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


Radical Agriculture 

“The future does not belong to individual property, to the peasant penned in a fragment of land that barely sustains him. It belongs to communist cultivation.” — Kropotkin, 1885

As ecologist Bob Scholes said in part one, soil “is social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production”. We have seen how capitalism has disregarded the integrity and life of our soil. To escape this we need, as Bookchin expounded, a model of “radical agriculture” which

“seeks to transcend the prevailing instrumentalist approach that views food cultivation merely as a “human technique” opposed to “natural resources.” This radical approach is literally ecological, in the strict sense that the land is viewed as an oikos – a home. Land is neither a “resource” nor a “tool,” but the oikos of myriad kinds of bacteria, fungi, insects, earthworms, and small mammals. If hunting leaves this oikos essentially undisturbed, agriculture by contrast affects it profoundly and makes humanity an integral part of it.” (Bookchin, 1994)

This agricultural model is radical not only in opposing the dominant industrial capitalist approach to agriculture, but also in opposing the existence of the state and capitalism and their presence in our food systems, as well as identifying their inability to adapt or change sufficiently to rectify their damaging effects – as Dr Julia Wright reminds us, “To date, organic and localized systems have occurred often in the face of prevailing policy and institutional arrangements, rather than because of them” (Wright, 2009: 26). It is up to us, the “multitude” (Hardt & Negri, 2004), to ensure that our agricultural systems are managed “not for the profit of a few, but in the interest and for the security of all” (Proudhon, 1840). A rational, sustainable form of agriculture is “incompatible with the capitalist system” (Marx, 1894).

It is important to remember that capitalism uses the threat of hunger or starvation as a weapon to control the working class, weakening their power and demands. As autonomist Harry Cleaver described,

“Internationally, famine in one part of the world has come to serve as a stern lesson to workers everywhere on the extent of capital’s power: if, given today’s high agricultural productivity and the sophisticated means of transportation, a group of people can still be allowed to starve, then workers everywhere are threatened by the same possibility.” (1997: 31)

Proudhon seems especially relevant here when he said “every man who makes a profit has entered into a conspiracy with famine” (Proudhon, 1840). The threat of hunger can be seen in contemporary times, through the return of rickets (McVeigh, 2014) and the increased numbers of UK families requiring food aid (Lambie-Mumford et al, 2014). As the Out of the Woods collective noted, hunger is not “an incidental problem in capitalism but a condition of its possibility” (Out of the Woods, 2014).

It is also important that we confront the issues of food security and self-sufficiency, concepts that have much in common but are not identical. Although there are parallels, self-sufficiency refers to “the extent to which a country can meet its own food needs from home-grown production” (Maynard, 2008), whereas food security can be met via either domestic production or imports, and has a broader definition:

“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (FAO, 1996).

As will be described further on, there is a trade-off between complete reliance on imports and an autarkical reliance on domestic production – our model radical agriculture must find a balance between the two poles (Sundkvist et al., 2005), aiming to provide food security for all people.

We can turn to some of the previously mentioned thinkers for inspiration for our radical agriculture. The FAO Rome Declaration on World Food Security (see above) echoes Murray Bookchin’s declaration of freedom, where “True freedom, in effect, is an equality of unequals that does not deny the right to life of those whose powers are failing or less developed than others” (1974). It is a directly egalitarian and anti-capitalist statement, underlying the anarchist notion that all members of a community should be supported regardless of contribution – a principle Bookchin studied known as the “irreducible minimum” (Bookchin, 1982: 56). As Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta said, “The lame, the weak and the aged should be supported by society, because it is the duty of humanity that no one should suffer” (1981: 10-11). To achieve this a revolution in agriculture would require expropriation of land, being careful not to produce “large-scale cultivation as certain authoritarian reformers image” but to “expropriate all land that was not cultivated by the hands of those who at present possess the land” (Kropotkin, 1885). But the small-scale farms (which we will learn more about later) would not be touched. As Kropotkin explains

“…when we see a peasant who is in possession of just the amount of land he can cultivate, we do not think it reasonable to turn him off his little farm. He exploits nobody, and nobody would have the right to interfere with his work. But if he possesses under the capitalist law more than he can cultivate himself, we consider that we must not give him the right of keeping that soil for himself, leaving it uncultivated when it might be cultivated by others, or of making others cultivate it for his benefit.” (1998: 104)

Not only that, but our future agriculture must be more humble and holistic, embracing not just different methods of cultivation and food production but “a new non-Promethean sensibility toward land and society as a whole” (Bookchin, 1994). This will alter both our view of the environment and of the social world à la social ecology, but should stray away from the misguided and potentially devastating attempts of primitivism to reestablish the human-nature relationship via the abolition of agriculture (Sheppard, 2003).

