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

Capitalist Agriculture in the Present 

“The manipulated people in modern cities must be fed, and feeding them involves an extension of industrial farming.” — Herber, 1964

Under capitalism the means of production belong to the minority of the population, and the means of production include the agricultural systems that feed us. As every society “extends its own perception of itself into nature” (Bookchin, 1986), the society dominated by capitalism sees agricultural land as a means to make profits and control the working class with the threat of hunger (Cleaver, 1997: 3). Capitalism sees the production of food as a “business enterprise”, sees soil as a “natural resource”, and treats agriculture no different than “any branch of industry” (Bookchin, 1994). It is impersonal and bureaucratic, and cares nothing for natural limits. For a more in-depth look at capitalist agriculture it is worth quoting Dr Julia Wright at length:

“The dominant agricultural approach of the twentieth century in industrialised countries relies upon manufactured pest and disease controls and fertilisers, and emphasises maximising production through simplification, the use of external technologies, and minimising labour requirements. Goewie classifies mainstream, intensive and conventional agriculture within this industrialised group, and also suggests integrated, precision, high-tech and certain sustainable definitions as falling within it. An industrialised production system is associated with socio-economic issues of external dependency, long marketing chains, cost externalisations, and free-market principles as a driving force. Guiding and driving all this is a particular set of attitudes and perspectives surrounding agriculture, such as the belief that mankind can break free from and take control over the natural environment and natural processes, and that this is a positive step. The development of GM crops is a contemporary example of this belief.” (Wright, 2005: 35)

Murray Bookchin, writing under the pseudonym Lewis Herber (1964) goes further, adding that this results in agricultural land being reduced to a “factory floor”, tightly regulated to maximise production, and treating the soil as “a mere resource, an inorganic raw material.” Supply chains are often massive, and only about 10% of people who work in the food industry are actually farmers or farm workers (Maxwell & Slater, 2003: 535). Due to ignorance or bureaucratic oversight, the capitalist structures of food production, distribution, and marketing “often ignore local solutions” which may be more efficient or appropriate, and actively prevent the creation of sustainable solutions (Koc et al., 1999: 4). In large part the introduction of “modern” farming techniques was simply due to pressure to increase productivity for the mass marketing of agricultural goods (Lyson & Green, 1999), which led to intense resource-extraction, widespread mechanisation, and the creation of “monocultural cropping systems” (Jarosz, 2000: 279). Ultimately, capitalist agriculture is an attempt to “subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market” (Polanyi, 1957: 71).

Capitalist agriculture is ultimately unsustainable and wasteful, hindering the natural recycling systems of nature and disturbing “the circulation of matter between man and the soil” (Marx, 1887). This presents a serious issue as our society has a profound and direct effect on the environment, immediately affecting “food webs and biogeochemical cycles” (Bookchin, 1994) – our actions have passed a “tipping point in our relationship with the world” and we now influence the environment “at every level” (Orrell, 2007: 12). Recycling is “enforced” in the natural world (Commoner, 1974), so our ignorance of the cycles of waste and organic matter will have grave consequences.

As mentioned, monocultures “integrate efficiently into economic markets” but because of their ecological instability the resulting agricultural system is “brittle and unstable” and relies on constant chemical inputs to maintain productivity (Warner, 2006: 157), the production and selling of which produces profit for other parts of the capitalist agriculture system. Amongst other degradations they also contribute to rural poverty and the concentration of land ownership (Corporate Watch, 2008). This leads to the centralisation of agricultural production due to economies of scale (Heinberg, 2007) – in Britain for example, the number of farms “fell from 454,000 in 1953 to 242,300 in 1981” (Fotopoulos, 1997: 150). In short, the “monopolisation of markets results in the monoculture of nature” (McKay et al, 2008). This monopolisation, like the enclosures centuries past, reduces farm employment and encourages rural-to-urban migration. In less than two hundred years the UK agricultural workforce has dropped from 21% of the working population to about 2% (Trobe & Acott, 2000; Maynard, 2008), and it currently stands at just over 530,000 people (Angus et al, 2009; DEFRA, 2011).

