Review: Hugh’s War on Waste


Image: Gus Palmer/Keo Films/BBC

Hugh’s War on Waste returned for a third episode on Thursday evening. The first two episodes had aired a while ago and looked at food waste, especially the ridiculous cosmetic standards supermarkets impose on farmers for vegetables. This episode was partly a follow-up, but mainly tackled other issues such as coffee cups and packaging.

If you haven’t seen the episode yet you can watch it here:

First question on my mind was ‘Have supermarkets changed?’ Hugh found there had been some improvements, including Morrisons, M & S, Aldi, Lidl and Co-Op all introducing more wonky veg or relaxing standards. Now it is our responsibility as consumers to purchase these less than perfect looking vegetables to make their sale go mainstream. It’s criminal in this day and age to be throwing away perfectly good food.


Image: Getty

Coffee Cups

Next up on Hugh’s agenda was coffee cups, mainly those produced by Costa, Caffe Nero and Starbucks.

FACT: We throw away 2.5 billion cardboard cups a year.

I am going to admit I had no idea that coffee cups weren’t recyclable, although that’s more to do with the fact I don’t really drink coffee. The programme showed me I was far from alone in thinking this. Why can’t coffee cups be recycled? Don’t they say they can be on them? Well yes and no. They CAN be recycled, although currently in the UK there is only one facility that can do this, so hardly any will be making their way there to be recycled! They are also coated with polyethylene. In the recycling process this stops the cardboard from being reduced to small enough pieces to be usable. Hence, most coffee cups can’t actually be recycled.

The technology does exist to produce more mainstream recyclable coffee cups. Hugh visited an inventor who had created a coffee cup with a simple plastic lining. When sent for recycling the cup would easily dissolve in water and the liner could be caught.

Hugh drove round on a red London bus covered in coffee cups, spreading the message. It’s frustrating that it took this sort of action for them to reply to his emails asking for an interview. Starbucks said they would increase the discount for those using their own cups, but this has since stopped. Clearly just them trying to avoid a PR disaster. They even said they had a goal to make cups 100% recyclable by 2015 on their website. Ha! It is apparent that all coffee shops have become masters of greenwashing on their websites. They hope that sounding eco-friendly will convince customers they are trying. Thanks to Hugh we know they really aren’t!


Image: BBC


FACT: The UK generates 10 million tonnes of packaging waste a year

Just one word: Amazon. The amount of customers that Amazon has in the UK must be phenomenal, so no wonder Hugh set his sights on tackling them. They have a machine that is supposedly meant to work out the optimum packaging that they should use. Either there is something very wrong with that machine or they don’t have a wide enough range of box sizes. Hugh even showed the products could fit in other box sizes they had. They flew in their US head of global sustainability, but I personally think it was all for show. She reeled out the usual ‘all our boxes can be recycled and they are mostly made of recycled materials’. As an environmental scientist I felt these sort of statements completely missed the point. We all learn ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’. In fact the UK government has a 5 step waste hierarchy. Clearly Amazon think they are doing well on the recycling part, but they should focusing on reduce. Less resources used in the first place can only benefit everyone.

Amazon said they are trialling a new ‘Box on demand’ machine, that cuts the box according to the products in the order, but we can only wait to see if anything comes of it.

All in all, a fantastic programme. Thank you Hugh and the BBC. Not really sure what we would do without celebrities such as Hugh to bring these issues to the attention of the public. Now it is over to us, to keep the pressure on businesses to reduce waste and show we are willing to put our money where our mouth is.

Relevant links:


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


The transition to a future radical agriculture, in the UK and elsewhere, is not utopian or a “distant proposal” but “an unavoidable, immediate, and immense challenge that will call for unprecedented levels of creativity” (Heinberg, 2007). But as we prepare to make our agricultural systems sustainable, so do we have to pay attention to our economy and society. Our methods of food production and distribution and the wider economy are inextricably linked, each mirroring the other. To change one is to change both:

“It is impossible to attain sustainable development of society without a sustainable agricultural sector and the safe food production it produces, and vice versa.” (Wright, 2009: 213)

A future radical agriculture will have to be as decentralised as possible, following the principle of subsidiarity, but rejecting parochialism and regressive localism for a diverse interconnected web of food production, distribution, and consumption. Farms will be smaller and more diverse, with systems of intercropping and polyculture boosting productivity and food security and providing much needed resilience for the years of climate chaos we may face (Lyons, 2015).

