A couple weeks back I wrote about two alternative power dynamics. One is a power hierarchy, where individuals meet their needs by asserting power over others, or by learning to navigate the position of subservience they find themselves in. An alternative to this dynamic is a partnership, where individuals work together to meet their needs in such a way that neither are forced into permanent subservience. These power dynamics play out in many contexts. I want to use this post to explore how they show up within our food system.
I am a part-time instructor at the University of Vermont. This semester I am teaching a course called The Real Cost of Food, which explores the social and environmental impacts of food production, distribution, and consumption. One of the points I attempt to drive home early in the class is that the process of domestication — selectively breeding certain plants and animals to enhance commercially valuable qualities — tends to make them less robust. This loss of robustness means that more agricultural inputs are needed to produce a harvestable crop.
The process of domestication entails humans asserting power over the evolutionary trajectory of other living beings to create forms that cannot, for the most part, survive outside of human cultivation. An example I offered in class recently was broccoli. This ubiquitous vegetable was bred from a wild mustard plant native to Europe, Brassica oleracea. Broccoli exists because, over hundreds of years, people cultivated varieties of B. oleracea that yielded larger flower buds and thicker stems. The result is a commercial crop that bears but a superficial resemblance to its wild progenitor, and one that requires tillage, fertilizer, and pesticides to mature.
Broccoli is not the only commercially important food crop bred from B. oleracea. Cauliflower was bred from it by selecting for flower buds that lacked pigmentation. Cabbage was bred by selecting for a large terminal leaf bud, and Brussel’s sprouts were bred by selecting for lateral leaf buds. Kale was bred from B. oleraceaby selecting for plants with large leaves. Each of these varieties exhibits exaggerated traits not seen in the wild type of the species.
Students in this class have the option to write reflections on our weekly activities. I enjoy reading these. They offer me a window into how my students make sense of what they are learning. In one reflection this past week, a student likened the process of domestication to the eugenics movement. I had never thought to make that comparison before, but the more I ponder it the more apt it feels.
As Teryn Bouche and Laura Rivard write in their brief summary of the movement, the word eugenics was coined by English intellectual Francis Galton in the late 1800s. The term literally means “good birth”, and encapsulates the notion that people with desirable traits should be incentivized to reproduce. Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin incidentally, analyzed positive characteristics — intelligence, for example — of England’s upper classes and determined they were heritable. He went on to advocate for a selective breeding program to create smarter humans in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius.
Eugenics took root in the United States in the early 1900s, embraced by educators Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin. In the US, eugenics shifted from the promotion of desirable traits to the elimination of undesirable ones. The tool of choice? Forced sterilization. Perhaps not surprisingly, American eugenicists chose to target the poor, the uneducated, and members of minority populations in their sterilization campaigns. Even the University of Vermont, where I did my doctoral work and have taught for 10 years, got on board. The Eugenics Survey of Vermont was affiliated with the university’s Zoology Department, and was directed by Henry Perkins, a professor there from 1902–1945. Over 100 people were forcibly sterilized within Vermont before the Eugenics Survey was scrapped, and over 60,000 throughout the United States more broadly.
As we try to make sense of how readily the Western world embraced the core principles of eugenics, we must recognize that the idea of selective breeding for desirable traits was not new. Galton had thousands of years of plant and animal domestication to inspire him. No one that I know of objected to that endeavor, ethically or morally. Selective breeding of non-human plants and animals was broadly accepted, even celebrated as evidence of our dominion over “nature”. Although the thought of applying principles of selective breeding to the human population turns my stomach, it is easy for me to imagine why so many educated and affluent Euro-descended men, no doubt socialized with a deep sense of entitlement and superiority, thought it a reasonable endeavor.
Today, most people view the eugenics movement as dark stain on our history. With that in mind, a question my student hinted at in her reflection was: Why do we look poorly on eugenics, even as we support the same agenda imposed on other plants and animals?
This can be a powerful question if we are willing to open our dominant worldview to scrutiny. It invites us to name an assumption held by many in the modern world: human supremacy. This belief asserts that, as human beings, we are inherently superior to all other living organisms and can therefore assert power over them, and their evolutionary trajectory, without moral injury. This assumption is rooted in many civilized religions, but is curiously absent from most indigenous worldviews. It is this deeply internalized sense of human supremacy that creates space in our moral world for the domestication of plants and animals, and for agriculture as a strategy for food procurement. Our sense of supremacy also leads to the many social and environmental ills that agriculture inevitably yields.
All this leads me to a few questions I want to leave you with:
First, thinking back to the dichotomy of power-over and partnership that I introduced at the start of this post, what would a food system that relied on a partnership approach to power dynamics look like? Would there be room in that system for agriculture as we know it today?
Next, recognizing that agriculture is probably the single most impactful human undertaking, how would our impact on the world shift if we were to abandon modern agricultural practices in favor of partnership approaches to food acquisition similar to those adopted by some indigenous societies?
Finally, how do we get to that partnership-based system from here?
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