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…by Terry Leahy, June 2007

Sociology and Anthropology Discipline
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Newcastle
University Drive
Callaghan,  NSW  2308

Three Main Questions

  1. What are the environmental problems of agriculture today?
  2. What agricultural technologies are available to deal with these problems?
  3. What are the social causes of these problems and what are the social alternatives?


As we humans of the planet earth go about producing and consuming our food we set in train a long list of environmental problems.  What we are doing is unsustainable because the environmental  damage we are causing will make it harder and harder for us to live well. We are also drastically reducing the opportunities for other forms of life. These problems come out 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.  They come from our relationships with each other, relationships of class, economy, work and power. It is possible to set out some of the ways in which current practices of food production damage the environment and also to look at some of the alternatives.  Agricultural strategies designed to achieve commercial success are inevitably constrained by the market.  Often the more satisfactory environmental solution is impossible in the market place.  We can also look what kinds of social structures might deal with this crisis.  While capitalism may be considered to be a problem, alternative social structures seem unlikely to gain popular support soon, whether we are talking about more nationalised ownership of the economy, an anarchist gift economy or a deconstruction of industrial civilisation.

Environmental problems and food production

In the developed countries

In rich countries with high labour costs, technologies designed to save labour costs cause environmental problems.

Monocultures, fertilisers, pests and weeds

The term monoculture is used when land produces a single crop.  With farming industry based on large pieces of land serviced by machinery and cheap fuel, monocultural production is cheaper than growing a variety of crops together.  However, a single crop is the perfect environment for a pest or disease – it spreads easily and can destroy all the produce (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, p. 53; Watson 1992).  So toxic chemical 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 (Leu 2006).  After time, pests develop resistance to pesticides.  The crop may be unable to be grown at all or even more toxic pesticides could be called in (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992; Mannion 1995).
Monocultural production also makes considerable use of artificial fertilisers such as superphosphates.  These destroy microorganisms that normally create soil fertility.  They also acidify soils.  The result is reduced agricultural productivity.  Up to 60 million hectares of Australian agricultural land will become too acidic for plant growth in the next ten years (Cullen, Williams & Curtis 2003, p. 3).  Soluble fertiliser is also washed into waterways and causes a problem of nutrient overload.  The fertiliser in the water provides nutrient on which algae can grow.  The algae uses up oxygen and water weeds, fishes and insects die.  The algae can itself be poisonous, like the blue green algae of the Darling River (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992; Thomas & Kevan 1993; Vanclay & Lawrence 1995).
We can look at two kinds of solutions to these problems.

Food Forest solutions

Some permaculture writers recommend systems that mimic natural woodland environments.  (Fern 1997; French 1993; Mollison & Holmgren 1978; Soule & Piper 1992; Whitefield 1998).  For example a polyculture or food forest where a mixed variety of foods are grown together. ‘Forest gardening’ is a strategy in which carbohydrates come from trees or bushes – a food forest of nuts and fruits with an understorey of low vines and shrubs.  If pest species do cause a problem it is then confined to some crops.  The rest flourish.  Pests do not easily move between small pockets of the same crop.   In companion planting a specific plant is grown which helps control the pests of the second species. Animals are also part of the food forest – providing fertiliser and eating many pest species.  (French 1993; Morrow 1993; Mollison 1988).  Crops chosen for a particular location are those that flourish and resist pests (Mollison & Holmgren 1978; Mollison 1988; Watson 1992; Morrow 1993).
Methods of polycultural production could work very well if we did not have a capitalist system.  If people grew food for their local neighbourhood and had plenty of time to plant, maintain and harvest by hand, a mixture of species that had to be cared for individually would take time but could sustain the soil and be fun to grow.  However, for farmers who are saving labour costs with harvesting machinery, the polyculture solution seems unrealistic (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992, pp. 52-53).

