Terrorism, Radicalism, and Populism in Agriculture. Luther Tweeten. Iowa State Press, a Blackwell Publishing Company, Ames, 2003. 176 pp., illus. $59.99 (ISBN 0813821584 cloth).
Luther Tweeten, a widely known and highly regarded agricultural economist, is professor emeritus of agricultural marketing, policy, and trade at the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, Ohio State University. He is widely known not only for his excellent scholarly writings and views on the economics of agriculture in the United States but also for his outspoken conservative views of agricultural policy and of trade, environmental, and industrial issues. To quote Tweeten in his preface, “I am frequently asked by activists to joust because I so often lose.” This shows in the book.
Tweeten started writing Terrorism, Radicalism, and Populism in Agriculture on September 11, 2001, hence the emphasis on terrorism in the title and elsewhere in the text (although he had been building on his themes before the September 11 attacks). The connection between terrorism and agriculture is carried throughout the book; I will examine later how Tweeten makes this connection.
This was a fascinating book to review. It ranges in content from personal revelations of how the author views his world to a boring but very informative (depending on one's interests) history of agricultural organizations. The book was published from a printed manuscript, and it shows. Its margins are small, white space is hard to find, and there are few illustrations. Given the density of the book and the way its information is presented, the price seems a bit steep; and I had trouble identifying its intended audience.
The book starts with a discussion of postmodernist philosophy and how it relates to radical agriculturists' view of the world. Essentially, Tweeten sees postmodernist philosophy as opposite to analytical philosophy, which is based on reason as expressed in science in the United States. In contrast, postmodernist philosophy originates from continental philosophy, which has its basis in subjective reason and emotion. This explains to Tweeten's satisfaction why terrorists, radicals, and populists behave the way they do. But, of course, the human psyche is not that simple, and most people use analytical and continental philosophy more or less interchangeably throughout their day.
Tweeten takes on antiglobalists—radical agriculturists who apparently think locally—in a chapter that defines and defends free trade (as opposed to fair trade) and multinational corporations. He describes the standard model of global economics, with its reliance on markets, privatization, and deregulation, and how it ensures broad-based development. This chapter gives a good overview of the worldview of most agricultural economists.
The next group Tweeten discusses are the radical environmentalists, who he claims “serially overstate and overdramatize environmental threats to food and agriculture.” He uses Paul Ehrlich, Lester Brown, and Al Gore as examples of radical environmentalists. Other radical environmentalists, he argues, go even further by terrorizing people and destroying property. In this chapter, population trends, global warming, biodiversity, and soil erosion are discussed, as are water quality, hypoxia, and chemical contamination of food and water. Tweeten feels that radical environmentalists have caused costly over-regulation; he cites the termination of the use of Alar and measures to counter global warming as two examples of such overregulation. The chapter includes a discussion on the sustainability of US and global agriculture, including food production. Organic agriculture also comes in for strong criticism: Tweeten uses the old saw of “saving land for wildlife” to decry organic production, arguing that organic production requires far more land for the same level of production as conventional farming.
Tweeten really gets going when he takes on the Luddites. He defines “Luddites” as those who use unethical means to stop technology, excluding from his definition reasonable people who criticize technological advances. But very quickly Luddites become identified with just about anyone who questions technologies (including biotechnology, to which Tweeten devotes several pages), supports international regulations, or defends family farms.
Animal rights activists are Tweeten's next target. He begins by offering an excellent and well-balanced treatise on the ethics of animal welfare. The association between agriculture and terrorism is clearer here than in other parts of the book: If there are “terrorists” in agriculture, they certainly include the shadow groups that release mink and other animals to die in the open. Tweeten could have left well enough alone, but his arguments lose some of their force and coherence when he takes on tangential issues, including vegetarianism, antibiotics, and concentrated animal feeding operations. Although generally supportive of the agricultural industry, he does admit that animal agriculture has lost its social ties to the rural community.
Agrarian populism and farm fundamentalism get their fair share of attention in the remainder of the book. “Populism” refers here to the thinking that offers appealing, simple, and straightforward solutions to complex problems—solutions that, according to Tweeten, often turn out to be wrong. His critical discussion on farm fundamentalism (the idea that farming is the basis of the US economy and heritage and must be preserved) is profound; it is also sure to agitate many who believe that agriculture is a way of life that must be protected and preserved. Tweeten postulates and explores 10 myths of farm fundamentalism, concluding that agricultural populism is another name for bad economics.
The last chapter gives an excellent historical view of farm organizations in the United States, including a great deal of information that few know (and even fewer care to know) about the evolution of farm organizations starting from about 1830. As a stand-alone chapter, this one ranks as the best in the book.
Tweeten concludes that the greatest danger posed by agricultural populists and radicals is that, to further their own political agendas, they perpetuate myths that generate animosity toward agribusiness. These groups, according to Tweeten, cost the nation and the world higher food prices, lower incomes (by curtailing international trade), greater environmental degradation, and more hunger. As a solution, he proposes reinvigorating the social contract between agriculture and government.
It is easy to be critical of the arguments in this book, especially if one falls into one of the broad categories of “bad actors” discussed by Tweeten (although this would put one in the company of such outstanding scholars as Neil Harl, Mike Duffy, and Bill Heffernan, to name a few). But to benefit from the arguments in the book, one must shake off the ingrained biases built up over years of debate and realize that this book gives a realistic assessment of today's conservative worldview. In the words of a long-forgotten TV show, the author shows his readers “my world—and welcome to it.”