A future, fairer form of agriculture non-dependent on fossil fuels is not a new concept – Heinberg (2007) lists several permutations of the same concept, including “ecological agriculture, Biodynamics, Permaculture, Biointensive farming, and Natural Farming”, all linked through a reduction in mechanisation and an increased knowledge of soil biology, climate, and ecological interactions. But such a transition requires planning, forethought, and education – the sudden absence of fossil fuels before an appropriate alternative system was in place would be catastrophic (Heinberg and Bomford, 2009) as some primitivists would hope. As Wright (2009) detailed earlier, policy reform and existing institutions cannot be trusted to change our agricultural systems for the better. Some actions appropriate for a future “radical agriculture” will be detailed below.

Firstly, as Warner explains, the farms of our future will be forced to “operate on ecological principles”:

“Farms of the future will likely have to be energy conserving, feature both biological and genetic diversity, be largely self-regulating and self-renewing, be knowledge intensive rather than energy intensive, operate on biological synergies, employ adaptive management strategies, practice ecological restoration, and achieve optimum productivity through multi-product, synergistic production systems that feature nutrient density, rather than monocultures that feature maximum yields.” (Warner, 2006: xii-xiii)

A focus on holism versus industrial productivism is necessary, and there is a need for new metrics of efficiency – Pimentel & Pimentel (2008) find that the closer an agricultural system “resembles the original natural ecosystem” the less energy and inputs it requires (28), a key requirement in a potentially resource-constrained future. Similarly in the interests of those who work the land, farms that run on organic (1) principles typically demonstrate lesser environmental impacts (Hansen et al., 2001; Tuomisto et al., 2012), such as reducing inputs and building soil carbon and nitrogen stocks (Pimentel et al., 2005). Similarly, permaculture (“permanent agriculture”) revolves around mimicking ecological relationships in producing food, timber, fibres etc. whilst emphasising self-sufficiency and environmental sensibility (Cribb, 2010).

But what of our ability to feed ourselves? As we mentioned, modern agriculture has become dependent on non-renewable sources of energy and nutrients. In this regard, according to one peer-reviewed paper, organic agriculture systems usually have lower yields than non-organic, but are capable of almost matching yields via “good management practices” (Seufert et al., 2012: 229). Another paper modelled global food supplies under different agricultural methods and found that “organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population…without increasing the agricultural land base” (Badgley et al., 2007: 86). They also found that due to the over-saturation of soils with fertilisers and biocides, conversions to organic agriculture typically produce the oft-reported decline in yields which is then reversed “as soil quality is restored” over time (92).

However other analyses report greater yield disparities – in England and Wales for example, wheat and barley yields would drop by about 30%, and “there is wide consensus that organic production results in yields perhaps 40% lower” (Jones & Crane, 2009: 13). Another meta-analysis reported “organic yields of individual crops are on average 80% of conventional yields” but there was substantial variation between different crops (de Ponti et al., 2012: 1).

These yield gaps can be rectified through the more efficient recycling and waste minimisation that would characterise our future agriculture. For example, the 500 litres of waste a human body produces annually contains enough nutrients to grow the crops that would feed that person for a year (McEachran, 2015). Capturing these lost nutrients would help substitute for previously applications of inorganic inputs, and help mitigate potential threats such as peak phosphorus (Beardsley, 2011), and have a variety of processing and application methods as well as being renewable and reducing transport issues due to their local nature (Cordell et al., 2009). On top of this there is potential for massive waste minimisation – food waste caused by sales promotions and marketing standards for “cosmetically perfect foodstuffs” (IME, 2013: 25) would be eliminated, and the practice of throwing away “surplus food” by supermarkets would be prevented.

Anaerobic digestion (AD), “the process of decomposition of organic matter by a microbial consortium in an oxygen-free environment” can be utilised to treat food waste and produce crop fertiliser and biogas (Ward et al., 2008: 7928). Although there are government strategies to facilitate increased AD (DEFRA, 2011) there is much room for improved adoption of this technology. Additionally sensible use of AD would focus on food waste that could not be utilised in any other way (Linehan, 2014) rather than the use of farmland to produce “energy crops” (Amon et al., 2007).

