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

“The factory floor must yield to gardening and horticulture.” – Herber, 1964

A difficult part of our future agriculture concerns imports/exports versus self-sufficiency, especially in the context of island nations like the UK. While a future anti-capitalist society (and resulting agriculture) would be internationalist, it is important to appraise the environmental costs of transport, at least until a conversion to 100% renewables is well underway. As mentioned previously the climate shocks to global food production which could regularly cause the “UN’s food price index” to “rocket by 50%” (Howard, 2015) would hinder the UK’s ability to feed itself under capitalism, and “there is no guarantee that the abundance in international food markets will last” (Koning et al., 2008: 245). Additionally, shocks in oil prices would also affect agricultural production as World Bank research found that “a 10 per cent rise in crude oil prices translates into a 1.6 per cent increase in agricultural commodity prices” (HM Treasury, 2008: 21). Post-capitalism, it would still be prudent to be somewhat self-sufficient.

As Heinberg and Bomford explain however, “No one advocates doing away with food trade altogether” (2009: 15) but a trend towards relocalisation would be beneficial:

Relocalisation means producing more basic food necessities locally…what is needed is a prioritization of production so that communities can rely more on local sources for essential foods, and long-distance imports are used largely for luxury foods. Regionally-adapted staples, which tend to have a low value and a long shelf life, should be grown in all areas as a matter of food security. (15)

Debbie Barker (2007) envisages something similar under the idea of “subsidiarity”:

“whenever production can be achieved by local farmers, using local resources for local consumption, all rules and benefits should favor that option, thus shortening the distance between production and consumption.” (35)

Not only does this principle remove the long convoluted chains of marketing and transport associated with modern agriculture, but would also reduce the energy costs of transport, storage, and refrigeration of foodstuffs. However, an appropriate balance must be met between relying on trade and relying on local resources. As Bookchin said:

“No community can hope to achieve economic autarky, nor should it try to do so…Far from being a liability, this interdependence among communities and regions can well be regarded as an asset…Shared needs and resources imply the existence of sharing and, with sharing, communication, rejuvenation by new ideas, and a wider social horizon that yields a wider sensibility to new experiences.” (1995)

Sundkvist et al. (2005) go further and detail the risks of relying on either extreme:

“Too strong a dependence on local resources makes the system vulnerable to production failures due to climate fluctuations or disease outbreaks. A complete reliance on food imports, on the other hand, would be detrimental in a situation of global resource shortages and escalating prices of food products. Thus, a balance between the two extremes has to be sought.” (232-233)

Historically the UK was virtually self-sufficient in the early 1800s due to a lack of trade and relative isolation, but since then self-sufficiency has varied between 40-60% (Maynard, 2008) peaking at 75% in the 1970s (Angus et al, 2009). Theoretically, deriving all food from UK agricultural land seems feasible though there are issues regarding dietary choices and possible additional land requirements (Cowell & Parkinson, 2003; DEFRA, 2008) and it is possible that the UK could become self-sufficient in certain fertilisers (DEFRA, 2010). Even if self-sufficiency is possible it should only be sought for regarding “a greater degree of prudence in dealing with material resources…Localism should never be interpreted to mean parochialism” (Bookchin, 1995). However there are benefits when food is sourced as locally as possible – one peer-reviewed paper found that in the UK “If all food were sourced within 20 km of homes or other places of consumption” then environmental damages equivalent to over £2 billion would be avoided (Pretty et al., 2005: 15).

Other authors focus on localism being less a choice and more a necessity due to the peaking of fossil fuels – “Localism is the required modus operandi for the post oil-peak world, just as globalism was for the cheap-oil era” (Newman, 2007: 25). Newman continues to describe possible adaptations such as favouring local produce over imported foods to reestablish “regional identity”, the bulk transport of wheat and grains via rail, and the connection of cities to their respective “bioregions”.

Similarly, localism would necessitate dietary changes due to reductions in imports. It is important to keep in mind diets containing meat usually require more energy and inputs than vegetarian diets, as well as producing more greenhouse gases (Groot et al., 1998: 185; Pimentel & Pimentel, 2008: 133; Scarborough et al., 2014) – and as discussed earlier, most of this energy comes from environmentally-damaging fossil fuels and associated inputs. Additionally they require more land – Gerbens-Leenes et al. (2002) for example found that an “increase of the consumption of meat by only one mouthful (10 g) per capita per day will increase the agricultural area required by 103 m2 per household per year (54). Adopting organic agriculture would also alter diets:

“[In the UK] we would buy most of our food seasonally and locally. We would eat less, but better quality eggs and dairy products, more grass-fed beef and lamb, more fruit and vegetables, and far less energy-intensive, grain-fed and industrially-reared chickens and pigs, ending practices that raise significant animal welfare concerns.” (Jones & Crane, 2009: 10)

Incidentally, at least in the UK, encouraging vegetarianism where possible and reducing meat consumption could offset the extra land use required for organic agriculture as crops grown for livestock feed could be replaced with cereals and horticulture – although behavioural change and public awareness would be a vital part in ensuring this transition is as smooth as possible (Cowell & Parkinson, 2003).