It will be renewably powered, minimising the impacts of peak oil and taking advantage of the explosive growth in renewable energy technologies (Steiner, 2015) and the recent predictions that the world’s energy infrastructure could be fully transferred from fossil fuels to renewable energy in a matter of decades (Jacobson and Delucchi, 2010; Schwartzman and Schwartzman, 2011).

It will use as little nonrenewable inputs as possible to ensure the sustainability of the land and its suitability for farming, mimicking ecosystem flows, minimising ecological disturbance, and being “self-regulating and self-renewing” (Warner, 2006: xiii). As Marx said,

“Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.” (1894: 546)

It will use agricultural technologies deemed appropriate not by scale but “according to their role in enhancing human freedom and integrating human society with natural processes” à la social ecology (Out of the Woods, 2014), avoiding the nature/society binary. It will combine agroecology and organic farming with “high” technologies such as integrated pest management and vertical farming and culturally “outlandish” techniques such as entomophagy and algae farms.

The agriculture of the future will also be part of an anti-capitalist economic system that recognises the limits to growth (probablyasocialecologist, 2015) and the absurdity of private management of farmland, abolishing the disinformation and speculations of markets (O’Neill, 1998: 153) and recognizing that each and all of us has the right and entitlement to food regardless of contribution, occupation, or identity.

Returning to the beginning, as Dr Bob Scholes told us, the soil of the UK – and elsewhere – is “social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production”. But with the biocrisis looming with its hydra heads of climate chaos, energy depletion, and perhaps most importantly soil depletion, we have to consider, in the transition to an unknown, fairer future:

“Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession — the fertility of the soil — is preserved? On the answer to this question the future of civilization depends.” (Howard, 1940: 20)

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five


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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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).


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


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

UK Agriculture in the Past

“The UK has long been a net importer of food” — DEFRA, 2008

A key point in the history of agriculture in the UK was enclosure, the culmination of class warfare beginning from the fifteenth century in England that rose to prominence between 1750 and 1860 (Fotopoulos, 1997). Wealthy landlords forced the rural poor off land that was previously commonly owned, transforming peasants into a landless working class who only had their labour to sell (Patel, 2008). The landowning nobility were transformed into capitalist landlords and helped to kick-start a process of dispossession that would lead to the industrial revolution (Out of the Woods, 2014). By 1800 England’s agricultural social structure was a unique tripartition, consisting of large landowners, small-scale capitalist farmers, and agricultural proletarians (Shaw-Taylor, 2012), with agrarian capitalism dominating family farming. This “unique rural society” was “characterized by exceptional inequality” (Allen, 1992: 1). Incidentally, the sites where capitalist farming predominated were areas which were “the most prosperous between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries”, a pattern which reflected “the quality of the agricultural land” (Shaw-Taylor, 2005), a literal example of capitalism robbing the soil from the labourer.

As this social structure evolved agricultural land became more centralised through the process of “engrossment” which was implemented alongside enclosure (Shaw-Taylor, 2012), which despite claims to the contrary did not increase agricultural output (Allen, 1992). This process of centralisation was abetted by technological revolutions in cheap transport and economies of scale (Heinberg, 2007) so increasingly control of the land fit for agriculture in the UK was in the hands of the wealthy minority, as well as a standardised profit-seeking management and their appointed experts (McKay et al, 2008).

Total production of foodstuffs in the UK has risen consistently over time, thanks to an “upward trend in both agricultural labour productivity and land productivity” (Apostolides et al., 2008; Koning et al., 2008).


British Agricultural Output between 1250-1899. Data from Apostolides et al (2008)

From Koning et al (2008).

From Koning et al (2008).

However, in more recent years the yield increases have been due largely to the “massive injections of fossil energy” associated with modern agriculture, such as synthetic nitrogen fertilisers and pesticides (Arizpe et al., 2011). These will be described in more detail later.

