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- Nutrient loss as a problem
- Ruralisation as a solution
- Environmental damage, high input agriculture and population growth
- Sustainable agriculture as efficient and economically viable
- Capitalism as a basic cause of environmental damage
- The Gift Economy as an utopian alternative
- Hybrids of the Gift Economy and capitalism
Nutrients in the soil are embodied in plants and exported when plants and animals leave the farm. The solutions usually proposed depend on the continued supply of cheap oil - unlikely after the next few decades. Ruralisation and total recycling of nutrients from food makes sense but the social implications are enormous. Mostly, people believe that only modern high input agriculture has the potential to feed a growing world population and make economic sense to farmers. This perspective fails to take into account recent research. Nevertheless, there are undoubted economic barriers to sustainable agriculture. The capitalist economic system may be seen as the basic social cause of environmental damage. A utopian alternative to capitalism is the gift economy. Experiments in sustainable agriculture today can be regarded as hybrids - social alternatives that link features of capitalism to features of the gift economy.
The structure of society today has much to do with the environmental problems of food production. Put another way, any alternative method of food production and distribution that might deal with environmental problems would have enormous consequences for social organisation.
An Example - The Problem of Nutrient Loss in Australian Agriculture
It is probably useful to begin to understand this through an example. Australia is a rich country that is heavily dependent on export agriculture for its affluent lifestyle. The gross value of agricultural production in Australia for the year 2000 to 2001 was $34,000 million (ABS-7121.0, 2002). More than half of Australian farm production is exported (ABS-1301.0, 2002) and these exports are a key element of the Australian economy as a whole. Approximately one quarter of Australia’s exports in goods are products derived from agriculture (ABS-5368.0, 2002). Because of this focus on export, Australian agriculture is vital to many people living in other countries - it has been estimated that Australia produces the food and fibre requirements for 55 million people (McLennan 1996; Roberts 1992).
There is much about Australian agriculture that causes environmental problems. Concentrating on one issue can illustrate how intractable these problems are from a social perspective. All agricultural products ultimately depend for their growth on the presence of key nutrients in the soil. The chief of these are compounds based on three elements -nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. What happens in the case of export agriculture is that these elements are embodied in plant or animal products which are then exported to another country. They are effectively lost to Australian soils. While the export of products overseas dramatizes this issue, the problem is endemic in all modern agriculture. Agricultural products are exported from the country to the city with no nutrient recycling.
To get some indication of the scope of this problem we can look at the extent to which nutrients are removed in crops and the extent to which these nutrients are replaced through the use of fertilisers. To take a typical example, in Queensland in 1988, it is estimated that the total losses of nutrients in wheat and barley were approximately 64,000 tonnes of nitrogen, of which 11,000 tonnes were replaced in fertilisers, 6,500 tonnes of phosphorus of which 2,000 were replaced in fertilisers and 8,000 tonnes of potassium of which 68 tonnes were replaced in fertilisers (Roberts 1995). The implication is the long term depletion of Australian soils. The CSIRO has estimated Australia exports up to $600 million dollars worth of nitrogen, phosophorus and potassium every year in its grain and livestock commodities (Campbell 1991). We can look at this estimated cost in comparison with the costs of losses from other problems of soil degradation. The costs of of all the following major problems of Australian agriculture - dryland salinity, wind and water erosion, soil acidification, soil structure decline - are estimated at a quarter the cost of nutrient loss in crops and livestock leaving the farm (Roberts 1995).
Artificial Fertilisers - The Economic Problems
Within the scientific paradigm of modern agriculture, the obvious solution to nutrient loss is the replacement of soil nutrients with articificial fertilisers. As clear from the figures presented above this is already being done to a certain extent. $1000 million is being spent every year on fertilisers (Roberts 1995). Yet it seems that this is not nearly enough. Looking at the Queensland figures for grain production a rough calculation shows 78 thousand tonnes of nutrients being removed and only 13 thousand tonnes being replaced with fertilisers. Another 65 tonnes of nutrients are required. We could end up spending $5000 million every year on fertiliser to secure a replacement of nutrients by this method.
So, who could pay for this? Few of the profits of agriculture go to the farmer - much goes to supermarket chains, export businesses, transport companies and so on. Australian farmers are in much the same situation as those overseas. Whereas 50 years ago farmers in Europe and the United States received 45 to 60 percent of the money consumers paid for food, they now receive only 7 percent in the UK and 3.5 per cent in the United States (Ainger 2003). So farmers themselves would not be able to foot the bill for for increased use of fertilisers.
Large agrobusinesses get most of the profit from Australian farming. For example in 1988 five of Australia’s largest exporters of agricultural products were Japanese companies which accounted for $7000 million in agricultural exports (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992). A system of environmental taxes could be imposed on any companies that are making profits from food production - while leaving farmers themselves untouched. Yet the international reality of trade is that Australia competes with other countries to sell agricultural products. For the most part these countries are either developing countries where labour costs are cheap compared to Australia, or rich countries where agriculture is heavily subsidised - the EEC and USA. Australia cannot risk a tax on international agribusiness.
So this leaves only the Australian taxpayer to fund fertilisers - to restore soil nutrients. Yet this is politically unlikely. The real wages of many sections of the Australian population have been in a steady, if slow, decline since the mid seventies. Political parties compete to reassure the electorate that they will not increase taxes. The only parties to openly proclaim an intention to raise taxes to engage in serious environmental repair get a bare 10 percent of the vote. Even if Australian taxpayers were actually to fund up to $5000 million annually to replace nutrients by this method, we could wonder about the implications of this for the economy. What it would mean is that Australian agriculture - an industry now worth $34000 million - would have been propped up by subsidies. While agriculture today is a profitable export industry accounting for a quarter of Australia’s exports in goods, it would have become a drain on the public purse.
