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.

Let’s blame capitalism, then?

There is a large literature in the social sciences about the role of capitalism in environmental crises. The idea that capitalism is to blame as the underlying cause of environmental crises (and to some degree the social problems mentioned previously) is a relatively common one in social science literature, particularly those of the ecological Marxist variety. Trying to synopsize this literature may be impossible in one blog—but I’ll try to cover the important bases.

First, let’s leave aside those who argue that sustainability is best achieved through capitalist expansion, partly because this position relies on a faith in technological fixes, and thus leaves aside crucial questions of social relations and power. These arguments also refuse to deal seriously with the apparent changes in ecosystems that have followed colonialism and the spread of capitalism to all over the planet—the expansion of capitalist economies has brought us to the limits of “planetary boundaries” or past them.

Believers in the environmental “Kuznet’s Curve” think that as incomes rise, environment-saving technologies become more societally possible and implementable. But the science of the curve is based on faulty statistics, it projects history into the future rather than assessing what’s happening now, and it reduces environmental impact to a country-to-country (rather than global) analysis. Average statistical “incomes” rising is not an indicator of lower global “throughput” (i.e. the usage of raw natural resources), and all the rage among economists and mainstream policy makers about “decoupling” economic growth from throughput has not been associated with any actual reduction of throughput (only slowdowns of economic growth have reduced throughput).

Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg’s argument that “environmental problems are actually getting better” has been thoroughly disproven (though of course embedded fossil fuel industry shills like Myron Ebell come to his rescue). Those who argue that we are now in the “best of all possible worlds”, because of capitalism, are at best ignoring obvious signs of ecological crisis; at worst, they are defenders of the status quo with a stake in its continuation (like the doctors hired by the tobacco industry to defend smoking regardless of the emerging consensus about its harms).[1]

In contrast to these defenders, most critical social scientists point to capitalism as a negative force on social and environmental health—the question is to what degree, and how these forces intersect with alternative, opposing ones like state regulation or social movement organization. The question is not if capitalism is bad, but how bad, and how it can be dealt with.


Why is capitalism to blame? In short, capitalism creates conditions for constant competition (between firms). This competition leads to individual firm growth (“get big or get out”), but also pushes the economy to have to grow as a whole.[2] The drive to grow and outcompete competitors leads to greater labor exploitation, and greater negative externalities (especially environmental ones like soil loss or water pollution). More often than not, the pursuit of profit outweighs other factors of decision-making in capitalist firms within capitalism-promoting states.

Capitalist firms are dedicated to investing capital in costs of production in order to earn more income from production than they spend: this is the process of capital investment and accumulation. In the realm of agriculture, the drive to create greater surplus monetary value drives farmers to grow, to exploit labor, to achieve economies of scale, to overproduce, to find new and more lucrative markets, and so on. Under capitalism, farming is no longer for subsistence or human reproduction; it has become simply another form of capital investment and accumulation. We can see the history of colonialist expansion through the lens of capitalism’s drive to constantly expand into new areas and find new ways to extract and accumulate value. With this expansion came the transformation of many production systems into capitalist ones.

Furthermore, most governments reinforce the tendencies of capitalism, because the imperatives that drive businesses to economic growth as a primary value are paralleled by imperatives on governments and elected officials. This can be seen simply in the need for governments to maintain their own legitimacy: economic growth is seen to ensure higher levels of employment and thus a satisfied populace, while all the work that governments do must be paid for through taxation; this taxation, in turn, relies on an economic base. So most officials, representatives, and governments—whatever their stated political position—support measures that increase economic activity and ensure capital investment/accumulation—rather than, say, environmental protection or social stability.

So here, we can see why governments like Bolivia’s, though supported by small-scale peasant agricultural movements, continue to promote and support export-driven “extractive” industrial agriculture production: it provides governmental stability (by not pissing off powerful agribusiness elites), and generates foreign currency exchange revenues that the government can put into popular (legitimacy-enhancing!) domestic social spending programs.

(Of course, when social or environmental problems become too problematic for certain parts of society, they become crises of legitimacy for the government, which might temporarily switch priorities in order to re-secure legitimacy.)

So capitalism itself, and in its synergies with the “economism” of governments, makes impossible conditions for stable societies living within ecological boundaries. But still, there are valid arguments against seeing unsustainability and injustice as solely stemming from and built into capitalism. Each capitalist country, region, locality, business, or person operates by capitalism’s patterns and imperatives, but differently. Friction and difference do not disappear under the weight of capitalism.

Because of this, some commentators hold hope that capitalism can be reformed or made less harmful through various mechanisms of personal, social, and/or government regulation. These are the kinds of commentators who might put the blame for capitalist industrial agriculture’s damages on the industrial rather than the capitalist part, because it is assumed that within capitalism, “bad” agriculture can be regulated into less harmful forms.

