Agricultural Research and Social Conflict

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Agricultural Research and Social Conflict

by John Vandermeer

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 1, January/February 1981, p. 5—8, 25—30

John Vandermeer teaches biology at the University of Michigan. He is active in Ann Arbor SftP, the New World Agriculture Group (NWA G), and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

All but the most naive would admit that an important link exists between science and political concerns. Examples of such a link are everywhere. But detailed analyses from a left perspective are rarely seen. I here begin such an analysis for the mechanization of the tomato industry in the Midwest.

Recent developments in California demonstrate that research in agriculture and related fields is intimately tied to political and economic questions. A class action suit filed on behalf of agricultural workers by California Rural Legal Assistance asks that the University of California be prevented from continuing to use public funds for research that will reduce job availability for agricultural workers. Recent events in northwestern Ohio, coupled with research at several major Midwestern universities, underscore the political nature of the science associated with the development of tomato harvesting technology. This scientific/technological innovation provides an excellent focus for an analysis of the interplay of science and politics.

A Brief Historical Sketch

The mechanization of harvest has always involved complicated social relations, most often those related to a supply of cheap labor. For example, when the McCormick reaper was introduced in the Midwest in 1831, it was not adopted by more than a handful of farmers because economies of scale required more than 50 acres in wheat, oats, or barley for its purchase to be economically rational. By 1860 the need for men to fight in the Union army severely reduced the mostly male labor pool for harvesting, thus increasing the wage demand of that labor and thus decreasing the acreage needed for the machinery to be profitable. By 1865 over 50% of the grain in the Midwest was being harvested automatically. Thus, the utilization of a technology which was fully available and widely known in 1830 leapt from only about 10% of the farmers after the first 30 years to over 50% five years later.1

The technology for agricultural mechanization is never simple. For example, the invention of the cotton stripper was not in itself sufficient to make automated cotton harvesting widely accepted. Developments in breeding, cultivation, processing, storage, and transportation were also important. With each new development a greater fraction of the crop was automatically harvested. Gradually, over a period of about 40 years, the proportion of cotton that was mechanically harvested went from 1% to 95%.2 During this time the displacement of farmworkers, the concentration of land into fewer and larger holdings, and the concentration of processing facilities all proceeded at the same relatively slow pace as mechanization.

In contrast to the mechanization of the cotton harvest, mechanization of the tomato harvest, at least in California, has proceeded at a blinding rate. In California it took 30 years to go from 1% to 95% mechanical harvesting in cotton while it took only six years to achieve the same thing in tomatoes. One factor that at least partly accounts for this difference was the strength of the United Farm Workers – ironically, by increasing their ability to demand higher wages and better job conditions, they encouraged a more rapid shift to mechanical harvesting. But a more important factor was the structure of the research establishment.

As mentioned earlier, technological advances in cotton mechanization happened more or less at random. This is not to say that a variety of scientific achievements were not prerequisite to full adoption of mechanization, but rather that many researchers working virtually independently of one another came up with these achievements at unplanned and more or less randome intervals. Mechanization of tomato harvesting was the opposite. A “systems approach” was utilized3 in which teams of researchers discussed what needed to be done to mechanize the harvest. Conferences were held, think-tank-like sessions were organized, potential problems with particular aspects of mechanization were isolated early and research into them was encouraged in a variety of ways. Thus, rather than a group of independent investigators deciding on research problems in isolation, research was coordinated and problems anticipated. Consequently mechanization proceeded at a phenomenal rate.

Since the entire systems approach program was openly planned and that planning relatively well-documented, it is possible to trace many of the underlying motivations and political pressures that were involved without resorting to undue speculation. But before analyzing the research establishment and its political functioning, it is necessary to discuss briefly the practical aspects of the mechanization of tomato harvesting.

Mechanizing the Tomato Harvest 4

Central to the technology of mechanical harvesting is the simultaneous ripening of the fruits. Unlike farmworkers, a mechanical harvester goes through the field only once and must harvest all or nearly all the fruits – those that are too ripe or not ripe enough must be discarded. A variety of research efforts focus on the problem of simultaneous ripening. Uniform pest and weed control are necessary, transplanting or seeding must be done uniformly, fertilizer application must encourage uniform growth, etc. Thus, many research projects were initiated in, for example, pest control, weed control, transplanting technology, and fertilizer response to the purpose of insuring uniformity, not for increasing production. Additionally, breeding programs were established to produce varieties in which the fruits ripened as nearly simultaneously as possible. Biochemical and physiological research clarified the ripening process and ultimately led to the ability to artificially stimulate ripening by spraying ephethon. (Ephethon causes the fruit to produce ethylene prematurely – the ethylene causes it to ripen.)

