Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part One)

“Soil fertility is both a biophysical property and a social property – it is a social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production.” — Bob Scholes, 2013


Farming and agriculture exists as a fundamental link between humanity and the land it inhabits. The soil from whence we grow our food and feed our society acts as a “metabolic relationship binding nature and society” (Warner, 2006: 1). It’s importance means that it, and its fertility, is a form of social property (Wits University, 2013) that ought to belong to the whole of society. As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon stated, our agricultural land “is indispensable to our existence”, a “common thing” that “must be regulated, not for the profit of a few, but in the interest and for the security of all” (Proudhon, 1840). To take away the soil from common ownership, to take away “the means without which life is impossible” is, as Bookchin reminds us, “outright homicide” (1989: 187). But the land, the soil, and its fertility, has been taken away. Over centuries it has been taken by a minority who have mistreated it, plundered it, mined it. Now, the damage from its misappropriation is further compounded by a terrifying biocrisis (1) that approaches us from the horizon.

The climate of planet earth is shifting and destabilising (NASA, 2015), producing unpredictable systems that will play havoc with the consistent and seasonal weather patterns farmers require to feed us (Heinberg, 2007; Charles, 2014). Our global “stocks” of soil are facing constant degradation, with 1% of the global land area degraded every year (Wits University, 2013). Our ability to produce food will suffer (Delgado-Baquerizo et al, 2013) even as we attempt to expand the global cropland area in anticipation for an increasing demand for food (UNEP, 2014). The world’s staple crops will experience worsening yield losses as the century advances (Challinor et al., 2014) at the same time as our conversion of land to agriculture releases more carbon into the atmosphere (University of Montana, 2014). At current rates almost half of the land currently being cultivated “will be unsuitable for food production by the middle of the twenty-first century” (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2008: 364). Here in the UK, anticipating a  2° to 3.5°C temperature rise by the 2080s means readying for heatwave-induced crop yield reductions of 25-30%, even as our national soils are in various stages of erosion and degradation (Maynard, 2008).

On top of this our agricultural systems are dependent on unsustainable inputs of fertilisers (Smil, 2001; Neset & Cordell, 2011) and fossil fuels (Heinberg, 2003; Pfeiffer, 2006) to maintain production levels, even as reserves of phosphate and fossil fuels are set to peak in the near future (Beardsley, 2011; Hughes & Rudolph, 2011; Murray & King, 2012). Additionally, our farming arrangements themselves are responsible for vast amounts of ecological degradation (Reganold et al., 2001; Patel, 2008; Weis, 2010).

The neoliberal government in the UK has aggravated these issues by reducing the food security of its citizens, increasing those requesting food aid (Lambie-Mumford et al, 2014) and using food banks (Butler, 2015). “Workfare” programs and changes in state benefit have been directly linked to “one of the world’s richest countries” witnessing unprecedented numbers of hospital admissions for malnutrition-related illnesses (Just Fair, 2014).

Where we stand, then, is at the culmination, a vortex, of political failures, environmental degradation, and mismanagement of the means of life. Our agricultural systems, and our relation and outlook to these systems and the wider environment, will have to change if we are to survive the upcoming storm. Here the focus will be on the state of farming and agriculture in the UK, its history, and its future, but many of the lessons and solutions written here will be broadly applicable to other countries and farming systems, as well as to the global agri-complex as a whole. Drawing heavily on radical left-wing theory, this essay will combine scientific observations of “what was/is” and theoretical insights into “what could be” to produce a goal and broad ideal of “what we want/need” – that is to say, radical agriculture (Bookchin, 1994).


“The land is indispensable to our existence — consequently a common thing.” — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1840

Is is important to first define the distinction between “farming” and “agriculture”. In this essay the definition relies heavily on Henry Bernstein’s work, where “farming” is “what farmers do and have always done – with all the historical diversity of forms of farm production, their social and ecological conditions and practices, labour processes” (Bernstein, 2013: 22) and “agriculture” is farming plus economic activities and interests, including the supply of instruments of labour, markets for land and produce, and the processing and distribution of produce (Bernstein, 2010: 65). Despite these two distinct definitions we have to realise how interconnected the two are – in today’s capitalist system there can be no farming without markets and “agri-business”; likewise there can be no form of agriculture without the fundamental processes of plant production. Here we will focus on agriculture, exploring as we do so how the capitalist zeitgeist has shaped and controlled it.

As stated previously this essay draws heavily on radical left-wing theory. There are many thinkers on the radical left who in their works successfully analysed the problems inherent in capitalism and its dangerous and inherently anti-ecological character. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1840), a French anarchist and mutualist, was arguably one of the first to recognise that due to its indispensability, agricultural land had to be regulated “not for the profit of a few, but in the interest and for the security of all”. Soon after Karl Marx (1869) identified that the soil was “the original source of all wealth” and that agriculture under capitalism robbed not only the worker of the means to life, but the soil of its fertility (1887). About a hundred years later Murray Bookchin helped to connect the environmental problems modern humanity faced, including degradation of the soil and climate change, with our social structures – “nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems” (1993). Conversely, as he explained in his theory of Social Ecology, these environmental problems could not be resolved without resolving first the contradictions and injustices of capitalist society. “Every society extends its own perception of itself into nature” (1986) – so a capitalist society that treated human beings as profit-making resources would see the wider environment via “the operational systems of modern corporate society”.

Part Two coming soon

(1) “We can call the real wave of extinctions caused by extreme ecological degradation the “biocrisis” … The biocrisis is the true in the moment of the apocalyptic false.” (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009)