How To Grow

Questioning our industrial food systems

Eleven years after I graduated from Duke, I completed a degree at MIT, where focusing on the future is so normal that few people at the institute question it. I was steeped in techno-futurism, in the belief that it’s often best to leave the past behind. But I’m a gardener. I dig. And I think about how living soil is made, and how plants have evolved to sustain themselves—and how, for millennia, growing food has been a political act.

The past is always stomping its muddy feet into my present. And, if you eat, yours, too.

Yale political scientist James C. Scott, preparing to deliver two lectures at Harvard, was surprised to learn that everything he thought he knew about the beginnings of alluvial civilizations was wrong. Recent archaeological research has driven a stake into the idea that agriculture spawned the first towns. An abundance of wild and lightly managed food sources spawned towns.

Large, sedentary communities had been around for thousands of years before governments existed. City-states—the first governments—were formed in areas of abundant food sources. As local political actors got strong enough to coerce people to abandon the light management of their landscape’s food resources and, instead, to grow specific crops in specific places, record-keeping, tax-collecting, and policymaking followed close behind.

In a large community, if you can command what grains will be grown, and where they’re sown, and then monitor the harvests and collect payments from the growers, you win.

I had a professor at Duke one summer who would begin his lectures by saying something like, “Here in Book 9 of The Iliad, we see the beginnings of Western civilization.” I was nineteen and ignorant, so I didn’t interrupt him to ask what he meant by “Western” or “civilization.” And I didn’t ask, either, about how those words applied to ancient Greece, a society that ate because slaves farmed.

I didn’t know that those were questions to ask— even though, during that sticky semester when I was in thrall to Greek poetry, I was also studying the political lives of contemporary women and their relationships to land. It seemed obvious to me, even then, that the personal was political. But, stupidly, I hadn’t noticed how deeply the political was also personal, especially when land and food were involved.

At MIT, and elsewhere, students are learning how to grow food (lettuce and herbs, mostly) using hydroponic methods inside shipping containers and plexiglass crates. With a complement of sensors to adjust the cybernetics of living things, a shipping container is perfect for experimenting with food in ways that characterize “Western” and “civilization.” It seems like a logical thing to do.

Regimenting agriculture yielded governance. Governance made data-tracking and record-keeping seem normal. And tracking data eventually made the scientific method seem normal, too.

But the histories of scientific methods and technological development are frequently in conflict with how the world is understood—still—by peoples outside of the dominant (winning) culture. If you reduce a complex question to something measurable, if you isolate a living system from other living systems, and, then, if you speculate about how experimental data might be applied to messier situations, your “Western,” “civilized” past is in your present, too.

Will the future of food trend toward lettuce grown hydroponically in shipping containers? Probably. AI and machine-learning will spread anywhere they can, and they’ll re-enact the privatization of land within this new form of enclosures. Will the future of food include organic produce grown mostly in California and Mexico? Probably, at least for a while longer. But maybe it will include more organic produce grown and distributed regionally. Unless all the new farmers go broke—which, without a radical restructuring of the cobbled-together provisions of the Farm Bill, they may well do.

Will we see the end of feedlots and the largescale production of cattle, pigs, and chickens? I doubt it. Not as long as government policies support them. Plant-based meat will make a dent, but without structural changes to the government and the Farm Bill, there will still be a lot of money to be made by producing cheap calories.

Will farmers figure out how to grow perennial grains, and overturn thousands of years of governmental control of annual grain crops? Maybe. If they do, it will be despite opposition from the seed and fertilizer producers and with little-to-zero research support from federal tax dollars. Progress is likely to be slow, and results too late.

I like to imagine that being muddy is a form of resistance to the industrial food system.

Yet I don’t do much more than grow treats in my backyard garden, and my muddy clothes don’t do much more than worry a few germophobes when I wear them to the local Whole Foods. I know how much time and labor it takes to grow enough food to feed a family. I live in a real world of real constraints, and I can’t do it, even if my cousins did call me Smudge.

And yet I cook. I garden. I teach students how to grow things. I tell them what I know about the industrial food system and about how it might— it must—be challenged. I hope that some of what I show them sticks.

A lot of people, soon, will need to grow food that is decoupled from the petroleum economy. And do it under dangerous and urgent and erratic climate conditions. As we enter the climate crisis—against which no human civilization will be able to claim victory (winning being unattainable and, anyway, exactly the wrong goal in this situation)—it is a question of understanding what forms of knowledge will endure, and what practices are worth learning.

Mud knows.

Knott ’76 is an artist and curator, and an alumna of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, where she studied environmental art.

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