Radical changes in energy systems would have to made in tandem with radical agricultural models, improving sustainability and phasing out fossil fuels. The use of renewable energy side-by-side with farming has already been proven compatible in studies of “agrivoltaics” where crops partially shaded by nearby solar panels did not suffer any loss of productivity (White, 2014), and in the use of solar-powered drip irrigation systems (SELF, 2008). As mentioned more efficient modes of transportation will have to be adopted, with trucks and planes being replaced by shipping and rail, the latter having the benefit of partial electrification (Heinberg and Bomford, 2009). Weaning our food system off fossil fuels may require anticipating a degree of “simplification” due to the reduction of energy available for processing, transport etc. (Bomford, 2011).

Juxtaposing, or perhaps enhancing this potential necessity of simplification, localisation, and decentralisation are the concepts of urban and vertical farming. Urban agriculture, generally defined as intra-/peri-urban industries which produce and distribute food and non-food products (Mougeout, 2000; USDA, 2000) already produce around 15% of the world’s food (Mougeot, 2006) and is not a new concept, it’s history stretching back to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt (probablyasocialecologist, 2014). In 2009 urban humanity surpassed rural humanity in population size (UN Population Division, 2010), making the sourcing of food from local areas doubly important. Encouraging the sourcing and production of food inside of city spaces would be a step in reducing the country-city divide/alienation typified by modern civilisation as well as making productive use of otherwise useless space such as abandoned inner-city areas. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer estimates “rooftops comprise 30 percent of a city’s total land area” on average, which “could provide a substantial portion of urban dwellers’ food” (Pfeiffer, 2006: 71-2). Urban agriculture would enhance a community’s food security and urban sustainability as:

“A key ecological principle is that nutrient and energy flows are cyclical, rather than linear, and thus the practice of consuming resources close to where they are produced sustains ecosystem integrity.” (MacRae, 1999)

Successful examples of urban agriculture systems can be found in Cuba (Companioni & Hernández, 2002), the Ohio City Farm, and Rosario in Argentina (Guénette, 2006).

A part of sustainable urban agriculture is the idea of “vertical” farms, where food is grown in multi-storey buildings to reduce the land footprint needed for agriculture in dense spaces like cities (e.g. Chow, 2015). Such vertical farms reduce pesticide use and spoilage, as well as maximising growth via controlled light levels, enhancing production without any corresponding environmental degradation (Gray, 2015). Indeed, it is common for “vertical greenhouse yields” to “outpace the expected yields of their footprint area” (Pati & Abelar, 2015). As Dickson Despommier, a key thinker in vertical farming explains,

“It has been estimated that it will require approximately 300 square feet of intensively farmed indoor space to produce enough food to support a single individual living in an extraterrestrial environment. Working within the framework of these calculations, one vertical farm with an architectural footprint of one square city block and rising up to 30 stories (approximately 3 million square feet) could provide enough nutrition (2,000 calories/day/person) to comfortably accommodate the needs of 10,000 people employing technologies currently available.” (2006)

If such numbers are true, vertical farming would greatly contribute to reducing pressures on existing agricultural land as well as reducing energy expenditures. Where appropriate vertical farms could be a key part of the urban section of our future radical agriculture.

Radical agriculture involves not only production but also distribution (Bernstein, 2010). Everybody deserves their irreducible minimum (Bookchin, 1982) – as the protagonist in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed explains “existence is its own justification, need is right” (1974: 261). To this end it would be appropriate both during and after the transition to a new agricultural model for the rationing of food to occur until supplies rendered it unnecessary.

