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From The Socialist newspaper, 15 January 2020

Readers' opinion

Sustainable food production and the need for socialism

Millions of predominately young people around the world protested in 2019 at the lack of governmental action to halt global warming which is leading to catastrophic climate change. A major contributory factor in global warming is deforestation - largely driven by profit-seeking agribusiness. And related to deforestation, are the pressing issues of soil erosion and environmental degradation.
One-third of topsoil has already gone and according to the United Nations the planet's remaining topsoil will be exhausted in 60 years' time. How then will an estimated 10 billion people be fed?
Socialist Party member Dana Mirov suggests a sustainable alternative to food production under capitalism.
photo Lewis Clarke/CC

photo Lewis Clarke/CC   (Click to enlarge)

Recently, in horror, the world watched the burning of the Amazon rainforest. Thousands of fires engulfed primeval forests that are considered the 'lungs of the planet'. It was widely acknowledged that the responsibility lay with the needs of industrial agriculture. And rightly, millions of people around the world wondered how it made sense to kill the planet that sustains us, in order to feed us.

The Brazilian far-right president Bolsonaro, under whose watch the destruction of the Amazon rainforest has been dramatically accelerated, in full ideological agreement with the US administration, is pushing for more intensification of agriculture.

But that doesn't mean that the environmental destruction caused by agriculture is anything new. On the contrary, it has been going on for a very long time as the problem is inherent in the capitalist mode of food production.

Metabolic rift

Karl Marx addressed this issue in the 19th century. He coined a term "metabolic rift", by which he meant an unrepairable rupture in natural cycles and processes caused by capitalism. With its insatiable pursuit of profit, capitalism inevitably puts increasing pressure on ecological systems. Marx's idea of the metabolic rift specifically addressed capitalist agriculture and a rupture in the natural soil nutrient cycle, caused by relentless demands and abuse of soil.

Today the problem of environmental degradation has reached such catastrophic levels that it has led to the changes in the planet's climate. The industrial food system is responsible for around 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions (according to Grain, a small non-profit). This includes everything from food production, to processing, packaging, distribution and waste disposal. Just agriculture, including deforestation and land use change, is responsible for around 25% of emissions.

It is clear that the capitalist model of agriculture and the food industry as a whole will have to be transformed fundamentally to bring it to sustainable levels.

Arable industrial agriculture is seen in single crops (monocultures) grown over huge areas. Monocultures are extremely susceptible to diseases and predators, so tonnes of chemicals are sprayed over the plants both as a cure and a prevention.

Chemicals don't just kill predators but also beneficial insects that otherwise would feed on predators. Soil microbe life like bacteria and fungi, that naturally make the soil fertile, also suffer. With the loss of soil fertility, farmers are forced to use artificial fertilisers, which further destroy soil life.

This chemical treadmill has been unstoppable for many decades following World War Two - when the chemical industry persuaded western capitalist governments of the necessity of chemical agriculture for 'feeding the world'.

In fact, they were just looking for a market for their products used in the war that were now obsolete. This was the essence of the so-called Green Revolution, introduced both in the west and, through imperialist policies, imposed on many other parts of the world.

It transformed the way food was produced worldwide, from small scale, low-input, labour-intensive but more ecological and more farmer-controlled farming, to labour reducing but corporate-controlled, high-input and unecological methods.

The reduction of labour needed to work the land went hand-in-hand with land grabs and the transformation of rural populations into an urban working class, or simply their displacement into city slums - a very similar process to enclosures and clearances in Britain a few centuries earlier.

Green Revolution

The Green Revolution increased food production worldwide, but to what end and at what cost? Under capitalism food is produced as a commodity, not to satisfy one of the most essential human needs.

Increased production didn't stop people going hungry; the two are thoroughly unrelated in the capitalist economic model. In fact, it left many rural communities that previously relied on subsistence farming without a secure supply of food, for the first time.

At the same time, rising agribusiness was raking in huge profits, both through sales of chemicals and its monopoly over food production. More food was produced but more food was also wasted. If capitalists can't make a profit, they will throw the food away rather than feed the hungry. Today a quarter of all food produced goes to waste. So much for 'feeding the world'.

The cost of the Green Revolution is huge, not to agribusiness but to ordinary people whose food has been made unhealthy (fruits and vegetables have become less nutritious and processed foods high in trans fats, salt and sugar, etc) and the environment destroyed.

Increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere is also depleting plants of nutrients, and at the same time increasing sugars and carbohydrates, turning the plants into junk food. This article is too short to go into the details, but this can serve as an indication of the interconnectedness of natural processes that are yet to be fully taken into account when assessing modern illnesses.

