The role of gender inequities

Gender inequalities likewise exist in all parts of the food system. They’re especially noticeable in the status of women as workers, producers, and family members. In many societies women are (compared with men) paid less, own and control less land, and receive less money and food within than household (regardless of their own contributions towards the household).

This can be attributed to (or called) patriarchy. Patriarchy is hard to sum up succinctly. Patriarchy, like racism, is a social force that simultaneously shapes and is shaped by unequal power relationships, in this case between genders. [1] Under patriarchy, women are “weak” and men are “strong”. Homosexuality is a threat to gender norms. In the same way that in white supremacist society, white is “normal”—the de facto assumed position—and other ethnicities are “different”, in patriarchy, man is normal; women are “different”.

The next time you read some media or other writing about farming, note how common it is to refer to farmers as “he” or to assume their maleness, when globally, women perform much agricultural work (43% according to the FAO). Women are also generally undercounted as farmers as a result of existing gender inequalities: while men “farm”, reports to census officials are that the women merely “help”. [It is true that in the USA farms typically have men as the “principal operator”, which is another example of the entrenchment of patriarchy in our society.]

As workers, women are exploited just like men are, but with extra harshness and less pay. In the fields of California (one of the world’s centers of agricultural production) and nationwide, women farm workers experience major sexual harassment by supervisors and bosses. Women are known to receive less pay for the same work in all work sectors, and food-related work is no exception. According to a 2016 study by the Food Chain Workers Alliance:

While both women and people of color are the lowest paid workers in the food system, gender is more significant than race in terms of its impact on low wages for agricultural, production, retail, and service work.

Around the world, women are the primary food producers, on both subsistence-oriented and market-oriented farms. It has become a well-accepted fact that the “feminization” of agriculture has important consequences, and that “an end to violence against women” is a key precondition to a more just farming system. While women do most of the work (food gathering, gardening, farming, cooking), they often receive less of the proceeds of their work, due to household-level patriarchy.

Household patriarchy, where men exert their authority and control over women within the household, has been shown to reduce food security for women. Anthropologist and political ecologist Bina Agarwal has studied farming communities in India for decades, and has seen how women are given food last within the household, are subject to domestic abuse, while men will sometimes buy booze and personal effects even though the family need money for food and other key necessities.

In the Minority world, women’s second class position is seen in the double standards regarding women’s roles in the home: neoliberal economic conditions [2] demand that women work long hours (and for less pay!), whether or not they form part of a nuclear family household. At the same time, they are expected to also be the primary providers of household labor: the shopping, cooking, and cleaning that keep the household going. This “reproductive” labor has been a point of contention for feminists for generations—and its overlaps with the food system make it a topic worthy of addressing in this blog.

In relation to the previous section’s historical note, we should recall that the displacement of indigenous people also led to consolidation of patriarchal ownership and patriarchal values. Many indigenous groups in the Americas did not hold typical patriarchal patterns of control and power, until the introduction of Christianity and colonialism. This can be seen in the loss of “two-spirit” tradition (a non-binary understanding of gender) amongst many tribes across North America. The near genocide of indigenous people also led to our patriarchal structure of farm ownership and management, where farms are overwhelmingly helmed by men—who are mostly white/European ancestry, and mostly old.

Gender inequalities and oppression based on gender are problems that obviously exist throughout society, just like racism and white supremacy. Within small-scale and family farming communities, gender issues are a major problem that cuts across geographic boundaries. For a truly just food system, gender needs to be addressed front and center.

[1] Gender is not as black and white (male and female) as patriarchy would have it: a lot of queer theory is about dismantling the simplistic notions of binary gender and sexuality that pervade modern thinking. Queer theory is beginning to be used in food studies a bit, and certainly we can learn a lot from transgendered biologists.

[2] That is, the declining real wage and constantly climbing cost of living, without the benefit of social programs supportive of families like paid maternity leave and government-funded childcare, which make it nearly impossible for most people to raise a family on a single income.