So nutrient decline is not likely to be arrested through the use of artificial fertilisers in Australia. Instead the most likely scenario is that nutrients will continue to be exported in agricultural products. The profitability of the Australian agricultural industry as a key part of Australia’s economy will ensure that export agriculture continues. But in the long term the industry is undoing its own future; mining the soil for nutrients it cannot afford to replace.
Artificial Fertilisers - The Environmental Problems
Would a replacement of nutrients through artificial fertilisers actually solve the environmental problems of export agriculture in the long run? The problems created by these fertilisers can be helpfully divided in two - the effects on soil and waterways; the environmental costs and feasibility of long term use of artificial fertilisers. One effect of adding nitrogen is to acidify soils. In Australia, some soils are naturally acid but in many areas, acidity is the outcome of the use of fertilisers. The result of acidification is reduced agricultural productivity since most crops and pastures do better in neutral soils. 24 million hectares of Australian agricultural land are affected by acidification (Potter 1995). A second effect of the use of fertilisers is to pollute waterways. The addition of soluble nutrients to soils increases nutrient levels in streams, rivers and oceans. Algae builds up in waterways, using up all the available oxygen and starving fish and water plants of oxygen - a dead waterway.
A second problem of artifical fertiliser use is the cost in energy and the implications of this for the long term sustainability of agriculture. Looking at the energy costs of modern agriculture in general we can take the situation in the United States as an extreme of high energy agriculture. Three units of energy are used in farming for every unit of food energy consumed. Looking at the energy costs of transporting and processing food, there are ten units of energy needed for every unit consumed. In the United States 17% of energy use goes into food production and distribution. If every country in the world was using energy at this rate to produce food, all fossil fuel reserves would have been exhausted by 1996 ( Soule & Piper 1992). Where crops are fertilised a large part of the energy used on farms is the energy used to produce fertilisers. For example in 1987, in Colorado wheat farming, energy used to make fertilisers was 63 per cent of the total energy used, with fuel energy used on the farm being 20 percent (Mannion 1995). So modern agriculture is massively dependent on cheap supplies of fossil fuel energy with oil being the central requirement. Most obvious is oil based transport of food but the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides also depends on oil energy.
One reason that all this is a problem is the greenhouse effect. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has argued that to stabilise greenhouse gases we would need to cut carbon dioxide emissions (and fossil fuel use) by between 60 and 80 per cent. Unless this is done the most likely result over the next century is a devastating climate change that would seriously increase the costs of agriculture by altering the climate significantly on each area of the planet - even if there was no overall decline in useable agricultural sites (Maslin 2002). This is just the beginning of the problems of the greenhouse effect. Even with the most optimistic forecast of how nations will respond to this issue, the likely results of the greenhouse effect are catastrophic.
A second problem is that we are very likely to run out of accessible oil reserves in the next ten to twenty years. The peak of oil discoveries was in 1960 and ever since then less and less oil has been discovered. At the same time the world consumption of oil is rapidly increasing. Accordingly, an estimate can be made of when oil is going to become much more expensive and less available. Most forecasts are of dates between 2003 and 2020. (AEN 2001; Campbell 1997). Going on with any method of producing food that depends on the use of oil is not making good use of the time we have between now and when this "oil crunch" takes place (Gunther 2002). In other words, what would make most sense at the present time is to use the latitude that cheap oil gives us to begin setting up the physical and social structures that are going to be necessary to live in an agricultural economy that does not depend on oil (Holmgren 2002).
Fertility without Artificial Fertilisers
So, how could we deal with the problem of the export of nutrients from crops without relying on oil? In the case of nitrogen, the answer seems fairly obvious. Certain plants can fix nitrogen from the air, storing it in their roots. This property of "leguminous" plants is used already in organic and other sustainable agricultures and also in much commercial agriculture. Leguminous plants are grown in rotation with pasture crops or grain crops, to improve soil humus and add nitrogen. In Australia a typical legume that is used is subterrannean clover (for examples from other countries see e.g. Furuno 2001, Pretty 2002). If this is all so easy one may wonder why Australian farmers do not abandon the use of artificial nitrogenous fertilisers and move to leguminous crops. The answer is that annual applications of nitrogen in fertiliser have generally been enough to maintain yields. It has not seemed economically necessary to add more fertiliser. The low cost of fertiliser has made this a cheaper option than the replacement of nitrogen through "green manure" crops, which have to be planted and later slashed.
Phosphorus presents a more intractable problem. This element must be present in the soil; it cannot be recovered by plants from the air the way that nitrogen can. At the present time oil is being used to mine phosphate ores and convert these to fertilisers for use on the farm. As more phosphate is mined, ores become more difficult to access and more energy is required to extract them. It has been estimated that at current useage rates, phosphate ores may last for 130 years. However a different picture emerges if we consider costs and assume that energy prices rise by 5% per annum and that the cost of extraction rises by 3% per annum. Within 75 years the price of phosphate would increase by 140 times, pricing it quite out of the reach of most agriculture (Gunther 2002).
Without the use of phosphate ores there is only one way to replace the phosphates removed through crops and animals exported from the farm. That is by recycling the nutrients from both animal and human waste. This was in fact the practice of many ancient societies.
Recycling Soil Nutrients and Ruralisation
Gunther (1998) has considered these issues at some length and calculated various scenarios for Sweden. The problem with recycling human and animal waste (and nutrients) to farms is that a large amount of transport energy would have to be used to move this material from cities to the country. Gunther modelled one scenario in which all phosphorus is recycled from the city of Stockholm to agricultural land, rather than sewerage being dumped in landfill, or exported to lakes and seas, as now. He found the energy costs of treating phosphorus would double. This is not a sustainable solution in terms of the oil crunch. The problems of recycling phosphorus are even more acute for Australian export agriculture. Australia would have to re-import the treated composted faeces, the used wool, the urine from 55 million overseas customers of Australian agriculture. All of this extra transport would use fossil fuel resources. The extra cost would certainly make it uneconomic to continue with export agriculture.
