Published in "The Social Appetite" edited by John Germov and Laurel Williams (Oxford).
As we humans of the planet earth go about producing and consuming our food we set in train a long list of environmental problems. When I say that these are "problems" I mean that they are problems for us people or that they are problems for the rest of life on earth. What we are doing is unsustainable because the environmental damage we are causing will make it harder and harder for us to live well. Further, what we are doing is drastically reducing the opportunities for other forms of life to flourish on our planet. What sociology can offer is the insight that these problems develop as a consequence of specific social structures. It is not "us" as a mass of individuals or even "us", meaning the whole of society, that creates environmental problems. These problems come about as the result of our relationships with each other, relationships of class, economy, work and power. Very often environmental damage is a totally unintended by product of these relationships. One of the main points considered in this chapter is that patterns of consumption of food that cause environmental problems are in many ways created by the structures of the capitalist economy, both locally and globally.
Environmental problems and food production
It is possible to set out some of the ways in which current practices of food production damage the environment. I will pay most attention to the situation in the affluent developed countries. The chapter in this book on hunger deals in more detail with developing countries. The following examples are by no means exhaustive but give us some idea of the scope of the problems.
In the Developed Countries
The term monoculture is used when a particular area of land is used to produce a single crop. When the farming industry is based on large pieces of land serviced by machinery and cheap fuel, monocultural production is usually more efficient (cheaper), than a system of cropping in which a variety of crops are grown together. However monocultures have untoward environmental effects. Firstly, a monocultural crop is the perfect environment for a pest or disease species to develop - it spreads easily and has the potential to destroy all the produce of the farm (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, p. 53; Watson 1992). To prevent this, toxic pesticides are used. These cause some damage to human health and also kill off microbes, earthworms, insects and animals which can actually aid food production. Wild animals are also poisoned by eating insects toxified by pesticides (Henderson 1990, p. 33; Thomas & Kevan 1993). Pests develop resistance to the pesticides that are being used. The crop may be unable to be grown at all or even more toxic pesticides could be called in ( Henderson 1990; Lawrence & Vanclay 1992; Lloyd 1997).
Environmentalists generally recommend the development of a polyculture where a mixed variety of foods are grown together. If pest species do cause a problem it is then confined to some crops. The rest flourish. Pests are not easily transmitted between small pockets of the same crop grown in places separated by other plants. If any pesticides are used they should be organic sprays, which are not harmful to most life forms. Furthermore, crops chosen for a particular location should be ones that flourish so successfully that pests cannot spoil the crop (Mollison & Holmgren 1978; Mollison 1988; Watson 1992; Morrow 1993). For example, we grow cotton as our main plant fibre crop in Australia and cause vast amounts of environmental damage spraying the crops to prevent insect damage. Cotton is our main fibre crop because it is very profitable to grow. However hemp, linen, and silk are all natural fibres that can be produced in Australia without the use of toxic chemicals.
Companion planting can deal with pest problems. A specific plant is grown which is a companion to another desired species. This controls the pests of the second species. For example, fennel and borage are herbs which host wasp species that attack caterpillars. They can be grown as companions to vegetable species that suffer from attack by caterpillars. Animals can also be used to control pests. Hens can eat fruit fly larva. Ducks can devour snails (French 1993; Morrow 1993; Mollison 1988).
Often the problem is that we are too choosy about pest infestation in food. Some toxic sprays in Australia are used on fruit to prevent fruit fly. Organic methods of control are labour intensive but they do work (French 1993). However they cannot guarantee a crop free of fruit fly larva. So any such method may be adequate for the home gardener but fails for the farm produce merchant at the supermarket.
Methods of organic pest control and polycultural production work well in a system of farming where people grow food for their local neighbourhood and have plenty of time to pick, plant and maintain plants by hand. For farmers who are saving costs through mass production monoculture and the labour saving that comes with ploughing and harvesting machinery, the polyculture solution to pest problems seems unrealistic. Monocultures and toxic pesticides make sense in terms of commercial agriculture as it has been developed to market cheap agricultural produce to anonymous consumers (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, pp. 52-53). Consumers have little knowledge and experience of the problems caused by the pesticides used to produce their food. The only choices they make to keep this system in operation are to buy the cheapest foods. They reject with horror any foods that show evidence of pest attack.
Ploughing with machinery is a technology that saves on labour costs and favours monocultural production. A central use is the production of carbohydrate crops. Indigenous economies often depended for carbohydrates on a mix of root crops, fruits and nuts. Modern agriculture produces most carbohydrate through production in ploughed fields - rice, wheat, corn and potatoes (Gardner 1996). This technology has serious effects on soil quality. The continual turning of soil destroys microorganisms which create soil fertility. Ploughed fields are very susceptible to erosion in which rain washes away topsoil. The constant use of heavy machinery packs the soil down and creates an infertile hard pan (Thomas & Kevan 1993; Gardner 1996). So monocultural production of cereals and potatoes through ploughing is unsustainable. The soil is being removed year by year. For example in Australia's top wheat growing areas 13 tonnes of soil is lost through erosion for every tonne of wheat produced (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, p. 40). In the early 1980's farms in the United States were losing an average of 10 tonnes of soil per acre each year. In the world as a whole soil is being lost to erosion at the rate of 5 tonnes per person per year (Trainer 1995, p.18; see also Watson 1992, p. 21; Gardner 1996).
