“An academically supported, simply presented, non-dogmatic guide to what’s wrong with today’s food systems and what can be done to change them”

The issue of environmental sustainability has hit the mainstream. Especially with the threat of climate change, attention is finally being paid (it seems) to how to sustain human lives with less negative impact on the environment. While everything that humans do has potential ramifications for sustainability—from the technologies we use to the fuels we burn to power them—it is our ways of feeding ourselves—our food systems—that has long concerned me. This introduction explains why it concerns me, and why I am writing this blog.

Some have argued that agriculture might be our “original sin” when it comes to environmental destruction. Sure enough, there are many examples where pre-modern forms of agriculture have compromised the health of soils, forests, and water sources. Compared with these pre-20th century agricultures, today’s farming systems are even more harmful: they’re mechanized, dependent on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and causing large scale impacts on waterways and existing natural ecologies. Food systems as a whole, if we follow them from “farm to fork”, have additional impacts, for example from long-distance transport, food processing, and food waste. These systems apparently are also not so great for humans: close to one billion people have diet related disease or are obese from eating unhealthy food, while another billion suffer malnutrition and starvation.

As I learned about the problems of food systems, I imagined seemingly obvious solutions. If using fossil fuels to send crops across national borders made no sense, why not grow food close by to where it’s consumed? If large scale, industrial agriculture was destroying waterways and soils, why don’t we grow food on small farms using organic techniques? These thoughts drove me to start a farm where I lived (Alemany Farm, in San Francisco) and to learn and teach the basics of how to grow fruits and vegetables in an environmentally sustainable way. From there my interest expanded, into academic studies, journalistic exploration, and policy-making. As we will see, it turns out solutions do exist—but are not necessarily so simple as I had once imagined!

This blog is intended as an academically supported, simply presented, non-dogmatic guide to what’s wrong with today’s food systems and what can be done to change them, for the better. Though environmentalism is a main concern, and one I know I share with many readers, I am equally concerned for the human element of food systems. How can we create food systems that are socially just in addition to environmentally viable over the long term? How do we satisfy the needs of consumers for healthy affordable food, and the needs of food producers for a dignified livelihood?

I’m writing this blog [1] because after years of both study of and involvement in changing food systems, I think the solutions are out there, and there are many others like me looking for them. Many of these people have written, filmed, or otherwise documented these solutions before me, and I’ve learned a lot from them. I hope this blog is a shortcut for you, to help you access the information and analysis on food systems available out there, without having to start your own research from scratch.

[1] And hopefully, eventually, short book. I plan to post the book, section by section, from start to finish, on this blog. It will be roughly 60 posts, and I plan to post 1-3 times per week.

You can navigate the available individual posts from the Guide from the sidebar, or by linking from the outline printed below. Only active posts will have links.

  • Baseline Concepts
  • Problems in Food Systems
  • Solutions
    • 1. Theories of change, conflict between theories, and the antidogmatist approach
      • 1.1. Example: GMOs
      • 1.2. Example: Meat
      • 1.3. Example: Localism and globalization
      • 1.4. The redistribution of surplus as key to judging productive enterprises
    • 2. (Beyond profit) value production across all parts of the food system
      • 2.1. Peasant farming, family farming, values-based farming
      • 2.2. “The Commons”—through the story of Maine lobsters
      • 2.3. Agroecology—science, movement, and practice
      • 2.4. Regenerative agriculture, carbon farming, agroforestry, permaculture, and more!
      • 2.5. Urban farms: a form of direct provisioning?
      • 2.6. Distribution and processing opportunities
      • 2.7. Fast food sovereignty, even?
      • 2.8. Fair Trade (limitations and best models)
      • 2.9. Nutrition education and reversing the loss of food cultures
      • 2.10. “Upcycling” and reducing food waste streams
      • 2.11. A return to subsistence agriculture?
      • 2.12. The question of large versus small farms
      • 2.13. Beyond the farm: thinking in whole systems
    • 3. Social movements
      • 3.1. From the personal to the global
      • 3.2. “Micro”: your food habits in life
      • 3.3. Community efforts
      • 3.4. National efforts
      • 3.5. International efforts
      • 3.6. The importance of direct action and autonomy
      • 3.7. Addressing land access and use
    • 4. Social regulation
      • 4.1. The role of education
      • 4.2. Maintaining and honoring existing food and farm cultures
      • 4.3. Creating new cultures of value for food
    • 5. Political regulation at various levels (local, national, global)
      • 5.1. Food sovereignty and agroecology at all levels
      • 5.2. Local and subnational examples
      • 5.3. National examples
      • 5.4. Global examples
      • 5.5. The need for greater democracy everywhere
      • 5.6. The limits to democracy
  • Problems within/with the solutions
    • 1. Are movements of farmers and eaters necessarily democratic?
    • 2. Racism in food movements
    • 3. Classism in food movements
    • 4. Gender challenges to food movements
    • 5. Contesting theories of change failing to unite into cohesive movement
    • 6. Is local necessarily better?
    • 7. Can we really fight capitalism through enterprise and democracy?
  • Conclusion

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What is a food system?

But first, what’s a food system? The term “food system” might seem pretty straightforward to some people. It’s the system that surrounds food. Duh. Really, though, we should probably get clearer than that. We can think of the food system as composed of five main aspects: food production, processing (including packaging), distribution, consumption, and disposal or waste (the kind that happens after consumption, since there is also waste that happens in the first three aspects). I’ll introduce each step briefly here, and then give each a bit more detailed treatment in the next four sections.

Production might be the most obvious aspect: barring the eventual realization of Star Trek’s “replicator” technology, we don’t get food out of nothing. It has to be produced, somehow, somewhere. For perhaps obvious reasons, most readers will immediately think of farming as the primary way that food is produced. This is sensible. But let’s not forget that for roughly 95% of human history (as in, during the time humans have been anatomically human according to archeological record), humans got their food via other means besides agriculture. We didn’t do what is thought of as farming: clear land, plant seeds in rows, water the crops, harvest and repeat.

Often, these “other means” of food procurement are lumped into the category of “hunting and gathering”—and certainly these are two activities that humans have used, to eat, over the long arc of our history. Additionally, many contemporary human communities continue to rely on these activities. In discussing “hunter-gatherers”, we need to be careful not to create a picture of non-agricultural people that assumes a certain “primitive-ness” compared with agricultural society. As I’ll cover later, this isn’t the case: many non-agricultural cultures managed lands, species, forests, and crops in very sophisticated ways—sometimes over very large land areas, and just not in ways we consider “agriculture”. Many likely understood how farming could be done, but had no reasons to do so. In fact, scientists increasingly believe that non-agricultural societies historically did far less work to survive than moderns one do—like 17 hours per week of work to secure enough food to live long and healthful lives.

That said, because the audience for this blog is likely to be regularly subsisting on the fruits (literally and metaphorically) of farming, rather than “hunted/gathered/land managed” foods, most of what I’ll discuss in this blog pertains to farming. But let’s try to always keep in the back of our mind that foods from the “wild”—fish being a primary example—are a key part of past and future food systems, and the way these resources are managed are just as important as how farming systems are managed. When I write “farm”, keep in mind that there are sites of food production other than farms, such as rivers, lakes, seas, and forests.

Second is food distribution. Once food is grown, gathered, or otherwise procured, where does it go? How does it get there? What are the means of transmission, both physical and social? What I mean by this is that we should see distribution as including both the ways that food literally moves around (e.g. by truck or train or boat), but also the reasons that compel it to move that way. Food can move from field to fork (or hand, chopstick, or spoon) via family ties, for example, or through a community of sharing. Of course, food also moves in the modern era by way of monetary transactions. That is to say, food moves as a “commodity”, a thing that has “exchange value” (a price) and not just “use value” (a use).