Gunther’s recommendation is that agricultural products should be produced close to consumers, with villages of 200 people supplied by farms of 40 hectares. In good agricultural land, these villages could end up by being a bit more than a kilometre apart. This is a program of ruralisation - in which urban populations are relocated. These local farms would have to be diverse. Food would not be imported into the village. The increased costs associated with this diversity and with the technology of nutrient recycling would be paid to farmers through a system of subscription farming - in which consumers guaranteed to buy the food of farmers at up to a third higher price than farmers now receive for their crops. The endless middle of distributors, transporters, processers and retailers would be cut out. The energy costs of redistributing and recycling phosphorus would be one percent of those incurred now to merely treat waste sewage and manure. The energy costs of producing artificial fertilisers would vanish - soil fertility would come from waste recycling or legume crops.
Gunther outlines the principles for this recycling as follows:
- Animal feed has to be produced to the same farm, or in the vicinity, allowing the manure to be returned to the land where the feed is produced.
- Nutrients actually exported as human food should be returned as uncontaminated as possible, preferably as human urine and (composted) fecal matter (Gunther 2002, 266)
In such a system, leakage of phosphorus can be virtually eliminated.
Social Implications of Ruralisation
So, looking at the Australian situation, what are the social implications of a ruralisation programme like this? The most obvious would probably be the loss of a key export industry. Australia would have to reduce imports to maintain a trading balance. Jobs in the agriculture industry, and not just in farming, would vanish as production for export disappeared. Even that part of the food industry producing and distributing food for Australians would contract if consumers related directly to farmers through subscription agriculture. Nevertheless, in the short term there would be much employment relocating people from urban areas to the country and setting up the infrastructure for sustainable agriculture. But of course the expenditure for all this would have to come from taxpayers, meaning a decline in real incomes - which would in turn cause a reduction in spending in all other areas of consumption, with consequent losses of employment in those industries - for example, entertainment, restaurants and tourism. Whatever way you look at this, the consequences would be massively disruptive for most Australians. More than half the population would have to move house and change their jobs and even their type of employment. They would be lucky if they did not see their income substantially reduced or experience a transitional period of unemployment.
Unfortunately, much worse than this would be experienced in the long term if current practices continue and in the next 20 years the price of oil escalates with agriculture, dependent on oil, falling apart. Many Australians could starve without any infrastructure having been set up to create an alternative sustainable agricultural system. However this doomsday scenario is not the current political issue. The political choice now is whether to make massive inroads on business as usual, disrupting lifestyles and livelihoods, making a voluntary cut in standards of living to fund a transition to a new agricultural model.
Ironically, in view of these life and death implications, most people living in rich countries would be most appalled by the implications of the ruralisation scenario for "hygeine". The proposal that human manure should be collected and composted at the local level and then spread on crops would meet with massive opposition; most people would find it disgusting. To suggest that this was something we should facilitate by reorganising our whole settlement pattern would be taken as a sure sign of lunacy. Human waste can in fact be composted for between 6 and 12 months to remove all disease bearing organisms and all parasites (worms, helminths). This can even be done in a backyard with two large compost bins (Jenkins 1994).
Socially, the ruralisation scenario could appear as death to the intellect, with claustrophobic hamlets of 200 people. There could be other ways of organising life in such villages. People could visit, go and stay with other households and move about between villages with a system of solar powered trains, bicycle transport, sailing ships and airships, as well as using electronic communication. There would be much to enjoy in living in a landscape with safe sustainable agriculture and the integration of wildlife through agroforestry and wildlife parks. Such an environment could be a less dense urban landscape, rather than a set of isolated rural villages (Trainer 1995).
One additional problem of this scenario could be addressed in the context of Australia. If Australia supplies food and wool to 55 million consumers in other countries, how would these consumers fare without the Australian food export industry? Beef could fairly be regarded as a luxury product; overseas consumers could consume environmentally cheaper forms of protein. The same could not be said of Australia’s wheat crop which is exported to such countries as Indonesia, China and Iraq. Either cereal production in these countries would have to intensify - without the use of fossil fuels - or these consumers would have to migrate to Australia. The most likely scenario in a world deeply affected by the oil crunch would be that Australian voters would abandon overseas consumers to their fate.
The argument considered so far has taken nutrient removal as a key environmental issue. Artificial fertilisers are not replacing nutrients lost in crops. In the next few decades, the oil and mineral requirements of artificial fertilisers will become very much more expensive. The only foreseeable solution to this impasse is widespread relocation of urban populations to agricultural areas and largely self sufficient local agricultural production - with recycling of all food, human and animal wastes. Following this, and using Australia as an example, we have considered the major social impacts of such a change and the likely political barriers to beginning to implement this solution.
Some Key Environmental Problems in Food Production
Although nutrient removal makes a good example, it is only one of the environmental problems of agriculture and food production today. Some others are as follows:
The gradual destruction of forests, wetlands and wild areas of any kind, taken over for agriculture.
The destruction of wildlife through practices which prevent wild species from co-existing on farms - overclearing of trees, destruction of hedgerows, erosion of waterways, destruction of understory, toxic pesticides that kill insects and the animals that eat them, herbicides that kill weeds and other wild plants, the elimination of wild animals as vermin, the breaking up of wild areas into isolated pockets.
A loss of biodiversity in crop species - with particular varieties being singled out for commercial use for the sake of convenience in packaging, sales and distribution. The very real danger that we will come to depend on single varieties that may be destroyed by disease.
Soil erosion through ploughing and subsequent exposure of bare soil to rain or wind, through herbicides which destroy weed cover for soils and through the removal of tree cover on slopes.
