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A Case Against Industrial Agriculture

Submitted by PerfectSociety in Food

An Economic and Ecological Problem

(i) The resources on our planet are finite. Therefore, if regular efficiency gains from capitalist production do not results in constant or decreased aggregate consumption of said resources we will exhaust the planet's resources and undergo a collapse of civilization. From here onward I will often refer to this concept as the "Resource Utilization Efficiency and Consumption Dynamic", which I will refer to in abbreviated form as "RUECD".

(ii) The data shows that, in general, regular efficiency gains from industrial capitalist production have actually been historically followed by increases in aggregate consumption of said resources:

Historically, past efficiency improvements have generally not proven to be successful in reducing mankind’s overall consumption of resources. Of the over 75 decades examined across ten activities, only a handful of decades had rates of efficiency improvement that exceeded or matched rates of quantity increase. In these cases, efficiency mandates, price pressures, and industry upheaval contributed to these periods of decreased or stabilized resource consumption. Based upon these historical cases, it does appear that efficiency mandates and price pressures, when applied under appropriate circumstances, may prove effective in reducing resource consumption. However, efficiency improvements without external pressures or mandates, rarely appear to lead to reductions in resource consumption.

(iii) As per (i) and (ii), this is unsustainable.

(iv) Industrial Agriculture has a worse RUECD than does industrial production in general. This is shown by the fact that in the Nitrogen Fertilizer Production Quantity vs. Efficiency of the Haber-Bosch Process graph on p. 7 of the above study, our Nitrogen Production Quantity (our consumption of said resource) has had a rate of rise significantly faster than the Efficiency gains in the Haber-Bosch Process (the process we use to create artificial fertilizer for industrial agriculture). This trend is far worse than for most of the other core resources displayed on the other graphs on p. 7-9, which (unlike Nitrogen Quantity vs. H-B) show a trend of efficiency gains and resource consumption mostly keeping pace with each other.

(v) To make matters worse Industrial Agriculture is overall grossly inefficient. While small farmers use 30% of agricultural resources to produce 70% of global food, industrial agriculture uses 70% of agricultural resources to produce 30% of global food. And that does not even account for the differences in negative externalities between the two approaches. Vandana Shiva explains this thoroughly:

Contrary to the myth that small farmers should be wiped out because they are unproductive and we should leave the future of our food in the hands of the poison cartel, surveillance drones and spyware, small farmers are providing 70 percent of global food using 30 percent of the resources that go into agriculture. Industrial agriculture is using 70 percent of the resources to create a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions, while providing only 30 percent of our food. This commodity-based agriculture has caused 75 percent of the destruction of soils, 75 percent of the destruction of water resources, and pollution of our lakes, rivers and oceans. Finally, as I set out in my book, Who Really Feeds the World? (Zed Books, 2016), 93 percent of crop diversity has been pushed to extinction through industrial agriculture.

(vi) And as one can logically conclude from (iv), this has even worse implications for the sustainability of our civilization that does the RUECD for industrial production in general:

At this rate, if the share of industrial agriculture and industrial food in our diet is increased to 45 percent, we will have a dead planet. There will be no life, no food, on a dead planet. That is why rejuvenating and regenerating the planet through ecological processes has become a survival imperative for the human species and all beings. Central to the transition is a shift from fossil fuels and dead carbon, to living processes based on growing and recycling living carbon.

A Political Problem

(vii) It is tempting to embrace the solution proposed by Dahmus and Gutowski without further thought:

Of the over 75 decades examined across ten activities, only a handful of decades had rates of efficiency improvement that exceeded or matched rates of quantity increase. In these cases, efficiency mandates, price pressures, and industry upheaval contributed to these periods of decreased or stabilized resource consumption. Based upon these historical cases, it does appear that efficiency mandates and price pressures, when applied under appropriate circumstances, may prove effective in reducing resource consumption. However, efficiency improvements without external pressures or mandates, rarely appear to lead to reductions in resource consumption.

(viii) However, it is not clear that there is sufficient institutional or structural means of imposing such efficiency mandates or price pressures. Because there is no indication that political institutions are capable of enacting agriculture policy in the interests of sustainability rather than based on what agribusiness interest groups want.

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