The second major concern in research towards mechanization involved the ability of the tomato to withstand rough treatment by the harvester. This has never been a simple problem. For example, one of the first strains that could withstand mechanical harvesting, developed as early as 1943, had such poor synchrony of ripening that probably only 30% of the crop could have been harvested at one time. By 1947 a new type was developed which could withstand rough handling and had relatively simultaneous ripening qualities.5 But this type proved to be highly susceptible to Verticillium wilt, a common tomato disease. Shortly thereafter, a similar variety was developed with resistance to Verticillium wilt. But problems arose again: the fruit proved to be too small for commercial use. In spite of these early problems, by 1961 a large number of potentially useful strains were available. In that year researchers at the University of California conducted experiments with 248 different strains. While some of these have been incorporated into strains still in use today, the big breakthrough came later with the discovery that elongated varieties were far more resistant to rough handling than round varieties.

Finally, storage and processing problems arose as a consequence of mechanization. For example, the possibility of heavier infestations of fruitflies in the harvested product (since more damaged fruit might provide excellent habitat for these creatures) was anticipated early on. The ability to make tomato concentrate became very important with mechanized harvesting because much more of single peak load would exist than with hand harvesting. Varieties bred for simultaneous ripening and resistance to rough machine handling did not necessarily have the ideal biochemical makeup for processing, requiring further biochemical research.

These and other problems had to be addressed by the research establishment. Researchers exchanged information on a regular basis. Conferences, both formal and informal, were held to identify problems as soon as they arose. The whole mechanization process was treated as a system, with individual researchers being fitted into the various compartments of the system. Who are these researchers, where specifically do they get their ideas, and what influences act to direct their research?

The Research Establishment

The research establishment associated with mechanization of the tomato harvest ranges from New Jersey to California and from biochemistry to agricultural economics. In this article I limit the analysis to the Midwest, specifically northwest Ohio, northeast Indiana and southern Michigan, the area second only to California in tomato production. The research establishment most directly involved in aspects of mechanization in this area consists of researchers in three localities, Michigan State University (MSU) and its associated agricultural research station in East Lansing, Ohio State University (OSU) at Columbus and its associated agricultural station in Wooster, and Purdue University and its associated agricultural station in West Lafayette. Over the past 15 years approximately 60 researchers have been directly involved in research related to the mechanization of tomato harvesting (25 at Purdue, 17 at MSU, and 18 at OSU).

Identifying researchers and linking them with research in tomato mechanization is not always an easy task. Sometimes it is obvious, as in the case of Stan Reis of MSU, who helped develop many of the mechanization concepts currently used in the design of the mechanical harvesters produced by companies such as FSM Corporation, or Wilbur Gould at OSU, who breeds new tomatoes specifically suited for mechanical harvesters. But other examples are not nearly so obvious. Cherry of MSU, for example, is a biochemist whose research seems marginally related to mechanical harvesting at best. Yet some of his publications are highly relevant to areas that other researchers at least have claimed to be of vital importance to mechanization. Finally, there are a few researchers who have been identified by one source or another (e.g. the Tomato Yearbook) as being tomato researchers, but whose publications I have been unable to locate. I include them as part of the research establishment even though they may not have produced a large amount of relevant research.

While these methods of identifying tomato researchers are bound to lead to less than perfectly accurate data, it is my feeling that errors on both sides are equally likely (i.e. some researchers who clearly should have been classified as tomato heads were left out while others who are only on the fringe of the research establishment were included). Thus, at least a subset of the personnel involved in the research establishment in the Midwest have been identified (a small amount of tomato research also goes on at the University of Illinois, Iowa State University, and the private labs of the larger canneries). Having identified the personnel, we can ask more detailed questions about their work.

I have already indicated that research on tomato harvest mechanization followed along well-planned lines. But who was it that planned those lines? We might have a vision of Edison-like scientists approaching each problem as it is suggested by the immediately preceding experiments – the romantic picture of the scientist-inventor. Undoubtedly some of this image is not too far off the mark. But, as is usually if not always the case, other political and economic factors are involved in that planning process. We can begin to understand some of these factors by a close examination of funding sources.