An integral component of radical agriculture is the breaking-up of land ownership and the reversal of centralisation for political-ecological reasons. There is a large body of research that finds that despite the economic efficiencies of monocultures, smaller farms are more productive if “total output is considered rather than yield from a single crop” (Altieri, 2009: 105). Altieri, a professor of agroecology, also asserts that “redistributing farmland may become central to feeding the planet” especially with the recent rise of agricultural land being used to grow biofuels (106). His assertions are backed up by Peter Rosset (2006), who reports on data that shows “small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms, and do so more efficiently…This holds true whether we are talking about industrial countries or any country in the Third World” (315). He also cites a report that found that “relatively smaller” farms produced up to two to ten times more than larger farms (315). Other studies report similar inverse relationships between farm size and productivity (Rosset, 1999; Naranjo, 2012).

Land redistribution would reduce the power of agricultural capitalists and absentee landowners and give people greater autonomy and freedom regarding agricultural management techniques and desired foodstuffs. Like the anarchist society in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, there should be “no controlling centre…no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy” (1974: 77). However it is important to remember as Bookchin said that in reducing farm size we do not need to “surrender the gains acquired by large-scale agriculture and mechanization” but must treat agricultural land “as though it were a garden”, with careful attention and ecological sensibility (Herber, 1964). As Rigby & Cáceres (2001) explain, “it is undoubtedly mistaken to simply equate sustainable agriculture with low- yield farming” (32).

The decentralisation and size-reduction of farms will also be required in order to adapt to our potential unstable climate. With land degradation and yield reductions predicted in the future (see introduction) it is imperative that we have a resilient form of agriculture that can survive new unpredictable weather systems. As Heinberg describes, farms have previously relied on “relatively consistent seasonal patterns” but now face “climate chaos: droughts, floods, and stronger storms in general” (2007). In an agricultural context, the risk of major “shocks” to global food production “will be three times more likely within 25 years because of an increase in extreme weather brought about by global warming” (Howard, 2015). In the UK specifically:

“Average annual temperatures across the UK could rise by 2° to 3.5°C or more by the 2080s, depending on future levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The unprecedented heatwave that affected Europe in 2000, when crop yields fell by 25- 30% across France and Italy, gives an unpleasant foretaste of what is predicted to become a more frequent event.” (Maynard, 2008: 8)

Adaptations to future sea level rise and increased flood risk may also entail “the abandonment of prime agricultural land” via “managed land retreat” and developing new flood plain areas (Rounsevell & Reay, 2009: S163). About 57% of high quality agricultural land in the UK is less than 5m above sea level  and as such is at increasing risk from flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusion as sea levels rise (Harrison et al., 2008).

To this end the conversion to smaller farms is even more necessary as they tend to be more resilient to climate shocks, exhibiting more stability and smaller yield declines in extreme weather. Altieri (2009) cites evidence where after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998 smaller farms with intercropping and diversification “had 20 to 40 percent more topsoil, greater soil moisture, less erosion, and experienced lower economic losses than their conventional neighbors” (108; see also Holt-Gimenez, 2002). Similarly, one study comparing organic and conventional farming systems found the higher levels of soil carbon in the organic system “helped conserve soil and water resources and proved beneficial during drought years” (Pimentel et al., 2005: 580). Another study identified the issue that most comparisons between conventional and organic agriculture

“have been made under optimal conditions, and extrapolations of future crop yields must take into account the high likelihood that climate disruptions will increase the incidence of droughts and flooding in which case, based on evidence presented earlier, OA [organic agriculture] systems are likely to out-yield CA [conventional agriculture] systems.” (Lotter, 2003: 10-11)

It is even clearer then that to survive the coming climate chaos a new form of agriculture will be required.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Part Five coming soon

(1) “Organic agriculture refers to a farming system that enhance soil fertility through maximizing the efficient use of local resources, while foregoing the use of agrochemicals, the use of Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO), as well as that of many synthetic compounds used as food additives. Organic agriculture relies on a number of farming practices based on ecological cycles, and aims at minimizing the environmental impact of the food industry, preserving the long term sustainability of soil and reducing to a minimum the use of non renewable resources.” (Gomiero et al., 2011: 96) However, it is important to note that “it is a common misconception that organic crops are necessarily pesticide free. Some traditional but highly toxic, persistent, and broad spectrum synthetic pesticides – such as copper sulphate – are often allowed, as is the ‘natural’ Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium (from which transgenic Bt maize’s toxins are derived)” (Out of the Woods, 2015).



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

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

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

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