The destruction of soil humus - the small organisms and decaying plant matter that make a living soil - by ploughing and exposure to sunlight as well as by chemical inputs - fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.
Salinity in dryland agriculture that is killing many pasture, crop and wild plant species. Generally caused by overclearing.
Overuse of water in irrigation areas, also causing salinity.
Oversfishing leading to the failure of many areas of the globe to maintain fish stocks at anything like previous levels. Fishing techniques that destroy other sea animals or habitat - for example the use of dynamite on coral reefs, long line fishing that kills sea birds, nets that trap dolphins and turtles.
Toxic chemicals used in agriculture that have an impact on both humans and wildlife. Many of these are not broken down in the soil, remaining toxic for decades. Accidental poisoning by chemicals is most intense in developing countries but even in the rich countries whole areas with particular crops and their associated chemicals have higher rates of cancer or other diseases.
Genetic modification of crops with the possibility of mistakes and accidents producing super weeds. Genetic modifications designed to make crops resistant to herbicides, encouraging the use of herbicides, with their associated environmental problems.
The oil dependence of modern agriculture as discussed above - in agricultural inputs, in processing and transportation as well as in farm production itself.
Resistance of plant and insect pests to chemical pesticides and herbicides, meaning that more chemicals have to be used.
The elimination of predator insects with insecticides. These are insects which prey upon the insects which damage crops. When both the pests and the predators are destroyed by spraying, the pests can return to cause more damage while the predators are absent. This problem is exacerbated by herbicides which kill the weeds which host predator insects.
The use of large parts of the surface of the globe to produce luxury products for rich consumers - for example beef, sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate. One result is to take up agricultural land at the expense of poor consumers. Another is to continually expand the area used by agriculture at the expense of wild ecosystems.
Scientific Agriculture for a Growing Population
This is a heartbreaking list. The most common explanation is that these are the unpleasant side effects of the most scientifically advanced methods being applied to the problem of feeding a huge and growing population.
In local situations, there is no doubt that increases in population can lead to environmental problems. An example is many forest areas that were formerly occupied by shifting cultivators. This technique of forest production is quite sustainable if population is low and areas that have been cultivated are allowed to lie fallow for many years before being re-used. However, if population density increases, the time in which plots are left fallow shortens and there is a long term decline in soil fertility and productivity (Mannion 1995). As well, there is no doubt that world population growth over the coming decades, peaking at between 9 and 11 billion, will put a serious strain on food and environmental resources; a sustainable global population would have to be much lower than this.
The Social Context of Population Pressures on the Environment
Nevertheless, there are some problems in blaming increased population for the environmental consequences of agriculture. One is that much agriculture does not go to feed a hungry and growing population but to feed rich consumers with luxury goods. For example, in much of middle and south America, rainforests are being cleared. Some of this rainforest land is being cleared by poor farmers who have been displaced from their original farms by agribusiness. Agribusiness has taken over the farms where they used to live - to grow crops for overseas consumers. The rest of the rainforest land is cleared for cattle ranchers - who sell their beef to consumers in rich countries. Another motive for rainforest destruction is tropical timber exports - to rich countries (Romeiro 1987; Anderson 1990; Mannion 1995; Gutberlet 1999; Barraclough and Ghimire 2000). None of these changes can be attributed simply to overpopulation. If anything, there is an overpopulation of rich consumers.
Talking about the population pressures on agriculture also fails to consider why there is an overpopulation crisis. The countries where population has expanded so rapidly in the last 100 years had stable populations for millenia before that. A common social explanation of these changes is to point to the social pressures on population created by the capitalist economic form (Pepper 1995). Capitalism is an economy founded on growth and the global exchange of agricultural products for cash. Colonial rulers or capitalist entrepreneurs have found it in their interest to intensify the production of agricultural products intended for the world market. In the process they have displaced the subsistence peasantry and turned them into wage labourers whose only economic security is what they can earn - whether in the cities or in the countryside. The overall effect has been that people are not secure about their economic future. It has become the interest of poor people to invest in producing children who can earn money to support their parents in their old age. This has been a key cause of population growth over the last century. One solution would be a land tenure system that gave people long term intergenerational ownership of adequate land and control of their own food security.
The implication is that we cannot blame a growing population for the environmental problems of agriculture without looking at the social roots of population growth. When we do this we find there may be social changes that could alter population pressures.
Low Input Agriculture - Food Yields and Profitability
When people say that environmental damage is the inevitable outcome of a growing population they assume that high input agriculture is the only way to feed a large population. They believe that sustainable agriculture is inefficient in producing food and unprofitable for farmers. However, much recent research supports low input agriculture. Jules Pretty ( 1998; 1999; 2002) summarizes the evidence for three regions of global agriculture. He writes that sustainable agriculture "can be achieved" in all regions:
- in the diverse, complex and 'resource-poor' lands of the Third World, farmers adopting regenerative technologies have doubled or trebled crop yields, often with little or no use of external inputs;
- in the high input and generally irrigated lands, farmers adopting regenerative technologies have maintained yields while substantially reducing inputs;
- in the industrialised agricultural systems, a transition to sustainable agriculture could mean a fall in per hectare yields of 10-20 per cent in the short term, but with better levels of financial returns to farmers. (1999, 19)
Results are most extraordinary in regions where agriculture provides a meagre sustenance and production is for local consumption. In Honduras, green manures - the growing of an intercrop of legumes - along with soil conservation measures, were able to increase yields of maize by 300%. In India, in a community owning 168 hectares of crop land, soil and water conservation measures increased yields of sorghum on rainfed fields by 350% and on irrigated fields by 176% (Pretty 1999, 214). Chemical inputs and high yielding seeds are much too expensive for these farmers. Less costly changes using sustainable technologies can produce very large gains.