As a case study we examine Purdue University. In the period 1969-1977 approximately $20,000 in grant funds was contributed by the public sector specifically for research on tomato mechanization. The agencies involved were the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.6 Public funds expended jump to $260,000 if we include the salary support for tomato researchers engaged specifically in tomato mechanization research. In other words, over a quarter of a million dollars of public funds were spent over the last 10 years for the mechanization of the tomato industry.7

Illustration of farmers working the land in a field

This figure is interesting in light of the recent suit in California and Secretary of Agriculture Bergland’s statement that it was “impossible to justify the use of Federal funds to finance research leading to the development of machines or other technologies that may increase production and processing efficiency but at the same time damage the soil, pollute the environment, displace willing workers, and reduce or eliminate competition”.8 For our purposes it is equally interesting to look at research support from private sources.

During the period 1969 to 1977 private grants specifically designated for tomato mechanization research amounted to $46,340.9 In addition to grants, a total of $46,376 in gifts (for example, from Gulf Oil Chemicals Co., Lilly Research Laboratories, Mobil Chemical Co., Monsanto Agricultural Products Co.) was allocated to Purdue for research directly related to tomato mechanization. This brings the contribution from private sources in the eight-year period to $92,716. Thus, private corporations contributed roughly $100,000 over the last 10 years to Purdue University for research on the mechanization of the tomato industry.

If MSU and OSU are similar (and we have no reason to believe they are not), the three schools combined received on the order of $300,000 from private sources and $750,000 from public sources for research in tomato mechanization in the last 10 years. These figures are very conservative and most likely represent a minimum. If more information were available, I suspect the figures would be considerably higher.10 But the important figure is the relative amount of public vs. private contributions: over twice as much money from public sources as from private sources.

Without a doubt, a majority of the research has been paid for by the public. But the estimated $300,000 in corporate gifts and grants must not be ignored. It is exactly these gifts and grants that determine to a large extent which questions get asked, in what order they get asked, where the emphasis should be for the next development, etc. For example, between the years 1971 and 1977 P.E. Nelson and G.H. Sullivan of Purdue received $83,910 from Bishopric Products Company for the development of a bulk-storage processing system – an integral aspect of tomato mechanization in the Midwest.11 Bishopric Products never was interested in obtaining higher yields of tomatoes or in bettering the quality of our foods or anything of the sort. They were interested in the bulk tanks they were already building for the brewing industry. Bulk-storage processing involves the partial processing of tomatoes into a concentrate that can be stored in huge tanks for later reconstitution, thus more easily accomodating the larger flow of tomatoes expected from mechanically-harvested fields.12 If bulk-storage processing could become common in the Midwest, who would be in an excellent position to produce the tanks for the processors? Bishopric Products Co., of course! So Dr. Nelson, whose salary comes out of public funds and who held grants from public institutions and awards from numerous other corporate concerns, was at least slightly encouraged by $83,910 from Bishopric Products to be interested in scientific questions associated with bulk-storage processing. Might the public funds that supported Dr. Nelson have been utilized somewhat differently if Bishopric Products had not contributed all that money to Purdue to help Purdue develop a market so they could sell more of their tanks? I shall return to this point later. But first I wish to delve more deeply into some subtler aspects of the research establishment.

As research proceeds into some particular aspect of mechanization, various problems are normally encountered. Those problems are solved frequently by turning to results obtained in related disciplines. For example, fruit flies (Drosophila) have long been one of the biggest insect pests on tomatoes. 13 When mechanical harvesting was introduced, concern was voiced from the outset about the effect it would have on the fruit fly problem. Thus in 1966 R.C. Riley, an entomologist from Rutgers, stated:

Whether or not mechanical harvesting practices will increase or decrease, Drosophila contamination in processed tomato products is somewhat difficult to forecast … [I shall] focus on the measures we now have for controlling Drosophila and how these measures can be applied to mechanical harvesting practices.14

He then goes on to identify the areas, including sources of Drosophila infestations, how far Drosophila flies can detect odors, factors affecting the migration of Drosophila, the migratory habits of Drosophila. Topics such as these are highly reminiscent of the questions asked by ecologists and geneticists interested in nothing more than basic science.