Consumption comes after distribution (even if just seconds after you pick your homegrown cherry tomato from its vine and stick it in your mouth!). We consume food every day—or at least, most of us do, and physical necessity forces us to eat whether we like it or not. As part of our consideration for the consumption aspect of food systems, we can think of the reasons for consumption—which obviously includes survival (i.e. an intake of calories and nutrients necessary to survive as animals), but also cultural influences (why this food and not that one?). Nutritional nuances and impacts (how much foods, of what types, are consumed, and what are the results of this?) and “food safety” are other important aspects of consumption.

Lastly, disposal/waste can be thought of in two main ways. First, the obvious waste that happens—most often in affluent societies—when food is left over after a meal, and thrown “away” instead of consumed by humans. The second form of disposal is the one we consider “out of sight/out of mind”. Why don’t we call it what it is? Poop. Pee. Excrement. Urine. Our food doesn’t just feed us, it continues its life in other forms after it leaves our body—and what we do with this material is just as much part of the food system as farming!

But before we get to that shit, a little more detail on production.

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The scale, method, and character of production

To figure out the impacts, negative or positive, of farming, we need to ask about specific sites of production: what kind of farm is this? There are various aspects to consider. Of course what kind of product(s) the farm produces is an obvious one. But, for the purposes of thinking sustainability outcomes, there are three other important aspects to judge from. Each I’ll describe in terms of a dichotomy. In reality, farms rarely match one side or the other of the dichotomy perfectly, but rather operate on a spectrum in one or more of these aspects.

The three aspects are (and I take this schema from Martha Robbins) a farm’s:
1. “scale” of production, from “small” to “large”
2. “method” of production—the “how” of the farm’s farming—from “agroecological” to “industrial”
3. “character” of production”—the “why” of the farm’s operation—from “peasant” to “capitalist”

Scale is the easiest to describe, since it’s more easily quantified. Is the farm larger or smaller? Are the farm’s plots best measured in square feet or meters, or in acres, or in tens of thousands of acres? Is the farm small enough to be managed by hand, or does it require (often expensive) machinery, like tractors? In the case of fishing, are the boats large or small, using huge nets or small ones? If land is managed by tractor, how much land does one worker manage? Scale connects with many issues, including labor practices and the kinds of products produced. Generally—though not deterministically, meaning not in a simple cause and effect fashion—smaller farms are more ecologically sustainable.

The techniques and processes that produce the food define the method of production. The “industrial” method applies an industrial paradigm to production—meaning mechanization, assembly lines, and labor automation along with homogenization of products and processes, and economies of scale. Industrial methods of agriculture use large amounts of factory-produced inputs (namely fertilizers and pesticides), grow crops in large “monoculture” plots, use the least amount of human labor as possible per unit of output (often replacing this labor with machines), and use unskilled rather than skilled labor as much as possible. Since the industrial method seeks uniformity of the crop, it values fewer more standard varieties for crops, and tends towards creating lots of food waste (like apples with small blemishes). Industrial farming treats soil as nothing more than a medium, where plants are placed and given infusions of the nutrients necessary to produce a consistent, reliable product. These infusions come from the application of inputs, not from the soil itself, and must be applied every year. Importantly, industrial farming relies on lots of water, which often is imported from elsewhere via systems of large dams and water conveyance infrastructure.

Agroecology (which I’ll detail in later sections) is a knowledge-intensive rather than resource-intensive method of production [1]. Agroecological farms seek to reduce inputs by imitating ecological systems and utilizing ecological cycles and processes. Agroecological methods apply readily available fertilizers like animal manures and compost to create and maintain healthy living soils, which in turn support healthy crops. Since it is the soil that feeds the plant, soil is treated with respect and conserved. Agroecology uses crop inter-planting and rotations: a diversity of crops in space and time—instead of “mono” (i.e. single) cultures, it uses “poly” (i.e. many) cultures—avoids major pest and disease pressures. When pest control is needed, agroecological farms seek biological solutions (for example, by planting crops that deter a particular pest) rather than chemical ones. Although all farming uses water, agroecological methods seek to reduce water needs and avoid wasteful water use.

In case it isn’t obvious: industrial methods are generally less sustainable than agroecological ones. The details of each will be described further on in the respective sections on “problems” and “solutions”.

“Character” might be the hardest aspect to describe, because the line is much less clear between the sides of the dichotomy. Many people are unfamiliar with the term “peasant”, which has had many meanings in various historical and geographic contexts. Here, it describes a unit of production (like a farm) that has multiple reasons for production beyond “profit”. Capitalist farms have profit as their bottom line: earning more income from production (by competing in markets) than they spend on costs of production. Although both capitalist and peasant farms sell food products through markets, the peasant farm does so for the purposes of maintaining the peasant farm itself (and usually, the family that the farm is based on).

Some capitalist farms might be technically family-owned, but most family farms are peasant farms, in that they value other goals alongside economic ones. They value production as a lifestyle; for its environmental benefits; or for its connection to the farmer’s particular rural culture. Especially in predominately agrarian societies, family farms produce for their own consumption in addition to for markets (the “subsistence” farm, however, i.e. farms that produce solely for their own consumption, is largely mythological at this point in history). Family farms, unlike capitalist farms, rely mostly on family (and extended family/community) labor, rather than paid wage labor. Again, this is the hardest aspect of farms to maintain a clear dichotomy: farms often combine capitalist intentions (and strategies) with other goals.

Important to note is that a farm’s scale, method, and character are all interlinked. A farm that is capitalist in character tends to seek growth in order to achieve economies of scale, which (usually) pushes their scale larger. A farm that is peasant in character, which wants to sustain its ability to produce, has an incentive to use agroecological methods—to the extent that they lower the farm’s costs and increase its base of productive resources (soil fertility, water availability, firewood sources, etcetera).

[1] Part of the later section will cover how agroecology’s originators and proponents consider it not just as a “science”, but also as a “movement” and “practice”. Much more on agroecology, by a founder of the discipline, can be found here.

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Distribution can similarly be thought of in terms of scale, method, and character (like production). The same caveat about dichotomies goes here, but we can still consider these aspects. For scale, we’d wonder: how far are a farm’s products distributed? In some cases, foods are exported from one country as raw materials, processed in another into a packaged good, and then sent back to the original exporting country. In other cases, products might be processed on the farm and sold directly to a consumer. In terms of character, foods’ distribution is either capitalist (directed towards purchasers based only on considerations of profit-making potential) or non-capitalist. As an example of the latter, we could include the distribution within a household of foods grown in the family allotment garden or farm, or the barter of foods from one gardener to another, or foods provided by a government program to the poor. As a tendency (but not a rule!), peasant farms produce foods that are distributed more often through local and regional markets, rather than exported internationally. By nature, the character of distribution is always based in social relationships, but whether and to what extent these relationships are mediated through money exchange (or not) makes a difference and is worth paying attention to.

There are as many methods of distribution as there are forms of transportation and ways of organizing them. Some new urban farm projects are experimenting with local food distribution, based on bicycle power. The Vermont Sail Freight project has been delivering small-farm-raised products down the Hudson River to urban centers like New York City. For decades after food began to be industrially produced, these industrial products were mostly delivered by railroad. Later, gas/oil-driven engines became more prevalent and trucking overcame rail (some countries have more well developed rail infrastructure, so this isn’t true across the board).