For developing countries, where profitable cash crops are usually grown using high input agriculture, yields can also be good with sustainable technologies. In China, 1200 ecofarms use only 30% of the average of artificial inputs to grow rice. They recycle waste as compost and cultivate fish. Yields are 110% of those typical of the area. In Mexico an estate of 320 hectares grows organic coffee without artificial inputs. Yields are 66 to 72% of those in nearby conventional high input plantations. Despite this, economic returns are good because a premium price is being paid for organic produce (Pretty 1999, 212).
In rich countries of the world, yields and economic returns from more sustainable farming are also good. In 20 farms surveyed in the midwest of the United States, inputs of pesticides and fertilisers were totally eliminated while sustainable technologies were used to build soil quality, reduce insect attacks and add nitrogen - rotations of cereal crops with legumes; reduced ploughing. Yields of maize per hectare on these farms were 92% of local averages; yields of soybeans were 95% and yields of wheat were 57% (Pretty 1999, 207). Crop yields on eight biodynamic farms in Switzerland were 95 to 100% of those on conventional farms in the same region. No artificial fertilisers or pesticides were used and financial returns per hectare were the same as on conventional farms (Pretty 1999, 209). A premium price for organic produce could explain their economic success.
Economic Barriers to Sustainable Agriculture
With results like this one may wonder why farmers are not rushing to sustainable agriculture. There are some economic barriers to more widespread adoption. Mostly, sustainable agriculture increases labour costs if labour is hired off the farm. Sustainable agriculture can increase the workload of the farming family - with labour intensive technologies, a whole new body of information and technology, as well as new crops (see also Campbell 1991).
Pretty’s analysis (1998; 1999) implies a trade off between the cost of inputs and falling yields as inputs are reduced. Particularly good studies have been done in Europe. For example with 75% pesticide use, yields may fall to as low as 83% of yields on high input farms. Yet yields can drop as much as 20% while financial returns increase. The reason is that the cost of inputs has been reduced. Yet if farmers completely abandon artificial pesticides and fertilisers, yields can drop below this - to the point where farmers end up getting less economic return (Pretty 1998, 96 -100). This economic equation works out quite differently for the developing countries. Lower costs in labour and lower prices for farm products may mean that even lower levels of inputs still make sense, if sustainable technologies are used.
Another issue is that sustainable technologies usually cost money to set up, even if they save money in the long run. Farmers may not have the resources on hand to start this process. As well, initial yields may be much lower than those which are achieved in 5 to 10 years. Soil biota and predator insects take time to establish after high input agriculture has been removed.
Finally, the economic impacts of changes towards sustainable agriculture have to be considered in their off-farm context. I have noted the huge social impacts of ruralisation. This is just one example. There are economic losers in sustainable agriculture, such as fertiliser and chemical companies, supermarket chains and seed companies. These large players in national economies can use their influence to prevent government regulation, to prevent taxation of pollution caused by high input agriculture or to prevent subsidies to sustainable agriculture. They are in a good position to conduct an information war against agricultural alternatives - through their contacts with farmers and banks and through research and propaganda.
Taken as a whole, we can look at the social structures that have been responsible for environmental problems in agriculture and go on to consider alternative social structures for a more sustainable agriculture.
Capitalism as a Basic Cause of Environmental Damage
A common analysis of environmental problems points to capitalism as central to contemporary society. It is argued that the capitalist economic structure works against environmental sustainability. Andrew McLaughlin (1993) gives a compelling summary.
A) Social decisions about how to use non-human nature are fundamentally decided by markets.
B) The future is discounted.
C) Capitalism creates growth and depends on growth.
Taking these in turn, capitalism means that non-human nature can be privately owned. Decisions about how it will be used will depend on profits. There can be a mismatch between what is profitable and what is sustainable. For example, it costs money to halt soil erosion so in any given year profits are higher if you do nothing (McLaughlin 1993, 32). It can be more profitable to cut corners than to pay for the sustainable option. The economic system makes it very difficult for owners and managers to choose a more expensive strategy. Companies compete to attract investment by providing profits to shareholders. The costs of their operations must be cut as low as possible so as to provide money for modernizing production and paying out profits. They cannot increase the price of their goods substantially because they will lose their place in the market.
McLaughlin does not hold out much hope for the political regulation of markets. The assumption of capitalism as a system is that owners of non-human nature will have full rights to use their property to make the maximum profit. Any impediment has to be fought for as a special case, usually after environmental damage has become too obvious to ignore. The wealth of owners makes them a very powerful lobby group.
The second feature discussed by McLaughlin is the discounting of the future. Within an economy where money can be invested to earn interest, there is a bias towards investments that will pay off in a short time period. A host of unpredictable variables of the market, politics and nature can mean that an expected profit does not come to pass. So investors and their accountants regularly discount expected profit in the long term future. As a result an investment that will pay off in the more foreseeable near future makes more sense. The effect is a mis-match between what makes sense economically – a short term pay off - and what makes sense in terms of the long time taken by natural processes. Ecological damage which increases profits now - though at the expense of long term profits - becomes economically rational. This is the explanation for the decisions of Queensland farmers to cut native vegetation to increase pasture now, even though it seems probable that this will reduce pasture through salinity in the longer period.
The third feature of capitalism that McLaughlin considers is the capitalist system’s tendency to growth. Competition between companies means that it makes sense to cut the costs of production by a constant refurbishing of production technology. The aim is to instal new technology that can produce more at a cheaper cost, with less labour input. The effect is to constantly increase the number of products that can be produced. To continue to make a profit in these circumstances, companies have to increase their markets – the number of products sold. The end result is a galloping increase in the use of raw materials and the output of wastes into the environment. An example in agriculture is the constant expansion of agricultural production to provide luxury goods for rich consumers - tea, coffee, chocolate, meat, vegetables and fruits out of season, even cut flowers. Another example is the expansion of packaging, transport and promotion to make these sales possible.