To take another example, mechanization has reopened a whole host of cultivation questions. Among them are those dealing with changing the density of plants to correspond to the needs of the harvester. In a recent paper on tomato densities, Kays and Nicklow of MSU state:

As density increases, plant-to-plant competition begins progressively earlier in the growing season. 15 Competition or “interference” may center on any of a number of requisites of the plants, the most common being light, water, and nutrients. During growth, plants affect substantial changes in their physical and chemical environment, such as the depletion of nutrients, utilization of available water, and physical changes in soil structure. These alterations may in turn, as illustrated by the classical example of nutrient depletion, be detrimental to the actual members effecting the change.16

As any ecologist would point out, both the language and the concepts are directly out of the conventional literature of plant ecology – supposedly a very basic non-applied science. Indeed, reference 5 in the above quote refers to a paper by the Australian ecologist C.M. Donald, a paper most frequently cited as one of the classic works in modern plant competition theory. The point is that none of these concepts would be regarded by a “pure” ecologist interested in basic science as particularly relevant to tomato mechanization or any other applied science. Yet it is in fact the case that these concepts are being put into the service of those researchers who already are involved in research aimed at mechanization.

These are but two examples that should serve to illustrate the intimate connection that must exist between applied science and technology on the one hand and basic science on the other. Without doubt, the results obtained in basic sciences are put to use in the applied sciences. In this case, results from physiology, biochemistry, genetics, and ecology are used in research designed to mechanize the tomato harvest.

But a more important, if subtler, link exists between basic and applied science. As the results of basic science are put to the service of applied science there must be occasions where the basic science has not yet come up with answers to the problems posed by the applied. Can the basic scientists avoid the subtle influence of the needs in the applied sector? Indeed, should they avoid them? And what questions in basic science have been avoided because of these subtle influences coming from the applied sciences?

Documented answers to such questions are all but impossible. But some indications can be obtained from examples. My own research has been concerned with a variety of questions associated with plant populations. In the course of my investigations I have been influenced by other researchers with a slightly more applied approach than my own. That influence has encouraged me to consider the relationship between crop productivity and various factors of the plant population (for the purpose of understanding what ecological factors, in principle, can lead to higher productivity). Without a doubt, my basic science has been influenced by questions emanating from the applied sector. But the influence goes much further. Once having incorporated questions of productivity into my subconscious, further theoretical considerations led me to the conclusion that productivity could most easily be increased by intercropping – planting more than one type of crop on a given plot. Most often the response from other researchers was, “but modern harvesting techniques cannot deal with intercrops”. My research on intercropping was considerably delayed by that response. And where did that response come from? It came from a world view, or ideology, that accepted certain ways of doing things as given. That acceptance in turn had been conditioned by years of applied research in agriculture aimed in a particular direction, namely toward mechanical harvesting of single crop systems. Thus, the relationship between my “basic” science and applied science was (and still is) a two-way street. The questions I ask are partly influenced by the perceived needs of applied science, and the questions I neglect to ask are likewise partly influenced by the conventional wisdom of applied science. It is my contention that all basic scientists are subjected to the same influences and are likely to respond in the same way – whether they admit it or not.

In this short analysis of the research establishment I have tried to demonstrate that the research of a group of scientists working at the level of applied science and technology is influenced strongly by funding from private corporations, though supported mainly by public monies. These researchers are influenced by and exert an influence on other researchers, some of whom regard themselves as involved only in basic research. (There are, of course, other links that are important to the research establishment, such as cooperative arrangements, formal and informal, with governmental and industrial research institutes, but I shall not dwell on these here.)

But this description of the research establishment is somewhat one-dimensional so far. To understand its dynamics we must understand the social forces in which it is imbedded and under which it evolved. To understand that social fabric one must fully grasp the fact that there is a war going on in the Midwest, a class war.

Class Warfare in the Midwest

The production of tomato products in the Midwest involves three distinct but inter-related groups: processors, growers and workers. Processors include Campbell’s, Libby-McNeill-Libby, Hunt, Heinz, and Stokely-Van Camp. (15) Growers include both small-scale and large-scale, with many more of the former than the latter. Growers are on contract to and largely under complete control of the processor. For example, at Libby’s plant in Leipsic, Ohio the acreage a grower contracts for is based on his/her yield-per-acre average over the previous three years. In 1978 these amounts ranged from five to two hundred acres. The contracted acreage and the individual’s “average yield” then set a limit on the quantity of tomatoes a grower can bring to Libby’s. The contracted tonnage may be exceeded by up to 10%. If more than that is produced, it must first be offered to Libby’s, and if Libby’s refuses the excess, it may be sold on the open market, with Libby’s permission.

The tomato plants themselves are owned by the processor. Some growers are given seeds in the spring, but most are given plants which the processor starts earlier in the South and then brings up to Ohio. Once the plants are in the ground, representatives of the processor inspect every farm once a week, looking for diseases, insects, etc. They then advise farmers as to what and when to spray.