Commercial agriculture makes considerable use of artificial fertilisers such as superphosphates. Chemical fertilisers destroy microorganisms that normally create soil fertility and humus. They are a solution that exacerbates the problems of soil infertility. As well, soluble fertiliser is washed into waterways and causes a problem of nutrient overload. The fertiliser in the water provides nutrient on which algae can grow. The proliferation of algae uses up oxygen in the water and other forms of organic life, such as water weeds, fishes and insects all die. The algae can itself be poisonous. In Australia we have had years in which the whole of the Darling River was polluted with blue green algae, poisonous to stock, fish, wild animals and human populations (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992; Thomas & Kevan 1993; Vanclay & Lawrence 1995; Gardner 1996).
Artificial fertilisers are used for two reasons. The first is to force the maximum productivity out of any given piece of land in a given year, whatever the long term effects. The second is that they are cheaper than the organic farming methods of enhancing soil fertility. Methods such as crop rotation, growing living mulch and slashing it, the use of animal manure, planting of tree legumes, or earthworks to increase the water retention of soils all create soil fertility. But they are expensive in labour or machinery and may require the resting of fields from production (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992; Thomas & Kevan 1993). As Frank Vanclay and Geoffrey Lawrence also point out, alternative approaches all involve a considerable investment in skills and knowledge which is itself expensive (Vanclay & Lawrence 1995; Campbell 1996).
Another source of nutrient overload is manure washed into waterways by concentrations of stock close to the water. This problem is severe where animals are kept in feed lots. The use of feed lots is becoming increasingly common as beef is required in the Asian and American markets that is "marbled" with streaks of fat. This effect can only be produced by feeding cattle with grain in feed lots (Vanclay & Lawrence 1995). There is a separation between markets of consumers, who merely prefer a particular food product, entrepreneurs, who supply and promote this product and farmers, who operate at the site of the ecological damage.
Large animals grown for meat generally cause environmental problems. Overgrazing is a common response to pressures to produce profits in any given year although, over time, it reduces productivity (Watson 1992; Brown 1990). Too many sheep or cattle pack the soil down hard, destroying soil aeration and killing soil microorganisms, leaving a hard crust that grows little fodder. Rain water does not readily penetrate the crust, leading to further loss of soil fertility. The overgrazed exposed soil easily washes away. These problems are rampant in Australian grazing lands but also in other countries such as the United States. They are less prevalent in Europe where heavy rainfall and deep soils keep soil quality good despite centuries of grazing (Thomas & Kevan 1993; Crosby 1986). Ultimately all grazing is parasitic on the humus built up in a previous epoch when the land was forested with trees. Overgrazing, tree removal and ploughing for cereals have already lead to the desertification of vast areas of the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East, by the imperial civilizations of the Ancient World. Australia and the Americas are following close behind since the expansion of European farming practices into these new countries (Crosby 1986).
Salinity is a common environmental problem of today's farming. For example in Australia 800,000 hectares of agricultural land is affected by salinity and this area is increasing constantly (Watson 1992, p. 19). It is linked to irrigation and land clearing. With irrigation, a constant supply of water into dry soils causes the water table to rise. Moisture under the the soil comes closer and closer to the surface. Salts which have been trapped in the dry soils are dissolved and rise to the surface. The result is a salt pan which inhibits the growth of plants. This effect is extremely hard to reverse. The irrigated area becomes a useless desert (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992; Thomas & Kevan 1993). In Australia 1.5 million hectares of land is irrigated, most of it unsustainably ( Watson 1992, p. 21).
Where land has been cleared a similar problem arises. Higher areas of land are known as up take areas. Water falling on these higher areas is taken into the soil and travels down the slope. Here it causes the water table to rise, bringing salt to the surface. This salty area of low ground becomes poisonous to most plant life. Prior to clearing this salinisation process was prevented by deep rooted tree species. These trees made use of water falling on the higher ground, bringing it up from their roots, releasing it as vapour into the air and storing it in their foliage. So clearing higher ground for pasture or cereal crops is unsustainable. The effect is to reduce the area in which useful plants can be grown (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992).
There is a commercial angle to these issues. Irrigated land is very profitable for a short period before problems of salinity develop. Clearing higher slopes for pasture or cereal crops is also profitable, as it increases the area which can be farmed - in the short run. Once salinity develops it is expensive to reverse the process. Up take areas have to be replanted with deep rooted trees or perennial shrubs. There is the considerable cost of planting and fencing off so that animals do not destroy the young seedlings. The low areas affected by salting also have to be fenced off and planted out with species that will take up water and can tolerate the salty conditions (Watson 1992, p. 20; Meredith 1995).
Ecological problems are not confined to the paddock. Ploughs and harvesters use fossil fuels. The transport and storage of food also uses fossil fuels, which in the long term are a scarce and irreplaceable resource. As well, all use of fossil fuels contributes to the Greenhouse effect (Thomas & Kevan 1993). Today, many more calories of energy are used to produce fertilisers, run farm machinery, and transport and store food than are present in the food itself. In traditional rice cultivation 1 calory of human energy produces 20 calories of food energy. In corn production in the United States today, 1 calory of energy (mostly from fossil fuels) is used to produce 1 calory of corn and 20 calories of energy produces 1 calory of food energy in beef (Bennett 1987, p. 34).
