; it was that fellow I like who sings about mathematics!

Returning to the topic of milk, here is an interesting article from GRAIN about the transition in many countries from an informal system of milk provision, with few intermediaries between farmers and consumers, to a more formalized system involving big companies and packaged milk. It isn’t quite accurate for Colombia, because even the formal companies here tend not to be big multinationals but rather local companies with their base in peasant regions.  While the GRAIN report is right in pointing out that raw, direct-sale milk isn't the hotbed of infection and filth that the big companies try to convince us of, it is also true that direct-sale milk in Colombia has some problems that you need to watch out for.  Most people who sell raw milk don't do tests for tuberculosis or antibiotic residues, and it’s not unheard-of for farmers to give them their worst milk (since the raw milk buyers don’t pay as well as the big companies).  Luckily, a recent law was passed that at once recognizes the validity of direct-sale milk and their right to sell to consumers, while it also stipulates some basic sanitary measures that milk producers and sellers should take to assure the quality and cleanliness of raw milk.  This law overrides one that had stupidlly outlawed the sale of raw milk, despite its providing a majority of the milk supply for Colombians.  Again, this to me seems a sensible measure, a concrete action to assure a good milk supply for the people, while recognizing the existing system that has worked for so long.  It is a practical, concrete proposal instead of a big, extreme discourse (like that found in the GRAIN report), though in the Colombian case as in many cases, it took big discourses and grassroots political organization to bring about this law.

In short, I support those who produce and sell raw milk in Colombia, but it’s not quite the black-and-white, good-vs.-evil story the GRAIN report presents.  Maybe I’m sold out to the Colombian formal milk industry and that's why I'm not so hard on it as GRAIN is—but it's true that it's easier to make large pronouncements from an international NGO than to live with the nuances on the ground.  That said, they are largely right about the incursion of Big Dairy into many countries, which is an important adjunct to the issue of large-scale land grabs (a topic which I hope to address soon in a blog post).   

For now I’ve finally gotten in touch with my local raw milk seller, who comes around the neighborhood most mornings honking a horn to announce her presence.  I've been wanting to do so for some time, but I never was able to catch her when I was around.  Last week we bought a liter and a half from her for less than what a liter costs in the supermarket.  Neither we nor anyone else in Colombia is like the raw milk nuts in the US, who insist on drinking unpasteurized milk—we boil the milk, knowing it may have harmful bacteria.  And by boiling, we separate out the cream, which we can then mix with arepas or beat into butter.

On the same note of milk and pragmatism, I recently ran across a few articles that posit industrialized dairy farms as more sustainable than organic or other low-input farms.  This article claims that the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone in dairy farms has lowered the environmental impacts per gallon of milk produced, by extracting more milk from the same cow without adding any additional manure output or feed intake.  This is called dilution of maintenance energy; the base amount of energy needed just to maintain the cow alive, as well as the base amount of manure and farts and general pollution, comprises a relatively smaller part of the total energy and pollution needed to produce milk when you produce a lot of milk per cow.  

This other article more ambitiously lays out the ways in which today's high-input, high-output model of dairying has lower impacts per gallon of milk produced than the seemingly bucolic model practiced in the 1940s US. At first glance, their approach of looking beyond the discourse of low-input, supposedly sustainable agriculture to find what is really most environmentally responsible, seems like an objective, sensible way of doing things, very much in line with my preference for practical solutions over nebulous discourse.  

On reading them, their numbers seem sound, though there are a few problems to their approach.  First off, their methods a bit opaque, I believe mainly because the limitations of a short article don't allow for in-depth descriptions of your model.  Beyond this, in the bovine growth hormone article two of the authors either work for or with the producer of this chemical input, so I don't know how objective we can expect their interpretations of data to be.  Finally, the assumption in the second article that today's organic farms are basically throwbacks to the 1940s isn’t very accurate; organic farming is a fully modern, scientifically-informed set of practices, not just the absence of the past 70 years' worth of technological advances.  

But beyond these more or less superficial problems with the prior two articles, there is another report that has fundamentally opposed findings.  This other guide, which corresponds to a computer calculator for dairyfarms, is more considered and in-depth in its explanations of methodology, and comes to the opposite (thoughcommon-sense) conclusion:  that heavy use of synthetic inputs, crowding of animals into small areas, and storing liquid waste in airless lagoons is not as environmentally sound as a pasture-based approach to dairy farming.  It is not peer-reviewed in the same way as an academic journal article, but it is put out by a respected research center.  It takes a more nuanced look at conventional and organic dairy systems, and as such it takes into account (where the other articles don't) things like the difference in milk quality between high-yield Holsteins and lower-yield other breeds, which somewhat diminishes the apparently glaring difference in milk yield seen in the other articles.  And this report still hasn’t incorporated soil sequestration figures for methane under a pasture system, nor differences in carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide emissions, all of which would leave organic farming coming out even better on a per-gallon environmental footprint basis.  (According to this bit by Bill McKibben, methane and carbon dioxide sequestration may be very high on awell-managed pasture, though I don’t know if the FAO would agree given theircomments on extensive grazing and its methane creation).  It seems that the narrower you look at something, the easier it is to say it's sustainable, but as you consider more aspects, the story changes. 

The main point of divergence between the Organic Center report and the 1944 paper is the incorrect assumption in the latter that 1944 farms (or present-day organic farms) maintain the same high culling rate as modern conventional dairy farms.  In a modern dairy system, cows are kept at a high level of production that wears out their bodies, such that they are killed (culled, in technincal terms) after two lactations (lasting just over two years).  This means that the cow has spent two years or so as an unproductive heifer, and then two years or so as a highly productive cow, which in turn leaves about as many heifers as mature cows in the population.  The Organic Center report posits a longer life for lactating cows, such that they are milked over more than four lactation cycles before culling, as opposed to just under 2 cycles.  If this is accurate, there are fewer unproductive heifers in the population under a less intensive, pasture-based systems.  What accounts for the different findings are that while the 1944 study speaks of dilution of maintenance energy in a high-producing cow, the Organic Center shows a dilution of maintenance across the population, by having more cows in production and fewer heifers just eating and pooping without producing milk.

So in this case, the discourse of organic and sustainable advocates in favor of lower-intensity, pasture-based dairy systems seems not to be a noble-sounding but ultimately impractical ideology, but rather based on fact.  Sometimes discourse exists because it is what's true, not just what sounds nice.  And in any case, often to bring about practical, realistic change, you need an ideological lens and an eloquent discourse. 

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