In a specific UK context agriculture is the largest type of land use, accounting for around 75% of total land area which equates to 17.5 million hectares (ha) (Rounsevell & Reay, 2009) with another 1 million ha that is utilisable but not currently farmed (Maynard, 2008). About 28% (4.74 million ha) of agricultural land is used for crops and 6% for woodland – the rest (66%) is used to grow grass for meat production (Angus et al, 2009). The use of markets and free trade is seen by the government as the ideal solution to securing national food supplies (Maynard, 2008), reducing the significance of local food and increasing the dependence on international trade (Kirwan & Maye, 2013).

The rampant use of fossil fuels in agriculture, while increasing the yields and consistency of agricultural production, has meant that not only is the reliability of our food production tied to rapidly depleting nonrenewable energy sources, but has also resulted in a slew of environmental imbalances such as soil carbon loss, eutrophication of water sources, biodiversity loss, and environmental contamination from pesticide overuse (Reganold et al., 2001; Cruse et al., 2010; Weis, 2010), all of which are treated as externalised costs and are never factored in capitalist calculation, leaving biophysical “debt” that is taken up by the wider society. Ignorant of the dangers of catastrophic climate change, fossil-fueled powered agriculture is still the norm for the UK and the world at large. Modern farm machinery requires petroleum, nitrogenous fertilisers require natural gas, common biocides require oil as a feedstock, and foodstuffs are frequently transported via fossil-fuel powered transportation (Heinberg, 2003). We rely on fossil fuels in all steps of agriculture – seeding, maintenance, harvesting, processing, and transportation (Pfeiffer, 2006). Utterly ignorant of the impending shocks of peak oil (probablyasocialecologist, 2014), in the UK “95% of our food is oil dependent” (Maynard, 2008), with oil accounting for 30-75% of agricultural energy inputs (Woods et al., 2010). As a result the “modern food chain” is extremely vulnerable to interruptions in energy supply (DEFRA, 2008: 23). The energy required for fertiliser production and usage alone constitutes 0.5% of the UK’s total energy supply (Dawson & Hilton, 2011). As a report from City University London aptly says, “the era of western food and farm efficiency reliant on oil is probably coming to an end” (Barling et al., 2008: 33).

This reliance on fossil fuels for agriculture can be called “soil mining” where, as Bookchin described, soil is seen as an inorganic mineral and subsequently mistreated, causing long-term damage to soil regeneration and replenishment. With vast tracts of agricultural land predicted to be too degraded to grow crops in the coming decades (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2008) and demand for food rising this issue cannot be overstated. The UK alone is losing around 13 million tonnes of carbon annually due to soil degradation and erosion, a large part of this due to “intensive farming” (Maynard, 2008: 9).

Like fossil fuels, modern agricultural systems have become inextricably linked to inorganic fertiliser use. The issue is that despite their unsustainability it may be difficult for farms to do without these inputs. Vaclav Smil estimates that, thanks to the “125-fold increase” in global nitrogenous fertiliser applications “today’s global crop harvest would be cut in half without the applications of nitrogen fertilizers” (Smil, 2001: 156; see also Erisman et al., 2008 and Dawson & Hilton, 2011). In the UK nitrogenous fertiliser consumption increased by about 300% between 1961 and the 1980s – this, coupled with a decline in total agricultural land, meant an increase in the application rate per unit area of land (Rounsevell & Reay, 2009). Quoting the Soil Association, the UK’s food security “is based predominantly on vast inputs of nonrenewable, oil-derived and climate-change exacerbating artificial inputs” (Maynard, 2008).

