Questioning “every tool in the toolbox”

Do we really need “every tool in the toolbox”? [1]

I most recently encountered the argument that we need “every tool in the toolbox” in a debate that emerged from the screening of the film “Food Evolution” at UC Berkeley. This debate was sparked by a critique sent around on various email lists, outlining how the film presents a biased case in favor of the use of Genetic Engineering (GE) technologies in agriculture while claiming falsely to have put aside bias in favor of “the science”. Important to note is that the authors of the emailed critique – students, professors and other food systems scholars (including yours truly) – were not necessarily arguing against GE per se or in all cases.

As might be predicted, UC Berkeley students involved in science with biotechnological applications – who probably felt personally attacked or implicated in the critique – complained and pushed back against the letter. One of them made the argument that we shouldn’t dismiss the use of GE in creating more sustainable agriculture, because we need “every tool in the toolbox”.

But is this an apt metaphor? Does it make sense to see agriculture as utilizing a toolbox of techniques and technologies, in which GE is just one tool that can be brought out of the box and used (and be put back in), as we wish to use it, and irrespective of the rest of the tools? I mean – a toolbox has a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench, each appropriate for distinct tasks. Which one is GE? Does agriculture have an equivalent set of independent, alternatingly useful tools? More fundamentally, should we imagine the management of living landscapes to grow food, fiber, or fuel as similar to, say, fixing a car or building a house?

Agricultural technologies such as seeds, soil amendments, machinery, or chemicals do not operate as independent or unrelated factors of production. And only rarely are the problems a farmer faces (say, an outbreak of pests or a steep drop in crop prices) soluble through the simple application of a new product or policy.

How then should we imagine “tools” and our “toolbox”?

Agricultural techniques and technologies emerge and operate within a complex system of cultural, economic, political and ecological forces. These forces both shape and are shaped by the technologies themselves, and their use. Important and left out in ‘toolbox’ conceptions of ‘solving’ humanity’s agricultural issues is that the ‘tools’ are so interconnected that their use is strongly co-determined – by the total set of tools in the toolbox, and the conditions surrounding their use.

Simply put, ‘tool’ is a horrible metaphor through which to analyze the use of GE seed/crop technologies.

In this post, I’ll use examples of GE, the construction of housing in areas facing gentrification, and Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy to show how the “tools in the toolbox” argument ignores the important enmeshed nature of the “tools” under debate, and is an inadequate and inappropriate metaphor at best, and a purposefully deceitful one at worst.

Genetic engineering: the baby and the bathwater.

GE is in a substantial and dominant way a product of the rise of industrial capitalized agriculture. GE seeds became a huge part of the corn, soy, wheat, and factory farmed animal product markets because the technology’s benefits fit well within a system of agriculture that already structurally demanded that farmers “get big or get out”. Getting big entails mechanization and use of agrochemicals in order to reap ever-larger harvests. What the early successful GE technology primarily did was enable seeds to produce plants that could withstand certain agrochemicals, while the unwanted plants that invariably emerged (i.e. weeds) would be killed. These GE seed and herbicide “packages” are by far the largest use of GE technology in agriculture.

Clearly to a farmer who was already part of these grain/commodity circuits, these packages appeared as a more reliable form of weed control. But such GE didn’t solve the issues of chronic overproduction and low prices; or harms from chemical herbicides and pesticides; or pollution related to the scale, concentration and dispersal of volatile fertilizers and manures (all already associated, pre-GE, with production of these few commodities named above). In fact, GE didn’t even really increase yields, even though that was one of the main claims made in its favor. GE simply enabled the continued accumulation of capital by input and output industries in agriculture – pesticide salesmen and grain buyers mainly – while offering farmers something that had short-term appeal given the market and political circumstances.

Many other attempts to apply GE to food production have failed. Drought tolerant varieties are largely not. The very first GE approved for human consumption, the “FlavrSavr” tomato, did not succeed commercially. The practically mythological “Golden Rice” (engineered to contain extra vitamin A) has yet to reach farmers or consumers after 25 years in development—largely because they don’t yield as well as existing varieties. And so on.

