A toast to Karl Otrok

I've watched three films about food recently; I'll write about them together at some point, continuing the '3' theme. Right now, I want to raise a glass to one man with a walk-on part in the Austrian film We Feed the World, currently available via Google video and we join Karl Otrok in his four-wheel drive at about 39 minutes.

Karl Otrok is - or, I suspect, was - director of Pioneer's Romania operations. Pioneer is a US-owned seed company, second only to Monsanto. They're owned by DuPont. Karl begins his tale in what appears to be full High Modern mode: contrasting the four-wheel-drive lifestyle of a Pioneer director to the horse-drawn power of much Romanian farming. But while he begins as ambassador for Pioneer - and clings to his company loyalty throughout - we witness a rapid landslide of his veneer of self-belief. It starts with little hints, as he observes Romanian aubergine-growing. The Romanian government, he notes, initially subsidised his own company's hybrid seeds in the first year, but then removed it. Seed from the hybrids cannot be saved - they won't grow the following year, so the farmers have to repeat-buy. A dependency-creating pusher trick. Farmers loose sight of more traditional methods, making inferior aubergines that nevertheless look more appealling on a supermarket shelf, and can travel well -

If you compare the seed costs, [the traditional one] only costs the effort needed to extract the seeds and dry them. The [hybrid] seeds costs 15 euros for ten grammes. But it looks wonderful. And when people shop they're taken in by its appearance. That's only natural. It looks much better in a shop display. There's no way of telling which is better, you can only buy and taste yourself. For me, the local one's better.

Fair enough - personal preference. Though I'm used to directors of US multinationals - at any level - having on-camera personal preferences their bosses would approve of. Hmm... is there an unseen storm of emotion under there somewhere? Karl looks onto a traditional Romanian farming scene and muses -

I hope that this won't change too fast in the near future. I think it will change, though, because of the many large foreign corporations establishing themselves and introducing hybrids. They're in fact destroying what's been built up here, everything that's natural. For example, the aubergines, sweet peppers, or tomatoes which are still natural and have nothing to do with these hybrids. It's the way they work, too, that fascinates me. The people, all these people who still work the land, and harvest and sow by hand. The standard of food will suffer - so will the flavour. It'll no longer be as it used to be and should be. Children will have no memory of what a proper tomato tastes like, or an apple, or anything. Everything will taste different. You can't stop progress, and we don't want to. That's how things are. It just goes on and on and on until one day it'll all come to an end.

It just goes on and on and on until one day... oh dear. Karl talks to a farmer, noting -

We fucked up the West, and now we're coming to Romania, and we'll fuck up all the agriculture here.

Yet apparently -

I'm 100% behind what the management of the company wants, but here I'm voicing my own private opinion. That's the way I see it.

Karl worked his way up through the company ranks to become director. I presume, as director, he worked with the government on those subsidies. Poor Karl - he appears to be an agent in the destruction of a way of life he dearly loves.

I feel mildly voyeuristic writing about it. At any rate, I'm comforted that any Google of 'Karl Otrok' won't bring Pioneer here - he already appears first and foremost in the interwebnetsphere as 'the man from We Feed the World'. But it's just so rare a thing for someone in his position to contain such opposing forces; or at least, rare for them to be strong enough to spill out on camera. This sort of thing never happens to politicians, which is a damn shame.

He ends by showing the film-makers a few of the millions of acres of GM maize growing in Romania (an advantage of being outside the EU.) These are Roundup-ready crops - something I'll be coming back to in a discussion of those three films. But there's Karl, staring into a deep green abyss of industrial agriculture he helped create - and I just want to say: thank you Karl, for having a mild nervous breakdown on camera. I hope your life is better now, and you're back in your home country of Austria growing tasty food on your own small-holding. May many more directors in your position do the same. Karl ends -

A company is a company and a company doesn't have a heart.

Karl Otrok clearly found his.