Facts are not sacred; values are

Scientists, especially young fire-in-the-belly scientists but also many who have grown old making a living at it, are often convinced that if only people understood (or believed?) as they do, those people would come to the “correct” decisions. I know, I was one myself for a long time. Now, Jonathan Swift and Upton Sinclair are my guys.1 Increasingly, though, it is surely becoming clear that facts alone change few minds. Last week’s New Scientist carried an editorial to that effect, about climate change. Adam Corner wrote:

How did the rational arguments of science and economics fail to win the day? There are many reasons, but an important one concerns human nature.

Through a growing body of psychological research, we know that scaring or shaming people into sustainable behaviour is likely to backfire. We know that it is difficult to overcome the psychological distance between the concept of climate change – not here, not now – and people’s everyday lives. We know that beliefs about the climate are influenced by extreme and even daily weather.

What has that to do with me here? Consider this video (and do, please, watch it through):

To me it is utterly charming; amusing, entertaining, well-executed, high-quality. It pushes all the right buttons. Never mind that a farmer growing spuds for The Man is unlikely to have a Big Red Barn or chickens clucking in the farmyard. It is clearly OUTRAGEOUS that she is not allowed to save her own potato propagating material, or “seeds” as our scientific friends might say. And I’m pretty sure that is how it will be seen, and welcomed, by everybody whose confirmation biases it confirms.

Like me, wearing my hat labelled Communicator.

And hated by everyone wearing a Scientist or Policymaker or Seed Industry hat. And me, wearing my other hats.

There is plenty that I could say about both the content and the assumptions on which that charming film is built, but it would be folly. There is also plenty I could say to the Scientists and Policymakers and Seed Industrialists about making their own case, and that would probably be folly too.

So I’m looking forward to your comments.

  1. Swift said (and there are many versions) “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired…,” while Sinclair is responsible for “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” often wrongly attributed to HL Mencken. []

13 Replies to “Facts are not sacred; values are”

  1. Very cool. I love Agata, the potato with French accent. In my view, the potatos represent a pretty accurate picture of a major part of the reality in Europe. Olivia, the farmer, doesn’t.

  2. I live in a major seed potato production area, in Northern Scotland, which exports seed potatoes across Europe. Why here? The further north you go the fewer the aphids and the lower the transmission of viruses. Fields are rotated with other crops for at least five years to prevent potato volunteers and disease carry-over. If Olivia wants to grow her `own’ potatoes she will increase the virus load, end up with a pile of mush, and spread diseases to other potato farmers. If she grows heritage varieties she could well act as a source of inoculum for late blight, costing her neighbours dear for spraying. She will also undermine plant breeding – depending as it does on royalties in the absence of state funding. If Olivia has a garden and wants to grow her “own” varieties nobody will stop her if she keeps her head down: however, if she has a farm and wants to grow and sell hundreds of tonnes of seed potato each year she is a menace.
    Maxim for trans-national Luddists (trying to damage crop production in another country): “First wreck the commercial seed-sector” (including by sweet little movies funded by goodness knows who).

  3. It’s very difficult to tell a complex story to a non-professional audience. I think the question is: is it better to tell a story that lacks nuance and deep facts in order to initiate conversation that might lead to a public more informed on ag policy, or is it better to not tell the story at all and let the same group of professional/advocates be the only ones in the conversation?

    Secondly, while I agree with Mr. Wood on potatoes and the risk of seed disease, etc….I’m unclear as to the jump to Luddites trying to”wreck the seed sector”….the seed sector has done a fine job creating its own messes. And some are even admitting it. I was at a meeting with Pioneer researcher last week in which there was very open discussion about how vulnerable we are to serious epidemics or climate shifts from narrow genetic backgrounds in corn and soy in the US. That wreck, waiting to happen, is not the fault of Luddites.

    And, let’s also be clear that farmer seed saving, while it has its disease risks, created much of the success we have in the seed sector today (thank you Wendelin Grimm for you cold hardy alfalfa; thank you Robert Reid for your dent corn). Farmer innovation occurs to this day – Farmer Lexi Roach of Washington State developed a PPB variety with Steve Jones of WSU that outcompeted all the commercial wheat varieties in 2007. She was 14 when she started the selections that became Lexi 2. Farmer innovation is anything but Luddite; it’s an economical, decentralized, sometimes “open source” and highly localized approach to innovation and problem solving. Is it all we need? No. Do we still need commercial breeders who have royalty returns? of course. But what history will show is that the real Luddites of today are those people who hold on to current IP models in plant genetics as being perfect and functional….they are anything but.