Meanwhile, the GE that has been successfully developed and deployed fits right into a corporate capitalist industrial agri-food system, and reinforces it. GE science gets much more research funding than agroecology does, in both public and private sectors. What incentive is there for private profit-seeking actors to invest in agroecological research, when agroecology is largely dedicated to reducing rather than increasing a farmer’s need for bought inputs? As it stands, GE as a complex assemblage of science, industry, policies and values is deeply tied to systems of ecologically and socially harmful agriculture. It also contributes to ongoing inequalities in the ownership of productive resources and the benefits of their use.

This isn’t to say that GE couldn’t be applied well somehow. [2]

It is to say that intervening economic, social, cultural, and political forces are important factors in whether GE is a ‘tool’ that is worth considering, and that living ecological systems do not simply abide lab-based GE dreams.

If we want to solve only the weed problems of grain commodity growing, maybe GE is useful (although extensive use of GE seed/packages has also led to “superweeds” that are resistant to agrochemicals). But if we are shooting for socially just, environmentally regenerative and economically equitable food systems it’s hard to see how GE would help accomplish this goal. As has been pointed out by the Union of Concerned Scientists and others, more traditional breeding methods already are a “proven technology” for improving crops.

Bringing up the ‘tool’ metaphor serves to distract from critiques of the overall system in which GE is embedded, instead drawing our attention to how GE could maybe be used in a different way. As such, it is a go-to strategy for GE proponents to counter critics, by claiming that they are dogmatically dismissing a valuable ‘tool’ in agricultural development. They claim we are essentially ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’ – but really we are simply pointing out that the bathwater is dirty, the baby was born from this dirty water, and until we clean the water, GE is not a good go-to tool for anything.

Urban housing and gentrification: YIMBYs, political will, and neoliberal argumentation

Everyone wants to solve gentrification, don’t they? These days, even those promoting the development of housing that is financially out of the reach of the vast majority of working people claim that they’re actually working in the poor’s interests. See, because of “supply and demand” – a concept easily understood even if applied with little nuance – the more housing that is built, the less “pressure” there is on the housing market, so logically the price of all housing will drop.

This is the “every tool” argument again, though the same exact words may not be used. It’s simple (to those arguing it): if you’re against any particular development of housing, you must be against any housing, and even worse – you’re the reason why people are getting displaced due to rising housing costs!

The “YIMBY”s (Yes In My BackYards) that I know well are called “SF BARF” (a bizarrely chosen acronym for San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation). But they come in many forms, from ‘pragmatic realists’ to ‘urbanist think tanks’. SF BARF happens to take money from developers and take up a lot of airspace, so they might just be on the more icky end of the spectrum. But they all use the ‘every tool’ argument to bludgeon anti-gentrification activists who dare question high-end developments that benefit those who gentrify.

A softer version of the “every tool” argument is that in places like SF, where laws have mandated minimal set-asides of either units or fees from developers towards more affordable housing, we should embrace any new development because it helps us build a small but meaningful number of ‘affordable’ units. But ‘affordable’ in SF’s case is not really (an ‘affordable’ unit goes for someone making a ‘moderate’ income of between $80-$120K/year). It should be obvious, but gentrification cannot be attenuated by a continued 6 to 1 increase in the number of economic elites into a neighborhood, while that 1 non-elite is not even someone making a typical working class income.

Really, gentrification issues come down to questions of political will, both in terms of housing construction but importantly in other areas as well. Political will to impose truly useful affordable housing requirements on for-profit developers, whether higher percentages, or for units that are actually affordable. Political will to impose limitations on landlords in their use of evictions, intimidation, and other quasi-legal tactics to displace for profit. Political will to completely transform (or disband) police agencies that systematically target the poor for institutionalization (an important and often overlooked driver of displacement).

Using the “supply and demand” argument is a neoliberal fallback position in any debate involving governmental roles in capitalist markets. This position has been debunked time and again. But it seems reasonable to many in contemporary gentrification debates because of limited economic knowledge beyond imposed (neo)liberal ‘common sense’ that suit the interests of those in power.