Smil, 2001

Smil, 2001

Rounsevell & Reay, 2009

Rounsevell & Reay, 2009

It is a similar situation with phosphorus fertilisers – under capitalist agriculture it is economically efficient to mine phosphate-based rock to produce mineral fertilisers instead of recycling organic waste, but phosphate rock “is a finite resource that cannot be manufactured” and extraction “is predicted to reach its peak this century” (Neset & Cordell, 2011: 2) despite growing demand (part of which is from the increased share of meat in human diets leading to increased demand for animal feed and fertiliser applications (Van Vuuren et al., 2010)). As Beardsley (2011) details, “there are no possible substitutes” for phosphorus, and the worst-case scenarios forecast significant depletion of phosphorus reserves within this century (Cordell et al., 2009; Van Vuuren et al., 2010).

On top of this, despite the usual claims of capitalist efficiency, vast amounts of food is wasted under modern agricultural systems. As the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) reports:

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands. (2013: 2)

Most of this food in the industrialised north of the world is wasted not due to poor technology (e.g. inadequate refrigeration or transport) but due to consumer preferences or supermarket behaviour. Supermarkets, the IME continues, “will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards” and globally “retailers generate 1.6 million tonnes of food waste annually in this way” (IME, 2013: 3). In the UK, this manifests as 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop never being harvested, a colossal waste of resources and an example of capitalism’s anti-ecological character. A significant portion of this waste is caused by the “redirection” of foodstuffs to destinations other than human beings:

“We produce 4600 kcal per person of edible food harvest, enough to feed a global population of 12-14 billion, but after waste and conversion to animal feed and biofuels, we end up with no more than 2000 Kcal per person.” (Pol, 2015: 4)

This wastage also contributes massively to anthropogenic climate change, as the carbon footprint of wasted food equates to 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide released annually – “as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after USA and China” (FAO, 2013: 6).

As per the neoliberal hatred of barriers to the free movement of capital and goods, foodstuffs are transported all across the world regardless of their inefficiency or environmental damage – all that matters is profit and economic “common sense”. To this end, according to then-Defra Minister Margaret Beckett, “it is freer trade in agriculture which is key to ensuring security of supply…it is trade liberalisation which will bring the prosperity and economic interdependency that underpins genuine long term global security” (Maynard, 2008: 3-4). It is this belief that led, for example, to Britain importing about 62,000 tonnes of poultry meat from the Netherlands in 1998 whilst at the same time exporting about 33,000 tonnes of poultry meat to the Netherlands (Lucas & Hines, 2001).

Although the UK has long been a net importer of food (DEFRA, 2006; 2008) self-sufficiency in food has steadily declined, “falling from 78% to 60% in the last 30 years” (Carrington, 2014). For the last century it can be argued the UK has relied on imports to meet its needs (Barling et al., 2008), not just regarding food but also “imported inputs such as fertiliser, fuel and machinery” (DEFRA, 2006: iv). It’s food imports are also at risk – for example, nearly half of the UK’s food imports are sourced from areas of high water risk (Morgan, 2015).

However, it is important to note that capitalism’s ability to adapt means it has seized the opportunity to profit from the rise in environmental awareness and the damages of industrialised agriculture. Organic agriculture represents a thriving business, to the point where the UK has to import about 34% of its organic produce to meet demand (SIPPO, 2010). This occurs despite the misconception about organic agriculture being completely pesticide-free and that scientifically speaking “organic” farming is a meaningless term (Out of the Woods, 2015). More about organic agriculture will be detailed in the next section.

So after centuries of mismanagement and abuse we are left, both globally and here in the UK, with a system that in the pursuit of profit wrecks the environment, destroys social structures, and has made us suicidally reliant on rapidly depleting substances, all to grow food which, half the time, is never eaten. To change is not a choice – a transition to a fairer and sustainable agricultural system “does not constitute a distant utopian proposal” (Heinberg, 2007). It is immediate and required for our survival.

Part Four coming Soon

Part One | Part Two



3 thoughts on “Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Three)

  1. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Four) | Fighting The Biocrisis

  2. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Five) | Fighting The Biocrisis

  3. Pingback: Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Six) | Fighting The Biocrisis

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