Because there’s nothing to sell

Michael Pollan’s talk at The Long Now Foundation includes a glimpse of the gift economy at work in the business of agriculture:

A lot of it depends on redefining our sense of what a clever technology is. And what I suggest is that a really smart rotation — like that eight-year rotation in Argentina— is as clever and as powerful a technology as the latest genetically-modified seed. And we need to look at it that way. The question is why don’t we look at it that way? Well by in large because there’s nothing to sell, in the case of the rotation. And what makes agriculture really work in a sustainable direction are processes more than products, which is why there’s very little R&D that goes into developing these technologies.

Reminds me a bit of what Lewis Hyde has to say about textbooks in The Gift:

Scientists who give their ideas to the community receive recognition and status in return […]. But there is little recognition to be earned from writing a textbook for money. As one of the scientists in [Sociologist Warren] Hagstrom’s study puts it, if someone “has written nothing at all but texts, they will have a null value or even a negative value.” Because such work brings no group reward, it makes sense that it would earn a different sort of renumeration, cash. “Unlike recognition, cash can be used outside the community of pure science,” Hagstrom points out. Cash is a medium of foreign exchange, as it were, because a unlike a gift (and unlike status) it does not lose its value when it moves beyond the boundary of the community.

Contrast the natural process Pollan describes in which the land renews itself but no value is extracted to one in which the land is managed by commercial fertilizers that are sold at a price. The cycle of nature, like the circle of gift-giving, ensures its own success, but weakens when cash value is extracted at any specific point. It’s unmonetizable, but, as Pollan points out, learning from it might be the key to healthier eating and better food.

See also: Pollan’s writing about pioneering farmer Joel Salatin in Omnivore’s Dilemma.