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One Big Flow, But Not For The Farmers

starfish's picture

All Over Creation explores the roles of belief and practicality in determining groups relationships to the environment. On one hand are the potato farmers who believe they have no choice but to use genetically modified seeds, on the other hand are the ‘Seeds of the Resistance’ an activist group advocating for GMO labeling. The third group are the residents of Liberty Falls who never confront the issue but object to the Seeds presence and their way of life. The three groups in Ozeki’s novel seem irreconcilably at odds but and the story begs the question if there’s any way for them to come together.

For the farmers there is no room for identity to determine their relationship to GM plants. Only Lloyd takes a stand against them but he no longer is in a position of choosing between GM crops and pesticides. He essentially retired, and, preoccupied with little more than his seed business is free to take more of a philosophical attitude towards the environment. Lloyd writes in his news letter “Scientists do not understand Life Itself, and when they meddle in its Creation, they trespass on God’s domain. Beware of the ungodly chimera they manufacture in their laboratories!” (105). Lloyd’s pro-life beliefs fuel his anti-GMO beliefs but even among the other religious members of the town he is alone in openly condemning GMO’s- the others farmers must think about making a living.

Of course even the farmer’s “practical” decision to use GMO crops or pesticides  is not really practical. They choose pesticides because they are cheap but they have health drawbacks such as Cass’s infertility and cancer. The GM crops force the farmers to spend more buying new seeds each year but they are not reliably safe to consume.

The real question in the novel is why don’t the farmers do more to look for a third, better option, such as organic farming? The only farmers who’s perspectives we get are Cass’s, Will’s and Lloyds- but from them we can infer at least part of the answer. Lloyd isn’t actively interested in organic farming, his interest in the environment doesn’t come so much out of concern for health or the future of the planet as much as it does out of his pro-life agenda. Will never makes a clear argument against organic, his statement to Geek is simply that “It’s not like any of us are in love with chemicals, but you can’t operate three thousand acres any other way. If I had a choice, I’d farm without them.” (362-363). The implication is that organic farming isn’t monetarily feasible. It is a matter of short versus long run costs. Will and Cass both know that her cancer is probably caused by the use of pesticides and have doubts about the safety of Nulifes, not to mention that the GMO seeds must be bought anew every every year. But, as Lloyd says “It takes guts to try something new, as far as I can see” (146). The farmer’s are unable to act with a long term view because the short term costs simply seem too high. The seeds on the other hand, have no stock in the short term effects of change and are dismissive of them. Cass and Will seem to realize as the novel continues that their position is unsustainable. Will and Cass’s decision to use NUlifes is halfhearted at best. “‘But they say it’s safer than pesticides’ He was trying to reassure but his voice revealed the doubt that had been eating at him” (98). Lloyd implies that the other farmer’s don’t feel much differently. He tells the Seeds:

“‘Margins are tight. Prices are down. You need higher yields to make a profit, and inputs maximize your yields. A lot of these fellas, they’re cash poor. Got their whole lives tied up in their land and one season’s harvest. Not a whole lot of room for error…..’

‘But when you listen to these guys, all they do is talk about how great the stuff is-’

          ‘Thats all it is’ said Lloyd. ‘Just talk. Deep down they know’” (146).

The seeds on the other hand, have no stock in the short term effects of change and are dismissive of them.

The idealism of the Seeds is based as much in their identity as Hippies as it is in a complete understanding of the farmer’s predicament. Even Geek who seems fairly knowledgeable reveals some ignorance when Will compares the use of GMO’s to being addicted to drugs and Geek shrugs, suggesting that he “just say no” (272). “Consumers are dangerous only when they think they’ve been cheated of their right to exercise free will” (263).  The Seeds philosophy of going with the flow speaks to how their relationship to the environment differs from the farmers. They can simply move on, but the farmers must stay and make sure that each one of  their crops is successful. The Seeds are free to fight for the environment as a whole but the farmers have no option but to do what is best for their potatoes. Cass sums up what it means to have a livelihood based in the environment when she says that sometimes some creatures have to die so others can live (of course, those living are still paying a price as she well knows).

For Lloyd his pro-life agenda comes before any objection he might have to the lifestyle of the seeds, but for the other religious members of the town the environment plays no role in their objection to the activist group. The seeds message is completely lost on those who associate it with their lifestyle.

The novel seems to suggest that it is as much ideology as a practical relationship to the environment that prevents the two sides from finding common ground. In reality, all pay the price of GMO’s or pesticides through the cost to their health. The farmer’s may have to sacrifice to switch to more sustainable methods but “practically” it might be the better choice. It is as much habit as anything else that keeps them where their at. With the farmers are the residents who protest the Seeds presence and pay no attention to their message, preferring to focus on their objection to the groups pornography website. But as ideology separates the farmers and residents from the activists it also has the potential to bring them together. Lloyd is the model for this, defending Momoko’s garden and protesting GMO’s because of his religious beliefs. The defense of GMO’s is not “practical”, as it might at first seem, and so neither can be any effective argument against it.

 Ozeki, Ruth. "All Over Creation". Penguin Books, 2003.


Anne Dalke's picture

interesting shift from philosophy vs. practicality
to focus on differences in ideology....explain how
you moved there? and think w/ me in conference
re: how that relates to the argument developed in
The Collapse of Western Civilization....?