Cultural and political pressures inherent in capitalism also favour this trend. If market growth does not continue, unemployment increases, leading to political instability. To increase markets, capitalist firms promote consumption as the epitome of the good life, leading to cultural pressure to continue growth. Another factor is that labour is alienated within capitalist societies. To maintain their control over production and profitability, firms control work through hierarchical systems of authority. They also determine the distribution of products, they are owned by the company and cannot be distributed by those who produce them. So decisions about work are taken out of the hands of ordinary people. People have little power and control, work often seems boring and pointless. Increased consumption offers itself as one of the few areas in which people can make choices and express themselves creatively (Cardan 1974; Roszak 1992).
This ties into the way consumers look at food. Expensive, well packaged and luxurious food seems the appropriate moral reward for a life of thankless labour. Food is one of the few morally legitimate pleasures (Pont 1997). Foods that are transported from developing countries - at great cost to the environment - are the height 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 consumers deserve for all their hard work.
These factors make it difficult to get consumers to direct their food purchasing habits to environmental ends. They make it unlikely that affluent consumers would willingly embrace tough environmental regulations of farming and trade, or support strong government initiatives to fund sustainable farming. These regulations would mean that consumers would pay more for food, pay more in taxes, or have less choice of foods.
The Gift Economy as a Utopian Alternative to Capitalism
The aspects of capitalism that lie behind environmental damage are unlikely to disappear without a radically different social organisation. Proposing the "gift economy" as such an alternative I will explain this model and why it might be more environmentally benign than capitalism. Much which takes place today to reform agriculture is based in social structures which combine aspects of capitalism with aspects of a gift economy - "hybrids" of the gift economy and capitalism.
In a gift economy there is no money and no wage labour. Instead people produce things for their own consumption or as gifts for other people. It 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. People would be motivated to give by desires for status and the pleasure of giving. The standard of living would be the effect of multiple gift networks (Vaneigem 1983; Pefanis 1991; Leahy 1994). There is no state in a gift economy utopia. Coordination of activity is by links between collectives of producers and consumers, and by collectives of researchers, media and administrative workers.
This utopia could lead to benign outcomes for the environment. Taking farming as an example, producers would see no advantage in overusing their land. They would seek to conserve their agricultural and environmental resources; to live well in the future and to be able to continue gaining social recognition by giving farm produce to the community. In a capitalist economy it makes sense for entrepreneurs to market anything that can be sold. It also makes sense for consumers to purchase these goods, since they are already tied to 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. A sustainable agriculture based on polycultures with an emphasis on perennial crops 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; see also Mollison 1988; Soule & Piper 1992; French 1993; Hart 1996; Fern 1997).
In terms of values, the gift economy operates with an ethic of generosity and egalitarianism. Pleasure is taken from giving to those who are in need. This ethic also applies to the natural world, with other species being regarded as having ethical value and appreciating gifts of care and concern.
Environmental Alternatives in Agriculture as Hybrids of the Gift Economy and Capitalism
Sustainable agriculture is entering society today despite the constraints of the capitalist economy. It makes sense to characterise these experiments and reforms as hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism.
In the section of Regenerating Agriculture which is devoted to case studies, Pretty describes the strategies of the Union of Indian Communities of Oaxaca State in Mexico (1999, 232). This union was first organised by Indian communities in 1982. In these communities the main cash crop is coffee, grown on the slopes. A key problem for the farmers growing the coffee was the role of intermediaries. These entrepreneurs marketed the coffee, controlled credit and supplied the community with basic necessities. As in many developing countries, most of the profits from the cash crop were appropriated by these middle men. The basic aim of the Union was to deal with this problem by marketing the coffee directly, cutting out these intermediaries. In 1985 the Union decided to move to organic production of coffee. Partly, this was to avoid the outlay on costly chemical inputs, partly, it was hoped to increase yields. A key element in the decision was the fact that international ‘fair trade’ organisations supported this move to organics and were prepared to pay a premium price for organic coffee. By 1995, 3000 families in 37 communities had become members of the Union.
Pretty explains that the new methods of coffee production have required more management supervision and labour input from farmers. In compensation there has been a 30% to 50% improvement in yields. While current yields are high compared with previous levels for these communities, they are still less than the yields of large coffee estates, using high input agriculture. The methods used are to grow coffee in the secondary forest, leaving an overstory of leguminous trees that help to protect and fertilise the coffee as well as stabilizing the soil. The coffee is planted on the contour, with slashed weeds and pruned branches being laid down. The pulp left over after coffee beans are removed is now composted, while previously it had been discarded in the waterways. This retention of organic matter aids soil fertility and prevents water pollution. Other additives to the soil are lime, green waste and animal manure. All these practices create a sustainable coffee plantation; the long term fertility of the soil is enhanced. The environmental problems of the input industry are also avoided. The union has created its own organisation for transport, storage, processing and export of the coffee. Some of the profits from the coffee are used by the union for social projects. They have put the money into local schooling, a public transport system that services mountainous areas, a medical insurance system and several shops which market goods at reasonable prices for local people. These are all community building activities, paid for out of the cash income from coffee.
In this scenario there are aspects of a pure capitalist market economy combined with aspects which challenge capitalism. Looking at the capitalist aspects first.
The cooperative is a consortium of growers who are maximizing their income by cutting out intermediaries. The coffee is being sold on the world market to rich consumers who are paying a cheap price - in terms of their own labour - for a product which has cost much labour to produce. They are paying a premium price because the product has some quality which as consumers they prefer; a niche market. Much of the social infrastructure of the cooperative is run according to the logic of the capitalist economy. Services such as the bus service, the medical insurance system, are paid for by consumers as commodities. So are the items sold in the community shops. The money to pay for these services and goods comes from work growing a cash crop - coffee. This work is a form of alienated labour - it is unlikely that it would continue if the farmers had some easier way to access the products that their cash can buy.