These arguments are not just incorrect, they are effective modes of de-politicization, by distracting political discourse and action away from important questions about what policies are and are not in place, and why (in whose interests?); away from looking at displacement within a larger framework of institutional factors (from the prison industrial complex, government-sparked centers of technological innovation and capital accumulation like Silicon Valley, generalized and ascendant income and wealth inequality, among others which are all themselves racialized and gendered); and away from the ways in which some people are more to blame than others in gentrification’s processes.

Gentrification is not the fault of people calling for more justice-oriented housing policies, and the “all tools” people are cynical in trying to blame them.

US Energy Policy: Climate change and political centrism (i.e. ‘capitalist realism’)

Climate catastrophe is upon us. It’s been only additionally confirmed by Donald Trump’s aggressive fossil fuel agenda. While mainstream liberals find value in Obama-era regulations on parts of the fossil fuel industry (particularly coal) and his support of expanding renewable energy, the reality is that in the USA, when it comes to a fossil-fuel driven economy dedicated to growth no matter the costs, business as usual continued from before Obama and through his administration.

The 2010 BP Gulf spill is likely the best but certainly not the only emblem of this approach.

Justification for the continuation of fossil fuel extraction and combustion (not to mention the environmentally indefensible corn/ethanol policy) came through Obama’s classic rhetorical maneuvers: tell people you care about something, but do what you need to do to appease the powerful elite you’re actually dedicated to serving. This came for energy policy in the form of what Obama called his “all of the above” energy approach. “Sure, we must expand renewables” … “but we also must continue with what we have, whether fracking, oil pipelines from the Tar Sands, or deepwater drilling for oil in sensitive habitats”.

“All of the above” means keeping political structures intact, economic elites happy (particularly the fossil fuel sector), and economic growth going (as much is possible in the terminal economic contraction that no one wants to admit is happening).

In general, many people see these approaches to governing and legislating (again in a ‘common sense’ way) as the only “realistic” option. This “capitalist realism” thinking precludes there being any alternative worth thinking about, much less advancing, when it comes to energy policy (among other things).

Yet ultimately, the only thing that is ‘realistic’ in terms of seeking a future we can survive as a species is to contract the economy suddenly—to stop extracting and ramp down the burning of fossil fuels—to avoid climate catastrophe. Since that seems unlikely to happen, due to path dependent capitalism, it at least would be prudent to save valuable energy stores to deal with the now inevitable challenges to human survival when they come.

But these sorts of perspectives are left out in the “reasonable” discussion of a “using every tool in the toolbox” platform for energy.

Conclusions: the “master’s tools” include the toolbox metaphor

The tool/toolbox metaphor is a common argument detrimental to sophisticated thought and the generation of useful conclusions. Be suspicious when it is used, and notice how it is leveraged to avoid structural or radical critiques.


[1] Thanks go to Maywa Montenegro for her particular suggestion of Obama’s energy policy as an example of ‘all the tools’ political argumentation, and for her general awesomeness.

[2] Though there are valid concerns that – put simply – genetic ecology is so complex that any claims of control or predictability are false. It is true that our understanding of interactions between genes, between genes and organism, between organism genes and environment is incomplete, and that so far GE applications have been challenged by many unintended effects.

Also, GE is not simply “a technology”. It is a suite of technologies representing different lab and field processes, each technology with different possibilities and constraints. For example CRISPR-Cas9 is a newer ‘gene editing’ technique that doesn’t utilize transgenic cellular invasion to accomplish its ‘engineering’ (like the older forms of GE). Engineering virus resistance into a papaya is different than engineering a corn plant to manufacture an insecticide internally. Engineering algae is different than engineering more complex organisms like mammals. A wise discussion of GE then would start by looking at the specific GE, intent and context, rather than seek to end the conversation by declaring falsely a “consensus” that GE is “safe”.

On Agroecology and its (Potential) Co-optation

I’ve not been able to update the blog lately, but have been working on some writing for further down the line (i.e. later book sections). I kind of got sick of posting the negative “what is wrong with the food system” stuff, and I hope I can speed through those sections and get onto solutions soon.

