AGROECOLOGY: THE FUTURE OF FARMING?
“795 million hungry people live in the world today, 98% of those living in developing countries, with half of those depending on smallholder farming communities to survive.”
With growing awareness of the significant detrimental effects of animal agriculture on the environment, Megan Daly looks at an alternative approach to ethical food production and consumption.
The negative environmental and social consequences of the meat industry are critical to the vegan community. The livestock industry destroys forests and grasslands, threatens unique ecosystems, ravages the Amazon rainforest and inflicts untold damage on marine environments. Animals are subject to physical mutilation and genetic mutation, chemicals and antibiotics in fish farming can cause mercury poisoning in humans and the amount of food consumed by cattle could meet the calorific needs of 8.7 billion people. According to the UN, raising livestock for human consumption is one of the top three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems on a local and global scale. For many, following a vegan lifestyle is a means of protesting these atrocities. But is the act of deciding what we choose to consume as individuals enough to actively tackle and change the international problems of world hunger, poverty, climate change and the structures of power that maintain them?
The problem lies beyond the meat industry alone: according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) the environmental damage caused by the industrial agriculture industry costs the world $3 trillion a year, with $1.8 trillion of that coming from livestock. Soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, oceanic dead zones associated with fertiliser run-off, and a decline in the bee population due to pesticides are just some of the symptoms of industrial agriculture. On top of that, rates of obesity and malnourishment are rapidly increasing to obscene levels, while a third of food produced in the world is wasted. 795 million hungry people live in the world today, 98% of those living in developing countries, with half of those depending on smallholder farming communities to survive. These communities are in marginal lands prone to natural disasters – which will only become more common and more vicious as the industries that destroy the natural balance of our ecosystems grow.
So what is the alternative? Agroecology is gaining ground as a solution to the ills caused by industrial agriculture. Combining both traditional farming and ecological principles, agroecological agriculture mimics natural processes to create self-sustaining farming that recycles nutrients, reduces the use of artificial pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics, and grows crops of greater diversity. With a focus on small-scale local farming, it drastically reduces costs for farmers, gives both producers and consumers freedom from corporations, produces more nutritious food of a higher quality, and through a stronger understanding of local ecosystems is better able to handle unexpected climate changes. Studies from the University of California show that agroecological systems produce 10% more yield than organic, and fall behind industrial systems by only 8-9%. This is the first sign that the rhetoric of industrial scale agriculture being the only method able to feed the world is false. The fact that hundreds of millions of people are already underfed, while only two thirds of food produced is used, tells us that the system of industrial agriculture doesn’t need to grow: it needs to change.
Unfortunately, this threatens the profits of the billion dollar industrial agriculture industry that farmers are at the brunt of – which is why these changes haven’t been implemented, despite their major benefits to the public. Friends of the Earth’s Spinning Food report reveals the ways in which the agrochemical industries have spent millions purposely misleading the public about the risks of chemical-intensive agriculture, increasing profit margins through insisting use of pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, genetically engineered seeds and antibiotics as essential. With a political system captured by corporate interests and a focus on increased global competiveness and profit-based values, the future looks dark.
The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) June 2016 agricultural strategies report suggested a drive for a cleaner environment, a thriving rural economy and a nation better protected, but gave little in the ways of methods to achieve such aims. Amongst these suggestions were repeated statements of wanting UK produce to become a global brand of choice, with the conclusion that their primary goal is to explore new business models to fit the global competitive market. George Eustice, the DEFRA minister for Farming, Food and Marine Environment, and Brexit supporter, argued leaving the EU would be a huge merit to the UK’s farming industry through allowing to develop a more ‘flexible’ approach to environmental protection free of the ‘spirit-crushing’ policies and regulations that come from the EU. But what would this flexibility entail? Part of his approach would be to implement a government insurance scheme to protect farmers from bad weather, crop failures and price drops. But this doesn’t address the fact that industrial farming contributes to all of these issues. This movement has been backed by the National Farmers Union (NTU), an organisation with the largest political representation for UK farming. They have also condemned the EU’s regulations and policies, including the EU Plant Protection Product legislation, which introduced a criteria that lowers the threshold of tolerance for active toxicity. In their report UK’s Farming Relationship with the EU, they state: ‘’Our position is based on the guiding principles of commonality, simplification, greater competitiveness and increased market orientation’. However, fellow minister Rory Stewart argues that EU policy has played a crucial part in environmental protection in the UK. In 1991 a quarter of British beaches were too dirty to swim in, but thanks to EU regulation that has decreased to 5%, putting our water environment in its healthiest state for 25 years. So what are the largest political and economic representations of UK agriculture really fighting for? Who benefits from less environmental regulation?
Post-brexit, this profit-orientated approach to agriculture and climate change only seems to persist. Theresa May shutting down the Department of Energy and Climate Change and merging in into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is a fine example of this. While some politicians suggest putting climate issues and business issues under the same title will increase its political priority, arguably this only creates more concern if we consider the devastating environmental effects of treating agriculture like a commodity that are impacting the world right now: devastation of the natural world through overproduction and chemical techniques, the wealthiest countries growing wealthier and fatter and the poorest growing poorer, hungrier and more susceptible to natural disasters without the access to the resources to combat them and the looming threat of growing industrialisation.
While in the past Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Andrea Leadsom has applauded the work of organic food production as impressive, she has voted both in 2012 and 2016 against setting a target on reducing carbon emissions and supports the abolishment of subsidies for farmers. While the Tenant Farming Association and other associations also support the abolishment of subsidies, which favours big farmers and contributes to the wealth inequality within the system, the reality is that many farms rely on subsidies to get by. In Northern Ireland, £8.50 of every £10 made comes from subsidies.
But resistance, and hope, exists. Whitmuir Community Farm outside Edinburgh aims to be a national resource for sustainable food and farming, with a zero carbon, zero waste trail goal. ‘We have to work with ecology, with the environment. We have to protect habitats, we have to clean up water supply’, states the award-winning Whitmuir farmer Heather Anderson. With only a small subsidy, and no participation on the EU single market, Whitmuir shows us a glimpse of a promising change. Campaign for Real Farming argue that Brexit could be an opportunity to install a form of farming based on agroecology and economic democracy, pursuing self-reliant farming with imports limited to luxuries and a chance to fight for a shift away from large scale neoliberal representative bodies enforcing large scale industrial farming. La Via Campesina and other networks and movements of small farmers connecting across the globe are growing constantly. What can we do in the meantime? Do what we can to support and advocate small, local, agroecological farming; continue to be vigilant and critical of profit-making techniques hidden within our environmental departments and unions; and continue to promote vegan lifestyles for the health of the population and the planet to delegitimise the industrial food system.