Most harvesting is done by migrant workers. It is estimated that about 19,000 migrants harvest tomatoes in the Midwest (10,000 in Ohio, 7,000 in Indiana, and 2,000 in Michigan). Working and living conditions are substandard as documented in many sources. Most come from Texas, fewer from Florida, and an increasing number from Mexico. 17

In an attempt to improve working conditions, increase wages, and fight for other benefits, migrant farmworkers in northern Ohio founded the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in 1969. FLOC’s purpose has been to organize the workers into a unit capable of negotiating its position in the food industry. In the early seventies FLOC won contracts with many tomato growers. The contracts guaranteed a minimum price per hamper from those growers, and some minor concessions with regard to living and working conditions.

Yet, because of the complex productive relations involving the three groups, the approach of negotiating contracts with individual growers was ultimately self-defeating for the farmworkers. The growers were caught in a bind: because the processors had driven prices they were willing to pay down to rock-bottom level, growers could not easily pay more for labor. Because regional competition is intense (with California dominating production), Midwest processors are forced to cut production costs as much as possible. Growers are getting less and less. Frequently, when faced with the additional demands made by labor, small growers will simply go to a different crop. But the processors always have other growers waiting to sign contracts. The union was putting itself in the position of squeezing the grower even more and effectively driving those growers willing to sign contracts out of the tomato business.

Having gone through an analysis similar to the above, FLOC changed its strategy from dealing only with the farmers who hire migrant labor to dealing more directly with the canneries. Thus, strikes in 1978, 1979, and 1980 were directed against those growers who were under contract to either Libby’s or Campbell’s, two of the major producers of tomato juice and ketchup in the area. One of the central demands of the strike is that FLOC be included as a third party in the annual contract negotiations between the canneries and growers.

Hands holding seedling credits: Workbook | cpp
The strike has been directed against only those farmers under contract to either Libby’s or Campbell’s, the major processors in the area. The canneries reacted swiftly. Libby’s immediately filed a $1.8 million suit against FLOC for losses due to the strike (for which a settlement has recently been reached). Also, within a month they assembled a giant new evaporator at their Leipsic, Ohio plant.

FLOC was well aware that its confrontations with the processors would reinforce existing trends toward mechanization. This gave greater urgency to their organizing efforts with the hope that workers would have some control over the implementation of machine production. FLOC is not opposed to mechanization – it welcomes the advent of machines in the fields, but on the workers’ terms. That is, the introduction of machines in the field work must go hand-in-hand with training displaced workers for new jobs and supporting them and their families until new jobs are secured.

Thus, what has been developing since 1969 in the Midwest is a struggle between two classes, the class represented by the five giant processors and the class represented by the 19,000 workers. Large and small growers and the workers inside the canneries are presently either bystanders or fighting on the side of the processors (a smaller number are fighting on the side of the farmworkers). But the major struggle is between labor and capital, between farmworkers and processors.

It is in this social background that the research establishment must be viewed. It is a fundamental error to view the main problem as one of less nutritious food, or damage to the environment, or changing patterns of land tenure, although all these may ultimately be consequences of mechanization. The main problem is that research is conceived, planned, and carried out from the point of view of one particular class, the class represented by the processors. Furthermore, this “class bias” does not merely refer to the developing technologies nor to the applied sciences that serve them, but extends all the way to the basic science itself. This may be a bitter pill to swallow for many people, especially for scientists.

Which Class Will the Scientist Serve?

Through numerous informal interviews with farmworkers I have discovered a great deal of job dissatisfaction (hardly a surprising result). In answer to the question, “how could the job be made better?”, I have received many interesting answers. “Develop a way of eliminating the stooping”, ”plant the tomatoes less densely (so each whole plant can be scanned more quickly)”, “stop spraying pesticides (so the children are not exposed to residues on the ground)”, “design a better container to receive the hand-picked tomatoes”, are just of few of the examples. In general, the responses were all posing research problems aimed at the fundamental question “How can the farmworkers job be made less noxious?” (Obvious qualifications to that question are “without decreasing the number of jobs available” and “without devaluing the price of labor”.) Such concepts may seem strange at first. Some people automatically respond to the question “How can the farm workers job be made less noxious without decreasing the number of jobs available and without devaluing the price of labor”, as if it were somehow internally contradictory. They seem to have adopted an underlying assumption that research in agriculture is for the purpose of decreasing the number of workers needed. They equate increased production with increased production per dollar invested where labor is nor more than dollars invested. But who invests those dollars, and who reaps the profits of the production? Why are not questions of job quality and preservation regarded as valid questions? Because those in a position of posing the “interesting” research questions are ideologically in step with the processors.

