Image by Henk van Ruitenbeek
One of the most heated and prevalent discussions in the hallways of this university is the communication from and positioning of the president of our board; Louise Fresco. The critique over Fresco’s position and actions lies in the debate over her links with big businesses and how she is strengthening the links between the university and these corporations.
Fundamentally, this argument stems from the fact that Fresco is promoting a ‘sustainable’ future which is guided by technologic optimism and a push for ‘green(er) capitalism’, something that many parts of both the university and society disagree with. She has had non-executive board functions at Rabobank and Unilever, and more recently she excepted a commissioner position in the board of plant breeding giant Syngenta. This raises the age-old question troubling universities worldwide: how independent is our institute – or head mistress – from the influence of big corporations? In her new function at Syngenta, Fresco is ‘’particularly interested in how the best science can help smallholders increase yields sustainably’. However, Syngenta is a large, Chinese state owned, multinational that sells chemical crop protection and genetically modified seeds. A company whose influence many at the institute protest to and whose interests makes one question where the benefit is to small- holders. Many have started to wonder whether our board is not mixing up scientific and societal values with corporate interests.
The books of Louise Fresco are generally ignored in the public debate surrounding her, but much can be gained from their analysis. A first critique one might have of ‘big industry’ Fresco is that she does not understand many of the arguments in the environmental movement. However, if you read her novel series ‘The Kosmopolites’, ‘The Utopists’, and ‘The Idealist’, you will see that Fresco goes to great lengths to explore the nature of idealism, and the urge ‘to make the world a better place’. Especially in The Utopists, she explores the psychology of the environmental movement through telling the story of a group of activist friends.
Over time they grow up to make fundamentally different choices about their lives, based on the way they feel responsibility for the world. The book aptly shows how all idealistic students will eventually face tough and complex decisions about how to manifest themselves and their ideals in society. Fresco is able to empathize with all these characters in the environmental movement from a sort of birds-eye perspective (although that doesn’t mean she sympathizes). The sad and telling conclusion of her book is that not one of the characters was actually able to integrate their ideals with the inherent messiness of adult life and the world.
The theme of ‘having ideals in a messy’ world also resounds in her greatest non-fictional work; ‘Hamburgers in Paradise’. In this book she makes a grand effort to navigate the moral waters of the past, present and future of our food systems. The title stems from the ‘Paradise Theory’ she introduces in the first chapters, which states that humans tend to long for a state of harmony that only exists in our cultural imagination. Her argument is that this longing might cloud our judgement when we think about food and agriculture. This idea is an extension of her Huizinga lecture (1998) ‘Shadowthinkers and Lightseekers’. Herein she describes how people tend to think about the future of the world either from an unfounded sense of crisis, or an irrational longing for authenticity or ‘naturalness’. She claims that most calls for the ‘Bio-Organic Revolution’, and its inherent scepticism of new technology, can be traced back to these tendencies.
In the book she also uses the theory to argument well for the case of using GMO’s to increase smallholder farmer yields, which is exactly what prof. Fresco is prospected to do at Syngenta. However, in total the book fails to convince in the diversity of its argumentation to fully support her claims. The Paradise theory, despite proving useful to eliminate some recurring flaws in our thinking about food, lacks real substance to dismiss all ‘romantic’ or ‘sentient’ or ‘idealistic’ arguments in future food decision making.
Up until now, the life of Louise Fresco differs from the characters in her books, in the sense that she somehow appears to be able to integrate theory, ideals and practice in her life. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in both her literary and professional life, she goes to great lengths to explore the question; ‘What responsibility do I have towards the world?’ Therefore, it is a shame that her persona, and the insti- tute at large, are ridiculed more-and- more as being sell-outs to corporate in- terests. Clearer communication about these subjects to the broader public is necessary. For example, when asked to respond on her new connection to Syngenta she says that “the independent positions of our researchers and the WUR in general are not at stake. I stand firmly for the independence and our critical capability…” (Gelderlander, 2019). However, apart from sketching the prospected impact of her work with Syngenta, she never continues to explain why this is the case. And in my extensive exploration of her work, this is a continuing theme: when asked about her connections to, or the role of big business in sustainability, her responses are always uncharacteristically short and political instead of argumentative. Besides from what you think is the right directive for this world, it would certainly help if our board president would make the extra effort to communicate more argumentatively and openly about these issues. If not for her own credibility, then for the scientific credibility of the researchers she represents.