The most ecologically sensible way to distribute food is to produce almost all food in the local neighbourhood and distribute it either as gifts or barter or through small local shops. That way food is produced within walking distance and does not have to be stored and refrigerated (Trainer 1995). However within a system of commercial agriculture the present far flung distribution of food makes perfect economic sense. Consumers are encouraged to buy foods produced in different climates and sent over long distances. The average distance food has travelled to reach the plate of a United States resident is 2000 kilometres (Durning 1991, p. 159). For a large food conglomerate, producing a uniform product and distributing it over a large area is cheaper than local marketing of all the different products that a local area can produce. We end up with the ridiculous situation where bananas from Coffs Harbour are sent to Sydney to be bought by big food conglomerates and redistributed back to Coffs Harbour to be sold. The only decision made by the consumer is to add a particular food to their supermarket trolley if they can afford it. The company has already centralized the production and distribution of all their food products so that pricing is uniform wherever the food is purchased.
Packaging of food also makes sense in economic terms but causes environmental problems. The two factors producing excessive packaging are long distance transport of food and competition between businesses to attract consumers. The consumer merely chooses the most attractive packet on the shelf and develops a commercially useful brand loyalty to a particular product. In doing this they are part of a system in which unnecessary mountains of plastic, aluminium and paper products are manufactured and distributed, ending up as a waste problem.
In Developing Countries
As noted above, issues relevant to developing countries are covered in detail in the chapter on hunger in this book. Here I will summarize some of the environmental problems associated with food in developing countries. Peasant and tribal subsistence production of food has been replaced by food production for the international market (Bennett 1987; Trainer 1994). A wealthy landlord or business class usually monopolizes land. On the land used to produce cash crops for the international market, environmental problems are similar to the problems caused by commercial agriculture in developed countries - for example erosion caused by ploughing for monoculture crops, toxic pollution caused by fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, soil destruction from overgrazing and so on. As in developed countries, these problems are caused by competition between businesses to produce the cheapest food products on the international market. An effect of the changeover to cash crops is that former subsistence farmers are often driven off the best land. Ted Trainer estimates that 80% of land in developing countries is owned by 3% of the population (Trainer 1994; p. 17; see also Bennett 1987; George 1988; Trainer 1995).
Displaced subsistence farmers either starve, try to find some employment in towns or remain in rural areas. They may be unemployed and driven to eke out a subsistence by clearing less productive and previously forested land. The environmental effect is that areas of high biodiversity are destroyed by farming. Often soil erosion or leaching of nutrients makes these effects virtually unreversible (George 1988; Pearce, Barbier, Markyanda 1990; Fargher & Cadaweng 1990; Boyce 1993; Trainer 1994).
Hunger is a common experience for peasant farmers who are not part of the wealthy landlord elite. It is estimated that one billion of the world's six billion population do not receive sufficient food (Trainer 1994, p. 34). One response to this insecurity is for families to have as many children as possible. They hope that at least some of them will survive to provide for their parents in old age (Bennett 1987, p. 22). While pre-colonial societies had stable populations, increasing population is the norm in developing countries. Currently, while the rate of population increase has slowed the world’s population is still growing (Woodford 1997).
As a result of these processes, more and more areas where humans have low impact are destroyed to make way for farming, timber extraction, roads, cities and mining. It is doubly wrong to blame these problems on the developing world. Increasing population in developing countries is a response to food insecurity - caused by the takeover of land for cash cropping for a global market. Much of the land which is being developed at the expense of wild nature is being used to grow luxury crops for wealthy consumers in rich countries. So if there is overpopulation, it is really an overpopulation of rich consumers.
One way of looking at this is to consider how much land is being made use of by wealthy consumers to support their lifestyle and how much of this land is outside their own country. For example "a Dutch person’s consumption of food, wood, natural fibres, and other products of the soil involves exploitation of five times as much land outside the country as inside" (Durning 1991, p. 156). Africa, which is a country in which famines and droughts often claim lives actually has more cultivated land per person than the United States but much of Africa’s land is used for export crops (Trainer 1995, p. 155). During the 1984 drought Zimbabwe and Kenya imported 65,000 tons of maize to feed their hungry populations. At the same time Zimbabwe produced a record crop of tobacco, soybeans and cotton for export while Kenya produced a huge harvest of asparagus and strawberries (Bennett 1987, p. 35).
Crops such as rubber, sugar, tea, coffee and meat are all grown in developing countries - to the detriment of areas in which wild animals and plants were formerly dominant. 16 million hectares of coffee, tea and cocoa are grown for export in developing countries (Trainer 1995, p. 155). Annually, 200 million pounds of meat is exported to the United States from Central America - mostly grown on land that was recently tropical rainforest (Trainer 1995, p. 34; see also Barnaby 1988; Pearce, Barbier, Markyanda 1990; Revkin 1990; Trainer 1994). Tropical timbers are also logged unsustainably. These are all luxury crops , wealthy consumers could do without them. However, the only decision made by these consumers is to purchase an available product from a developing country. The destruction of the environment that has made that decision possible is not a choice made by those consumers.