  4. Matthew: Thanks. I have no problem with Luddists – I’m one myself. Over four years gardening in India I used a hoe and a garden fork with compost rather than synthetic fertilizer. In the past I have also made a series of foot-operated pole lathes for wood turning, with no electric motor. That is Luddism. Trans-national Luddism is me recommending labour-intensive approaches to people in other countries while using machinery myself (and then exporting my products to these other countries).
    Trans-national Luddism is asking farmers to use their own seed exclusively, while rejecting Green Revolution (public) seed and any kind of commercial seed, on the argument that all farmer varieties are somehow better, “local and locally adapted” (I quote from the IISD Report of the ITPGRFA Oman meeting of two weeks ago). It is now common for people in (say) North America or Europe to tell farmers they must use farm-saved seed and farm agroecologically and avoid monocultures and adopt `food sovereignty’ or whatever when the source of these ideas live in countries exporting billions of dollars worth of often GM and always mechanized/fertilized crop production. This certainly wrecks the commercial seed sector in someone else’s country. Rant over.
    As to IP in the seed sector being imperfect I agree. My ideal model is the old USDA scatter-gun crop introduction, get everything from everywhere are try it out nationwide combined with the CGIAR approach – lots of samples, lots of multi-location evaluation, lots of breeding and selection and wide dispersal of varieties. As to breeding, my comment on Fiskeby soybean fits another model: a dedicated, clever breeder from Sweden taking varieties from North Japan originating with farmers who had selected lots of tolerances in their varieties, then breeding in Sweden, then the USDA picking up years later and getting the characters into top US soybean varieties (and eventually, no doubt, getting these varieties into southern Brazil and points south). The problem with these trans-national approaches in future is that the `food sovereignty’ bandwagon is convincing a lot of politicians that their developing countries are self-sufficient in genetic resources and do not need off-farm seed production. The result is and will be that the vast tropical cities will continue to import the vast crop surpluses from just the countries where the bad advice on seed access and food sovereignty come from. We need a continuum of types of seed production and not the present polarity and dismissal of commercial seed. I need a beer.

  5. To respond to Dave Wood’s rant with a little one of my own, since when did it become hypocritical for people to propose policy alternatives to the ones actually pursued in the countries they happen to live in? That’s like saying you can’t advocate socialism because your country has a right-wing government. Nor do any food sovereignty advocates that I know think it’s OK to undermine labour-intensive agricultures with cheap exports from more mechanised countries – indeed, opposing that precise aspect of the contemporary global food system is pretty much the starting point for the food sovereignty movement.

    1. Chris: This is not about “… countries they happen to live in…” but other people’s countries. And it is not hypocritical but well-funded activism – a career for some people.
      As to `food sovereignty’ it is little to do with “undermining labour-intensive agricultures” but with ensuring that such countries never become a threat to vast global export markets for crops (as Brazil has successfully done in its competition with North American crop exports to Asia).
      There is a good account in Patel, R. 2009 What does food sovereignty look like? The Journal of Peasant Studies 663–706.
      Raj first comments on the Via Campesina 1996 definition: “Perhaps most clearly, it is a definition written in committee. The diversity of opinions, positions, issues, and politics bursts through in the text…”
      But what what Raj then says of the Via Campesina’s “Nyéléni Declaration” is a warning: “The contradictions in this are a little more fatal.”
      My view of “food sovereignty” is that, form a simple and useful start it did two things: firstly became more complex; then was infiltrated to the point of capture by northern NGOs (some at least apparently trying to protect northern crop export interests – a 100 billion dollar a year mega-business).
      Something similar happened over the years for “agroecology”: redefinition and then capture by NGOs during the IAASTD process.
      Via Campesina may now be fatally compromised by its support of the recent UNCTAD report (I commented on this here a couple of weeks ago).
      There are 82 papers available from a “FoodFood Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue” conference last month at Yale I need to take on board:


  6. Dave, I disagree. Food sovereignty is not about shoring up the interests of agri-industrial exporting countries but precisely the opposite. The Patel article you cite certainly raises some contradictions and difficulties with which the food sovereignty movement has to wrestle, but is broadly sympathetic to its agenda. One of the interesting things about Via Campesina as an organisation is the way it’s structured itself to resist NGO penetration. That certainly does mean things get written by committee and that the movement has got more complex, same as most other organisations – that’s just life. I’d be interested if you could expand on your view about NGO capture and the pursuit of agri-industrial interests because it’s not been my experience of the movement at all. I’ve looked at a couple of the critical papers from the Yale conference – they raise some interesting issues, but essentially espouse a modernisation model of further agri-industrial development leavened with a bit of commitment to social justice. Personally I don’t find it convincing, though I appreciate that this is very much the mainstream view. Many (perhaps most) people may disagree with the food sovereignty approach in favour of these humanised development/capitalist models, but I just don’t see the evidence that food sovereignty masks big agri interests. Looking at your previous comments on agroecology & the UNCTAD report, I can see that you strongly disagree with these models and think they’re inimical to the interests of developing country farmers. What I don’t see is evidence that they’re window dressing for big agri export interests, rather than models of agricultural development with which you disagree.