As part of the food system, processing is somewhere between production and distribution—probably it’s closer to production, but since the “production” blog post was already so long I’ll put it here ☺. At times, processing makes distribution possible, as in when fish is packed in oil or salt in order to make it “shelf-stable”. Processing can range from small-scale to large, and can range from using very simple technologies (like canning, which requires only cans, lids, water, and heat), to modern “food science” techniques of altering raw food products (like corn) into many chemical constituent compounds. These numerous compounds are used in many food products: corn, for example, is used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup, Maltodextrin, Sorbitol, Xantham Gum, Citric Acid, and much more. Some crops are also “flexible”, meaning they can be used as foods, but also as industrial products like fuels, lubricants, and fibers. This is one example of how food systems are never separate from other parts of society: corn, soybeans, sugar cane, and palm oil are all products that are now spread around the world serving both food and non-food uses—all due to the power of processing.

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Consumption is the whole point of food systems! Who gets to eat what food, and how often, is very much determined by the dynamics of production, distribution, and processing. Health outcomes in humans are tied to the kinds of foods produced (for example, are they high-calorie fats and carbohydrate crops, nutrient-rich vegetables, or nutrient-dense animal products?). These outcomes are also tied to the ways foods are produced (for example, are they pesticide-drenched or not?), processed (for example, are they kept whole, fermented, or otherwise chemically reconfigured?), and distributed (most especially, their accessibility and affordability to the consumer).

The previously mentioned exchange value of food influences where foods end up, and who ends up able to eat them, in direct and indirect ways. Most directly, if someone lacks the money to buy sufficient foods, they are likely to end up hungry. A full assessment of food distribution and consumption, then, should include unpacking how the commodification of food affects where food ends up. The process of commodification is also more hidden and complex to the average person than simple market prices indicate. This is evidenced by commodities stock markets, where traders speculate on the prices of foods: these stock markets have been cited as having helped create the 2007/2008 “food price crisis”—where hundreds of millions of people lost affordable access to staple foods suddenly.

While human physical health and issues of hunger and malnutrition are clearly important, there is also the longstanding cultural importance of food. Cooking traditions and specific ingredients have been passed down generation to generation. Those ingredients might be rare or difficult to find as food cultures become homogenized and standardized around the globe. Cooking itself is in some ways become a “lost art”—at least for those in the developed world—as people have less and less time to cook, less interest to cook, less skills in cooking, and more access to processed and pre-made foods, like restaurant-made and microwave meals.

The question of whether we should accept the modernization of food culture—such that food cultures and ingredients are evermore globalized and no longer as geographically static, and food is consumed more quickly and more often outside of the home—is an important one for food systems. Are these part of the problem of food systems? The “Slow Foodmovement argues this way: “fast food” culture and the replacement of local food cultures with international ones are bad omens for a future of food that is “good, clean, and fair”.

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In the United States, it is estimated that 40% of food is wasted. Food is thrown out from store shelves, because it has passed “best by” dates—which some have pointed out are arbitrary and not really related to food safety. Consumers who buy more than they eat, or forget their tomatoes or leftover take-out Chinese food in the back of their fridge until it is too old to eat also throw out food. Food waste is also rampant in the restaurant industry, especially due to overly large portioning. Even if the most wasteful aspects of food “waste” were dealt with, however, there will always be organic materials from food preparation and consumption that require disposal. Onion peels. Tomato stems. Fish bones. Right now, this mostly goes into trash streams, aka landfills.

The other post-consumption waste, as mentioned, is human urine and feces. What do we do with it? Well, considering human waste disposal is the “big necessity” of civilization, we’ve been remarkably irresponsible (stupid?) with our approaches. For those in the developed world, water-based sewage infrastructure takes our shit away quickly and easily—which is great for public health reasons—but does so with massive waste of clean (often potable) water, and requires additionally expensive and large infrastructure to process that waste and find somewhere to put it. Some municipal wastewater treatment programs produce what they euphemistically call “biosolids”; in some places this is used on landscapes as fertilizer, in others it is incinerated, or landfilled. In some cases, wastewater is simply dumped into bodies of water such as rivers, bays, and seas.

In the developing world there are major issues of sanitation in the absence of the above infrastructure. Open-air sewage near villages often causes outbreaks of preventable communicable diseases. Latrines built by well-meaning “development” projects often are converted to other uses, or used until filled and then never used again (development projects all too often pay for implementation but not maintenance/upkeep). Yet, the use of human waste in an ecologically sound manner does exist, notably in China, where “night soil” (another euphemism) still is collected, composted, and used as an agricultural amendment locally. The need to deal with waste in a way that benefits the sustainability of farming systems (that is, the soil!) will be taken up further in the “solutions” section.

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Food System as “social-ecological” process

Now that we know what components or aspects should be considered as part of a food system, let me get a bit more theoretical. While these aspects certainly add up to “the food system”, they don’t operate in isolation—they are interacting aspects that shape each other. Why we grow food (i.e. farm character) affects how that food is distributed; how food is distributed affects who gets to eat (i.e. consumption); how we deal with disposal/waste influences our soil quality and thus our farms; and so on. Food production, distribution, consumption, and disposal are also linked to all other aspects of human society. Perhaps most importantly, they are inextricably tied to the non-human natural world, which shapes what is possible in each aspect (and in the system as a whole).

The theoretical term for this would be that, in actuality, a food system is a “social-ecological process”. It’s not just something that humans create: the food system is nothing without the natural world—the soil, the water cycle, the plants and animals, the fossil fuels, the mined metals, the materials that make our bowls and forks and toilets. At the same time, what humans do and think outside of “food systems” has major influence on what the food system looks like.

As an example, the advent and development of railroad technology and infrastructure had major effects on how food was grown, where it was grown, and where it ended up being eaten (among other things).[1] But railroads are not just “food systems” infrastructure: they were also used for moving coal around, to fire (new) industrial processes that made modern artifacts like steel and produced products in a more labor-efficient way. This industrial development, in turn, had impacts on food systems, for instance by making certain household appliances more cheap and plentiful.

So because food systems are just one part of a larger human society, they must be considered in their interactions with all kinds of human culture, with economic systems, with political systems, and with the conscious and unconscious belief systems we carry with us.[2] Food systems emerge from the interaction of these human factors with the non-human factors. All this interaction makes for a dynamic mess! Thus, food systems are more a process than a “thing”, and that process is a “social-ecological” one.

Why is this important? Well, an antidogmatist approach doesn’t do well with static representations of the world, or ones that overemphasize one side of the equation (human behavior) or the other (non-human nature). If we build our houses by the side of a river, and don’t acknowledge that rivers naturally change position over time, or flood seasonally, we may justifiably be called shortsighted. We may expect to catch fish in the river because it has always had fish in it, but if a large dam is built downstream from our house this possibility might change. The reason why change in/to the food system is possible is because it is not a set thing, but an interacting set of human and non-human factors. Later on, we’ll discover some of these factors that are leverage points for positive change.

[1] See Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner, pg 37; Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon; The Republic of Nature, Irrigated Eden, by Mark Fiege.

[2] For instance, beliefs show up in food taboos: while most Hindus wouldn’t dare eat cow meat, most Westerners shun the idea of eating dog meat (which other cultures have been known to do).


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A note about language

As I mentioned before, I assume most readers of this blog—judging by their access to the Internet, and English language skills—will be from what some call the “Minority World”. This term represents the fact that people in affluent, often English-speaking contexts—where, for example, functional sewage systems and electrical power grids are widely operational—are numerically the minority of people on the planet. Other people, those who are often described as living in “less-developed” countries, are in reality the “Majority World”. [1]

I’ll be bringing up examples and issues that are pertinent to both worlds—sometimes both at once (for instance: “Fair Trade” chocolate that is grown in Majority World countries and sold mostly to Minority World consumers).