Environmentally, the coffee farming has some features in common with other examples of capitalist agriculture. Original rainforest is being replaced by a forest dominated by one commercial species at the expense of biodiversity. The power of consumers from wealthy countries creates this biological destruction at a distance - access to consumer goods has to be bought in this way by poor landowners in a developing country. This ecological problem is compounded by the use of fossil fuels to transport coffee across the globe.
There is also much about this enterprise which challenges capitalism. The Union has been created by members of an ethnically discriminated group in Mexico - the indigenous Indians. It is a form of social and political empowerment for this group that business as usual has impoverished. The Union is a democratic organisation in which a cooperative of people of roughly equal economic status have joined together to make decisions to the benefit of them all. The usual framework of market capitalism would mean that cash incomes from the sale of farm products would be appropriated privately and spent by individual families. Here, many of the fruits of the economic activity are being shared by the community and in fact given by the farmers’ cooperative in the form of a subsidy for community services - education, health, transport. This strategy is a partial appropriation of the means of production by a community group. While farms themselves are still in the ownership of individual families, marketing and distribution have come under collective control and are managed for collective benefits.
What makes this situation a hybrid is also the role of the fair trade organisation and its alliance of consumers and members. The organisation itself is committed to redress the imbalance of power between wealthy consumers in rich countries and the poor in developing countries. Its strategy is to pay a higher price to the farmers directly, so that the profits of farming go to them rather than to the owners of shares in multinational food companies. This activity is a form of gift from wealthy consumers and the organisers and members of the fair trade organisation. It marks a decision to shift resources to those who need them rather than to appropriate as much as possible for private personal satisfaction. In this sense it is a departure from the rationality of selfish interest which is the hegemonic culture of capitalism.
The decision to encourage free trade partners to grow organic is another hybrid aspect of this strategy. It is an attempt by consumers to have some influence over how production takes place. So it is a departure from the systematic tendency of capitalism to put all such decisions in the hands of shareholders and their managers acting rationally to increase profits. The strategy has another hybrid aspect if consumers are preferring organics because they are concerned about the environment; it is another form of gift - a gift to nature and to future generations of humans.
My second example is taken from Pretty’s book on agricultural reform in Europe (1998). Initial research in Switzerland into low input farming produced some positive results. As a result 200 experimental farms were set up in 1990. In these experiments, pesticides were cut to nothing and fertiliser inputs were reduced to 20 percent of the levels that were common in intensive agriculture in Switzerland. Yields fell by 5 to 15 percent. Despite this, economic returns went up as farmers did not have to pay the cost of inputs - by 8 to 17 percent. A four year rotation of maize, wheat, clover-pasture and potatoes got the best economic results using 45 percent of the usual input of nitrogenous fertiliser and half of the usual input of pesticides. These results were so striking that the Swiss public demanded changes and in 1996, the government went ahead with new regulations and a framework of subsidies for sustainable agriculture (Pretty 1998, 103).
These new regulations make a distinction between three levels of sustainable agriculture. The government gives larger subsidies to farms that make a more serious attempt to create sustainable agriculture. The lowest level of support is for farms that preserve specific biotypes, such as hedgerows or meadows. The next level of support is for farms that employ "integrated agriculture" in order to reduce artificial inputs - for example a mixed farm in which animal manure is used on crops or fertility enhanced by crop rotations. In these farms pesticide applications must be reduced to specified low risk levels. The most support is given to organic farms - organic certification requires farmers to do without any chemical inputs.
With these regulations implementation is not supervised by government bureaucracies but by more accountable and local bodies - by farmers' unions, farm advisors, local government and NGOs. These reforms have been quite effective with 20% of Swiss farms participating in the scheme at one of the three levels. There are 11,000 which protect a biotype; 9000 practicing integrated agriculture and 1500 which are organic.
What are some of the capitalist aspects of this strategy? Farms are still privately owned, marketing their products to paying consumers. Much has been done to ensure that farmers continue to make a profit. For example, the initial research favours integrated agriculture as the most economically effective option. This has been at the expense of some environmental goals; these farms still use half of the chemical inputs of conventional farms. Economic incentives to move to sustainability in this system are undoubtedly helping but they are not wholly paying for changes to sustainable agriculture. We can see this in the fact that there are still 80% of farmers who have not been persuaded that it makes economic sense to move in this direction. We can see this also in the way that the more economically difficult options for farming are operating on fewer farms - out of Switzerland's 75,000 farms only 1500 are fully organic. So most farmers are still making economically rational decisions to maximize income, with a resulting limit to the environmental reforms that are practicable. As well, voters are only paying an incentive to help this change rather than funding it fully, meaning that voters are mostly operating to avoid large increases in taxation to pay for environmental reform.
On the other hand, it makes sense to argue that elements of the gift economy are also operating here. Voters are making a decision to give some of their income to environmental reforms. These subsidies are a gift to future generations and to the environment and other species. This decision goes beyond the narrowly defined economic interests of the Swiss people as consumers. As consumers, individuals are expected to use their income to buy the maximum possible number of consumer goods and services for their private use, compensating themselves for the constraints of wage labour and expanding the market in the process. The altruistic and collectivist use of income breaks that pattern. It involves consumers in an attempt to control the means of production in agriculture, to have an influence through the political process on the way agricultural land is used. In terms of the implementation of these regulations we can also see a move towards community control of agricultural land - through voluntary bodies and unions of farmers.
Looking at a large number of examples of changes towards sustainable agriculture (see for example Pretty 2002; www.farmingsolutions.org) this model of hybrids of the gift economy can be used to understand and describe the ways in which these changes fit within the capitalist economic structure but nevertheless move beyond that to point to an alternative economic model.
