Friday, August 02, 2019

"Green" Agriculture - A critical appraisal

The challenge for socialism to re-think food itself, how we produce it and the systems we use to process, distribute and deliver it and to create diets and foods for the future that are safe, healthy, nutritious and ecologically sound for the planet.

It may be very difficult for many environmentalists to accept but parts of their movement is really a greenwashing attempt to create a new model of capital accumulation for global corporate capitalism, based on "the commodification of the commons." 

Green Capitalism, like the first Industrial Revolution, is based on a large-scale process of primitive accumulation (a technical term Marxists use that simply means massive theft). The primitive accumulation preceding the rise of the factory system in industrial Britain involved the enclosure of common lands. The new green model of corporate-state capitalism partly based on agricultural land-grab but also on enclosing digital information and innovation, heavily reliant on patents and copyrights than the existing version of corporate capitalism. The "green capitalist" model is intended as a response to the primary threat facing corporate capitalism and its model of capital accumulation: the technological potential of abundance. If allowed to operate without hindrance, the free adoption of technologies and freely replicable digital information would not only destroy most existing corporate profits but render most investment capital superfluous. It's this threat, all the "progressive" rhetoric aside, that "green capitalism" is intended to head off. It's a last-ditch effort to rescue an entire system of class privilege and economic exploitation based on artificial scarcity from the revolutionary impact of abundance.

Agriculture, both ancient and modern, has always been about adapting the landscape and finding ways to get more production out of the same land, as the authors point out. The assumption is that what we are seeing is potentially devastating soil degradation and/or enormous losses in biodiversity. In fact, soil degradation is much worse in poorer countries and among nomadic peoples. Big farmers have maintained soil quality and vastly increased yields. The best method to avoid such erosion is ‘no till’ agriculture, which relies on synthetic herbicides and genetically modified crops that food activists decry. The earthworm-rich soils, so prized by organic farmers, are being achieved through contemporary no-till (or no-plough) techniques. One high-tech solution is known as no-till farming. The plough may be the icon of farming, but it turns out that ploughing actually wrecks the soil. Compared to the bad old days where virtually every part of a field was ploughed, these days the scars are restricted to two-centimetre-wide furrows 30 cm apart. No-till systems also win hands down when it comes to hanging on to soils. An 11-year farming experiment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland, compared crops grown three ways: conventional tillage, organic methods, or no-till. Compared to the conventional tilled plot, the organic plot was likely to hang on to 30 per cent more soil. But compared to the organic plot, the no-till plot hung on to 80 per cent more soil. (It's possible to combine organic and no-till on a small scale by relying on hand weeding. But that's not practical for large-scale farming. And without tilling, it's difficult to work manures into the soil.) In Australia, most farmers use rotation to get crops out of synchronisation with weeds and to return nutrients to the soil. Natural predators are being used to control pests, and companies are producing safe, short-acting pesticides. In fact, a pesticide called Spinosad, can be used by organic farmers because it is naturally produced by bacteria.

The soil that farmers prize has a structure that resembles a stack of peas with pores running through it. Earthworms and other creatures maintain this structure, and the whole thing is meshed together by the tendrils of fungi and plant roots. In other words – a spongy soil that holds onto water and won't blow away. Too much tillage destroys that structure, so a method of no-till farming had to be developed. Tillage is used to bury the previous year's crop residue and destroy weeds. But in no-till farming, herbicide removes the weeds and the new seed is sown directly into the stubble of the last crop. Leaving the stubble in the soil means the planet benefits. All that carbon kept in the ground by no-till farming reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to eight million tonnes per year.

The concept of "food miles" and eating local is flawed. Despite its popularity, the concept and its underlying rationale have been convincingly debunked in numerous life-cycle assessment (LCA) studies, a methodology that examines the environmental impact associated with all the stages of a product’s life cycle, from raw-material extraction to disposal of the finished product. Transportation is only one small element of the environmental impact of food production. In the US, for example, researchers have found that the "food miles" segment (the bit from producer to retailer) only accounts for 4% of total emissions, but 83% of a household’s carbon emissions related to food come from the production of the food. Therefore, food should be produced in the most ideal circumstances in order to minimise those emissions. That’s why it makes more sense for British people to eat New Zealand lamb or Spanish tomatoes, environmentally, than eating local, because the efficiency of production more than makes up for the distance travelled. Moreover, buying fresh from around the world makes more sense than storing local production. Indeed, the short hop to the supermarket by car to bring home a comparatively small amount of food may cause more carbon emissions than the shipping - or even flying - of food in bulk from thousands of miles away. You specialise in what you do best rather than being a jack of all trades  , you become more efficient at it and we are all better off.

One of the main lessons to be learned from experience over the last century-and-a-half is that autarkic food policies, relying on their own production or that of their local area can only result in disaster. If improving sustainability and reducing the environmental footprint is the goal, we need to be prepared to use the best tools we have. Going ‘organic’ and/or ‘local’ would mean lower yields and hence more wild land being brought into food production. That hardly seems to count as sane stewardship. Our problem is that we’re not globalised enough. There is one way the world can feed all the billions alive today with organic farming: we all go vegetarian. Half the world's grain is grown for cattle, and this is undeniably a highly inefficient use of soil, farming land and resources. But the reality is that the demand for meat is forecasted to double by 2030.

Modern farming techniques have evolved after decades of pressure from the environmental movement and decades of work by a generation of scientists inspired by environmental awareness. In fact, conventional farming is starting to look a lot like organic farming. For example, organic farmers will use litres of BT spray (BT is a 'natural' pesticide made by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis), yet they often demonise the genetically modified (GM) cotton crops that carry an inbuilt supply of BT, and which therefore require less spraying. However, these GM varieties spare farmers – and the environment – from the risks of pesticide overuse. For instance, according to Richard Roush, the Dean of land and food resources at the University of Melbourne, cotton farmers in India have reduced their use of pesticides and accidental poisonings by 80 per cent since the introduction of genetically modified BT cotton.

The free market is seriously flawed, but the answer is not to tinker around with it but to supersede that system with something better and not retreat into the limitations of the past. The real fact of the matter is that there is already enough food to feed the world's population right now and into the future. The US and Europe wastes millions of tonnes of food each year. Quite simply, GM food is not needed to feed the world. Let's farm along with nature, not against it. The message is clear: develop sustainably and conserve thoughtfully. Agricultural biodiversity is the foundation for all food production and our food security. GM crops which have come up in the recent past are the greatest singular threat for biodiversity. A broad genetic base is vital for healthy agriculture and overcoming new epidemics of pests and diseases and for adapting to climate change. Such a base is immensely reduced in the case of GM crops as they encourage monoculture.

What socialists seek is a self-organised, decentralised economy, in which ordinary people take advantage of new technologies of abundance. The beauty of the age we live in is that we possess new production technology. So the question is, which model do we want to follow? Toiling under the domination of bosses and corporations or a society of self-governance, leisure and mutual cooperation. That said, agriculture - of whatever kind - is there to feed people.

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