Colonial legacies of race and white supremacy

White supremacy is not a fun thing to talk about. But talk about it we must, since it is alive: simultaneously hidden to some while abundantly obvious to others. Race is present in the food system as a historical legacy—a concept and reality invented through the period of white-led colonization—and an ongoing process that reproduces itself.

Surely “racism” as a personal prejudice plays a role in this process, but the persistence of racial hierarchies and unequal racially-based outcomes do not rely exclusively on overt forms of racism: they are also the result of racist structures that reproduce themselves regardless of what those within them consciously think. This “structural racism” is extremely important.

Colonialism emerged at a period when global trade (including the slave trade) aided the growth of capitalism and industrialism. As Blain Snipstal describes it:

The plantation system was the first major system used by the colonial forces in their violent transformation of the Earth into land, people into property, and nature into a commodity – all to be sold on the “fair” market. This transformation was long, crafted and violent, and supported by the state. Land was stolen from the Indigenous and people were stolen from Africa. Race and White Supremacy were then created to give the cultural and psychological basis to support the rationale, organization and logic of capital. The church was implicated in deepening the rationale of slavery. Violence against women and gender-based violence further drove the normalization of servitude home. This was all woven into the fabric of the plantation system of agriculture in the South, during its development from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The racialized basis for food systems thus was made structural during this period, created by and reinforced through violence against people of color. While the above description is in some ways specific to the U.S. settler colonial context, disruption of traditional forms of land management and tenure has led to unjust distributions of land use rights and ownership in both Minority and Majority world. Often this was sparked by colonial and post-colonial shake ups in power and economy, as when newly imposed “national” borders, new states/governments, and new forms of capitalist development (like plantation agriculture) majorly altered existing social relationships.

In the settler colonies of the “new world”, indigenous peoples were driven off their ancestral land, and to this day land remains under mostly white ownership (for example in the USA, 97% is owned by whites). Indigenous people lack sovereignty over most of their traditional lands, even those supposedly ceded back to them through treaties. At the same time, slaves (mostly African) were brought to provide the cheap labor that a decimated indigenous population could no longer provide. This history created a structure of unequal access to the benefits of land that was built on overt racial ideas of white supremacy, but is now reproducible through existing property law, conventions, and the implied threat of a police-backed legal system. Ever since the colonial era, racialized structures have continued producing racialized outcomes biased in favor of whites and against darker skinned people, in the food system as well as outside of it.

Racialized unjust circumstances are found in spheres of production to consumption. Non-whites continue to be exploited on farms as labor and compose a large proportion of workers in low-pay, high-stress slaughterhouse and processing facility jobs. Those at the head of profit-generating multinational corporations are overwhelmingly white and male. In much of Latin America, the whiter mestizo population, descendants of conquistadors, tend to be the larger landowners, while the darker-skinned work on the larges-scale plantations found on these lands.

In the sphere of consumption, racialized differences in incomes reinforce an “eco-apartheid”, wherein those with more money to buy “good food” tend to be white(r). This is certainly the case in my home town of San Francisco, where gentrification plus an active “local food movement” has led to a clear bifurcation in food types and prices—cheap taquerias or expensive “farm to table” restaurants that cater to the newer, richer, whiter populations. We should consider this differential access issue globally as well, in that average access to sufficient food is greater in whiter regions like settler colonies in North America and Australia, and OG colonizer Europe, than in colonized Africa, Asia and Latin America. Of course, there is still poverty in the former places (concentrated amongst people of color) and increases in the “gentrification of food” (e.g. the appearance and spread of organic farmers markets and high-end farm to table restaurants) in the latter.

Racialized food systems are also at play in the Majority world, including places where multiple non-white ethnicities conflict. Examples of the latter include Arab States’ exploitation of South Asian migrants, the Hindu-Sihk conflicts in India, the marginalization of pastoralist ethic groups in Kenya, and land reform conflicts in Zimbabwe. Many of these struggles are less straightforwardly “black and white” than those in settler colonial contexts, yet they are often still linked to colonial histories that have previously engendered major social and economic inequality and helped to perpetuate these dynamics.

