Of the Earth: The beetle, the black box and the farm bill

  • Anglo-Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) Contributed photo


For the Recorder
Published: 3/27/2018 1:25:49 PM

I may be the first food writer ever to call on the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) to join a discussion on agricultural policy, or on anything else for that matter. I hope I’m the last. I have no way of knowing if Ole’ Witt actually knew his way around a recipe for beetle bug stew, but I do know that he knew how to explain how it is that the rest of us can really know anything at all.

Consider the beetle in the black box. Wittgenstein’s idea was that each of us is walking around holding a box with a beetle inside, or so we assume. We can only assume, since each of us can only see what’s in our own box and nobody really knows for sure what, if anything, is in everyone else’s box. According to Wittgenstein, the only reason we can communicate with each in such a world (which is this world) is that the beetle in the box becomes irrelevant. What is important is the shared assumption that there was a beetle in every box. Without that shared assumption, there is, well, chaos.

Enter the 2018 federal farm bill, which has become not just a beetle, but the box itself. Not only that, but it increasingly appears to be a box within a box within a box.

First a word on the legislation: Since the dustbowl years of the 1930s, Congress has regularly taken up and re-authorized a package of laws addressing critical issues of agricultural policy. In recent years, that has been roughly every six years. The package consists of 12 titles, including commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, research and Extension, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance and so on.

The problem with the 2018 farm bill, according to Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern, ranking Democrat on the house Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, is that the Republican leadership has refused to let Democratic colleagues in on the particulars of the bill. Some of the more odious provisions appear to involve attaching a work requirement to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and replacing SNAP and Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) vouchers in part with pre-packaged boxes of food.

Last week, top committee Democrat Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota said he would stop negotiations until Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, gives members the text of the proposed farm bill, along with cost estimates and impact assessments.

As every grower in the Pioneer Valley knows, these 12 titles, taken together, are not just “of the Earth.” They are the earth — part of a complex social, economic and technical contract that sets the terms for how our food is grown and handled, and how each of us has access to it. When the shared agreement on the terms of that contract disappears, and the common access to information evaporates, nobody can assume who has the beetle and who doesn’t. The result is, well, not pretty.

It may be time for all of us who care about food to take a peek and make sure that we are working with the same set of assumptions about whether there is, in fact, a beetle in every box.

A note to philosophers and entomologists among our readers: I apologize if I’ve trivialized either the thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein or the clear danger posed by the Asian longhorn beetle, the emerald ash borer, the potato beetle and other beetles that are clearly not hypothetical or “irrelevant” to any discussion.

Beetle Bug Stew


London broil, cubed

1 cup lima beans

1 cup squash

1 cup carrots

24 oz. can fire roasted tomatoes

1 small can tomato paste

1 cup onion

1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped

1 cup water

1 t dried sage

2 stems thyme

2 stems rosemary

2 stems oregano

Bay leaves tied into a bundle

1 t black pepper/salt to taste

Combine ingredients and cook for six hours in a slow-cooker.

The Cutting Board

Flour power: An observant reader in Buckland noticed that in transcribing last week’s recipe for Southwest quinoa cakes, I omitted flour as an ingredient. It’s 2 tablespoons, friends. And as long as I am in mea culpa mode, I should note that I have misspelled David Fersh’s name, omitted Trouble Erin Mandeson’s full name, and referred to Just Roots (the cooperative) as New Roots (the fabled former local magazine).

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