Respect Your Mother (Earth)

One of the most lethal individuals in human history killed tens of millions of people without ever commanding an army. He is a side note at best in history books. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet agronomist whose hubris and rigid ideology condemned 7 million Ukrainians and as many as 50 million Chinese to die of starvation over the course of a quarter century.

Lysenko, born to a peasant family and illiterate until the age of 13, independently formed a theory of adaptation very similar to Lamarckian Inheritance (review your high school biology!) Mirroring the Marxian bent toward tabula rasa (the idea that we are born “blank slates” and may be entirely shaped by the state), Lysenko thought plants and animals could be reinvented in short order by their man-made environments.

Lysenko did not believe in the existence of genes, even though the first Nobel Prize for work in genetics was awarded in 1933, around the height of Lysenko’s career. He thought he could “train” crops to grow more productively in the bitter Soviet climate by exposing plants and seeds to icy water. He thought plants of the same species would refuse to compete with each other, and instructed Soviet farmers to plant their crops at six times the normal density. Believing that the most fertile soil was buried deep below the surface, he promoted plowing down to six feet, which only served to submerge topsoil beneath rocks and subsoil. Stalin favored Lysenko and enforced his ideas on collectivized farms: scientists who promoted genetic theory were executed or barred from their posts, and centuries of the local peasants’ agricultural knowledge was tossed out the window in favor of Lysenko’s bogus experiments.

As a result, 1933 crop yields in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic were barely half their 1932 levels and millions of ethnic Ukrainians starved. Despite the well-demonstrated failure of Lysenko’s techniques, Maoist China adopted them on political principle twenty years later with even more catastrophic results. Lysenko and his supporters were the reason Americans of a certain age grew up being told to eat their dinners because children in China were starving.

I learned about Lysenko when I posted an article about the fallout suffered by the Wisconsin dairy industry from the “get big or get out” policies of 1970s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. My friend Jasper astutely responded, “As long as farming policy is political and not based in experience and science, farms will die. Butz and Lysenko have a lot to answer for, but the system that kept their ideas going for decades after they were proven to be self defeating and ultimately stupid is what needs to die.” That “system” at its core is the elevation of ideology over wisdom, of industry over nature, of politics over community, of hubris over humus. Respect local agricultural tradition—the result of multigenerational observation and experimentation—and farms and rural communities will thrive.

In the spirit of honoring agricultural traditions, Fedco is extending our Indigenous Royalties program to OGS products (mostly potato varieties) that bear Native American names. We’ll donate a portion of sales on those products to Nibezun, a project of the Wabanaki community here in Maine. It is one small way to acknowledge the communities and agricultural traditions that predate European colonization of this continent and to recognize the Indigenous communities carrying those traditions forward today.

–Alice Coyle, OGS Coordinator

For more information about Trofim Lysenko:

Kean, Sam. “The Soviet Era’s Deadliest Scientist Is Regaining Popularity in Russia.” The Atlantic, December 19, 2017.

Applebaum, Anne. “How Stalin Hid Ukraine’s Famine From the World.” The Atlantic, October 13, 2017.

Zheping Huang. “Charted: China’s Great Famine, according to Yang Jisheng, a journalist who lived through it.” Quartz, March 10, 2016.