As production has increased both employment in the agricultural sector and self-sufficiency of food production has declined in the UK (Maynard, 2008). As DEFRA (2008) reminds us, the UK “has long been a net importer of food”, with the industrial revolution creating an increased dependence on international trade to secure food supplies (Kirwan and Maye, 2013) as well as undertaking “guano imperialism” in order to secure fertilisers for its own soils (Saito, 2014). These historical trends have converged to produce the (relatively) stable, modernised, market-based system of agriculture we find in the present.

Part Three coming soon

Part One


  • Allen, R. C. (1992). Enclosure and the Yeoman.Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Apostolides, A., Broadberry, S., Campbell, B., Overton, M., van Leeuwen, B. (2008). English Agricultural Output and Labour Productivity, 1250- 1850: some preliminary estimates. Accessed 27 October 2015.
  • Arizpe, N., Giampietro, M., Ramos-Martin, J. (2011). Food security and fossil energy dependence: an international comparison of the use of fossil energy in agriculture (1991-2003). Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 30, 45-63.
  • DEFRA (2008). Ensuring the UK’s Food Security in a Changing World. Accessed 23 October 2015.
  • Fotopoulos, T. (1997). Towards an Inclusive Democracy. Cassell, London and New York.
  • Heinberg, R. (2007). What will we eat as the oil runs out? Accessed 22 October 2015.
  • Kirwan, J., Maye, D. (2013). Food security framings within the UK and the integration of local food systems. Journal of Rural Studies 29, 91–100.
  • Koning, N. B. J., Van Ittersum, M. K., Becx, G. A., Van Boekel, M. A. J. S., Brandenburg, W. A., Van Den Broek, J. A., Goudriaan, J., Van Hofwegen, G., Jongeneel, R. A., Schiere, J. B., Smies, M. (2008). Long-term global availability of food: continued abundance or new scarcity? NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences 55 (3), 229–292.
  • Maynard, R. (2008). An inconvenient truth about food – Neither secure nor resilient. Accessed 22 October 2015.
  • McKay, I., Elkin, G., Neal, D., Boraas, E. (2008). An Anarchist FAQ. Accessed 27 October 2015.
  • Out of the Woods (2014). Class struggles, climate change, and the origins of modern agriculture. Accessed 27 October 2015.
  • Patel, R. (2008). Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Melville House Publishing, New York.
  • Saito, K. (2014). The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture: Ecological Insights from His Excerpt Notebooks. Monthly Review 66 (5), 25-46.
  • Shaw-Taylor, L. (2005). Family farms and capitalist farms in mid nineteenth-century England. The Agricultural History Review 53 (2), 158-191.
  • Shaw-Taylor, L. (2012). The rise of agrarian capitalism and the decline of family farming in England. Accessed 27 October 2015.

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)


Urban Agriculture: a brief primer

An urban farm in Chicago. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As the majority of the human population begins to live in urban areas, and as the ravages of climate change and soil erosion play havoc on our agricultural areas, the disconnect between the town and the city is beginning to close via one coping strategy – urban agriculture.

It is safe to say that humanity is now an urban species. The year 2009 was the year the number of humans living in urban areas exceeded the number of those living in rural areas (although national and developmental differences remain). This demographic phenomenon has occurred amidst an ever-worsening biocrisis, especially for agriculture: predicted agricultural yield reductions, continuous soil erosion, problems with carbon storage and land conversion, and the recognition that the growing demand for agricultural land threatens vital ecosystems and thus human well-being.

As the world’s population continues to grow (albeit with a slower growth rate) and we struggle to end our grow-or-die system of economic expansion, urban agriculture seems to be one choice in a portfolio of adaptation strategies we can take to reduce our environmental impact whilst rationalising our food production systems.

What is urban agriculture?

There are various definitions for what exactly is constituted as “urban agriculture”. Wikipedia cites a prompt definition as “the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city” [x]. Luc Mougeot, an “expert in urban agriculture” provides a more in-depth idea:

“…an industry located within (intra-urban) or on the fringe (peri-urban) of a town, a city or a metropolis, which grows and raises, processes and distributes a diversity of food and non-food products, (re-)using largely human and material resources, products and services found in and around that urban area, and in turn supplying human and material resources, products and services largely to that urban area.” [x]

In a similar fashion, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defined it as “not so much an alternative to existing agricultural systems as it is an established branching of modern sustainable agricultural systems.” [x] And René van Veenhuizen includes that urban agriculture can range “from subsistence production and processing at household level to fully commercialised agriculture.” [x] The key point then is that despite the differences and variations between the different forms (intra- versus peri-; subsistence versus commercial) the defining feature of urban agriculture is its urban setting.


