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Food production for profit and climate change

Capitalism has succeeded in replacing the virtuous circle of growth and fertilisation, which is the unalterable premise of agriculture, with a vicious cycle of degradation.

The “green revolution “techniques adopted by profit-driven agribusiness since the 1960s, including the switch to manufactured fertilisers, have ravaged the soil and increased pressure to bring new land into use, driving deforestation.

More than a quarter of the CO2 currently trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, which is driving climate change, has come from the destruction of soil resulting from this period of the growth in intensive, industrialised agriculture.

To the emissions produced by farming itself, must be added the emissions from all the other aspects of the changes in food production – the growing distance from the farm to the consumer and the domination of sale and distribution by supermarkets whose profits rely on chemical processing of food crops, to the detriment of people’s health.

Sustainable farming campaigners GRAIN have produced a new report that finds that the emissions produced by farming itself is between 11%-15% of the global total. But to that must be added:

That gives a total of  between a bottom estimate of 44% to a highest estimate of 57% of the total contribution of food production to greenhouse gas emissions.

Therefore, the total of global CO2 emissions can only be reduced to the extent that we succeed in cutting emissions from food production. GRAIN proposes that we must “turn the food system upside down”, but in reality what we would be doing is putting it back on its feet!

Scientific reports show that cultivated soils have lost from 30 to 75% of their organic matter in the 20th century. Reversing this process could by itself make a massive contribution to cutting emissions:

The CO2 we have sent into the atmosphere by depleting the world’s soils, can be put back into the soil. All that is required is a change of agricultural practices. We have to move away from practices that destroy organic matter to practices that build up organic matter.

This could be achieved by transforming agriculture to operate on the two key practices that require absolutely no scientific advance to introduce. These are first, diversified cropping instead of monoculture and better integration between arable, vegetable and livestock farming. And second, universal composting in order to return organic matter to the soil.

Added to these simple practices, GRAIN proposes:

With farming now ravaged by extreme weather in many countries, the food revolution is urgently needed now and the measures proposed by GRAIN seem so simple.

But then again not so simple. These changes may not require much scientific advance, but they do require a complete transformation of land ownership and an end to production of food for profit. These may be exactly the same methods used by small farmers now, but small farmers alone cannot provide food for the planet’s growing population. We must transform agribusiness too.

The supermarkets, transport firms and food processing companies would need to become worker-owned, in order to overcome the alienation of people living in cities from the food they eat.

The agribusiness giants could then be switched from profit-driven experimentation to research into how to support natural farming methods. But this democratisation of food can only be brought about by democratisation of society and a shift to common ownership and shared responsibility.

Human society – all its individual members collectively wherever they live, have to be actively involved in bringing about this change in how we produce and consume food. It is after all, our primary need along with clean water and shelter.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
3 October 2011

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