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Food, Agriculture and Climate Change | The Corporate Industrial Model Must Be Replaced | Natural Food and Forest Systems Are Best in Stressful Climates
Agriculture, food and the crisis of climate change
by John W. Warnock
Do we really need another book on the food industry? There are good books available on the structure of the food industry. There are several excellent books on the history of the development of agriculture. In recent years we have seen the emergence of the "food sovereignty movement" challenging the dominant agrifood system. Even this relatively new political perspective has been described in a number of books and many articles.
However, none of the existing books, including those with a political economy approach, address the fundamental change in human society as humans moved away from relatively egalitarian communities, those based on foraging, hunting and gathering, and swidden agriculture and horticulture, to the radical changes which came with the “neolithic revolution.” The introduction of agriculture as the fundamental means of production came with significant increases in populations and the creation of societies based on class divisions, gender divisions, imperial systems, and the degradation of the environment. Few of the books on food, agriculture and the environment address the reality of the structures of power in the present world system of industrial capitalism.
The impact of climate change
Today we are confronted by the reality of climate change. The evidence provided by the scientific community is overwhelming. Furthermore, we can actually see the changes that are occurring around us. But the world wide political system that we have created has been unable to seriously confront the issue and the more radical changes that are to come. No individual country has been willing to take the actions that would be needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many scientists have done research that demonstrates the changes that need to be made to just adapt to the present course of history. That would include the areas of farming and forestry.
But even here we find our governments unwilling to act. Public opinion polls around the world show that the majority of the population understands that there is a crisis and actions need to be taken. The reality of today’s political system is that the majority are unable to actually direct their governments. There are powerful interests who benefit from the status quo, and they are the ones who dominate and control our governments. The necessary change in direction will not happen unless there is a strong popular movement which is able to bring a radical shift towards a true democracy.
The dominant political and economic view today is that we are all individuals who pursue our own self interests. We do not care if our actions hurt others. We do not care if our determination to “maximize our own utilities,” as the economists say, is contrary to the interests of the majority of our community. This is “human nature,” imbedded in our genetic makeup. As Charles Darwin discovered, we are programmed to maximize the possibility of passing on our genes to future generations. “Survival of the fittest,” as the political economist Thomas Malthus argued, is the way nature was created.
It is no surprise that this is the view of the political and economic interests who are in control. But is this really true? Has this been the reality of human existence? In all previous societies? Homo sapiens are a product of evolution. Over some six million years human beings evolved from the great apes in Africa. Does social Darwinism accurately describe how our ancestors evolved? Or were the apes, proto humans and early human civilizations characterized by social living and co-operation? If so, why was there such a great change in more recent times? If one accepts that human beings today are just a product of social Darwinism, then we have to ask if there anything that we can do to change the present situation.
The food system today
The production and distribution of food today is completely dominated by corporate agribusiness. The farming sector is dominated by the farm supply sector, finance capital, the food processing sector and the food distribution system. The share of the consumer’s dollar spent on food that goes to the farming sector has steadily declined over the years. The way food is produced is being radically changed by the vertical integration of farms with large capitalist food enterprises. The most recent changes are the most far reaching: the introduction of genetically engineered crops and the narrowing of the gene pool base for animals grown for consumption.
This entire food system is completely dependent on an enormous fossil fuel subsidy. Long gone is the concept that the production of food involves the capture of energy from the sun. This industrial food system produces extensive environmental contamination and greatly contributes to the problem of greenhouse gases and climate change. One only has to think of the impact of the present animals-for-food regime.
The food system today has become truly international. The move to the free trade/free market regime, which was implemented after 1980, was strongly supported by the large food corporations. A whole range of international political institutions are now in place to protect this system. It would be very difficult for any country to adopt an alternative food system. As just one example, think how difficult it has been for the large majority of the population and farmers of Europe to try to exclude genetically engineered crops.
The main problem for alternative strategies of food production and consumption, including the food security system, is the power structure of international capitalism. Any move towards an ecological and egalitarian alternative is faced with this reality A few alternative models may be developed on a sub-national basis, but any change in the present general political economh requires significant political change.
Will it be possible for any government to shift direction to a sustainable and egalitarian food system? This would require a very strong commitment to popular democracy and a willingness to undertake a major political struggle. Today there are three major challenges to the present system of growing food and feeding people. The first is the reality of global warming and climate change. The second is how to re-establish a system of food production that works with local farming conditions and supports the diversity of food systems necessary for sustainability. How can any government introduce and implement policies which run counter to the free trade and free market system that is in power? The third is how can we feed the one billion people in the world today who have insufficient food?
The present power structures on the international and national level are all committed to the expansion of the present liberal agribusiness system, including the widespread introduction of genetically engineered crops, the monoculture model. Given the reality of climate change, this is not a sustainable system. It is also fundamentally characterized by inequality and hierarchy, the very system that creates poverty and hunger in the first place. It is being forced on poor people around the world without their consent.
The present alternative to these developments calls for the introduction of the ecological agriculture model promoted by the food sovereignty movement. How could this alternative be implemented? Is it the best system for those who are trying to make a living farming? Would it be possible to shift the huge subsidies that governments now give to the agribusiness industry to an alternative strategy? This could only be possible in a country where the government has a very strong commitment to egalitarian democracy.