    1. Chris: “about NGO capture and the pursuit of agri-industrial interests” It is the big ag-exporters (rather the generic term “agri-industrial interests”, that could include multinational seed companies) trying to freeze agriculture in developing countries. In fact the seed companies, exporting North American breeding technology, are damaging these export interests – witness the competition from Brazil for soybean exports to Asia.

      Dave: I am deleting the rest of this comment because it could well be considered defamatory. We are unwilling to run the risk of publishing actionable content, even though I suspect that the people you mention would unlikely to hold us to account. If, in time, you want us to include a link to somewhere where you publish your thoughts on your own account, we might consider doing so.

      1. Jeremy(?) Noted. But this is the stimulus I need to do some serious research for publication, rather the past dabbling.

      2. Dave, instead of the language of ‘freezing’ I’d say rather that the big ag exporters want to undermine independent and locally-oriented agricultures that produce basic foods for local consumption. They’re quite happy for export industries to start up employing the resulting landless rural labourers to produce flowers, green beans, prawns, chickens etc. But this has nothing whatever to do with the food sovereignty movement, other than being a key feature of the global food system to which it is wholly opposed. Still no evidence from you that food sovereignty = big ag exporter interests.

  7. While fully supporting the reflections on the relative importance, advantages and disadvantages of commercial breeding (and mechanisms for protection of breeders’ interests) versus farm saved seed (and protection of farmers’ interests), I find the video has a major shortcoming.
    To keep a long story short, the shortcoming lies in the fact that “Olivia” probably CAN save and reproduce seed of her favourite potato varieties, according to my knowledge and information gathered also thanks to the help of a friend with legal expertise. In December 2011, through law No. 2011-1843, France formally adopted the EU rule on farmers’ exceptions within the PVP legal arrangements, EC rule 2100/94. Indeed, France was late. The directive and thus French law covers 21 crops (potatoes included) for which the so-called farmers’ privilege” has been defined, i.e. the conditions under which “small holders” are allowed to save and reproduce seed from protected varieties protected by BPRs without the permission of the breeder nor the payment of any royalty. The limits under which a farmer is considered a small-holder is, for potato, the production of 185 tonnes/year. From how “Olivia” is depicted, I am inclined to believe she does not produce more than that, and thus would be free to save and reproduce seed.
    The person whose research work inspired such video has confirmed (see the thread on the video’s youtube page) that the situation in France is indeed different from that depicted in the video since 2011, but that implementation is unclear, leaving farmers in an uncertain legal situation. I have no difficulty in believing in this, knowing well that implementation tends to lag well behind law and policy formulation. I however still feel that it is unfair and does not help the discussion to completely overlook important normative advancements that the EU, its member states, the private sector and civil society have made to achieve a (possibly improvable) compromise between contrasting interest groups.
    Perhaps more importantly than just being unfair, overlooking or not appreciating such changes also excludes the possibility to share solutions adopted by the EU or other parties with a PVP legislation in place, with other developing countries (and their civil societies) who are in the process of implementing a PVP system. For these countries, the definition and scope of the farmers’ exception is perhaps even more crucial than for Europe, given the large small-scale farming population and its very relevant contribution to the country’s food security and conservation of agricultural biodiversity.

  8. Provocative posts and erudite comments is why I really dig this weblog.

    With all due respect: the video, in my humble opinion, is not telling enough of the story, of the science and the politics. It is charming, though not my preferred type of artist/activist movie.

    Wearing a communicator’s hat now, I have to ask: “Which public is this video looking to convince?” Kids? A bit too complicated a topic. Policy makers, farmers, advisers? Don’t think so. First year ag students and the general public? Maybe. And is it enough to convince them that a serious problem exists? That they need to vote or take action, and should help make agriculture less controversial (for lack of any better generic term)? My point being that the video is not giving clear indication (lack of historical background) on where the problem lies, what can be done, the ongoing debates (like that tennis match between Mr Wood and Mr Smaje).

    One type of video communication products that impacts my brain (for what it’s worth) is the one used by Punk Economics. From teens to elders, everyone can understand the “systems” described in these videos. Initial conditions, causal relationships, logical effects. Also, fast (but too fast) and smart from the big picture to causes, consequences and priorities for action.

    And really, these anthropomorphic potato varieties are just too abstract, with rotating moustaches distracting me from the very serious thoughts I was brewing.

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