Global Warning: Food production and the climate crisis

It is increasingly recognised that the food industry is among the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. In the run up to last November’s COP26 summit, but also due to the Tory Brexit shambles, the way our food system works was once again under the spotlight.

We witnessed food shortages in supermarkets at the same time as dairy farmers were pouring away milk, both due to a lack of HGV drivers to distribute foods, while hundreds of thousands of pigs were killed and burnt because there were no butchers or abattoir workers available. It all pointed to the chaotic and criminally wasteful capitalist food industry, and specifically to the parasitic nature of the food system in Britain. Together with the capitalist intensive model of agriculture, the wastefulness and reliance on imports and super-exploited foreign labour in Britain itself, all makes the British food system completely unsustainable, both ecologically and in its ability to feed the population.

In the Summer 2021 issue of Landworker (the magazine for rural workers produced by Unite the Union) Unite campaigner Dr Charlie Clutterbuck explains that Britain’s biggest food footprint is actually not in this country: “Seventy percent of the land needed to produce our food is abroad; 64% of our greenhouse gas emissions from producing our food is abroad. People don’t talk about this much but it is really significant”.

He explains that British reliance on imported food is the legacy of empire. It is true – during the empire much of the food consumed in Britain was grown in the colonies, occasionally leading to famines among the indigenous population for example in Ireland and India. But this trend didn’t stop after the end of colonialism. As Clutterbuck says, there was only a short-lived change in policy after the second world war when the Labour government introduced the 1947 Agriculture Act and invested a lot of money into British agriculture, with the result that by the 1970s Britain was producing 75% of its food. However this didn’t last long as the post-war boom came to an end in 1974-75 and the capitalists moved to neo-liberal policies, led by Margaret Thatcher who stopped this government intervention and, alongside much of British industry, ruined British agriculture too. Today Britain again imports up to a half of its food.

Clutterbuck says that one way Britain can reduce its emissions is to grow much more of its own food. As a “socialist soil zoologist” he also believes that much of the solution to climate change can be found under our feet. He is not alone in that – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 89% of agricultural emissions could be reduced by improving soil health and its ability to store carbon.

For this it is necessary to move away from the intensive model of agriculture pursued by the capitalist multinationals in the decades of globalisation, with their reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, and instead to turn to regenerative farming by bringing life back to the depleted soil – earthworms, beneficial bacteria and fungi. This can be achieved by composting, no-tilling, small-scale mixed farming (avoiding monocultures), crop rotation, and other well-proven practices that globalised neo-liberal capitalism shunned for the sake of making profits for chemical companies and agribusiness.

There is no hope though that capitalist governments will turn their backs to the powerful Big Ag, remove the subsidies they reward them with, and invest in simple but proven practices that bring no profits to corporations. Instead in the US, UK and the European Union (EU) there is a push for even more intensification, as well as deregulation of genetic modification (GM) and gene editing, as a techno-fix for all the problems that intensification brought about in the first place (so much for the ‘environmental protection’ the EU allegedly offers).

It is certainly the case though that the Johnson government is using Brexit to quickly deregulate gene editing in crops, and there is no doubt that the full deregulation of genetic modification is in the pipeline too. The Tory government is ignoring the results of their own consultation in which the vast majority of respondents objected to gene editing deregulation. Just like the past claims that GM crops would reduce the use of pesticides subsequently leading to the exact opposite, the push for gene editing is being justified in the same vain.

In the same Landworker issue Unite national officer Bev Clarkson expressed the same concern: “Similar promises about pesticide reduction and plants being adapted for climate change were made by companies pushing the first generation of GM crops. Those promises failed to materialise then and are now being made in relation to gene editing by many of the same agri-tech multinationals. These companies have proved time and again that their quest for market dominance obliterates labour or environmental rights regardless of where they operate… [O]ur members across the food industry, from farming to manufacturing, are deeply concerned about its potential impact on the environment and consumer health, as well as on jobs and the wider food supply chain”. 

This is exactly right because a closer look reveals that genes are edited to again increase crop resistance to herbicides, in order to allow usage of even stronger chemicals to combat the development of super weeds, which is nature’s unavoidable answer to herbicides. This is the treadmill that the neo-liberal capitalist model of agriculture cannot escape and indeed doesn’t want to, because it provides a constant and never-ending source of profits for chemical corporations and agribusiness.

Similarly, gene editing in farm animals is justified by claims that it will make the animals less susceptible to infections and disease. However this wilfully ignores the fact that most infections and diseases are the consequence of cramming thousands of animals in dark, unhealthy indoor spaces and the fear is that gene editing would allow for even more intensification of the abominable factory farming.