What if the problems posed by the workers were taken seriously? It may be instructive to construct such a scenario. Suppose, for example, researchers took seriously the desire for a pesticide-free environment. A number of farmworkers and researchers would get together to ask what sort of management strategy would be required to enable growers to spray less pesticide, and what sort of basic and applied research would be necessary to achieve that management technology. Probably they would come to the point that some sort of integrated pest management scheme would be best. 18 The requirements that jobs not be lost and labor not be devalued might suggest that techniques of sampling insect larvae and eggs, needed to project in this future infestation rates, be developed in such a way that farmworkers could be trained to do them in a short time. This would both preserve jobs and possibly increase the value of labor. Once these concepts became fixed in the minds and practice of researchers, they would be in a position to ask further questions, most of which cannot even be dreamed of at this point: perhaps questions to do with handling devices to collect insect larvae, or improved digging devices to sample nematodes in the soil, or counting screens to more easily assess insect egg density. In short, a whole new field of study would be created, one with its own questions and problems and perhaps even with its own rules of evaluation, one which looks like the old way of doing it in some respects, but takes its underlying mission as something quite different – to serve labor rather than capital.

Is such a scenario likely to happen? Of course not, at least not with current political and economic structures. In 1966 a number of interested parties were invited to Purdue University for a symposium on the mechanization of tomato harvest, another planning session to coordinate the diverse fields of study needed to fully mechanize the tomato harvest in the Midwest. The group numbered in the hundreds and was initially addressed by Max D. Reeder, General Manager of the Agriculture division of the H.J. Heinz Co. Mr. Reeder opened with the following remarks:

It is my pleasure to talk to this representative group interested in ‘Mechanization of Tomato Harvesting’. I would judge that the processors represented in this room today account for 90 percent of the tomatoes produced for processing in the United States. Growers present would be less than 1% of the tomato industry; and, although there are many research workers present, they are a minority of the number actually being paid to do some work relative to tomatoes… If I have a purpose, it is to emphasize that mechanization is the only choice if our industry is to continue to expand in the market place. Growers, processors, research workers and consumers all have a stake in mechanization. (Emphasis mine.)

Farmer holding a tomato and pointing to something on it for a scientist (wearing a lab coat) taking notes

Both the words and the tone are indicative of the problem. Growers, processors, research workers and consumers were to sit down and decide on the nature of future research in the developing tomato industry. But absent, by design, were the farmworkers or their representatives and the cannery workers or their representatives. Although Dale E. Moore from the giant tri-valley growers was present, absent was Ike Zebel whose 200 acres just got bought up because he could not afford the greater costs of production imposed on small growers by the wonders of mechanization. And while the growers, processors and researchers present undoubtedly consume ketchup on their hamburgers, no consumer advocates in the broader sense were to be found in the audience. Researchers were to get their ideas and future directions from this body, a body representing the interests of a particular class. If their ideas were good enough, they might have gotten $83,000 from Bishopric Products to develop them. Alternatives which serve labor were not even thought of and even if they were they would get neither the necessary funding nor the prestige and career advancement that comes with the mainstream capital-serving ideas. Researchers may be innocent dupes or even unwilling conscripts, but they in effect were one class of people in their war against another class.

Notes on Developing a Radical Science Practice

The two scenarios just developed were (1) science as it is – researchers engaged in basic and applied research aimed at the mechanization of the tomato harvest – and (2) science as it could be – researchers engaged in basic and applied research aimed at the improvement of farmworkers’ jobs. The first is science in service of the bourgeois class, the second is science in service of the working class. The first is the present reality, the second a future goal. The problem is how to develop scientific practice in such a way that this future goal is created out of the present reality.

A popular opinion on the left is that as long as political power is in the hands of the capitalist class, the development of a science that is responsive to working class needs will be impossible. At best this is simply muddy thinking, at worst it is an excuse for scientists with radical ideas to maintain the comfort of their social position as scientist while engaging in political work on the side. While it may have originated from an honest effort at a progressive political analysis, its effect is to serve the bourgeois class. How convenient to have socially conscious and highly trained scientists hamstrung so they cannot use their training to satisfy their social conscience. How conveniently debilitating to force them into a schizophrenic life where their science, if done at all, certainly does not challenge, and frequently can be used by, the ruling class, while their politics are pursued as an avocation.