The book in outline
The book I am currently researching and writing is set in the crisis of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions, which are rising steadily, are producing major changes in our environment. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science put it in 2014, “Climate change is happening here and now. Based on well-established evidence, about 97 percent of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening.”
Governments need to make major changes to head off the worst effects. Over the last twenty years scientists, working with various communities, have shown how we can make changes now to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They have also produced examples of what should be done in the areas of agriculture, herding and forest management to mitigate the changes that are happening. But these changes require major support from governments, including a change in priorities which will impact heavily on the present status quo.
This study will include an overview of the history of food production for human beings. At the heart of the issue is a fundamental disagreement over the nature of human beings. We know that human beings, proto human beings, and our ancestors the apes were all social animals and all lived in community groups. This was a matter of survival. Thus it appears that human beings, as they evolved over millions of years, were co-operative animals. Sharing and mutual support were necessary. Egalitarianism in the form of support for one another was the general rule. Does this reveal the true nature of human beings? Adaptation to the environment seems to have taken priority over the social Darwinism that is so widely supported in today's world.
With the expansion of human populations, and the development of more advanced societies, humans created agricultural systems that were based on inequality and hierarchy. Class divisions appeared, with a small ruling class living in luxury while the large majority lived in poverty and deprivation. These were the slaves, the peasants and the serfs; a new system of patriarchy was entrenched. Why did this happen?
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, which became widely accepted in the 19th century, argued that all individual species, including human beings, were genetically programmed for individual survival and reproduction. This view became the fundamental principle underlying liberal political and economic theory. Human beings are selfish by nature. It is in our genes. It is natural for powerful men to rule. The book will start with an examination of this key issue.
The alternative to the dominant liberal theory would be the existence of societies based on democracy and egalitarianism. Any examination of the political systems in power today will recognize that the basic principles of liberal individualism and selfishness are firmly in control. It is hard to find any country today which has a political system based on co-operation and egalitarian democracy. Is this the end point of human evolution? As we can see when looking at the key issue of how to control global warming and climate change, the present liberal system has proven incapable of meeting the challenge. Private interests, those with power, have successfully blocked any attempt to halt the movement towards a world disaster.
The book will trace the movement of humans beyond the hunting and gathering stage of development to horticulture, the crops and animals chosen for domestication, the beginning of class society, and the revolution which came with the introduction of irrigation and plowed agriculture.One of the major changes with the shift to the production of food by agriculture was the move from communal ownership of land to private ownership and control of land. With this came the intensification of the patriarchal family system. Farmers were now men, who owned the land, and women were basically moved into the house to produce male heirs while maintaining the household. As soon as farming practices improved and farmers could produce a surplus over and above what was needed for reproduction, a system of social class developed. The surplus produced by farmers was seized by new ruling classes. A number of these early systems will be briefly examined.
Capitalism and food production
A radical change in food production and distribution came with the introduction of capitalism and the use of fossil fuel energy. Capitalism demanded a system based on private and individual ownership of land and resources. Farming fundamentally changed with the shift to the production of food as commodities for sale in the market. The capitalist system of food production was introduced during the mercantile period (1600-1750) and transferred around the world through the imperialism and colonialism of the western European countries and their state-supported corporations. With the inclusion of the countries and communities of the less developed global South, food production became an international system.
The introduction of the capitalist system of food production occurred over a long period of time. Large land owners were allied with the ruling classes of the day. Everywhere, peasants and small farmers undertook political struggles of resistance. But over time small food producers, representing a large percentage of the world’s population, have all faced political defeat. The state provided strong support for capitalist development and corporate agribusiness. The power of agribusiness over producers has been enhanced by the scientific revolution of food production. As capitalism advanced, food corporations demanded uniformity of product in order to streamline food processing and distribution and to maximize profits for investors. Farmers who could not adapt to these changes left the system. The remaining large commercial farmers became cogs in the vertically integrated system, controlled from the top down.
Along the way, there were some attempts to create a different food system. The socialist working class and peasant revolutions in Russia and China and a few other countries in the Twentieth Century led to new approaches to the social production of food. In most of these countries, the land was nationalized, a return to the early pre-capitalist system. In many ways the more advanced state socialist governments supported and copied the dominant industrial model of food production that existed in the advanced capitalist countries. With the capitalist countries, they shared a lack of concern for ecological destruction. But in other ways they introduced radical changes to the social structure of farming. Co-operative and communal farms introduced egalitarian experiments in how farming was socially organized. Almost all of these experiments were reversed. But as we now know, there was strong resistance in most of the socialist countries to the political demand for a return to private, family farming, particularly by women. The innovations and experiences of this period are excluded from all the mainstream books on food and agriculture.
The conclusion will show that a clear alternative exists. Governments could introduce farming systems that were ecological and based on democratic ownership and control. But an alternative system will not be implemented until there is a new democratic political revolution. Such a change may well happen, but it seems most likely it would happen after there was a major crisis.