Urban agriculture is not a new phenomenon. Already, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that “as many as 800 million urban farmers produce about 15% of the world’s food” [x]. Some believe urban agriculture has been practised as long ago as 3500 BC by farmers in Mesopotamia, and in ancient Egypt waste materials were thought to have been used to help supply urban farming. Similarly chinampas, floating garden plots used by Aztec Indians, and the irrigated terrace farms used by the Inca Empire in Machu Picchu are also seen as early forms of urban agriculture.

In more recent times, urban agriculture has taken the form of Potato Patches in the USA, allotment gardens in the UK, and Victory Gardens during the World Wars – although these were all responses to economic issues of poverty, unemployment, and food scarcity, rather than planned food system development. At the height of the Victory Garden movement in World War II, around 40 percent of America’s vegetables were produced by Victory Gardens, despite the fact that the USDA at the time tried to suppress the movement “out of concern that they would inhibit the development of industrial agriculture.” [x] The renewed interest in urban agriculture (at least in the global North) as part of the sustainability and local food movements is relatively new, manifesting as community garden schemes and land reclamation in order to improve food security and energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of efforts to stave off the biocrisis.


Murray Bookchin, an anarchist political theorist and “pioneer in the ecology movement”, wrote extensively about issues regarding humanity and its growing disconnect from its wider environment, which he encapsulated in his philosophy of social ecology. He spoke at lengths about the issue of town/country disconnect, and how back in 1952 the “separation of town and country was turning out to be harmful to human survival.” [x] In his work Ecology and Revolutionary Thought he wrote:

“The manipulated people in modern cities must be fed, and feeding them involves an extension of industrial farming […] If the process of urbanizing man and industrializing agriculture were to continue unabated, it would make much of the earth inhospitable for viable, healthy human beings and render vast areas utterly uninhabitable.”

Although never explicitly mentioned in his works, Bookchin supported urban agriculture as an effort to re-localise and de-industrialise agriculture, both to reduce ecological harm and to bring beneficial impacts to human populations.


As mentioned above, urban agriculture isn’t new – it’s both a thriving environmental movement and food production strategy that feeds hundreds of millions of people around the world. It contributes to urban food security, allows for local economic development, and contributes to social inclusion and community cohesion [x].

Urban agriculture can make use of vacant or disused land, while roof gardens can maintain green spaces and food gardens without using up urban land. Dale Pfeiffer, a freelance journalist and geologist, emphasises the importance of rooftop urban agriculture:

“On the average, rooftops comprise 30 percent of a city’s total land area, and rooftops enjoy the full benefit of sunshine and rainfall. Rooftop gardening could provide a substantial portion of urban dwellers’ food.” [x]

Urban “micro-farms” that include small animals as well as fruits and vegetables can also improve food security for families, “along with occasional income from selling seasonal surpluses at garden markets” [x].

Urban agriculture also aids in the transition from industrial agriculture to more localised, eco-friendly agriculture. Not only can urban farms help absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants in cities, but sourcing food closer to its place of consumption helps increase the efficiency of the food system and reduce its carbon footprint as less energy (usually derived from fossil fuels) is required for transport, refrigeration, and processing:

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.  [x]

Organic farming in the city can be more environmentally beneficial by eschewing synthetic nitrogen fertiliser for the recycling of urban wastes, as well as improving energy efficiency.

Furthermore, the smaller plots of land and urban farms in urban agriculture are a lot more productive than industrialised, energy-intensive monocultures. “Smaller farms are more land and environmental resource efficient than larger ones” and can be “two to ten times more productive” than larger farms.


Despite the advantages of improved energy efficiency, productivity, and food security, there are problems associated with urban agricultural systems. Due to the industrialisation of food systems and the disconnect between town and country there is a real need for education (or re-education) of urban populations, as the “majority of people in urban populations have very little understanding of how their food is produced, transported, processed, or distributed“.