Solutions to environmental problems in developing countries require time, effort and money. In a world where wealth is very unevenly distributed there is little left to deal with these problems (Trainer 1985; 1991; 1994; 1995). For those of us in the rich countries, our affluence is bought at the expense of environmental destruction, in the countries in which we live - but also in the rest of the world.
Overfishing is a problem of current food production. In many parts of the world, fish stocks have crashed. From Newfoundland to Norway, cod has virtually vanished from the seas. Chile and Peru, which used to harvest huge crops of anchovies, have had to close down this industry. In 1996 13 of the world’s 15 leading oceanic fisheries were in decline (Brown 1996, p. 5; see also Trainer 1994, p. 142). This overuse of fish stocks is a disaster from the point of view of sustainability and biodiversity. Marine animals are being fished to the point of extinction. Technologies such as drift nets and long lines also imperil marine animals that are not sought for food. Dolphins, turtles and sharks are caught in drift netslong lines. These problems are caused by the commercialization of fishing for an international market. Half of all the world’s fish catch goes to produce fish meal for farm animals and fish dinners for pets in rich countries (Trainer 1995, p. 34). and albatrosses are hooked on
Food and Deep Ecology
Deep Ecology is an ethical perspective which validates the moral claims of other species. In terms of this ethic, current food production is problematic. Much animal production is cruel, such as keeping hens and pigs in cages, or cattle in feed lots. The amount of land taken up by humans for farms, industry or urban space is at the expense of other species on the planet. Humans now make use of close to 40% of the photosynthetic activity on the world’s land (Brown 1990, p.7). Increasing numbers of species are becoming extinct (Brown 1990, p. 5; Thomas & Kevan 1993; Brown 1996, p. 4). Even where species are maintaining their existence, numbers have been reduced to the point where the continued evolution of species through the free development of new varieties by mutation is unlikely (Foreman 1991; Watson 1992). The combination of human population level and resource use is at the expense of biodiversity.
How these problems are related to the economic and political structures of global capitalism.
In each of the points covered above I have begun to show how the ecological problems of food production are related to existing economic and political structures. There are three basic classes in today’s world. Firstly, there is the global capitalist class which, in wealthy countries, owns more than 90% of shares in companies. This is between about 5% and 10% of the population of these affluent countries. It is about 2% of the global population as a whole (Giddens 1989, p. 217; Waters & Crook 1990, p. 159). The next class is the affluent middle class of all countries and the relatively affluent working class of the developed world. These people are the global consuming class. They are probably about 20% of the world’s population - one billion people. For example the richest 20% of the world’s people consume an average of GNP 46 times higher than the average GNP consumed by the poorest half. This rich 20% consumes 80% of the world’s production of natural resources such as steel, rubber and energy (Trainer 1994, p. 3). Finally, the rest of the world’s population are the global poor - the unemployed of developed countries and the subsistence peasants, low wage workers and unemployed urbanites of developing countries. A large fraction of these people - approximately one billion - do not get enough food for an adequate diet. Each of these three groups have a role in the ecological problems of food production. It is the interaction between these groups which creates the problems.
Prior to the colonial period most land in developing countries was used for subsistence production either by peasants or by tribal owners - horticulturalists or hunters and gatherers. This means that crops were not sold on the market. Food was consumed by the producer, given to kin and community groups, bartered with other producers, or sent as tribute to landlords. Now, most land is being used to produce food for the commodity economy - for sale for cash. Small scale owners of land have come to depend on this cash income for their livelihood. Unsustainable farming practices come about because they are in competition with larger companies and other small farmers to produce as cheaply as possible, and to produce whatever is most profitable, whether it is ultimately the best thing to grow to sustain their land.
Larger owners produce food for a global market. Effectively, much land is controlled by the global rich and is used for cash crops. These are exported for consumption by the affluent consumer class, usually located in developed countries. The rich either own this land outright or control the process of farming and the distribution and marketing of the produce. For example multinational companies own 85% of the world’s cocoa production, 90% of tobacco, 85% of tea, 90% of coffee and 60% of sugar (Bennett 1987, p.38; see also Lappe 1975; Trainer 1995). Ecological problems come about because this land is farmed unsustainably or because this land has been converted from forests or woodlands to its present use. The transport and packaging of cash crops exported from developing countries is itself an ecological problem. For shareholders in the transnational companies that manage this farming, environmental controls interfere with profits. Shareholders respond to any loss of profitability by moving their shares to another company or by moving their company to another country.
The subsistence peasantry or tribal people displaced by these changes may move on to marginal land to grow subsistence crops, damaging the ecosystems of land previously used sustainably to provide forest resources. Some are employed as farm workers in the cash crop industry. Often the pay of both urban and rural workers in the developing world is insufficient for subsistence. Livelihoods are supplemented by subsistence agriculture. This additional subsistence agriculture is also putting pressure on local ecologies.