The ration system in Cuba was seen by Wright (2009) as a good system, where she described it as “rather lacking in variety, but [it] did guarantee a basic food security for all” (62) [although such a system relies on the benevolence of the state, which cannot be relied on (e.g. see Lambie-Mumford et al, 2014; Butler, 2015)]. Anarchist theorists have explicitly touched upon the problem of rationing – Alexander Berkman in his description of Communist Anarchism said “during the process of reconstruction, we must take care to supply the people as best we can, and equally, which means rationing” (1929). Expanding further,

“’But suppose there is not enough of a certain product to go around. What will you do then?’ Then we’ll do what is done even in capitalistic society in time of war and scarcity: the people are rationed, with the difference that in the free community rationing will be managed on principles of equality.”

Peter Kropotkin also addressed the problem at length. Although his comments addressed the rationing of all societal goods, they naturally encompass the distribution of food:

“…in the future society, even if obliged to adopt rationing, we would remain communists: that is to say rationing would be carried out not according to merit, but according to need … Even during scarcity, this principle of rationing according to need is applied in the family. Would it be otherwise in the great family of the future.” (quoted in Cahm, 1989: 57)

To emphasise the point it is good to read again Bookchin’s quote that “To deny [the means of life] to people is more than ‘theft’ … it is outright homicide” (1989: 187).

Emerging technologies may yet play a role in our future agriculture – as Bookchin told us,

“Blaming technology for the ecological crisis serves, however unintentionally, to blind us to the ways technology could in fact play a creative role in a rational, ecological society. In such a society, the intelligent use of sophisticated technology would be direly needed to restore the vast ecological damage that has already been inflicted on the biosphere, much of which will not repair itself without creative human intervention.” (1994b)

What is required is to be critical about new and existing technologies, with communities and regions democratically assessing their suitability, sustainability, and EROEI (Murphy and Hall, 2010). To this end the use of biofuels (sometimes known as agrofuels) would be rejected except on small-scales, as the existing technologies and practices rely on monocultures to maximise production and the use of agricultural waste “removes nutrients which in sustainable farming practices would be returned to the land” (Fauset, 2008: 33), as well as competing with land for food production or forestry (the desire to use “waste” or “surplus” land betrays an anti-ecological productivist approach to land management – see Dauber et al., 2012). As Brian Tokar explains:

“On a hobbyist or farm scale, people are running cars and tractors on everything from waste oil from restaurants to homegrown oil from sunflowers. But industrial-scale biofuels present a very different picture…Running American cars on ethanol fermented from corn, and European vehicles on diesel fuel pressed from soybeans and other food crops, has contributed to the worldwide food shortages that brought starvation and food riots to at least 35 countries in 2007-8. The amount of corn needed to produce the ethanol for one large SUV tank contains enough calories to feed a hungry person for a year.” (Tokar, 2010: 62; emphasis added)

On top of this clearing forested land to produce biofuels releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide that was previously “locked in”, contributing to further anthropogenic climate change despite promised reductions in greenhouse gases (HM Treasury, 2007; Fargione et al., 2008). Large-scale biofuel development has no place in sustainable agriculture.

The encouragement of entomophagy – the eating of insects – is an “outlandish” approach that we would do well to consider due to its “high protein level, low carbon footprint and [low] production cost” (Hickey, 2015). Indeed, insect-derived protein could substitute for the reduction in red and white meat (due to conversion of land and adoption of more vegetarian diets) as “pound to pound, the production of insect protein takes much less land and energy than the more widely consumed forms of animal protein” (Premalatha et al., 2011: 4357), as well as producing far lower amounts of greenhouse gases compared to pigs or cattle during growth (Oonincx et al., 2010). Additionally many insect species “can be reared on organic side-streams” such as human waste, helping to create closed-loop farming systems and reduce environmental contamination associated with agricultural activities (van Huis et al., 2013: xiv).

Though there is a growing awareness for the need of entomophagy, there is still a “cultural” taboo in Western consumers, with only one out of five meat consumers saying they’d be ready to adopt insect consumption (although those who already plan to reduce meat intake are “4.5 times more likely to adopt insects”) (Verbeke, 2015: 147). A significant part of the taboo is due to “cultural exposure” which must be overcome for sustainable insect-eating attitudes to be widely adopted (Tan et al., 2015).

