OP-ED: I Am Not An Activist

Walker Orr, Junior

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I am not an activist. My planned line of work is that of a soil microbiologist or a plant breeder, someone trying to change the system through relatively established means. I have chosen as the particular angle for my life’s work — that of food, which I believe is at the center of the human condition. And basic science is the particular way in which I believe my skill set can be best applied to the question of reforming the food system. I believe in the rightness of my chosen path. I am also kept awake by the thought that the fruits of my efforts might not be available to all before I die.

I am frustrated by the charges of elitism that are sometimes leveled against the efforts of the “good food movement” to improve the quality of the food we eat and minimize the impact its production has on our planet, in an attempt to discourage its efforts. I do understand that the way well-intentioned people adopt the practice of eating well as a status symbol is problematic: it dilutes the power of the message and undermines the efficacy of the movement as such. The sale of Whole Foods to Amazon seems a grand metaphor for the ways in which the movement has been co-opted by the kind of corporate power it ostensibly sought to undermine. Nevertheless, I continue to have faith in the movement’s potential to revolutionize the economics of how we eat and the ecological impact of what we eat. Food, around which so much of human metaphor revolves, has the ability to win hearts and minds in a way that little else can. And a growing body of scientific knowledge and public support is amassing in the direction of a more local, holistic approach to agriculture that is more focused on basic science than on biotechnology. The charge of elitism does not undermine my work or the goals of the movement at large. Instead, it must teach us that our movement’s goals are inseparable from the goals of anyone and everyone who has been trampled underfoot for too long by a system that privileges money over people.

My (laudable and necessary) work, as a scientist, will be in vain unless its fruits are available to everyone. If these fruits — delicious food, produced locally with a fair price paid to all involved — are unaffordable to the “masses,” it is not because such systems are less efficient than “conventional” agriculture. The rhetorical question, “but how are you going to feeding the world,” is as dangerously false as it is familiar. It is intended to distract from the real forces preventing sustainable agriculture from being adopted and preventing its output from being equitably distributed. If good food is unaffordable to all it is because public policy supports farming practices that are not only ecologically unsustainable but also economically unsustainable as the system currently stands. If good food is unaffordable to all it is because we are doing nothing to relieve the burden of intergenerational poverty — caused by slavery and our actions abroad and perpetuated by institutionalized racism — that continues to cripple so many in this nation. Imagine how easy it would be to build a food system that works for all if we actually included all stakeholders — which is to say, every human being, since all must eat — in that discussion?

I am not an activist. That is not what you will find printed beneath my name on my business card. But if I do not support — with my voice, with my time and with my money — my brothers and sisters who are doing the necessary work to realize the gains of my work for the planet and for all of its inhabitants, I will have failed to do my job.