Another distinction that is often used is between “developed” and “developing” worlds. But this distinction implies that “development” (implicitly understood as industrialization) is a positive—something that “underdeveloped” countries need to change in order to become modern, and better. This might be true in some sense and not in others. But the distinction risks devaluing all about less-industrialized societies and idolizing things about “modern” society that may actually be toxic.[2]

I sometimes use the terms “predominantly agrarian” and “predominantly industrial” to describe countries, but these are sort of clumsy, and they also leave out the nuanced reality that within the “Minority World”, there is still agriculture, just as there is industrialization happening in many less-developed countries. Similarly, there are poor people in rich—aka “Minority world”/”developed”/”predominantly industrialized”—countries, just as there are wealthy elites in poor—aka “Majority world”/”developing”/”predominantly agrarian”—countries.

Basically, there is no perfect term to use to simplify the complex realities of geographic patterns of poverty, industrialization, technological access, etcetera—and their exceptions. So I’ll stick with using “Minority World”, if only to remind the reader: if you are reading this, it means (most likely) that there are a lot of other people out there who have a lot less than you do. Let’s try to keep in mind these injustices not out of guilt, but out of commitment to making a global food system that works for ALL people.

[1] This is a take off from the once-widely used distinction of “First World” (i.e. the USA and its global allies like Europe), the “Second World” (i.e. the communist, opposing countries of Russia, China, Cuba, etcetera), and the rest being lumped into the “Third World”.

[2] I’m not even going to get into the endless debates about how some countries ended up being “developed” and not… debates about the roles of colonialism and slave trade in creating “developed” and “developing” worlds…you can find more of that here, from these books, and all over the Internet if you’re interested!

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A caveat about complexity and simplicity in writing

I’d like to make one last caveat/note, before moving on to the next chapter (on the problems of the food system). I try in this blog to be general enough to write simply, but specific enough to not make overly sweeping statements. I try to avoid unnecessary jargon, but I also want the reader to appreciate the nuance and detail that makes the world so incredibly interesting (and makes making change more difficult than would be desired!).

The world is complex and multifaceted, and really there are many food systems, not one. The “social-ecological process” that makes and remakes food systems is happening at many scales all at once, and intersects between them. We can talk, for example, of “the United States food system”, but what does this mean when food is imported and exported through US borders? Or when migrants from Central America provide the bulk of on-farm labor? Or when rules about trade made by the World Trade Organization—which has members from 162 nations—shape what foods are grown inside the US?

The idea of a container we can call “the food system” is an abstraction, handy for breaking down the complex social-ecological process into (pun intended) “bite-size chunks”. I’ll try to make note when there are complexities or nuances that are just too important to leave out. But for those who appreciate nuance, please bear with me when I leave something out for simplicity’s sake. Also, feel free to leave notes correcting or adding onto what I’ve presented, in the comments section.

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Soil degradation

As briefly mentioned, human beings have treated the soil “like dirt”. China’s Loess Plateau might be one of the best examples of this, where over the history of human habitation, a verdant and naturally fertile land became barren, almost lifeless. Along with this transition, the human element changed too: while the area was a center of origin for China’s agriculture and thus its empires and cultural developments, it became by the 20th century a place where poverty and scarcity prevailed. The loss of soil due to deforestation, overgrazing of animals, and high levels of soil tillage became so bad as to now have been considered the worst case of soil erosion on the planet: over 380,000,000 tons of soil are estimated to be lost per year (or 15 tons per hectare per year).

Does this soil look good?

Examples like this are found in the report “Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years”, written by an Assistant Chief of the United States Soil Conservation Service, based on his travels through North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East in the late 1930s. In essence, the report shows how agriculture has had major impacts on the environment in terms of soil degradation.

Think of the once-“Fertile Crescent” (along parts of what is now Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine): much of this naturally fertile area, considered the “cradle of civilization”, is now considered un-farmable desert. The Fertile Crescent’s soil became salinized through regular irrigation, as happens in arid climate soils, and as is happening right now in California’s Central Valley.

By irrigating, cutting down too many trees, and overgrazing animals, humanity has repeatedly compromised soil health through salinization, erosion, and desertification. We tend to think of deserts as being artifacts of climate, but desertification most often stems from human action. Having since powered up from hand tools and animal-driven plows to large tractors and combines, tillage-based grain agriculture has only exacerbated humanity’s impact on soil degradation.

“Crystal Springs” in the Loess Plateau

In case it isn’t obvious, soil degradation is a problem—perhaps the biggest problem—for sustainable food systems. If we need soil to grow plants (and any animals that eat those plants, who we might eat), losing useable soil is shooting ourselves in the foot. In addition to the salinization of soils, soil erosion is destroying our most valuable asset—the growing medium for food, without which we literally cannot live.

How bad is the problem overall? Studies show that “soil is being lost from agricultural areas 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil formation imperiling humanity’s food security”. Meanwhile, the “mean soil loss from U.S. and global croplands range from 0.2 to 1.5 mm/year”. That may seem small, but think of that amount over the entirety of the farmable planet!

The Loess plateau may be an extreme case, but it is not an uncommon one. Worst of all, soil loss tends to result in a positive feedback loop (in a negative direction), meaning that soil erosion makes future soil erosion more likely. This is because once water cuts into a landscape and begins eroding it, these cuts allow future surface water to flow even faster, giving it even more erosive force, which in turn deepens and widens the cuts.

For a more sustainable agriculture, we’ve got to start by treating the soil with respect.

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Food Systems Problems

Hold onto your hearts: this section begins the chapter on the many many problems caused by and contained within our modern food systems. The chapter will be separated into “environmental” problems and “social” problems, though these problems are obviously interconnected. The last part of the chapter will ask what’s behind these problems, because too often as societies we only address the symptoms—rather than the underlying causes—of our problems.

This tendency is the result of a misguided “pragmatism”: if a problem or set of problems are systemic and caused by a deeper, difficult-to-reach underlying problem, the “more practical” approach is to do something, anything really, to tackle one of the surface issues. But this might be insufficient. It might even displace energy (of people who want to fix the problems) from solutions that could fundamentally work, to those that will just kick the problem further down the curb.

An easy medical metaphor for this is back pain: taking painkillers to lower your back pain (and help you feel better in the moment) is not a long-term strategy to solve what is causing your pain in the first place. To actually cure your pain might require changing a behavior that causes the pain. Even if your pain is “incurable”, physical therapy can reduce your pain so that painkillers become less necessary.

So, after covering the dreadful and depressing list of food system problems, we will conduct a brief assessment and diagnosis of what underlies these problems. Then we move on to the exciting part: the solutions that can help shorten—and maybe even eliminate—the list.

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Nitrogen Pollution

The next problem is also one that comes down to soil. But like all things in agriculture, soil connects (of course) to everything else! For example, soil connects with the atmosphere in daily exchanges of gasses, which move in and out of the soil.

Nitrogen is the most common element in the atmosphere. It makes the sky blue. It also powers all life: the chlorophyll in plants is made of it; the DNA in our cells is made of it; it is an essential element to pretty much all biological life’s functioning.

Electron_shell_007_nitrogenBut strangely enough, humans, other animals, and even the average plant cannot access nitrogen straight from the air! We are surrounded by it, but can’t get to it. So how do we get it? Like the power to digest food, we owe our life to microorganisms (mainly, bacteria)—and to the soil in which they live.

I’ll explain: There are kinds of bacteria and fungi that inhabit the soil. There, they partner with certain kinds of plants (mostly from the legume family), and in a symbiotic way, they “grab” the nitrogen from the air and “fix” it into the roots of the plant. That way, the plant gets the nitrogen, builds up its own body using it, and then (once the plant has died or been eaten) this nitrogen can now enter the life cycle of biological beings before it ends up back in the sky in its gaseous form. Most farming systems up until recently used this process, relying especially on the nitrogen-rich manures derived from animals who feast upon nitrogen-containing plants, to maintain nitrogen in the soil, and thus to sustain healthy plants.

In the 20th century, a couple of scientist dudes named Haber and Bosch figured out that we could avoid all this life-based nonsense, and instead use the energy of fossil fuels to create a nitrogen fertilizer that we could provide directly to the plants. Instead of the ecology of interacting life, we can now chemically synthesize stable forms of nitrogen from the air, using the Haber-Bosch process.[1]

And indeed we do! Nitrogen fertilizers are so widely used they form a $37.5 billion industry—and that’s just in the USA alone in 2011. The FAO expects 120 million tons of nitrogen fertilizers to be used yearly by 2018. Fertilizers are required for industrial forms of agriculture, largely because of preexisting soil degradation/infertility, and the desire for saleable products requiring a guarantee of consistent plant growth. As a result of factors including this need for consistent/maximum growth, nitrogen over-application and resulting pollution have become major problems. When nitrogen (from chemical fertilizers but also concentrations of animal manures) leaches through soil from farms into waterways, it results in various ecological impacts.

One of the main impacts noted has been the explosion of harmful algal blooms: algae thrive in nitrogen-rich waters. [2] A boom in algae growth sucks up the oxygen in water. You might not think of coastal waters, like the Gulf Coast, as being full of oxygen, but they once were, and many creatures relied on that oxygen in order to live. Now these areas are known as “dead zones”—that is how badly they are affected by the nitrogen runoff. The reason the Gulf Coast is a dead zone is that it lies at the end of a long funnel of nitrogen: agricultural runoff—from Montana in the West, through the Midwest Corn Belt, and as far as New York to the East—drains into the Mississippi and out to sea at the Gulf. The Mississippi River drainage basin drains an estimated 1,245,000,000 square miles of land, 41% of the USA’s main land mass.

Researchers have confirmed what many long had thought: agriculture was directly linked to the incidence of algal blooms. Unfortunately, this pattern of agriculture-caused algal blooms is not limited to the USA.

All in all, though it is difficult to precisely quantify the economic and social damages of nitrogen pollution, it is clear that the impacts are huge.

[1] We should probably keep in mind, though, that fossil fuels were themselves once living beings; the Haber-Bosch process still relies on photosynthesis, just photosynthesis that happened long ago.

[2] In truth, other nutrients besides nitrogen (such as phosphorous) contribute to blooms, and these can come from pollution sources other than agriculture. Still, nitrogen from agriculture forms a key component.

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Habitat Loss

The loss of coastal fish habitat is one outcome of nitrogen pollution. Similarly, soil erosion and desertification cause loss of habitat, as trees and bushes which were once home to many beings become incapable of supporting much life at all. Then there is the habitat loss more directly caused by agriculture: the replacement of certain native/indigenous ecosystems with agriculture.

Usually, as mentioned in the intro, this agriculture is a monocultural one. In the tropics, sugarcane, bananas, coffee, and pineapples are examples of monocultures that have historically (and still!) displaced abundantly productive and biodiverse native ecosystems. In temperate climates, the major crop culprits are grains, like corn and wheat, but also soy, cotton, and other monocropped vegetables. Grazing animals have also been linked to forest clearing. The world over, wherever humans have created large-scale intensive farming systems, destruction of habitat has led to a reduction in species counts and species diversity.

Certainly, smaller scale production has displaced habitat, as in the “slash and burn” techniques that many tropical climate peoples have used to create sunnier spaces amidst deeply shaded rainforests, in order to plant and harvest sun-demanding crops. The difference is that many of these historic forms of habitat destruction were (1) temporary, in that they were part of shifting cultivation systems that moved around and thus allowed the once burned and planted plots time to recover, and (2) small, and therefore not destroying entire regions of habitat. Many large animals or birds, for example, will survive fine losing 10 square meters of forest here and there, but will suffer major hardships when square kilometers of their habitat are cleared at once.[1]

The latter kind of habitat destruction occurs in industrial-style and scale plantations. One of the worst culprits of the past 15 years is palm oil, the expansion of which has contributed to the near extinction of the Pygmy Elephant and the Orangutan. Palm oil plantations are huge and long lasting—and need to be so in order to provide sufficient profits for their creators. This shows another distinction between typical small- and large-scale habitat disruption: the former motivated by subsistence needs, the latter motivated by greed for profits.

The elephant and orangutan are (perhaps) only the most charismatic of animals and plants endangered by habitat destruction: around the world, loss of habitat (which is partly an urbanization issue but is mostly driven by agriculture) has led to what scientists are calling the “6th Great Extinction”. Species of all sorts are dying out or becoming incredibly rare—and whereas the first five great extinctions were related to major geologic events (huge volcano eruptions, meteors falling to earth), this will be the first caused by human activity.

Habitat loss is happening both on land and in the sea. On land, the clearing of forests, urbanization, and draining and damming of natural water bodies all have led to land and water habitat loss. A horrifying example is the Aral Sea in Eurasia: once the largest terrestrial lake (bigger than the U.S.’s Lake Superior), the Sea has practically disappeared—in the course of only 30 years! Simple diversion of water for agriculture has been the major cause of its disappearance, which has affected untold numbers of species who relied on its waters and the food it once produced.

The oceans are also changing for the worse. Corals are dying from (among other factors) changes in ocean temperatures due to climate change. Ocean acidification is also a result of climate change, with uncertain but likely disastrous results. Industrial fishing companies who literally drag nets along the seafloor are destroying seafloor habitats, while killing creatures that the nets are not even intended to catch.

Simply, humans have prioritized our own needs above those of other species, to the point where we might even be compromising our own future survival, as we destroy habitats and species vital to our own survival. For a sustainable future—not to mention for ethical reasons—this has to change.


[1] This is the theory that underlies the argument of the fantastic book “Nature’s Matrix”—It’s likely I’ll be referring to this book repeatedly.

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Pests, pesticides, and pollinators

Monoculture leads to even further harms to the biological world. Insects are important elements to functioning ecosystems. The presence of certain insects enhances crop production, because they either pollinate flowers without which fruit would not form, or they are predators of other insects that might otherwise eat and destroy the food crop sought. Insects are both “bad” and “good” for agriculture, but without the presence of the “good” ones, the “bad” ones take off in population and thus cause much more damage to crops. The key to functional agriculture is a healthy balance in the insect ecology.

The industrial model of food production of course finds good and bad commingling to be too complicated to deal with. Easier, it seems, is to just “spray ‘em all and let god sort ‘em out”. Pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides) are widely used in agriculture. As with the fertilizer issue, commercial agriculture often overuses pesticides to guarantee a good-looking salable product—so even if a particular pest won’t destroy a broccoli head, but might make it look less perfect, the agricultural operation is more likely to opt for pesticides than to risk having a product that won’t sell.

Using these chemicals isn’t very precise. [1] We kill our targets, but also the other insects around. This causes additional problems we then need to solve, two of which have received increasing media attention. These are the problems of pesticide-resistant insects, and the worrying loss of pollinators.

Pesticide-resistant pests

insects are known to develop resistance to the very chemical pesticides designed to kill them. That bugs develop immunities and resistance to these chemicals should come as no surprise to entomologists: because insects have a short lifespan and reproduce quickly, they can evolve relatively quickly (compared with mammals whose gestation and generational periods are relatively longer). They pass on traits and are selected to reproduce those traits that succeeded (like pesticide resistance) very quickly. [2]

So, what do farmers do when they face insect “superbugs” (and “superweeds”, the plant equivalent)? They are forced to buy ever more, and newer versions, of the agrochemicals that caused the development of the “supers” in the first place. This is part of what critics refer to as the “pesticide treadmill” that many farmers get stuck on.


The loss of pollinators—in particular, the European Honeybee that is responsible for pollinating every major crop type in the United States—has gotten so bad that even mainstream cereal companies are running campaigns to raise awareness of the issue and find a solution. Why are people so worried? “Colony Collapse Disorder” became a “thing”, when beekeepers, researchers, and farmers all noticed a sudden and precipitous drop in bee populations, largely when entire colonies would be found dead or disappeared.

Research has traced these collapses in part to the increasing use of “neonicotonoids” [3], a particularly virulent class of pesticide because they are “systemic”, meaning they are taken up into all parts of the plant sprayed with them. This means toxic pollen and nectar, which bees in particular can take back to their hives. Many pesticides like “neonics” don’t kill bees outright, but impair them as individuals and as hives.

With the drop in bee populations, and a similar decimation of native pollinators, fruit and vegetable production suffers yield reduction. The monocultures of European honeybees that are used by commercial beekeepers to pollinate monoculture orchards are in decline [4], and some crops are beginning to suffer in production, yet commercial beekeepers and industrial farming groups continue to fight the regulation of pesticides like neonicotonoids.

If large monocultures lead to the need for agrochemicals, and those chemicals cause problems for insects we rely on (not to mention those we don’t [5], and many other animals and living things that are harmed by the chemicals), and create only further problems for agriculture, a solution will not come from a new, smarter chemical or system of chemical use. It will emerge from a form of production that avoids and minimizes the use of chemicals in the first place.


[1] Fun fact: modern pesticides were originally developed from the weaponized gasses that countries used to kill enemies in World War II; nitrogen fertilizers were developed by the same plants that made nitrogen-based bombs! “Before it made it onto farm fields in a big way, Haber’s breakthrough fueled the US and European munitions industry, particularly in World War II. In that way, the industrialization of farming shares roots with the industrialization of killing represented by modern war.”

[2] Though not as quickly as bacteria—which are evolving their own resistance to the antibiotics used in industrial animal agriculture! In fact, many forms of life develop resistance to various “xenobiotics”, like herbicides, fungicides, and rodenticides.

[3] I say “in part”, because nutritional stress, habitat loss, and other pests, pathogens and pesticides also play roles in colony collapse.

[4] Seems unwise to expect healthy outcomes, even setting aside pesticides, when these bees are fed corn syrup to survive winters to supplement their monoculture diet of peaches, almonds, cucumbers, or whatever flower nectar they consume for weeks on end.

[5] Some economically less important—but no less important in other ways—pollinators, like the Monarch butterfly, have also been endangered by agrochemicals, whether pesticides or herbicides. Unlike the bee issue, monarchs are not only threatened by their individual exposure to harmful chemicals. Instead, scientists have pointed to the loss of the main food sources for monarchs in their lifecycle development: the milkweed. Milkweed is a typical weed across agricultural landscapes in the U.S. Increased use of herbicides to rid fields and roadsides of milkweed has drastically reduced the available habitat and food for migrating monarchs.

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Meat production and eating

Meat is murder”, so the saying goes. But aside from the moral arguments, meat might be “murder” on the environment. It has been argued that meat production contributes to climate change, soil destruction, deforestation, overproduction of soy and corn and other monoculture feed crops, water (nitrate) pollution, and more. In discussions about the most obvious solutions to environmental problems caused by our food systems, the reduction of meat consumption is usually the first or second suggestion.

Meat production contributes to nitrogen pollution, primarily through Confined Animal Feeding Operations (or “CAFOs”). CAFOs can only by a stretch of imagination be considered “farms”—pretty much they are factories where the baselines of needs for growing animals are provided. CAFOs look like this:

Cows (photo courtesy Wikipedia)
Pigs (photo courtesy Wikipedia)








Animals are packed into tight quarters, often such that they are subject to intensely unnatural disease pressures. Chickens are known to peck each other to death in such confinement, which is why it is common practice to “de-beak” chickens in CAFOs. Manure from animals concentrates in large quantities, forming a health danger to the animals and human workers, and a pollutant to local ecologies.

Notorious for ethical/animal rights violations (so much so that “Ag Gag” laws have been passed to penalize investigative reporters who enter such facilities to document atrocities), CAFOs are major buyers of grain and antibiotics, producers of toxic manure ponds, vectors for disease (not to mention absolutely horrible smells!), and sources of immense amounts of methane gas (emitted from concentrations of manure). In this way animal production has become a major contributor to climate change and environmental destruction.

The grains produced for animal consumption are converted, on average, very inefficiently. It is a basic rule of biology that energy is lost every time it converts forms: this means that as food moves “up the food chain” (from, say, plants to herbivores to carnivores) it loses orders of magnitude of useful energy. That cow, as it eats grain (which could’ve theoretically fed human beings directly), uses some of this energy to grow, live, survive, and only some of the remaining energy is converted into the animal’s flesh. Because we are concentrating feed through animals into protein before we consume them, we are essentially using food to grow less food.

Animals do not need to eat grains in order to grow; in fact, cattle are built for eating grass not grain, but are fed grain to fatten them more quickly. So there are other options for the production of animals as food (if you aren’t morally against the concept), and this will be the subject of future posts. But in the modern industrial system of animal production, CAFOs reign supreme. Even cattle raised as “grass-fed” are often “finished” (meaning, the last 6 months to a year of their lives) at a feedlot (aka a CAFO).

As mentioned, grazing animals like cattle can be a source of (or catalyst for) habitat degradation, soil loss, deforestation, water pollution, etc. So it’s not just CAFOs that are suspect: extensive (rather than intensive) production of animals can also be a problem. Recall the Loess Plateau grazers that contributed to soil erosion there. Grazing has also been responsible for desertification in large parts of the arid Western United States. Brazil was the classic case of damage through extensive animal grazing, where cattle quickly followed the frontier of rainforest deforestation, and huge fires set to the forest to clear it quickly were often traced back to animal production interests. These days, though, this is less the case in Brazil than deforestation due to soy production. This means that soy-reliant vegans are not necessarily on any (environmental) moral high ground here!

That said, it is important to recognize just how bad animal production can be, for the animals, for habitat and other living things, and for the environment at large.


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Decline of wild fisheries

I’ve saved the scariest problems for the end. The status of the world’s fisheries is indeed scary.

There are different levels of destruction of fisheries around the world—some are doing worse than others. In some cases, especially those where rivers are heavily dammed, aquatic species have been exterminated or nearly gone extinct. In other cases, where fishing industries have been reined in or have had the foresight to change their ways, fish stocks have rebounded or stabilized.

But overall global wild fisheries have been in decline. The way fisheries are determined to be “overfished” is very complex; this link explains one example of this methodology. The UN FAO estimates that in 2011 almost 30% of wild fisheries were “fished at a biologically unsustainable level”, while a full 85% were fished at the “maximum sustainable yield”, were depleted, over-exploited, or close to it. An American-German research effort, finding flaws and limitations in the FAO methods for calculating overfished stocks, found 56.4% of global stocks were overfished.

These declines are caused by the overharvesting of fish, in combination with ecological factors and the economic incentives that encourage the overharvest. While small fishing operations (i.e. traditional fisher people) can contribute to reduction in a particular stock, especially in the midst of sudden ecological changes that reduce the ability of a species to recover population size, it is the corporate fishing industry and their massive fleets of massive boats with massive equipment that enable major and quick reductions in fish stocks.

Larger faster fleets with larger nets that result in lots of “bycatch”, and freezing capacities such that boats can be out farther and longer, are obviously more dangerous to particular stocks than small fisher folk.

The rise and dominance of companies with this equipment has been associated with an equivalent dispossession of small fishing communities from their traditionally available fishing areas, and thus their livelihood. In some cases, these communities have been forced out of their coastal areas for tourist development. In other cases, as their traditional fishing areas were decimated by industrialized fishing, rendering their traditional livelihoods impossible, fisher people have become workers on industrial fleets. (Meanwhile, a global surge in fish farming, or “aquaculture” has occurred with its own ecological consequences. Aquaculture is estimate to provide 40% of human consumption of fish and shellfish.)

The documentary film “Darwin’s Nightmare” tells such a story of concurrent environmental damage combined with social injustice, where traditional fishing was supplanted by industrial modes of production.

Centered on Lake Victoria and communities along its shores in Tanzania, the film depicts how one species of fish (the Nile Perch, introduced in the 1950s) has outcompeted all others in the lake, creating a monoculture of fish. Although this fish could theoretically support local fishing livelihoods, demand for its consistent filet in Europe and the economic incentives associated has meant that instead, a few local entrepreneurs have dominated the lake, and export all the fish instead of it feeding local communities.

The film’s scenes of prostitutes whose customers are the pilots of the planes that carry the frozen fish away, and of children going hungry alongside the scraps of bones and heads (the only parts of the fish left for locals from the lake’s fishing industry), are dark—and a reminder of how the environmental impacts of food systems are nearly always tied to social and economic inequalities. [1]


[1] They are also tied to challenging contradictions: as some critics (Ponte, et al) of Darwin’s Nightmare have pointed out, the impact of the existing fishing industry on local populations is not all negative, and some locals appreciate the economic engine of the export-focused Perch industry.

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Climate Change

I’ve saved the absolute scariest issue for last.

Consensus seems to have been reached: climate change (aka global warming, aka global weirding) is “the problem” of environmental problems. Human-induced climate changes are on track to wreak havoc on civilization around the globe. From what we know, addressing climate change now will at best adjust how much havoc, and for whom. Scientists, activists, environmentalists, small island nations, and now even some of the most powerful players and economies in the world have all jumped aboard the “oh no, climate change” bandwagon. Naomi Klein’s 2014 book made it clear that—in terms of human tenure on the planet—“this changes everything”.

If we don’t change our patterns of consumption and energy use (in agriculture and other areas), greenhouse gas (GHG) levels will continue to rise in the atmosphere, with cascading effects. Glaciers are melting; sea level will continue to rise, flooding coastal areas. Climate disruptions will get fiercer and more frequent. Drought and flooding will increase. These, along with less consistent or reliable weather, are expected to cause more frequent crop failures.

Yet, at the same time, the collective “we” don’t seem to be changing our behaviors, as we know we must in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We aren’t reducing our emissions of greenhouse gasses. We aren’t investing full throttle in alternatives to fossil fuel energy sources and over-consumptive infrastructure. We certainly aren’t forcing fossil fuel companies to “keep it in the ground”. Most pertinent to this blog, and perhaps worst of all, we are accelerating our adoption of climate change causing—rather than climate change mitigating—agricultural patterns.

Agriculture contributes 12 to 50% of GHG emissions (depending on how and what you measure: including all the components as outlined in the first chapter gives a larger result). In production, there are various sources of greenhouse gasses emitted, mainly carbon and methane. Carbon is released from the soil regularly through tillage. Soil carbon is “volatile”, meaning it escapes easily from the soil if exposed to sun and wind. Tilling the soil, flipping it with disc plowing in many cases, does just that.

Animals involved in any kind of agriculture release methane: cows are an especially farty/burpy bunch, with sheep trailing behind but also doing their part. (Cows release an estimated 110 kilograms of methane yearly; in comparison, I release little methane per year.)

But it is the high concentration and number of animals in agriculture, and the lack of any form of capturing of their wastes or the methane gas that emerges from it, that is particularly problematic: “Confined Animal Feeding Operations” (aka CAFOs) are huge producers of methane GHGs.

There is also major deforestation and intentional burning of forests, done for the purpose of clearing land to use for agriculture; Brazil used the be the paradigmatic case for this, but other countries (including Malaysia, Indonesia, Paraguay, and Laos but also Sweden and Portugal) have also taken up this habit. In the case of Indonesia, deforestation combines with the burning of peat bogs to make way for large-scale Oil Palm plantations. Oil Palm is used in many products, from food to industrial grease, but has been planted also to make biofuels. This makes it one the many so-called “flex crops”, which are particularly useful to capitalist investors since market outlets can be shifted according to the greatest profit potential.

The worst irony of all this is that biofuels are increasingly promoted under the premise that they will help to wean us from fossil fuels, yet so-called “first generation” (i.e. from starch, sugar, and animal/vegetable oils, e.g. corn, soy, sugarcane-based ethanol) biofuels have been found (if all factors of production are counted) to result in as much or more GHG emissions than they “save” by displacing fossil fuel use! Such biofuels take more calories to grow than we get out of them in useable energy; their production relies on fossil fuels to set up and maintain, and they are tied up in all the same problems of monocultures and habitat destruction we see in food-focused industrial agriculture. They also bring up (of course) important social questions involving impacts from land use conversions.

Clearly, if we’re going to address agriculture’s impact on climate change, it won’t be through biofuels (what some want to call “agrofuels” to make it sound less friendly), and it won’t be through technological tweaks to the large-scale industrial agricultural model.

Climate change requires that we fundamentally rethink what agriculture is for and how agriculture works.

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Destruction of existing rural cultures and agrobiodiversity

The most prominent social effect of transitioning from older forms and models of food production to the dominant industrial form is the destruction of diverse existing rural cultures. These cultures are what put the “culture” in agriculture, making it something specific to certain peoples, regions, and ecologies.

The term “agro-biodiversity” describes how these cultures’ diverse ways of growing food also helps to develop and maintain biodiversity. This biodiversity includes the distinct breeds and varieties grown as foods and the genetic diversity maintained within these varieties, but also beings in the ecosystem whose survival is benefitted by (and benefits) ecological farming systems. This latter component includes plants and animals that are not directly or intentionally supported by the act of farming: wildlife that are provided greater access to food, habitat, nesting ground, and protection by landscapes cultivated and managed in ecological ways.

Many specific vegetables, medicinal herbs, and particularly rare grain species have been maintained and reproduced over long periods by groups of people due to their cultural/culinary importance. Grains, herbs, trees, and even semi-wild animals have been cultivated and domesticated by small subsets of the human population. Without this continual work (what’s called “in-situ conservation” because it happens in place), these species are at risk of dying out. In contrast to the efforts by large institutions to do “ex-situ” conservation of genetic material diversity (mainly by maintaining large stores of seeds in frozen “seed banks”), agro-biodiversity raises the importance of the people who are key parts of any food crop’s ecosystem.

The real tragedy, then, is not just that monocultural agriculture creates monocultural cultures (think of the “McDonaldization” of much of the world’s food habits). The destruction of existing rural cultures also reduces the material from which new more sustainable agricultures can be created: the seed diversity that might hold adaptive responses to climate change, the plant diversity that can maintain and improve a nutritious diet, or the animal diversity that can keep functioning ecosystems functioning. It’s both an environmental and a social loss, wrapped into one.

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Labor Exploitation

How does food end up not only plentiful, but cheap? There is a simple, central reason that is often swept under the table: labor exploitation. Usually, people of more marginalized social groups provide this labor, and the most marginalized people in many parts of the world are immigrants. Hence, many mainstream food systems are dependent on the continual exploitation of rights-less immigrants; without their labor, food that is already growing sometimes literally goes without being harvested.

Of course, in many countries, labor exploitation is nothing new. The colonial triangular trade network—with slavery at its core—established badly treated labor as an essential economic benefit for rapidly growing and “developing” countries. Going back to Egypt, it is clear that labor exploitation is the base of the pyramid in society upon which elites—Pharaohs, priests, traders, and warriors—exist and persist.

In the first decades of the 21st century farmworkers in the tomato plantations of Florida, USA have been found captive, locked in trailers. Such modern day slaves are often forced into labor to pay off immigration-related debts, and are afraid to seek help due to their immigration status precariousness. In West Africa, cacao plantations are known to use child labor, and similarly keep workers from leaving their places of employment. In Spain’s greenhouses of the south coast, North Africans are the preferred source of labor, with similar outcomes…from California’s fields of chemical-drenched strawberries to Holland’s tasteless year-round greenhouse tomatoes, immigrants are paid next to nothing to grow practically everything.

Nonetheless, we often treat cases of overt slavery as anomalies in society requiring explanation, while in fact conditions close to slavery—only involving economic rather than “extra-economic” coercion [1]—continue to characterize many farm labor situations. Economic coercion is what drives immigration in the first place: when a person cannot feed their family in their homeland with land or labor (for a plethora of economic-political reasons), they are driven to find any potential new economic opportunity. This is the story of migration in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

We might assume that the raw economic calculus of growing food to sell makes labor exploitation necessary. The work needed to make a farm productive must be done, and many consumers have come to expect food at cheap prices. But farm work doesn’t need to be drudgery: there are examples of agricultural operations that pay living wages, and treat workers with respect and dignity. T & D Willey Farms and Swanton Berry Farm in California are Minority world examples of market-driven, employment-based farms that maintain good worker relations and conditions.

Many Majority world farms rely on family and community labor, operating largely outside capitalist labor markets. These have been considered—by both the farmers themselves and outside researchers/observers—as less exploitative forms of farm labor than those in evidence on capitalist farms. Of course labor exploitation can and does occur on smaller-scale, organic and family farms, but it is the industrial system that really excels at keeping workers subjugated and disrespected.

The larger-scale an industrial operation, the more labor becomes rote and repeated and factory-like. There is no way around it: picking beans from acres and acres is a less pleasant task for one worker (or set of workers) than picking, weeding, harvesting, planting and managing in a farm system diversified in time and space and products. Tom Willey of T & D Willey Farm makes this clear: he plans his farm’s production in order to have greater diversity of work and consistency of work throughout the year (instead of his workers having to perpetually migrate following labor opportunities).

Because of the reality of economic coercion, where even an exploitative work environment in one situation is better (to some) than no work in another situation (such as in one’s homeland), some farmworkers fight for improved conditions in waged labor on industrial farms, rather than to have their own land and become their own farmers. While its very likely that most farmworkers would rather have control over their labor if they could make a living doing so (and there are programs that help farmworkers in the USA become farm operators which attest to this desire, but I haven’t found much research or statistical information on this issue), dealing with the farm labor situation as it is requires addressing the existing injustices within waged labor.

While it’s great to imagine a future food system of smaller, diversified farms with non-exploited labor, this would rely on a massive shift in current structures of land ownership and management. The term “land reform” points to some of what would be required to move in this direction, and this will be discussed in a future post.

[1] Marx noted that before capitalism, exploitation was mainly “extra-economic”—meaning it stemmed from the threat of brute physical force to get people to do something. After capitalism’s rise, he argued, the masses are exploited by “the dull compulsion of economic forces”—that is, “economic coercion” from the requirement to submit to labor exploitation in order to eat, feed a family, and survive.

P.s. As a side note—and potentially problematic for those promoting labor intensive small-scale farms: some scholars, particularly Philip Woodhouse, have argued that small-scale farming is kept from being a viable alternative to industrial agriculture because the smaller and less mechanized the farm, the more intensively farmers must work; the more hand-based labor is required, the higher the wage costs of production, and therefore the higher product costs will be (and often, especially in the absence of an organic certification or other market premium, this still results in lower farmer incomes). This means that efficiently mechanized agriculture helps feed low-income people, and labor intensive management of farms—to the extent these farms are integrated into market economies—is associated with higher product prices.

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Bad outcomes for eaters: stuffed and starved

One of the ultimate ironies of the contemporary food system is the persistent coexistence of hundreds of millions (if not billions) of hungry people on the planet, while increasing numbers of people are obese or otherwise unhealthily overweight. Intelligent (and to me, sexy) commentators like Raj Patel note that humans are on the whole “stuffed and starved” by the existing food system. This clearly makes no sense, if the goal is a long-term sustainable (and short-term equitable) system that people can thrive within.

According to 2015 FAO propaganda, “793 million people are undernourished globally, down 167 million over the last decade, and 216 million less than in 1990–92.” Yet, multiple critiques have effectively poked holes in the statistical methodology and overall assumptions FAO uses to produce these reports. For example, these statistics are based on gross measures of food production from incomplete, incommensurable, and inconsistent national reports, and they measure “food insecurity” only when someone has lacked sufficient calories for a year or more. Furthermore, the measure of “insufficient” calories is 1,800 per day: only enough to survive if one leads a “sedentary” lifestyle. That means you sit around doing nothing all day, which is not the life most people live.

If we add in people who suffer “malnutrition”—the lack of enough micronutrients for healthy body function rather than purely caloric supply—the number of people who are suffering from not enough food is certainly in the billions. Anthropologist Jason Hickel—who has done some of the best critical reporting on these FAO reports—says more accurately “at least 2 billion people, nearly a third of humanity, cannot access adequate food”.

Meanwhile, due to the spread and dominance of the corporate industrial food system, more and more people are roped into the “cheap food” world of corporate fast foods, packaged “convenience” foods, and empty calories of fats and grain-based sugars and carbohydrates (from refined wheat breads to corn syrup and cheap palm oils). The prevalence of these foods (along with decreasing levels of activity in many societies) has led to major public health crises of epic proportions: nearly two billion people are overweight. Diabetes, heart disease, and cancers related to diet are exploding.

If you read the “key messages” of the FAO’s hunger reports, there are consistent references to “economic growth” as an important precondition to solving issues of hunger. At the same time that their methodology is at best flawed (or at worst purposefully deceitful), this supposition about the importance of economic growth to hunger reduction is “unsupported by the data collected” in the report. It’s almost as if an imperative to promote growth at any costs subverts solutions to hunger that may call the growth paradigm into question.

Hunger is directly tied to economics more than to the total production of food. This has been undisputed for some time now [1]: people mostly go hungry because they are poor. Even the FAO admits that we already produce enough food to feed 9 billion people (but a third of that is wasted). Yet to connect economics to hunger (beyond repeated calls for “growth”) might entail questioning the basis for the economic system, and perhaps seeing hunger as an inevitable outcome of that system rather than a temporary mistaken outcome that could be remedied by a continuation of business as usual, with tweaks.

Seems that FAO is not willing to go in this direction quite yet, and nor are other major institutions that shape the food system, so we continue to be stuffed and starved.

[1] (with some interesting critiques of the most famous proponent of this view)

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