The Rise and Predictable Fall of Globalized Industrial Agriculture

Today I’d like to introduce you to a (well written and beautifully presented) report, titled – ‘The Rise and Predictable Fall of Globalized Industrial Agriculture‘ (55 page, 2.4mb PDF). The title says it all. Should you be concerned? Yes.

Your concern, however, should not be that the globalised industrial agribusiness model will collapse – this is not only inevitable, but also necessary, and, might I add, desirable – the focus should instead be on when and how it will fall.

Let me explain.

If you were to ask the Average Joe what is the largest contributor to global warming, many will say cars, trucks and aeroplanes – or coal fired power plants. While these are large contributors, they cannot compete with the largest, yet mostly overlooked contribution from our present system of farming and global food trading. Global warming is primarily due to agriculture. Indeed, much of the above-stated contributors are merely essential aspects in maintaining the globalised agricultural model:

Agriculture is responsible for an estimated one-third of emissions that contribute to global warming and climate change. It is generally agreed that about 25 percent of the main greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide -— is produced by agricultural pesticides and chemicals, and via deforestation and the burning of biomass. Most of the methane in the atmosphere comes from domestic ruminants, forest fires, wetland rice cultivation and waste products, while conventional tillage and fertilizer use account for 70 percent of the nitrous oxides. — The Rise and Predictable Fall of Globalized Industrial Agriculture (2.5mb PDF)

On first glance, the global food supply appears to have little to do with climate change. A potentially looming food crisis that the world is being warned about has not been directly created by car exhaust fumes or factories billowing smoke into the atmosphere, after all.

But as it turns out, the food chain has been responsible for significant growths in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere over time, forcing us to re-evaluate how we grow and transport our food in light of shrinking land availability, a growing world population, dire water shortages, mass animal and plant extinctions — not to mention the quest for new sources of energy.

It turns out that how we eat is affecting climate change — and climate change is affecting how we eat.

According to the UK’s Soil Association, 50 percent of the increase in global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 1990 has been tied to changes in land use –mainly because of farming practices.

Today, the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) estimates that as much as 31 percent of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the food chain. More than half of that amount — 18 percent of total emissions — comes from meat production….

The other main contributor to food-related emissions is how the food gets to us in the first place. According to Farmers Weekly, the amount of food that is air-freighted around the world has increased by 140 percent since 1990. The UK, for example, now imports more food than it exports, with 95 percent of its fruit and 50 percent of its vegetables coming from overseas. It is generally accepted that the global transportation sector contributes 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. – WBCSD

This does not even take into account the massive social restructuring and urbanisation that has come about from the creation of a system where 1-2% of industrialised populations take the role of growing food for the other 98-99%, and the inefficiencies of supply involved (i.e. consider food transport from pre-industrial times – from your garden to your plate). The remaining majority are subsequently ‘free’ to become detached from natural systems and the consequences of their specialist labours, where they must necessarily make a living by creating an unending supply of destructive consumer products and pastimes. Indeed, even the 2% still working the land are working on such a scale that they too are detached from traditional knowledge – being now dependent on a corporate-produced colour-by-numbers approach to farming that assumes linear conditions worldwide and prioritises purchased inputs over working harmoniously with the free and healthful systems available to us – systems which some cultures made use of with high populations on the same land for millennia.

Our present system of food production, commodification and trade brings with it many associated climate-change-inducing inefficiencies, as well as a chain-reaction of environmentally, socially and economically destructive practices. So, in the long term at least, it’s not all bad news that this system is bringing about its own demise. Here are several of the main ways this is happening:

  • Climate change: The IPCC report and other studies predict that agriculture is going to become increasingly difficult in a warming world. Indeed, we don’t even need to look to the future, as it’s happening around us today. More droughts, more floods. Whereas sustainable farming practices and localised distribution are carbon neutral, the globalised monocrop model is the largest contributor to climate change.
  • Peak Oil: The whole model is based on perpetual supplies of fossil fuels — from production (farm machinery, pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers), through to transportation, distribution and purchasing. Even the centralised retail aspect is a major contributor. At a time where energy demand is expected to increase exponentially, energy supplies are waning. This will necessarily drive up the cost of food production.
  • Peak Water: Arguably the biggest concern for this century. Modern farming systems use significantly more water, due to the lack of soil structure inherent in these systems, and along with the use of seed strains unsuitable for their locale.
  • Peak Soil: Depletion/Compaction/Erosion. Along with water, this is our most precious of resources, and its health is last on the list of priorities for the industries that have almost complete control of it.
  • Desertification: Caused by loss of soil life and moisture, overgrazing, over-cultivating, lack of cover crops, etc..
  • Land Use Competition: Think biofuels and population growth.
  • Changing Diets – China and other Asian nations developing a penchant for western land/water-intensive diets.

