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Here’s the rub: WWF’s situation is similar to that of the land grants. Its corporate partners Starbucks and Coca-Cola were the stars of Clay’s talk at a food conference in Oregon. Mars, the candy company, came in for special praise for its eco-friendly initiatives and because it’s privately held (this allows it to pursue its goals with little government interference or public scrutiny). Cargill is private, too, but apparently hasn’t sought Clay’s advice. Maybe that’s because he believes farmer ownership of land is essential if developing nations are to eventually prosper, and Cargill seems to be taking land away from farmers.
The Economist magazine recently mentioned WWF as among several trendy new “conscience consultants” to giant multinationals, calling them “environmental charities.” Citing evidence of disenchantment for the model stemming from, among other incidents, their failure to broker a carbon-trading deal, the Economist nonetheless endorsed “partnerships of opposites” as a way to counter the threat of “worldwide centralized planning.”
The present arrangement — “100 corporations … selling roughly a quarter of the world’s food” — makes this a foregone conclusion, it seems to me.
The trouble, of course, is that old bugaboo, accountability. Shareholders don’t provide that. Governments do. In a democracy, you have checks and balances. You have voters. Planning doesn’t have to be centralized to be effective and fair. Secretiveness combined with contempt for old-fashioned constraints on corporations’ increasingly centralized power effectively derails discussion of how the for-profit conglomerates are going to look after the needs of ordinary people and the planet. But even more effective is to characterize all criticism, whatever the content, as not fact-based and motivated by … well, that’s just it. Can a man like Wes Jackson seriously be motivated by money?
Jackson is the founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. He grows perennials, and lots of them. As every gardener knows, perennials go dormant in winter and die back, but return year after year — the ultimate no-till solution to soil erosion and everything else Jackson says is wrong with modern agriculture. He plants his improved grain crops in biodiverse “mixtures” so productive, resilient, high-calorie and low-maintenance that the New York Times food writer Mark Bittman traveled to Salina to see them firsthand.
About industrial agriculture, Jackson told Bittman: “We don’t have to slay Goliath with a pebble. We just have to quit using so much fertilizer and so many pesticides to shrink him to manageable proportions.” On the progress-or-perish issue, he placed his bet decades ago. He’s invested his whole life — all 77 years — in plants.
Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.