In the meantime, here’s a preview of some of the later sections. I wrote this book section probably 3 months ago, and in the meantime, Eric Holt-Giménez and Miguel Altieri beat me to the punch, writing up this blog that describes some of the same issues I was trying to raise. Namely, they and I are concerned with the potential for agroecology to lose its key politics in being translated to contexts of the industrial “Global North”.

I’m currently working on this issue very directly, through my work with a large, national environmental NGO, while working at the same time with scholars involved in agroecology (like Miguel and Eric), and movements of farmers and farmworkers on the ground in different parts of the USA. I will say, there is certainly lots of tension at this historical moment, lots to do, lots of potential, and lots of danger.

I’m excited to see what happens in the next 2-3 years. In the meantime, here’s the post (which will be put in the Guide later on):

As mentioned, agroecology is a knowledge-intensive rather than resource-intensive method of production, involving practices that regenerate ecological systems and utilize ecological principles and processes. Agroecology is not simply a set of practices that compose a method of production. It is also a science to improve those methods, and a social movement spearheaded by the traditional groups that have crafted and advanced them, and which (importantly) foregrounds those groups’ rights to produce agroecologically—against a failing industrial system that would displace them.

Agroecological practices apply readily available fertilizers like animal manures and compost to create and maintain healthy living soils, which in turn support healthy crops. Since it is the soil that feeds the plant, soil is treated with respect and conserved. Agroecology uses crop inter-planting and rotations: a diversity of crops in space and time—instead of “mono” (i.e. single) cultures, it uses “poly” (i.e. many) cultures—avoids major pest and disease pressures. When pest control is needed, agroecological farms seek biological solutions (for example, by planting crops that deter a particular pest) rather than chemical ones. Although all farming uses water, agroecological methods seek to reduce water needs and avoid wasteful water use.

The practices of agroecology are important, but it’s important to keep in mind that they are based on principles rather than hard and fast rules about what practice is the “right” one. Agroecology is essentially about creating place-based farming systems, appropriate to particular social and ecological conditions.

At the same time, the science of agroecology is about applying these principles using scientific research to understand these conditions well, and combining this scientific knowledge with the experience-based wisdom of farmers themselves, and other ecologically minded stewards of the land and sea (especially indigenous people).

Leading and early proponents of the science of agroecology acknowledge this debt to indigenous and peasants, and in fact have defined agroecology not simply as a science, or set of practices, but as a science, practice, and social movement. This is because some of the most successful means for spreading agroecology have come not from scientists in the academy or development organizations, but from movements of farmers and producers themselves. They have used “farmer to farmer” models of horizontal training and awareness building to spread agroecological practices when governments and corporate interests have lacked interest.

The social movement that has most advanced agroecology has been that of peasants proclaiming a vision of “food sovereignty”. Denying the benefits of capitalist, industrial agriculture as the foundation for an equitable sustainable food system, these movements (especially those originating in Latin America) have promoted agroecology among its members, developed the science alongside scientist collaborators, and fought for policies to protect and enhance food producer communities’ abilities to practice agroecology.

The result of these efforts has been a partial mainstreaming of agroecology as a concept, wherein even bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization are considering it a viable method towards sustainable food systems. However, with this mainstreaming comes the strong risk of co-optation: particularly, the paring back of agroecology simply to a depoliticized agronomic concept of applying ecology to farming.

This is especially dangerous to the movements who have advanced agroecology on the ground, as they risk being subsumed by the same interests who already hold so much power in the food system. Large landowners, food and agrichemical corporations, and state governments all have an interest in bolstering their own legitimacy (and simultaneously undercutting that of their opposition) by adopting non-threatening components of agroecology (i.e. the agronomic techniques aspect).

For this reason, it is of crucial importance to keep agroecology within/alongside the concept of food sovereignty, and to promote its existence as not simply a “science” or set of practices, but also a movement with aims to regain control of the food system by farmers and non-elites.

Commentary on Francis Moore Lappe’s “Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now”

I recent wrote this response to a piece by Food First founder and influential food systems researcher Francis Moore Lappé. You can see Francis’s original piece here, and my response here, on the Great Transition Initiative website where the conversation was started. I’ve also printed my response below.   ENJOY!