In the developed world small scale farming is being replaced by the use of land by large conglomerates. For example in Australia in 1988, "five of Australia’s top agricultural exporters were Japanese trading houses whihc sent abroad, in one year, approximately $7 billion of unprocessed food and fibre" (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, p. 47). At the same time, international competition to provide farm products at the lowest possible prices squeezes small farmers and large companies alike. In developed countries with high wages the effect is to reduce human labour in farming - through the use of fertilisers, farm machinery, monocultural production and toxic pesticides. For investors, the spending of company money on a more sustainable mode of farming would merely be a reduction in the profitability of their shares. Managers know that they cannot afford to take such risks. For small owner operated farms, the price of environmental repair is too high. Farm income is barely enough to make ends meet. For example in the 1991 -1992 financial year an average farmer in the Murray Darling Basin only got a net farm income of $2,100 (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, p. 37; see also Vanclay & Lawrence 1995).
For a government in the developed world, a serious investment in environmental repair and restructuring of the farm industry could be achieved in one of two ways. Firstly, regulations could force changes on the industry. However then the profitability of farming would drop as farm owners had to pay to conform to the regulations. There would be a fall in export earnings from the farming sector and farm products would also cost more on the local market. Both these changes would damage the economy as a whole. Alternatively, taxpayers could fund this restructuring, which seems unlikely at present. If the high tax alternative was implemented, the money paid by consumers in higher taxes would be diverted from other industries which supply the consumer goods that taxpayers now buy. There would be a damping down of consumer demand as taxes went up.
Either way, this investment in rural restructuring would be at the expense of the profitability of the economy. It would decrease the amount of farm produce which could be sold on the market or make it more expensive to produce. Following research by Geoffrey Lawrence and Frank Vanclay, I will take the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia as an example (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992). The Basin produces one third of Australia’s farm products. The value of its annual production is about 10 billion dollars (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, p. 34). Most of the Basin’s products are exported which means that the area makes a strong contribution to Australia’s overseas earnings. 70% of exports from Australia are bulk agricultural commodities, which shows just how important this sector is to Australia’s economy as a whole (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, p. 48). For this area alone, essential environmental repair would cost between 2 and 3 billion dollars (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, pp. 40,41). So such repairs would make a large dent in earnings from the farm products of the Basin. The environmenal problems of the Basin are quite typical of the situation in Australia as a whole and in all developed countries. In no country could essential environmental repairs be carried out without quite drastic effects on the economy.
Governments are equally aware of the environmental perils of the present situation. Present agriculture is gradually destroying farmland in developed countries. The eventual result must be disastrous for the farming industry and the economy alike (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992). Caught between these pressures, governments make some effort to support sustainable land use, but it is far from adequate to deal with the problems.
A fundamental group to be considered are the affluent consumers of the global market. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, capitalism has depended on sales of mass produced consumer goods to the employed populations of industrial countries. With increases in productivity caused by new technologies, the provision of consumer goods for the populations of wealthy countries has continually increased. From the second world war to the present there has been a quantum leap in consumption by ordinary people in the affluent countries. This is the situation for today’s consumers in the affluent nations.
They buy food that appears on the shelves which is either the cheapest or fits their desire for luxury goods. They have little knowledge of the ecological effects of food production. They are reluctant to pay more or restrict their choices - by buying only organic produce, only free range meat, less meat, only food that is locally produced, only food supplied in bulk in re-usable jars or paper bags without labels and so on. One approach would be to castigate these consumers for their wasteful consumption and their ignorance of the environmental consequence of their choices.
This moral approach does not look at the reasons why wasteful and ignorant consumption comes to appear necessary and attractive. Affluent consumers are also alienated workers ( Marx 1978a & 1978b; Cardan 1974; Willis 1990). Using this term from Marx, I want to indicate that affluent consumers have to get a paid job to live. As employees they have no control of what they produce, no control over who gets the products of their work, and no control over the conditions of their work. So work is perceived as a burden not as a creative and sociable pleasure. Historically, the work force of developed countries have used their power as trade unionists and voters. They have forced the employing class to pay them more and more to compensate for the experience of alienated labour. The capitalist class has accepted this increase in consumer spending power. It has provided continually expanding markets to soak up expanding industrial production (Cardan 1974). It is in consumption that affluent workers exercise choice and freedom. It is in their leisure that they express their creative and social capacities.
All this ties into the way affluent consumers look at food. Expensive, well packaged and luxurious food seems the appropriate moral reward for a life of thankless labour. Within the context of a puritanical culture, food is one of the few morally legitimate pleasures (Pont 1997). In fact the foods that are transported from developing countries - at great cost to the environment - are the epitome of luxury and morality. Meat and dairy products are seen as an appropriate reward for hard masculine labour and necessary for healthy growth; sugar is seen as a sweet pleasure and an apt reward for appropriate femininity; coffee, tea and chocolate are all stimulating but legitimate drugs, an aid to concentration at work or a reward after work. Elaborate and decorative packaging, flawless food products untainted by pest attacks and a wide range of foods from every place in the globe are seen as rewards that affluent consumers deserve for all their hard work.
It is these factors that make it difficult to get consumers to direct their food purchasing habits to environmental ends. As well, these factors make it unlikely that affluent consumers would willingly embrace tough environmental regulations of farming and trade. These regulations would inevitably mean that consumers would pay more for food or have less choice of foods.