Some have even termed these “neo-colonial” relations. The concentration of land ownership among colonizer family lineages remains common in once-colonized countries (for example, Hawaii or Brazil). Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have been a mode of keeping unequal between-country trade relations unequal, reinforcing racial disparities. A prime example is how the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) caused the massive dumping of cheap corn grown in the USA and Canada into Mexico. This low-priced corn for masa factories (making the corn flour used in tortillas, a main food staple) caused economic expulsion of many Mexican campesinos from their land, as their main crop for market was no longer able to make them a living.

What’s a Mexican farmer to do without a means to a livelihood in their hometown? Besides moving to a large city like Mexico City to search for non-farm work, a main choice is to seek farm-related work in the United States. Hence, NAFTA did a good job of ensuring a continued supply of desperate, experienced non-white farm workers who are structurally less likely to fight for their rights or be able to achieve them in a judicial and legal system stacked against them based both on their racial and immigrant positions.[1]

Every country or society experiences and reproduces racial inequality and injustice differently (historical/contextual differences and “friction” makes it so). Still, the fact of racial injustice in the food system means that we cannot imagine fundamentally transforming the broken nature of the industrial capitalist food system without also undermining and overturning racist ideologies and social structures. This includes working through difficult-to-imagine processes of “decolonization”—of everything from land rights to our ways of thinking, learning, and relating. A tall order, perhaps, but to truly reverse centuries of white supremacy—and thus to right many wrongs in the food system—requires us at least to try.

[1] In the USA, federal labor law requirements for overtime pay do not include farm workers (another heavily racialized sector of workers, domestic workers, were also exempted until recently).

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)

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. Of course, in many countries, labor exploitation is nothing new. Going back to any early human civilization, it is apparent that labor exploitation has formed the base of the pyramid in society upon which elites—Pharaohs, priests, traders, and warriors—exist and persist. In more recent times, 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—particular in agriculture (but also for mining, factory work, and so on).

Usually, people of more marginalized social groups provide (non-family) farm labor, because these are the groups who can be enslaved, badly paid, or otherwise mistreated. In much of the world immigrants occupy this position of an available and easily marginalized class. Much of the global food system is thus dependent on the continual exploitation of rights-less immigrants; without their labor, food that is already growing sometimes literally goes without being harvested.

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 Spain’s greenhouses of the south coast, North Africans are the preferred source of labor, with similar outcomes…in Canada, state-run seasonal worker programs help farmers keep their laborers under control…from California’s fields of chemical-drenched strawberries to Italy’s olive groves, immigrants are the backbone to many sectors and geographic regions of agriculture.

Wage differentials between Minority and Majority world countries, local conflicts, and global economic policies drive much of immigration: 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. This leads to farm labor situations where economic coercion (in contrast to “extra-economic” coercion [1]) makes possible conditions close to slavery. We often treat cases of overt slavery like those above as anomalies in society requiring explanation, but they are actually unsurprising outcomes of existing economic inequalities, ever-present profit motives, and states that regulate and reinforce these unequal labor relations.

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 Minority world 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. International social movements also claim that many avenues are possible to stem exploitation of migrants.

Many (non-export oriented) 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 on occasion by outside researchers/observers—to be different than capitalist farms in terms of exploitation. This doesn’t mean these farms are exploitation-free; but that exploitation is more likely to be intra-familial (patriarchs exploiting women and children), intra-community, or “self-exploitation“. Labor exploitation can and does occur on smaller-scale, organic and Minority world family farms, but it is the industrial system that really excels at undervaluing and disrespecting workers.

In part this is because the larger-scale an operation, the more labor becomes rote and repeated and factory-like. There is no way around it: harvesting one crop 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 from one mono-cropped farm to the next).

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. Until then, we must bear in mind that most of the food system, regardless of farm size or character, involves labor exploitation.

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.

[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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.