Because of the chemical treadmill there are ever stronger chemicals produced as the previous ones cease to be effective against weeds and pests. Companies like Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) produce patented genetically modified (GM) herbicide resistant crops.

These GM crop seeds are sold under licence to farmers who use the associated herbicide and cannot store the seeds for the next season. Brazilian farmers recently lost a $7.7 billion lawsuit against Monsanto over royalty payments.

As well as weeds developing resistance these powerful herbicides can drift afield, devastating other crops. Some herbicides contain chemicals similar to the notorious defoliant Agent Orange used by the US army in the Vietnam war.

Various studies show that topsoil is so depleted due to chemical usage and heavy tilling that there are only 60 harvests, ie years, left globally. That means, if the treadmill continues, humans will not be able to grow food after that.

Animal farming too had seen a shift from small scale and free range to huge factory farms housing thousands of animals. Apart from animal cruelty, which is an argument in its own right, these factories are phenomenal air and water polluters.

In such a crammed environment, infections are extremely likely and antibiotics are used again as prevention and cure. The vast majority of antibiotic use today actually comes from factory farms.

The antibiotic residue ends up in waterways and eventually in household water systems, as indeed is also true of agricultural chemicals, contributing to antibiotic resistance and overexposure to pesticides (many studies now show widespread pesticide presence in human urine in all countries tested).

Monocultures and factory farms also heavily rely on fossil fuels - pesticides themselves are oil derivatives.

The burning of the Amazon will make even more land available for monoculture crops, which will mainly be used as animal feed in factory farms, for meat that will be sold in our supermarkets.

It is little wonder that repulsion over the meat industry leads some people to argue for avoidance of animal products altogether as a way of saving the environment. This argument has become very powerful but it is nevertheless misleading in several aspects.

Intensive farming

First, as this article argues, it is not agriculture as such but industrial agriculture that is the problem. This relates to both arable and animal farming. Humans have kept animals for thousands of years with little impact on the planet's climate. The problem has arisen with the industrialisation of animal farming.

If the meat industry is one of the contributors to climate change, which is not under doubt, it only points to the scale and method of capitalist meat production.

Small scale and free range is not only unproblematic but is actually extremely useful for soil restoration. Grass-fed animals provide high-quality natural fertiliser. Their manure feeds the microbe soil life which regenerates the soil by returning nutrients to it.

A lot has been made about methane emissions too. However, there are studies that show that grass-fed animals produce 70% less methane than factory-farmed, grain-fed animals.

As in small-scale animal husbandry there are by definition far fewer animals than in factory farming, the methane emissions in such a system is negligible. As was the case before the introduction of intensive factory farming.

Some in the anti-meat lobby miss the point by addressing the consequences of intensive production instead of the cause, which is capitalism itself.

By concentrating on meat production instead of the method of production, ie on what is produced rather than how it's produced, it fails to address the real factor responsible for environmental degradation. It therefore deflects the search for solutions, with possible dire consequences.

If a plant-based diet relies on equally intensive growing methods, it will be equally damaging to the environment. On the other hand, if it doesn't rely on high fossil fuel based inputs, but rather on agri-ecological methods, then there is no reason not to have meat produced in the same way.


Strident anti-meat advocates also deflect from the method of struggle. Instead of directing the struggle towards the capitalist system, looking to the organised working class as instrumental in this task, it concentrates on individual 'lifestyle choices' which in reality are not real choices nor can they be effective in achieving results.

Working-class people often do not have the luxury to follow dietary trends. Meat is cheap and readily available - there is no real choice there if you are pressed for money and time. But neither will individual dietary choices ever come close to tackling problems that are essentially systemic in nature. The best they can do is create a niche market within the capitalist economy, for those who can afford it.

There is no question, however, that our diets will have to change quite dramatically, to include far less meat but also far less chemically produced and processed foods. This will have to be the result of conscious political decisions to transform food production.

However, it is quite impossible that any such decisions will be made by capitalist governments whose role is to protect and advance the interests of big business. This is why the struggle for socialism is both necessary and urgent. It is inseparably connected with the struggle to save the environment.

We need to take democratic charge of the food system and transform it to promote health while looking after the environment. Nationalisation of the food industry is a necessary first step in achieving this.

Providing land workers with land, who would rebuild biodiversity and put nutrients back in the soil, while growing food as a service to society rather than to corporate shareholders, would go towards enhancing healthy diets as well as attempting to heal the rift in the nature's metabolism.

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In The Socialist 15 January 2020:

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