It may be considered that urbanisation is a factor that distances urban consumers from the environmental consequences of food production in far distant farms and other countries. It is certainly true that the removal of most affluent consumers from direct experience of farming allows people to forget the environmental impact of food production. However this urbanisation and separation is itself to be explained in terms of the requirements of the capitalist economy and consumers. It makes sense economically to separate farms from affluent cities so that cheap labour or large machinery can be readily employed. It makes sense culturally for consumers as alienated workers to want luxuries from far off as compensation for alienated work. This separation is not a technical imperative of efficient farming. As environmentalists point out, cities could be reorganised to grow their own food locally and city dwellers could be responsible for this local production (Trainer 1995).
Are There Any Solutions?
I hope that what I have written so far will have convinced the reader that there are serious ecological problems in the way we produce and consume our food. There are no easy solutions to these problems. I have explained the reasons why intervention in agriculture is a difficult option for governments in developed countries. At the same time pressure to regulate and subsidize agriculture for environmental benefits makes sense in any country. Alternative more radical strategies are also worth consideration.
Permaculture is an agricultural technology which offers a solution to the ecological problems of farming today. The term permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to mean a system of permanent agriculture, an agriculture which is sustainable because it shares many features with natural forest systems (Mollison & Holmgren 1978, p.1; Morrow 1993). There is an emphasis on perennial crops, such as tree crops, to replace food that is now grown through annual cropping. This reduces soil erosion because there is no annual ploughing. To achieve stability by controlling pest and weed infestation, permaculture mixes a variety of species in a polyculture. Instead of large areas set aside for pasture, permaculturists favour the integration of animals into mixed farming - through the growth of perennial fodder crops for animals and the integration of small animals into domestic and community gardens. Permaculturists emphasize the use of earthworks, such as terracing, dams and swales to retain water, improve soil fertility and prevent soil erosion. Permaculture requires a lot of manual or machine labour to establish these earthworks, but annual use of machinery for ploughing is avoided. Harvesting crops within a permaculture system is labour intensive, as machinery cannot be used to gather crops from a diverse polyculture. Permaculturists favour the development of agricultural systems that supply a local community with diverse products. They oppose the large scale transport of agricultural products (Mollison & Holmgren 1978; Morrow 1993; Trainer 1995).
As a technology, permaculture has many advantages - control of soil erosion, no use of chemical fertilisers or toxic pesticides, little use of fossil fuels for farm machinery or transport. Socially, however, its application is very dependent on the context. In developed countries, the widespread application of permaculture in commercial farming would see food prices rise, as the input of manual labour into agriculture was increased and would see a reduction in access to food from far off places. I have explained above why these changes are likely to be resisted. On the other hand, permaculture techniques can be introduced into niche markets for consumers who are prepared to pay a higher price to save the environment. For instance Ian Crowley of Moree has begun to produce organically grown beef, grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides or articifial fertilisers, making use of native grasses for fodder. He markets this under the name "Warramali Natural Beef" and is able to sell it at a retail price one dollar more than conventional beef (Lehmann 1997; see also Campbell 1996). Changes could be accelerated if governments were to ban some environmentally degrading farming practices.
Permaculture also has a key role in developed countries as a part of the development of alternatives to the commodity economy. Permaculture as a subsistence agriculture for alternative life stylesuburban residents to supplement food bought on the market with food produced in their own backyards (for example Armstron & Griffin 1996). Community farms are sometimes established which make use of paid labour and voluntary work to provide food to members of a food cooperative (McWhirter & Payne 1996). All these options use the time and surplus money of affluent consumers. They are attempts to bypass the commercial agriculture system and begin to establish a more ecologically sustainable agriculture. They are also a new use of the creativity and choice that these consumers can exercize in their leisure time. communities is widespread in all developed countries (for examples see Ashforth 1997; Smith 1997; Woodrow 1997). It is also used by
In developing countries, permaculture is often offered as a development strategy by non government organisations committed to commuity empowerment. For instance in Cambodia, Quaker Service Australia and Australian Catholic Relief employed the permaculture educator and designer, Rosemary Morrow, to set up permaculture instruction in villages in which land was owned by local peasant agriculturists (Morrow 1994; see also Francis 1990; Morrow 1996; CAA 1997; Moore 1997). As may be understood from earlier parts of this chapter, unequal land tenure is a barrier to permaculture in developing countries. Those who need to supplement their diets with subsistence agriculture do not own enough land to grow food. For reasons that have been explained above, agricultural production is often oriented towards cash crops for export, rather than local subsistence.
Permaculture is particularly effective where there is government support for locally oriented peasant agriculture, for example in Vietnam, Cuba and South Africa (Morrow 1994; Tiller 1994; Morrow 1996; Khumbane 1997). Permaculture is also effective where traditional land owners still have rights to land. Permaculturists encourage local subsistence food production and the conservation of agricultural and forestry resources. Examples are the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (Tutua 1994).
New Age Diets and Affluent Consumers
Within affluent countries consumers can use their buying power to favour organic agriculture and the conservation of farming land. A growing minority embrace alternative diets, such as vegetarianism, the macrobiotic diet, fit for life diet, the stone age health diet, not to mention various versions of heart health diets promoted by state institutions (Pritikin 1983; Diamond & Diamond 1985; Michell 1988; Eaton, Shostak & Konner 1989). What these have in common is less use of industrially processed foods and packaging. In all these diets meat and dairy consumption is reduced. These changes benefit the environment. A growing number of consumers also prefer to buy organic foods, grown without the use of artificial fertilisers or toxic pesticides. This preference may reflect people’s concerns about health or their concerns about the environment (Henderson 1990).