The issues above are happening today. Add them all up, and it equates to another ‘peak’ term – Peak Food. Although many would cling to the globalised industrial agricultural model with the claim that it’s feeding more mouths than ever – this is no longer true – global grain harvests, for example, are at their lowest in thirty five years – and even if it were still true it would be half of our precarious problem. Just like those ominous peak oil charts that show a growing gap between energy demand and energy supply, our short-sighted agricultural approach has created the ultimate in vulnerabilities. What has not been recognised, or has been outright ignored is that our over-production since the ‘Green Revolution‘ of post-WWII has been through the exhaustion of the very resources those mouths depend on. It is profitable to steal from tomorrow, so that’s what we’ve done. You’ve heard the term ‘oil shock’, prepare for ‘food shock’. And for those feeling comfortable in wealthy industrialised countries, it’s important to note that nations like the U.S., the UK, etc., are all highly dependent on food imports today – and climate change is destroying crops and shrinking harvests in these countries too.

This is where the featured report becomes so significant and timely. This brings us to the ‘when and how’ of it. The Rise and Predictable Fall of Globalized Industrial Agriculture ably examines how we got into this situation – who is controlling it, where they’re headed, and, more importantly, what we need to do to avoid the environmental, social, economic and, might I add, humanitarian disasters that await if we persist with the status quo. The author, Debbie Barker of the International Forum on Globalization, recognises that a rapid shift in food systems would be catastrophic – and as such we require a planned and carefully implemented transition via policy reforms and the incentivising of sustainable farming systems.

The report looks at how powerful entities like the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have, under a guise of creating a ‘level playing field’, actually created a mammoth system of preferential treatment that favours a scant few at the expense of the rest of us. It shows how these organisations benefit a few powerful and ever-consolidating corporations at the expense of local economies and local environs – and most governments are powerless to do anything about it (although some are now beginning to fight back).

The report is broken into three logically laid out sections:

  1. Who Owns Food? A New Urgency for Change
  2. WTO and the Architecture of Control
  3. Countertrends – Resistance, Renewal, and Alternatives

If you want to be conversant on what are arguably the most pressing issues of our time, I’d highly recommend you take a look at this report.

An epic planetary struggle is now underway that will ultimately have more to do with the future well being of human beings on the planet than will the far noisier wars over oil, or terrorism, or political ideology. That is the battle over who will ultimately control the cultivation, production and distribution of the world’s food. This issue is surely among the most important for the ultimate survival of human communities, along with the crisis of the availability of fresh water on the planet.

The question is this: Should the cycle of food production remain in the hands of small, independent farmers who are intimately engaged with the ecology of the land, familiar with the soil, local climate, local microorganisms, water resources, wild creatures, and local cultures? Throughout human history, farmers living close to the land and to their communities have fed the world and, with a few exceptions, maintained an abiding allegiance to local and regional needs. Even today, regional farming continues to feed a majority of the population.

Or, should food production and distribution be centrally controlled by giant, globe-spanning business enterprises? They advertise that they can more efficiently “feed a hungry world,” but have no direct relationships to local lands or communities. They operate according to a hierarchy of values that places institutional profits above all other concerns. Their program is to convert millions of acres that once grew a great diversity of locally developed food crops into vast monocultures, fed by pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and requiring oil-guzzling machinery, commercial seeds, et. al. Food is then transported across continents and oceans, often destined for luxury markets within already well-fed countries.

… This report will attempt to do several things. First, to briefly review the current state of play in the global production of food, its distribution, and some of the main social and ecological effects of this model of production. Second, it will explain some of the components of the current architecture of the system, the WTO agreements, and their common practices, and reveal how they inherently bring about inequity, social and cultural breakdown, and environmental harm on a massive scale…. Third, the report will also offer some specific proposals to help achieve food and fiber systems that ensure food security and self-reliance, maintain the integrity of livelihoods, local cultures and communities, and that preserve natural resources. – The Rise and Predictable Fall of Globalized Industrial Agriculture (2.5mb PDF)

This entry was posted in Energy, Global Warming, Pollution, Soil.

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