To understand the origin of this predicament we must look at possible alternatives. One alternative might look something like the scenario described above. Scientists engaged in agricultural research would get together with workers so as to assess, formally and informally, the research needs of the working class. Rather than attending conferences sponsored by Campbell’s Soup Co., they would attend conferences sponsored by FLOC. Rather than hobnobbing with executives of Libby-McNeill-Libby, they would hang around with grant workers. Rather than accept positions as board members of Campbell’s Soup Co., they would be staff members of FLOC. In short, the ties, formal and informal, strong and weak, that now exist between scientists and the capitalist class, could be constructed between scientists and the working class.

What are the impediments to forming such ties? First and foremost is the lack of material support for such efforts. Scientists serving the capitalist class are rewarded with grants, tenure, prestige etc. Scientists openly serving the working class will have grant proposals routinely rejected, tenure or career advancement will be obtained with considerably more difficulty, fellow scientists will scoff at their work. But no one ever said it would be easy. I merely wish to suggest that it is possible.

But perhaps the material problems are not as important as the ideological problems. Again, popular radical analysis is proving to be a stumbling block. The false position that claims science can never serve the working class when political power is in the hands of the capitalist class receives some of its rationalization from a recognition that any scientific advance can be utilized by the capitalist class, that no matter how politically progressive the intent, all scientific and technological advances will ultimately be taken control of by the class in power, the capitalist class. But if this analysis is correct, what can we expect when the working class comes to power? Will all scientific and technological advances ultimately come under the control of the working class? An affirmative answer to this question implies that the technocratic interpretations of earlier Marxist analysts such as Bernal were correct. Science itself is pure. Its use is determined by who holds political power.

Such an analysis is wrong and presents tremendous impediments to the development of a radical science, a science that serves the working class. The principal problem with this analysis lies in its point of origin. Given a scientific or technological advance, which class will ultimately use it? This is the origin. When one begins at this point there is only one answer. But beginning at this point ignores the dynamic nature of class struggle. We must begin the analysis with the realities of class struggle, and pursue scientific problems that are suggested by the current level of class struggle, by the classes that are involved and by their role in the system of social relations. Unquestionably the class in power will eventually control the technology, but what is needed is technology to aid the working class in its present struggle for power.

The classic military analogy is illustrative: class warfare is like conventional warfare. Science and technology in effect make weapons used in the various battles in the war. Scientists must decide for which side they are going to make weapons. Weapons provide only a temporary advantage to one side because they are eventually used by the other side also. The ultimate question may be “who will eventually control technology?”, in which case the answer must be “the class that controls political power.” But the more immediate question is the important one on which we must base our actions. What technology is needed right now to advance the cause of the working class in its struggle for power? The pursuit of an answer to that question is the beginning of a practicing radical science.