One of the most interesting manifestations of this trend is the Community Supported Agriculture subscribers organically by a local farm developed specifically to service the cooperative. These are usually located in urban areas on unused patches of land owned by Councils. The box of food is more highly priced than the mass produced food available at the supermarket but is guaranteed to be locally and organically grown (O’Brien 1995; McWhirter & Payne 1996). system in which a group of consumers become members of a food growing cooperative. As they pay in advance for a box of fruit and vegetables every week. This is grown
Another way that affluent consumers can have an impact on the sustainability of agriculture is through financial support for non government development organisations such as Oxfam, Community Aid Abroad or World Vision. These organisations frequently promote sustainable agriculture as a means to food security, community empowerment and environmental protection. As well, by educating people and developing systems of cheap community controlled credit, NGO's create the financial security in which population stability is most likely (Francis 1990; Morrow 1994 & 1996; CAA 1997; Moore 1997).
The Gift Economy
In the arguments presented above, I have suggested that capitalist agriculture is extremely likely to cause environmental problems. Though there are many accounts of this connection I will here trace it to two central features of capitalism (Trainer 1985; Daly & Cobb 1991; Trainer 1991; McLaughlin 1992; Trainer 1994).
The first is competitive private ownership of farming land. Owners of land are in competition with each other to secure the biggest possible market share of whatever farm product they are trying to sell. They do this by producing farm goods at the lowest possible price and marketing them successfully. Farms that are less effective in gaining profits lose value, lose investors and are ultimately sold. Their owners sell to pay back debts or save some equity from a failing enterprise. Competitive ownership places intense pressures on the environment. In any given year, the pressure is to produce the most output from the farm with the least cost in labour and other purchased inputs. In very many cases the most effective way to do this is to exploit the land unsustainably.
The second source of environmental problems for agriculture in a capitalist economy is the role of the consumer. For consumers the purchase of more and more consumer goods seems to be the only adequate compensation for a life of forced labour. They purchase a desired quality of produce at the cheapest price. They do not know about the environmental impacts of the goods they buy and they cannot control these impacts. They regard their level of consumption as sacrosanct. They treat any attempt to increase taxes as a kind of theft - this puts strict limits on government spending on the environment. Environmental restrictions on farming that may result in jobs losses are fiercely opposed by consumers who are also employees.
These problems are intrinsic to the very structure of the capitalist economy. They account for massive resistance to any attempts to control the environmental consequences of agriculture. Within any given country there is always the threat that business and employment will relocate elsewhere. Nothing short of detailed global regulation could actually prevent the dire environmental effects of this economic structure. Politically, this is very unlikely.
So it has been argued that a different economic structure might be better for the environment (see e.g. Goldsmith 1988; Mollison 1988; Daly & Cobb 1991; Trainer 1995). My own view is that these problems are best tackled at their roots. A gift economy is one in which there is no money and no wage labour. Instead people produce things for their own consumption or as gifts for other people. An economy like this would be a vast extension of the kinds of voluntary work now done by citizen groups such as Lions' Clubs or Cleanup Australia. It would not be a return to some earlier pre-industrial tribal society. Clubs and associations would still produce technologically complex goods and services. But these would be produced as gifts, not with the expectation of financial returns. People would be motivated to give by desires for social status and the social pleasure of giving. The standard of living would be the effect of multiple gift networks (Vaneigem 1983; Pefanis 1991; Leahy 1994).
In farming, producers would see no advantage in overusing their land. Instead they would seek to conserve their agricultural and environmental resources; to ensure their ability to live well in the future and to continue to be able to gain status by giving farm produce to others. In a capitalist economy it makes sense for entrepreneurs to market anything that can be sold, regardless of the effect on the environment. It also makes sense for consumers to purchase these goods, since they are already tied into a life of forced labour. These factors cause overproduction and overuse of land and other resources. In a gift economy people's efforts in production would be tempered by the desire to enjoy a leisured existence and a beautiful and healthy environment. Their own material wealth would depend on the desires of others to give; no amount of productive effort on their part would make the slightest difference.
Creativity and choice, which now only find an outlet in leisure, would be here turned to creating a productive process which was also environmentally benign. In terms of farming, permaculture is the ideal complement to such an economic system. Creating and harvesting a stable polyculture is an enjoyable appreciation of the bounties of nature as well as a sustainable mode of agricultural production (Mollison & Holmgren 1978).
While this proposal may be seen as a call for a total revolution I am very aware that few people favour such a drastic option. However, the various measures that I have outlined above - state regulation, permaculture and alternative diets - may all be seen as ways of bringing elements of the gift economy into today's society. They all represent ways of avoiding the environmental consequences of the market's normal functioning - they can be seen as attempts by consumers to control production. They produce environmentally welcome effects as gifts for the global community. Many of the proposals mentioned above represent attempts by consumers to develop choice, creativity and power. They aim to go beyond the constraints of forced labour and passive leisure that are the system's usual mode of operation.