Since the historical forces of capitalism are interwoven with the advent of industry, the spread of colonization, and the domination of for-profit corporations, only counterfactual scenarios can tell us what would be best, between ending corporate control, ending industrialization, and ending colonial capitalism. Most likely, the solution lies in attending to the problems of all three, separately and in combination.

This might be a dismantling of existing corporate actors, through anti-trust actions. It might be reducing the prevalence of industrial methods in favor of agroecological ones, on and off of corporate farms. Lastly, and most difficultly, it means challenging capitalism at all scales, from the colonial capitalist values that people enact in daily life, to the pro-capitalist policies promoted by governments. As Marxists for years have declared, we must find means to transition towards collective and common ownership of the “means of production” rather than it being only the property of capitalists.

So, an antidogmatist position on the question of what is at the root must acknowledge each of these elements, and look inside each of them, and how they mutually reinforce each other, in order to develop counteracting tendencies and actions. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that capitalism isn’t the only problem at play here. Why that is will be explored in the next post.

[1] There may indeed be signs of “progress” associated with the modern era, but these largely involve basic human health such as lower infant mortality and maternal mortality, and better sanitation (which rely on relatively inexpensive interventions that do not require constant growth in capital or capitalist industry).

[2] Further there are issues of monetary policy; in that our 20th century debt-based “fiat” currencies also contribute to the growth imperative. This video explains this process well and is interesting.

Is it corporate control?

Examples abound of the harms of consolidation and corporate control: land grabs all over the planet; the treatment of farmland as investment and dispossession of communities from their historical lands to force land use changes; consolidation in ownership of the entire food chain (from seeds and inputs to production to processing) through horizontal and vertical integration. Though the corporate sector doesn’t necessarily grow the majority of the world’s food, it does control large shares of many agricultural and food markets and exhibits outsized political power.

Corporations are constitutionally dedicated to profit, not to people impacted by their business, nor the places where they operate. The movement of investment capital moves through borders more easily than humans do, and shapes the political responses of the political elites of a place more than the other way around. Additional political control of politicians, whether through overt corruption, campaign financing, lobbying, or the entrenchment of “violations of the democratic norm of inclusion”, results in the difficulty (near impossibility?) of citizen counteraction of corporate interests in the public sphere.

Considering the problems emerging from this issue of corporate control, some have considered that perhaps industrial food production models could still be good, if divorced from corporate control. Perhaps industrial laborsaving “advancements” could “liberate” the people from working the land (or sea) if they were owned and directed by “the people” directly (and not through corporations)? With this idea, would-be farmers could then concentrate on other human endeavors. Maybe we could keep the best parts of the industrial capitalist food system by getting rid of the main problematic part: corporate control?

Clearly, corporate control evolved alongside the industrial model, out of and in concert with capitalism and colonialism. Exploitation of the land has gone along with exploitation of people, and both pre-date the existence of corporations themselves. So it’s clear that corporate control itself isn’t the foundational problem. Furthermore, there are indications that industrial forms of agriculture can be harmful, even if their forms of ownership or management are not “corporate”. As an example, consider that many industrial grain and soy farms in the USA are owned and operated as “family farms” (only 3% of total farms are “not family owned”).

Besides the ownership of farmland and management of farms we also need to look at the method of production, which is why some point to industrialism and industrialization as the “real” problems to confront.

What is preventing sustainability? Endless growth? Corrupt political systems? Corporate power?

With all these issues, social and environmental, we might rightly question whether we can make sense of the food system and put it on track to something better. Some, in fact, argue quite forcefully that we are basically fucked: that apocalypse is at hand (largely from climate change), in which case our food systems are doomed alongside the general ecological collapse of industrial society.

This collapse can be seen as the obvious outcome of a society dedicated economically, politically, and culturally to endless growth. Growth on a finite planet, sensibly, cannot go on forever. But there is no consensus about why we abide this growth imperative. Some argue it is our acquisitive “human nature”. Some put the blame on particularly corrupt political systems the world over. Some argue against the corporations that they say are undermining democratic political systems. Still others blame capitalism itself, since capitalism drives economic growth and now underlies almost all political systems, and keeps politics oriented towards capitalist interests (including those of food/farming corporations).

In the next few sections, I will try to parse out some of these blame games. It seems the last answer – “blame capitalism” – gets closest to the mark in finding common roots to the previously covered problems, which are disparate but connected. But this last answer also is inadequate for seeing the multiple and complex problems of growth-driven food systems. That is, we have to consider how corporate control, industrialization, and capitalism all contribute to the growth imperative as individual and interacting elements – and how each may be countered individually, but also as a cohesive whole.

We also must recognize how the above elements are historically situated – meaning not that they are inevitable or irreversible, but that histories vary and so the particular complex of problematic elements from place to place varies also. If we look at the problems as a whole, but with a critical and antidogmatist eye towards different forces at play, we may still be able to see many possible solutions within a common framework.