>> Back to Vol. 13, No. 1 <<


  1. Barnett, P.K. Bertolucci, D. Villarejo, and R. Weaver, Labor’s Dwindling Harvest: The Impact of Mechanization on California Fruit and Vegetable Workers, California Institute for Rural Studies, 233 pp. (1978).
  2. [/Street, J.H., The new revolution in the cotton economy: Mechanization and its consequences, The Univ. of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 283 pp. (1957).
  3. Rasmussen, W.O., “Advances in American Agriculture: The Mechanical Tomato Harvester as a Case Study.” Technology and Culture. 9:531-543. (1978).
  4. This section comes from a variety of sources, especially Friedland, W.H., and A. Barton, “Destalking the Wily Tomato: a Case Study in Social Consequences in California Agricultural Research.” Dept. of Applied Behavioral Sciences College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Univ. of Calif., Davis. (1975). Nat. Conf. Mech. of Tomato Prod. Am. Soc. Hort. Sci. (1966).
  5. It has been unofficially reported for example that Ohio State University receives public funds in excess of $200,000 annually for tomato mechanization research. (Letter from Baldemar Velasquez president of FLOC, to supporters 1980).
  6. Some project titles clearly indicate that the funds were at least partly for tomato research (e.g. Determination of the Mycoflora associated with decomposition and toxicogenicity of selected fresh fruit) while others are not so obvious (e.g. Enzymatic synthesis and inheritance of carotenes). The determination of $202,104 spent out of public funds is based on identifying grant funds earmarked not specifically for tomato research but for individuals known to be engaged in some form of tomato research. Those individuals do not spend 100% of their time on tomato research so the 202 thousand dollar figure is not an accurate estimate of direct public expenditure. If we presume an average fraction of 10% devoted to research relevant to tomato mechanization (I believe a conservative figure) we estimate about $20,000 directly contributed out of public funds. Data from Financial Support for Research Purdue University Agricultural experiment Station Annual Reports for Fiscal years 1966-1970.
  7. Taking a conservative estimate of $15,000 annual salary for the 25 Purdue researchers again presuming a 10% effort, and allowing for only 20 individuals to be active at any given year (sabbaticals, transfers etc.) we find that $30,000 (15,000 X 20 X .1) in public funds were allocated indirectly through salaries for tomato research each year. Thus over the 8-year period of 1969-1977 approximately $240,000 in public funds had been devoted to salaries for research specifically aimed at the mechanization of the tomato industry.
  8. Meyerhoff, A. Agribusiness on Campus. The Nation. Feb. 16 1980: 170-173 (1980).
  9. Grants specifically granted to the 25 researchers amounted to $463,395. Allowing for only a 10% effort we obtain $46,340. Gifts are not given to individuals but rather to the University in general making it sometimes difficult to determine their purpose. At times it is obvious (e.g. a gift of $1000 in 1975 from Saluto Foods Corporation specifically for test runs on tomato sauce and economic feasibility studies studies on these test runs), and at other times obscure (e.g. a gift of $400 from Nor-Am Agricultural Products for Herbicide research). If we include all gifts even marginally related to tomato research for the year 1974-1975 we obtain figures of $46,700 from 33 separate private institutions, and for the year 1975-1976, $69,240 from 36 different interests. Taking the average of these two years and applying the 10% rule (again, believed to be a conservative procedure) we obtain $46,376 in gifts directly related to tomato mechanization research during the 8-year period of concern. Data from the same source as in reference 11.
  10. It has been unofficially reported for example that Ohio State University receives public funds in excess of $200,000 annually for tomato mechanization research. (Letter from Baldemar Velasquez president of FLOC, to supporters 1980).
  11. That Bishopric industries contributed $83,910 over 6 years and it is estimated that Purdue received only $92,716 over an 8 year period that includes that 6 years, is evidence that the figures presented herein are extremely conservative. Over 90% of the estimated 8-year figure is accounted for in just 6 years by one source.
  12. Downs, P., B. Rice, J. Vandermeer and K. Yih, “Migrant Workers, Farmers and Mechanization of Agriculture: The Tomato Industry in Ohio”. Science for the People 11:7-14.
  13. Riley, R.C. “Control of Drosophila in Tomato Fields Harvested Mechanically.” Nat. Conf. Mech. of Tomato Prod. 81-89. (1966).
  14. Kays, S.J. and C.W. Nicklow, “Plant competition: Influence of density on water requirements, soil gas composition and soil compaction.” J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 99:166-171.
  15. Some project titles clearly indicate that the funds were at least partly for tomato research (e.g. Determination of the Mycoflora associated with decomposition and toxicogenicity of selected fresh fruit) while others are not so obvious (e.g. Enzymatic synthesis and inheritance of carotenes). The determination of $202,104 spent out of public funds is based on identifying grant funds earmarked not specifically for tomato research but for individuals known to be engaged in some form of tomato research. Those individuals do not spend 100% of their time on tomato research so the 202 thousand dollar figure is not an accurate estimate of direct public expenditure. If we presume an average fraction of 10% devoted to research relevant to tomato mechanization (I believe a conservative figure) we estimate about $20,000 directly contributed out of public funds. Data from Financial Support for Research Purdue University Agricultural experiment Station Annual Reports for Fiscal years 1966-1970.
  16. Downs et. al. Op. Cit.
  17. U.S. Commission of Civil Rights. Indiana Advisory Committee. Indiana Migrants: Blighted hopes, slighted rights. (1975); State of Michigan, Civil Rights Commission Report and Recommendations on the Status of Migratory Farm Lobor in Michigan. (1968); Governor’s office of Migrant Affairs (Texas) Migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Texas. ( 1976).
  18. For a good introduction to Integrated Pest Control see van den Bosch, The Pesticide Conspiracy. Doubleday. (1978); also see Ann Arbor SftP Food and Agriculture Group, “New Method of Pest Control Creates Jobs, Nuestra Lucha (organizing paper of FLOC), Dec. 1980.