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 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


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  • Apostolides, A., Broadberry, S., Campbell, B., Overton, M., van Leeuwen, B. (2008). English Agricultural Output and Labour Productivity, 1250- 1850: some preliminary estimates. http://www.basvanleeuwen.net/bestanden/agriclongrun1250to1850.pdf 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. http://www.ifr.ac.uk/waste/Reports/DEFRA-Ensuring-UK-Food-Security-in-a-changing-world-170708.pdf Accessed 23 October 2015.
  • Fotopoulos, T. (1997). Towards an Inclusive Democracy. Cassell, London and New York.
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  • 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. https://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=EttWlupviYA%3D&tabid=215 Accessed 22 October 2015.
  • McKay, I., Elkin, G., Neal, D., Boraas, E. (2008). An Anarchist FAQ. http://www.infoshop.org/AnarchistFAQSectionE3 Accessed 27 October 2015.
  • Out of the Woods (2014). Class struggles, climate change, and the origins of modern agriculture. https://libcom.org/blog/class-struggles-climate-change-origins-modern-agriculture-18082014 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. http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/occupations/abstracts/paper7.pdf Accessed 27 October 2015.

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.

Climate Change: Why Africans Still Celebrate When The Rains Arrive.

The idea for this post came from something I heard when the BBC were reporting on Nelson Mandela’s funeral. A reporter asked one person why they were so happy despite the fact it was raining, presumably because us British usually just get annoyed when it rains. To the African this must have seemed like such a stupid question, and let me explain why.

We all depend on rain to provide water to grow our food, but in the UK, like many other industrialised countries, we have become disconnected from this fact. Many simply think we can go into a shop and find all the food we want. We don’t stop and think about the process involved in growing it. However, Africans are still very linked to their food production system. They celebrate the rains as they know without them, there will be a drought, crops will struggle to grow, and consequently there will be a lack of food.

Just last night on TV ‘The Tea Trail with Simon Reeve‘ outlined the fact that many Maasai people are struggling to make a living from their cattle because rains are so unpredictable nowadays. An elder admitted that they used to be able to depend on the rains, but have now started to grow more drought resistant crops. Simply relying on cattle to provide an income was no longer sustainable. But why are the rains more unpredictable now, than in the past? It’s not just the Maasai that have noticed this but the whole of Africa. Less rain is falling over the continent.

The reason many believe for this change in rainfall pattern is climate change. However, rainfall can also be affected by more local factors. For example, large areas of Africa are being deforested so that crops can be grown or buildings built in order to cope with their booming population. Forest helps to sustain moisture in a sort of micro climate around it. I won’t go into the exact details of how this works, but once the forest is removed then there is reduced rainfall. Follow this link for more information, it concerns tropical forests, but the principal is the same: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/3284/loss_of_tropical_forests_reduces_rain.

African also regularly influence their local weather, by burning vast areas of grassland, usually in game reserves. In the past, this used to happen naturally where dry grass would be set alight by lightning during thunderstorms. However, nowadays burning must be much more controlled in order to not affect tourism which provides a vital income, and due to their increased population size. The reason this burning is carried out is that the high temperatures generated by the fires, trigger rains in that area. This rain provides vital moisture for plants to re-grow and so unsurprisingly the great wildebeest migration between the Serengeti and Maasai Mara follows these rains in order to find food. Therefore it can be seen that local rains can be triggered by Africans themselves. Unfortunately these rains induced by burning are not for the purpose of growing crops, so don’t really help to solve the problem of unpredictable rains.

Baby elephant sheltering from the rain. Image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

As a continent Africa does lack water, and climate change is only increasing the problem by making Africa hotter. Many desert areas such as the Sahara are increasing as a result. Droughts are now causing or contributing towards a huge humanitarian crisis in East Africa. Therefore the Africans have every right to celebrate the rains, more so now than before. We should also celebrate the rains too, as many of our food products are imported from Africa. Also without regular rains, the vegetation which can survive in certain areas will change, affecting the animals which eat it to survive; that is if they aren’t all poached to extinction first.

This post serves as an example of how less industrialised countries are more vulnerable to changes in climate than industrialised countries. Just because we live in a society where we mostly have a good quality of life, doesn’t mean we can ignore the hardships endured by people in other countries. Remember industrialised countries are mostly responsible for climate change.

Further information:

1. Analysing the underlying causes of vulnerability. http://www.careclimatechange.org/tk/cba/en/step_by_step_guidance/analysis/vulnerability.html

2. The socioeconomics of food crop production and climate change vulnerability: a global scale quantitative analysis of how grain crops are sensitive to drought. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12571-012-0173-4#page-1

3. Achieving food security in the face of climate change: final report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change. http://agris.fao.org/agris-search/search.do?f=2013/GB/GB2013201600016.xml;GB2013201636

4. Crop Adaptation to Climate Change. http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Ptz5RvWEjI4C&oi=fnd&pg=PT100&dq=climate+change+vulnerable+food+africa&ots=IZvAHTuMd3&sig=OFHbNYy0ubxmFKGD-moH3XXGsec#v=onepage&q=climate%20change%20vulnerable%20food%20africa&f=false

5. Climate change risks for African agriculture. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/11/4313.short

6. Vulnerability of the South African farming sector to climate change and variability: An indicator approach. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1477-8947.2010.01302.x/abstract;jsessionid=20D8E4925AF4DEAF1ED12A09B17F4103.f04t03?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false