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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Why the Anti-Organic Historical Narrative Is Progressive

Norman Borlaug giving a speech for the FAO
Norman Borlaug used a progressive narrative to justify chemical use and attack organic farming

History is storytelling, and there are different types of narratives that can be used to frame a historical event. Last week, I highlighted three major types of narratives: progressive (everything’s getting better), declensionist (everything’s getting worse), and pluralist (lots of different but good ways). But historians don’t just randomly pick one of these narrative types; they select the one that best fits the argument they are trying to make. For example, anti-organic rhetoric almost always uses a progressive narrative. Take, for example, Norman Borlaug’s address to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in November 1971, titled “Mankind and Civilization at Another Crossroad.” He begins:


Once again the “Naked Ape” – Homo sapiens L – stands at a crossroad. Before deciding along which road to proceed, he hesitates and glances behind at the long road he has trod. He is both amazed and proud of the tremendous progress he has achieved as he maneuvered and advanced along the pit-fall laden trail of human survival during the brief period he has inhabited the planet Earth.


Aside from the fact that Borlaug explicitly states what kind of narrative he is telling by using the word “progress,” the words “Naked Ape” and the reference to human evolution are a dead giveaway. Borlaug’s evolutionary narrative is stereotypically progressive:


During his long early period as a hunter, social progress was negligible. Survival itself was man’s only sense of achievement. Then his helpmate, neolithic woman, only about 9000 years ago, invented agriculture and animal husbandry. This brought new hope….The quality of human life improved. It gave him time for pleasure and time to think. There was time to develop his intellect, a society and, subsequently, a culture.


But human progress faced a serious threat. The crossroads that Borlaug’s Naked Ape was standing at was a decision between continued upward progress or “extreme environmentalists who discredit science and advocate a back to nature movement.” The most dangerous people in that group were the organic farming advocates, who “demand the discontinuation of chemical compounds—even though they are absolutely essential for protecting man against diseases, and for restoring fertility to the worn out soil so man can produce his food, and protect his crops against the ravages of weeds, diseases and insects.” To listen to these fanatics would be deadly: the “world will be doomed not by chemical poisoning, but from starvation.”


Fortunately, in Borlaug’s narrative, the Naked Ape is smart enough to resist the seductive “siren song” of those food faddists, extreme environmentalists, and nature lovers. “He chooses the road of the many [scientific, chemical-intensive farming] for he does not want to begin the struggle all over again “stalking animals with a club in one hand and a rock in the other.”


Most anti-organic rhetoric follows this same progressive pattern, framing organic farming as a threat to progress, a step backward, turning back the clock. Usually the people who use this narrative have a very strong faith in the ability of science and technology to make the world a better place. The possibility that a chemicalized, “advanced” agricultural system might not actually be better than a natural, “primitive” one is anathema to the idea of scientific progress. And that is why they perceive organic farming as such a threat.

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