Additionally, there are some foodstuffs that are not suitable for urban agriculture. Growing fruit and vegetables within urban areas, like Cuba where “approximately 60% of all of the vegetables consumed” makes sense, but “cereal crops can be grown efficiently only in rural areas.” And if not done properly, there is the problem of health risk and contamination – untreated wastewater, agrochemicals, traffic emissions, and industrial effluents can all contaminate soils and crops and produce major health risks.

And as mentioned above, growing cities and urbanisation can encroach upon sites potentially suitable for urban agriculture. In London, for example,

“whilst demand [for allotments] was at an all-time high across the capital, the pressures caused by high density building was further decreasing the amount of allotment land.” [x]

Examples of Urban Agriculture


In 1989/90 the socialist economic bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, with the Soviet Union following. With it went the vast majority of Cuba’s trading partners, as the socialist bloc represented 80-85% of Cuban trade. Imports of fuel, pesticides, oil, fertilisers, and food all fell massively. Cuban farm yields dropped by between 15-50%, and the average Cuban citizen suffered a weight loss of 20 pounds. Malnutrition was widespread.

These events led to what was called the “Special Period”, a “wartime economy style austerity program” that lasted for around a decade. A detailed analysis of Cuba’s economy and agriculture during the Special Period is beyond the scope of this article, so the focus will be on how urban agriculture contributed to coping with and solving the crisis.

Peter Rosset, a food rights activist and agroecologist, sums up the importance of urban agriculture well:

“There can be no doubt that urban farming, relying almost exclusively on organic techniques, has played a key role in assuring the food security of Cuban families” [x]

Urban agriculture was virtually non-existent prior to the Cuban Special Period, and was in fact “perceived by many as a sign of poverty and underdevelopment“. Absolute necessity dictated a change, and during the Special Period President Fidel Castro “proclaimed that no piece of land should be left uncultivated“.

By 1998 there were “8,000 gardens in Havana, cultivated by over 30,000 people and creating 160,000 jobs, and by 2001 this had resulted in urban gardens supplying “about 60% of all the vegetables consumed in Cuba.” In doing so they provided “nearly enough fresh produce to meet minimum daily standards set by the UN FAO.” Urban agriculture has increased food production in a time of need whilst encouraging ecologically benign cultivation methods such as organic fertilisation, crop rotation, and integrated pest management.

Urban agriculture in Cuba has not been without problems however. There are still issues of poor quality urban topsoil and water scarcity during the November – April dry season, as well as more generic problems of contamination, weeds, and insect pests. It is extremely heterogeneous and in some cases still uses biocides (because of this “most Cubans preferred to refer to Cuban farming as ‘agroecology’ as opposed to ‘organic agriculture“). Despite these problems however, urban agriculture helped to avoid famine in a crucial period in Cuba’s recent history, and went beyond simply improving food security:

“Using manual instead of mechanical labour urban agriculture mitigated unemployment by providing work. By strengthening neighbourhood cohesion, solidarity, morale and community pride it helped soften the psychosocial impact of the crisis.” [x]

Other examples

The UK (especially England) has had a history of urban agriculture in the form of allotments, which first existed as a response to food shortages (for example during wartime) but more recently have helped to promote local food and self-sufficiency. However despite increased demand for allotment spaces for food gardening and recreation, urbanisation (especially in cities like London) is “further decreasing the amount of allotment land” available to citizens. More recent projects include Incredible Edible Todmorden (video here), an urban gardening project that helps promote local food in West Yorkshire, and the GrowUp Box founded in 2013 to “to build sustainable commercial urban farms growing food for local markets”.

A few notable examples from the US include The Plant, Chicago’s biggest urban farm which grows “more than 200 varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables and herbs” and aims to “provide more than 125 green jobs” for the local area. Additionally, there is Ohio City Farm, a a six-acre inholding which promotes skill-building and community cohesion, the Beacon Food Forest, and the Brooklyn Grange Farm, the “leading rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the US.”

Examples outside the “West” include small start-up farms in Shanghai,Chinahydroponic vegetable gardens in Vietnam, government-backed urban agriculture projects in Rosario, Argentina, and NGO-supported urban agriculture in Bangkok, Thailand.