My contribution will try to address the important question of how a transition can most effectively be made towards agroecology. Any response to this question is by nature ambitious and should therefore be only provisional rather than certain. I offer these comments in that spirit.

Like others, I understand agroecology in the context of food sovereignty and the manifold politics it indicates which “remake our understanding and practice of democracy.” I believe that the example of La Vía Campesina indicates—by example if not in rhetoric—that we not abandon any scale of organizing our political strategies of democratization, in a retreat to the “local” based on a rejection of the “global” nature of industrial capitalist agriculture.

While I don’t doubt the advances from local and community-based efforts, I fear that the (obviously understandable) dismissal of national and international politics as untenable is only precluding the larger levers of change we need to more rapidly shift to agroecology in a transformative fashion. The localism implied in agroecology and food sovereignty needs to be placed into context: without state involvement (or, at least, the dismantling of its existing policies in favor of industrialism), without addressing international trade and placing effective governance controls over transnational companies and capital, without transnational norms of agroecological transition developed in, from, and for civil society (which provide discursive pressures on states), the local solutions on which so many of us are working will likely to continue to have only limited effects.

Thus, without action at all levels—international trade issues; national food policies like those found in food sovereignty activist-scholar Christina Schiavoni’s 2015 analysis of Venezuela; the contributions of research, extension, and training initiatives; and localization principles grounded in practices of alternative food production and distribution—agroecology cannot spread.1

Clearly, national states are encouraged by capitalist state imperatives for growth to prefer an industrial model for agriculture. States often vote with their actions for export-focused, currency-generating (rather than locally-focused and food-security-enhancing) production. See the cases of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil for examples where strong indigenous movements for agroecology and food sovereignty are having hard times effectively gaining policy implementation traction, though they find discursive support among policymakers.

Some take this to mean that “civil society” (i.e., social movements) should not even engage recalcitrant national states. This is a point of contention among academic observers and the movements alike, with the more autonomous-minded insisting that entry into the state coopts and takes the wind out of pro-agroecology/food sovereignty movements, and the more statist-minded arguing for progressive inclusion in state policymaking.

I hesitate to try to settle this debate here, but offer instead the idea that the strategic choice will vary contextually (states and movements are not all the same everywhere), and the choice is ultimately up to the movements themselves.

A more open attitude to states (and supranational modes of governance) entails accepting and committing to work through the inevitable contradictions that arise in making change through these spaces/modes. Some movements seem to accept this: even the supposedly “autonomous” social movements many radicals admire are wrapped up with states, leaning on them at times for valuable concessions, even with the all the contradictions that emerge in the process.2

With La Vía Campesina as one example among many, we can see that we cannot afford to abandon nation-states, even if they have indeed more often been barriers to than enablers of agroecology. A transitional strategy to food sovereignty requires a transitional approach to state sovereignty itself, wrapped up as it is in capitalist structures and imperatives, and laced through therefore with unavoidable contradictions. Schiavoni’s work points to what this strategy might look like, in terms of the involvement of states: devolutions of sovereign control of resources and decision-making from state to local networks (in Venezuela’s case, food producer and consumer collectives).

As scholars like David Goodman and E. Melanie DuPuis have pointed out, we need to avoid “normative” or “unreflective” localism, which assumes that proximity leads to better social and ecological outcomes.3 Localization is key to a future sustainable and just food system, but it is only a necessary and not a sufficient component to it—and perhaps more importantly, it cannot be relied on for the transitional strategies for food systems governance that are—short of the agroecological, deep democratic, localized food sovereignty future we long for—compromised from pure ideologies, and full of contradictions.


1. Christina Schiavoni, “Competing Sovereignties, Contested Processes: Insights from the Venezuelan Food Sovereignty Experiment,” Globalizations 12, no. 4 (2015): 466-480.
2. For the case of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), see Rebecca Tarlau, “Thirty Years of Landless Workers Demanding State Power,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 58 (October 2014), See also Vía Campesina’s engagement of the UN’s Committee on World Food Security.
3. E. Melanie DuPuis and David Goodman, “Should We Go ‘Home’ to Eat?: Toward a Reflexive Politics of Localism,”Journal of Rural Studies 21, no. 3 (July 2005): 359-371.