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Glossary - Key Terms
unsustainable - a farming practice that reduces the productivity of the land for future agriculture uses
monoculture - when a piece of land is used to produce a single crop
polyculture - when a piece of land is used to produce a diversity of crops
organic - agriculture which makes no use of artificial chemicals for fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides
perennial /annual - plants which live for a number of years / plants which die and re-seed each year
fossil fuels - carbon based stored energy fuels mined from the ground - oil, gas, coal
Greenhouse effect - the heating up of the planet as a result of gases produced by human activities
subsistence production - production of food for local consumers; moneyless exchange of food by barter, gifts etc.
commodity production - production of food for consumers outside of the local area; food produced to be exchanged for cash
peasants - people who own a small plot of land on which they produce their own subsistence
tribal - collective traditional ownership by a tribe, clan or kin group
cash crops - crops produced to be exchanged for cash
capitalist - someone who owns productive property, employs labour and markets the product - can be the shareholders who jointly own the property and have the functions of ownership performed on their behalf
capitalist society - almost all the productive property of society is privately owned by a relatively small capitalist class and can be bought and sold - most people either work for a wage or are part of the world's poverty stricken unemployed classes
the global capitalist class - the world's social class of substantial capitalists
the global consuming class - the world's middle class of affluent workers and professionals in developed countries and the middle class of developing countries
the global poor - unemployed of developed countries, peasants, low wage workers and unemployed in developing countries
colonial period - the period when most developing countries were governed directly by the imperial powers
commodity economy - the cash economy as opposed to the subsistence economy
developed world/ developing world - the developed world is the rich countries of the world in which industrial development is longstanding and the developing world is the poorer countries of the world in which industrial development is more recent
alienated workers - alienation is a marxist term that refers to the experience of people who have to work for a monetary wage to live - they are alienated from - they have no control over - their conditions of work, the process of production, what they produce and the ownership and distribution of their products
Permaculture - a system of permanent, sustainable agriculture
labour intensive - kinds of production that use a lot of human labour
niche market - a market demand for a particular specialized product, something that can be sold at a higher price than similar products - the higher price makes up for the fact that the product requires more expensive inputs or more labour to produce - relates to the view of economists that prices are lowest with the economies of scale that go with a mass market
alternative life style / new age - a cultural alternative to mainstream culture in developed countries - usually includes some subsistence production and the rejection of some elements of puritan and mainstream culture such as the work ethic, puritan sexual morality, or consumerism
community farms - where a farm is owned cooperatively by a community group
Community Supported Agriculture - A community group of consumers who are organised to give financial or labour support to an organic farming enterprise which produces food for them
non government organisations - NGO's - non government groups that work to assist development in poor countries - can be local self help groups or charity organisation based in rich countries
competitive private ownership - in capitalist societies land is a commodity that can be bought and sold - agriculture is carried out to make a profit by selling farm products on the market - farms compete locally and internationally to make the highest possible profit - farms which make lower profits usually have to be sold by their owners
gift economy - a proposed utopia in which goods and services are produced by collectives of people and either consumed by the collective or given to other community groups or to the community at large - there is no money and no wage labour - effective ownership of productive property is by community groups - effective ownership of personal property is by individuals, families or households
Summary - Five Main Points:
- Modern agriculture is unsustainable.
In developed countries problems are caused by monoculture, ploughing, fertilisers, pesticides, overgrazing, tree clearing, irrigation, the use of fossil fuels, and packaging.
Unsustainable farming practices make sense economically.
In developing countries the ecological problems of farming are exacerbated by export agriculture, producing luxury foods for rich countries.
The bad environmental effects of farming can be reduced by state regulation and community action. Ultimately, sustainable farming is only possible through a radical restructuring of the global economy.
Modern agriculture is unsustainable. In developed countries problems are caused by monoculture, ploughing, fertilisers, pesticides, overgrazing, tree clearing, irrigation, the use of fossil fuels, and packaging. Nevertheless, all these unsustainable farming practices make sense economically. It would be hard to make an equal amount of profit by farming more sustainably. In developing countries the ecological problems of farming are exacerbated by export agriculture, producing luxury foods for rich countries. In these countries as well, farming to produce maximum profit is at the expense of the environment. The bad environmental effects of farming can be reduced by state regulation and community action. Ultimately however, sustainable farming is only possible through a radical restructuring of the global economy. This is because the competitive ownership of farming land in capitalist societies means that profit has to come before environmental considerations. Another factor is that consumers in capitalist society demand cheap luxury food products as a compensation for the more unpleasant aspects of working life in a capitalist economy.
Five Discussion Questions:
What are some environmentally damaging agricultural practices?
Why does the author claim that these damaging practices make sense economically?
What is permaculture and what makes it an environmentally sustainable form of agriculture?
How do consumers in developed countries contribute to environmental degradation in developing countries?
Why does the author claim that the gift economy would be more compatible with sustainable agriculture than the current economic structure?
Mollison, B. 1988 Permaculture: A Designers' Manual , Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia.
Morrow, R. 1993 Earth User's Guide to Permaculture, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, Australia.
Trainer, F. E. 1994 Developed to Death: Rethinking Third World Development, Green Print, Merlin, London.
Trainer, T. 1995 The Conserver Society: Alternatives for Sustainability, Zed Books, London.
Vanclay, F. and Lawrence, G. 1995 The Environmental Imperative: ecosocial concerns for Australian agriculture, Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton.