Some theorists of environmental damage from agriculture focus on the method of production: mechanization and the reliance on fossil fuels of industrial methods are the particular problems referenced, while large scale is sometimes pointed to as the underlying force driving bad practices.
Mechanization is seen as the opposite of diligent labor, like that conducted by small-scale and more diversified farmers. By using machines, a farmer can increase production scale, while spending less time per crop (meanwhile, her dependency on the machine’s input requirements also increases). This, critics argue, leads to a reduction in stewardship—no need to care for the soil, when fertility can be bought; no need to observe the native ecology and utilize it, when machines and chemicals can overcome (at least temporarily) local conditions.
The saying goes that “farmers’ feet are the best fertilizer”. Farmers’ tractors, then, are the worst. The reason this can be separated from capitalism (though clearly in reality mechanization and capital investment go hand-in-hand) is that mechanization is something that even many peasant farms desire. The reduction of labor time per unit of output is a valuable thing to any farmer, whether oriented and constituted as a “capitalist” firm or not. Furthermore, one might be able to imagine the continued production of machinery within some sort of non-capitalist economy, even if these technologies came about originally as a result of capitalism.
The logic of industrialism is the logic of capital replacing human and other living elements in production, and this has long been associated with capitalism, but is not limited to it. Another example would be the communist attempts to consolidate peasant farms into large industrial operations—applying a completely industrial logic to a non-capitalist, state-owned-means-of-production, system. These attempts varied in impacts across the communist world, but were noted failures environmentally and socially, but also even in terms of productivity, at least in Russia and China. Many so-called “peasant populist” critics have made such arguments against even non-capitalist industrialization.
Another argument for why industrialism might be at the root of the problem relates to the desirable political effects of large-scale industrial calorie production. Insofar as industrialized food production keeps food prices down and drives peasant food producers into waged labor (and thus supports economic growth), it bolsters governments and consolidates political control by elites. As large-scale production grows, it supports large political entities with greater political control.
So, to some, whether the system is full on capitalist or state-led industrialism doesn’t matter, as much as does the consolidated economic and political power that comes with largeness. This argument, of course, can be seen at play in how we conceive of modern corporately controlled food systems—it’s the big players who are found behind the biggest problems.
Yet, some critics of the “peasant populist” angle have pointed out that indeed “small” farmers, non-industrial farmers, and even peasants themselves can reproduce some of the harmful aspects of capitalist agriculture (particularly the exploitation of labor). They’ve also justifiably questioned whether non-industrial models can produce enough food for world populations, and also simultaneously economically viable livelihoods for producers. This all means we must look at whether and how capitalism as a social structure (which conditions the above concerns) is responsible for food systems problems, and whether and how it is amenable to change.