- Many of the hybrids embody some degree of control of production - of agriculture - by either the producers themselves or by the community at large. This is reflected in participatory planning of sustainable farming strategies, land reform and the redistribution of ownership away from large landowners, participatory and democratic education, consumer unions that attempt to influence farming practices, voter alliances that support controls over agriculture for the sake of the environment.
- Many hybrids embody some degree of gift as a mode of distribution of products - in other words, forms of distribution that are designed to benefit particular people rather than to make the highest possible market profit. This is reflected in community control of the products or profits of agriculture, distribution of agricultural products as subsistence or by the community, gifts of wealth to poor producers from richer consumers.
- Many hybrids are an expression of care and concern for the natural world or for the future humans of the planet. They are gifts to the planet. This applies in the case of voters who support taxes that will benefit the environment, consumers who decide to pay a higher price for products which are more environmentally friendly, farmers and marketers who are attracted to sustainable farming as an expression of their love for the natural world, volunteers who engage in non-market sustainable farming in community gardens or alternative lifestyle farms.
- Hybrids can tap into people's need for meaningful creative work. This is most obviously the case for those whose labour is voluntary. But also in cases where people are performing labour for money, it seems likely that they are choosing work in sustainable agriculture to express themselves creatively. For example, organic farmers who are passionate about organic farming. they are choosing a "right livelihood" that they can enjoy, even if it is not always the most economically rational choice of occupation.
- Hybrids can prefigure the alliances and networks of participatory democratic structures that will organise production and distribution in a Gift Economy. For example, in the links between NGOs in the rich countries and community organisations of poor farmers in the developing world. Or also in the links between agricultural educators of some universities in developing countries and the peasant farmers who are learning to apply organic farming techniques. Or the links between the consumers of organic produce and the marketers and farmers who produce it.
Summary of Main Points
- Nutrient loss is a problem for all agriculture that exports nutrients to cities or overseas. It is particularly evident as a problem for Australian export agriculture.
- While artificial fertilisers are seen as the answer, the cost of nutrient replacement is still very high. The coming oil crunch makes this solution unlikely.
- Ruralisation and recycling of all food wastes can be seen as a technologically valid solution but the social implications are huge.
- Nutrient loss is but one of many environmental problems associated with agriculture. These are frequently seen as a necessary price that must be paid to feed a growing world population.
- While sustainable agriculture produces good yields and makes economic sense to a certain extent, there are still economic barriers to its widesoread implementation.
- Capitalism can be seen as a basic social cause of the environmental damage produced by agriculture and the Gift Economy can be proposed as a utopian alternative.
- Experiments in sustainable agriculture may be seen as hybrids of the Gift Economy and capitalism.
Further Reading and Resources
Campbell, A. 1991, Planning for Sustainable Farming, The Potter Farmland Plan Story, Lothian Books, Melbourne.
Fern, K. 1997, Plants For a Future: Edible & Useful Plants For a Healthier World, Permanent Publications, Clanfield, UK.
French, J. 1993 The Wilderness Garden: beyond organic gardening, Aird Books, Victoria.
Furuno, T. 2001, The Power of Duck: Integrated Rice and Duck Farming, Tagari, Sisters Creek, Australia.
Holmgren, D. 1994, Trees on the Treeless Plains, Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn, Victoria.
Mollison, B. 1988 Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia.
Pretty, J. 2002, Agri-Culture: Re-Connecting People, Land and Nature, Earthscan, London.
Trainer, T. 1995 The Conserver Society: Alternatives for Sustainability, Zed Books, London.
www.farmingsolutions.org - examples of sustainable agriculture
www.grain.org/gd - grassroots initiatives to preserve agricultural biodiversity
www.gifteconomy.org.au - articles by Terry Leahy on agriculture and other topics
www.permacultureinternational.org - permaculture international
www.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/ - Ted Trainer's site - the simpler way
www.holmgren.com.au - Holrmgren design services
New Internationalist - www.newint.org
Organic Gardener - ABC publication
ABS - 1301.0, 2002, Year Book Australia, Special Article - Understanding agricultural exports data, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.
ABS - 5368.0, 2002, International Trade in Goods and Services, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.
ABS - 7121.0, 2002, Agricultural Commodities, Australia, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra.
AEN, 2001, "Oil Production Curve Causes Concern", Australian Energy News, Issue 22, December, www.industry.gov.au/resources/netenergy/aen - accessed March 2003.
Ainger, K. 2003, "The New Peasants’ Revolt", in New Internationalist, vol. 353, pp. 9-12.
Anderson, A.B. (ed) 1990, Alternatives to Deforestation: Steps Toward Sustainable Use of the Amazon Rain Forest, Columbia University Press, New York.
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Campbell, A. 1991, Planning for Sustainable Farming, The Potter Farmland Plan Story, Lothian Books, Melbourne.
Campbell, J. 1997, The Coming Oil Crisis, Multiscience and Petroconsultants, Brentwood, UK.
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Fern, K. 1997, Plants For a Future: Edible & Useful Plants For a Healthier World, Permanent Publications, Clanfield, UK.
French, J. 1993 The Wilderness Garden: beyond organic gardening, Aird Books, Victoria.
Furuno, T. 2001, The Power of Duck: Integrated Rice and Duck Farming, Tagari, Sisters Creek, Australia.
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Pefanis, J. 1991 Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard and Lyotard, Allen and Unwin, North Sydney.
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Pretty, J. 1998, The Living Land: Agriculture, Food and Community Regeneration in Rural Europe, Earthscan, London.
Pretty, J. 1999, Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practice for Sustainability and Self-Reliance, Earthscan, London.
Pretty, J. 2002, Agri-Culture: Re-Connecting People, Land and Nature, Earthscan, London.
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Roberts, B. 1995, The Quest for Sustainable Agriculture and Land Use, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.
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Vaneigem, R. 1983 The Revolution of Everyday Life, Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, London.