The harvesting and consumption of micro- and macro-algae may also aid a future sustainable form of food production and distribution. Widely consumed in societies such as Japan and China (Vidal, 2012) as well as in traditional UK recipes such as Welsh Laver Bread, algae is a nutrient-rich substance including vitamins and minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids (Priyadarshani and Rath, 2012) and can be used as a healthier substitute in processed foods, such as replacing salt (Winterman, 2012). Algae in the form of seaweed is an “under-used” resource in the UK, with potential for sustainable coastal management of algae farms to displace more carbon-intensive agriculture (Schlarb-Ridley and Parker, 2013: 37; Flannery, 2015; Schiller, 2015). Algae has in fact been a part of the human diet for centuries (Chacón-Lee and González-Mariño, 2010), but the fact that it doesn’t require freshwater or arable land, both of which may face increased stress in a climate chaotic future, is an obvious benefit. However much work is needed in scaling up production in a sustainable manner (Draaisma et al., 2013) and advancing the production capability of macro-algae as a source of protein and carbohydrates (Enzing et al., 2014).

However, after reviewing these alternatives and changes necessary to make radical agriculture possible, it is extremely important to add that these techniques and technics are not radical in themselves. Corresponding social change must develop parallel to the introduction of holistic and sustainable methods of food production, embracing “a new non-Promethean sensibility toward land and society as a whole” (Bookchin, 1994a). Bookchin expanded this further in The Ecology of Freedom:

“That a society is decentralized, that it uses solar or wind energy, that it is farmed organically, or that it reduces pollution – none of these measures by itself or even in limited combination with others makes an ecological society.” (1982: 3; emphasis added)

Such a problem can be seen creeping into modern organic agriculture. In one peer-reviewed study of different agricultural management practices:

“Some authors argue that as organic farmers enter large distribution system they may be forced to shift once again into monoculture and industrial agriculture. That is because of the pressure from agrifood corporations that buy and distribute their organic products, and from the market itself.” (Gomiero et al., 2011: 97)

So despite organic agriculture’s focus on long-term sustainability and ecological cycles there is a real risk that market pressures would force aside these goals in order to meet consumer demands and profit margins. It is potentially Altieri, the agroecology professor quoted earlier, who put it best and is worth quoting at length:

“The development of sustainable agriculture requires significant structural changes in addition to technological innovation and farmer-to-farmer solidarity. This is impossible without social movements that create the political will among decision-makers to dismantle and transform the institutions and regulations that presently hold back sustainable agricultural development…ecological change in agriculture cannot be promoted without comparable changes in the social, political, cultural and economic arenas that conform [sic] and determine agriculture.” (2010: 128-9; emphasis added)

A truly sustainable agriculture for the UK (and elsewhere) would reject the organic/GMO and natural/artificial duality, characterised by Vandana Shiva and La Via Campesina on the one hand and biotechnology multinationals on the other, and instead focus on the concept of bricolage and cyborg ecology (Out of the Woods, 2015). It is “capitalist social relations which pit agricultural technology against agricultural workers”, and there is no reason why a future agricultural model cannot appropriately combine “modern” and “archaic” technologies. Similar to what Bookchin (1994b) said earlier, Albert Camus told us, “the machine is bad only in the way that it is now employed” (Camus, 1991).

Expanding this line of thinking allows us to identify and counter not only issues where stand-alone techniques of sustainable agriculture can be subsumed by capitalist rationality, but also see the dangers where, especially in the UK countryside, ideals of localism, small-scale agriculture, and self-sufficiency can be twisted into right-wing populist attitudes, or at the least into green conservatism. Bookchin warned of the dangers of parochialism and of the mistake of thinking that localism and decentralism are virtues in themselves, where communities could via regressive localism easily “bury themselves in it to the exclusion of cultural stimuli from outside their community’s boundaries” (1995). Intra-community differences of “labour, power, gender and race” do not disappear “if tied to local places” (Winter, 2003: 30). In fact

“The ‘‘valorization of the ‘local’… may be less about the radical affirmation of an ethic of community or care, and more to do with the production of less positive parochialism and nationalism, a conservative celebration of the local as the supposed repository of specific meanings and values.’’ (Holloway & Kneafsey, 2000: 294)

Such a phenomenon has been characterised as a “politics of conversion” (Childs, 2003) where local agriculture is “being promoted as a practice of consumer conversion” rather than as “a project of contestation and systemic political challenge” (Busa & Garder, 2015: 324). As this happens the mantle of localism is being adopted by far-right movements, detailed by Mi Park (2013) who explored the troubling connections between localism and far-right movements. They found a dangerous trend of far-right groups e.g. the BNP in the UK adopting ideas of “environmentalism and popular democracy” in order to take advantage of popular anti-globalisation rhetoric (337), as well as using ideas of localism in “anti-immigration discourse”. In doing so they highlight the critical point made by Pendras (2002) that “no strategy is in itself ‘progressive’ or ‘socially just’” (830).

Part Six coming soon

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four


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One thought on “Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Five)

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

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