Crop gene editing, just like genetic modification, ultimately tries to reduce traits to one gene, ignoring the complexity of living organisms, the role of interactions of genes, and interactions between organisms and ecosystems. To claim that modifying or editing crop genes can help plants withstand the effects of climate change also completely misses the point that the gene uniformity that these technologies produce is precisely the opposite of what is needed. Biodiversity of each particular region is indeed best suited to make plants adaptable to climate change. We have already lost about 90% of crop biodiversity in the last century, as a result of monocultures and monopolisation of seeds. Genetic modification and gene editing push this trend to the extreme. These techno-solutions do not address the causes of climate change. They don’t offer systemic change in agriculture; on the contrary they offer the means to intensify the production even more by trying to stick plasters on the consequences, where the industry controls both the production and the sticking plasters.

Furthermore, the ‘sticking plasters’ come with side effects that nobody can predict. A potential impact of ‘runaway genes’ and contamination of the environment resulting from growing GM or edited crops is unknown. Nor the long term effect on animal or consumer health. Although companies always downplay the risks, there is some worrying evidence emerging that links gene editing and cancer that must not be ignored.

Resistance to food monopolisation and the environmental degradation caused by agribusiness has been growing worldwide, unsurprisingly particularly in the neo-colonial world, involving small farmers, land and food workers, indigenous communities, and social justice organisations. However, the ‘UN Food Systems Summit’ that was held in New York in September 2021 was an attempt to counter the resistance and seal the dominance of agribusiness.

The UN has bodies that deal with food policies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which has worked closely with small farmers and peasant organisations, for example La Via Campesina (LVC), organising 200 million small farmers, landworkers, peasants and indigenous peoples in 81 countries, mostly in the Global South but in Britain too. This led to the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants by the UN general assembly in 2018. The central idea of the Declaration is ‘Food Sovereignty’, the term coined by LVC that establishes the rights of communities to democratically run their own food systems based on ecological farming (agro-ecology) and free from ‘free-market’ interference from multinationals. Given the role of imperialism in dictating food policies in neo-colonial countries it is not surprising that the US and UK were among a small minority of countries that voted against it.

However the FAO was side-lined in the September UN summit. The UN secretary-general António Guterres single-handedly set it up in partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and dutifully appointed the president of AGRA (Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa, set up by the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations in 2006) as a Special Envoy. What both the WEF (the entity comprising of business and capitalist leaders, best known for its annual summit in Davos) and AGRA have in common is the agenda of pushing corporate interests in the guise of “solving the world problems”, “alleviating poverty”, “tackling climate change” or “feeding the world”.

Their idea of ‘feeding the world’ is to industrialise local food systems, undermine local food production, push peasants off their land, pollute the soil and environment, and impose techno-fixes that invariably are accompanied with patents held by corporations from the Global North. They achieve this by bullying neo-colonial governments to adopt subsidy programmes that favour the corporations and to close their eyes to the abuse of indigenous peasant rights.

They further impose a powerful but deceptive narrative of ‘science-led’ solutions, branding all defenders of local food systems as ‘unscientific’, even though these systems have successfully fed communities through centuries with no negative impact on the environment. In one handful of rich soil there can be 50 billion microbes of thousands of different species. Soil natural health and fertility is no less ‘scientific’ yet companies and capitalist governments see no interest in research and investment in agro-ecology. It is no wonder that all grassroot food and farmer organisations boycotted the summit in disgust.

Hunger today does not happen because not enough food is produced but because people are unable to access the food that is produced. Capitalism will rather throw away food than feed the people who can’t afford to buy it. A quarter of all food produced is actually thrown away.

Poverty and hunger today are also the consequence of land grabs and neoliberal policies that prevent remaining subsistence farming communities from producing their own food (this process was accomplished a few centuries ago in the northern industrial capitalist countries). Farming communities in the Global South need their land back (the land that is likely growing food for export to Britain) and to be free to save their own seeds, like they’ve done through centuries. To suggest to them that the answer to their needs is to use genetically modified or edited seeds is to add insult to injury. More so because it was exactly their seeds that were appropriated by the multinationals and through genetic manipulation made into ‘inventions’, allowing the companies to acquire patents and sell them back to the farmers with a high price tag and binding contracts.

In a similar way that the Covid pandemic has made apparent that it is the ordinary key workers who make our societies run, the imperialist imposition of industrial food systems in the Global South that actually lead to hunger and pollution exposes the fact that it is primarily small-scale producers who feed the communities and look after the environment.

Socialists must support the struggle of small-scale producers in the neo-colonial world, and elsewhere. Not just because they feed the vast majority of the global population, on much less land to what is available to agribusiness, they also hold the knowledge to ecological farming practices from which we can all learn. We can leave it to the people of a future socialist society to decide what technology is needed, just like we leave it to them to decide what exactly is going to be needed to run a socialist green economy as a whole. But we do know what environmentally damaging and socially unjust agricultural policies are today.

We must demand nationalisation of agribusiness so that all communities can democratically plan food production with genuinely sustainable and fair practices. We must demand from imperialist governments to stop the domination of food systems in neo-colonial world. And we must fight for a socialist transformation of society, as the only way to fully achieve these goals.

Mira Glavardanov