Organics solutions 

Another kind of solution to these problems is ‘organic’ agriculture. In organics, inputs come from organic plant or animal resources – such as animal manure for fertiliser and plant species used to deter pests.  No artificial fertilisers or synthetic pesticides are used (Kristiansen & Merfield 2004; Leu 2006).  Originally, this kind of agriculture was developed to be healthy for people.  There is no danger of long lasting chemical toxicity that can lead to cancers and nerve diseases.  This system of agriculture also looks after the environment better.
Methods such as crop rotation, growing living mulch and slashing it to lie on the ground, the use of animal manures, the planting of legumes which fix nitrogen in the soil, or the building of earthworks to increase water retention are all techniques used in organic agriculture to create soil fertility. In organic agriculture, there are no articifial fertilisers to destroy soil organisms, to acidify soils and wreck aquatic environments with nutrient overloads.  There are no long lasting pesticide or weed killing chemicals to harm wild species and the micro-organisms in soils (Kasperczyk & Knickel 2006).
While crop yields per hectare are generally lower in organic agriculture, costs of inputs are less and farmers can end up better off if they get higher prices for organic produce (Pretty 1999).  Reductions in crop yields after conversion to organics were up to 40% in some European countries but only 10% to 20% in Australia, Canada and the USA (Wynen 2006).  While organic yields can be low immediately after conversion they improve over the next five years and can be as high as in conventional agriculture (Leu 2006).
The organics market has been growing at a phenomenal rate in the rich countries of the world – at rates of between 8% and 20% per year (Lockie, Halpin & Pearson 2006, p. 245).  In 2004 the total value of the organics market was US$23 billion (Kristiansen & Merfield 2006, p. 10). On the other hand, organic food is still up to 80% more expensive – usually more than the 15% to 20% extra that most buyers will be prepared to pay (Wynen 2006, p. 234; Lockie, Halpin & Pearson 2006, p. 247).  The basic reason is the extra labour that goes into organics.  Producing composts, spreading manure, weeding by hand, companion planting, resting fields to grow cover crops (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992; Thomas & Kevan 1993). Organic farming also involves a considerable investment in skills and knowledge, in itself expensive (Vanclay & Lawrence 1995; Campbell 1991; Pretty 1999).
It is hard to imagine that the organics market is going to grow year by year until it dominates 90% of the market.  It is still only one to two per cent of the food market in rich countries and growth is levelling off  where it has been most successful (Lockie, Halpin & Pearson 2006, p. 245).
At a Landcare conference in 2006 I spoke to wheat farmers from Western Australia.  Everyone in their region was worried by toxic pesticides and herbicides.  After aerial spraying to control locusts, lambing rates would drop by 30%.  Fearing birth defects, all pregnant women would leave the district.  People were very concerned about Parkinson’s disease, cancers, birth defects and the developmental effects of childhood exposure to toxic chemicals.
Nevertheless, these farmers claimed it would be impossible to move to organics.  Any individual farmer who tried to do this would not get certification as an ‘organic’ farmer because of the drift from chemical sprays from neighbouring farms.  It would take five years to reach the level of production they now had – the time needed for soils and beneficial organisms to build up after toxic chemicals have been removed (Wynen 2006).  This five year window would be financially crippling. They would have to install their own mill to keep their crop separate and market their own product – at great expense. Finally, any farmer who moved to organics would be regarded as a “greenie” and have to put up with the associated stigma at the local schools, sporting clubs, pubs and churches.

Ploughing, cultivation and weed control

Ploughing with machinery creates a seedbed and controls weeds.  It saves on labour costs and favours monocultural production. When soil is ploughed the top layer is turned over completely.  This destroys microorganisms which create soil fertility.  The use of heavy machinery packs the soil down and creates an infertile hard pan (Thomas & Kevan 1993; Gardner 1996).
Ploughed fields are very susceptible to erosion.   Rain washes away the topsoil – a non renewable resource for agriculture.  The removed topsoil silts waterways, polluting them with excessive nutrients (Land & Water Australia 2002).
So monocultural production of cereals and potatoes is unsustainable. 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).  A thirty year study has revealed that 8 tonnes per hectare of soil is lost in summer cropping of annual cereals – compared with 0.01 tonnes lost from undisturbed native forests (Turner, Wareing, Flinn & Lambert 2004).  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).
Clearly, a food forest strategy is one kind of solution – tree crops produce carbohydrates without the soil being constantly disturbed.  So ploughing is abandoned.
Within the organics framework, cereal monocultures are achieved by rotating different crops in different seasons, using hand weeding and some ploughing to reduce weeds.  Living mulch, legume crops and fallowing fields are used to keep organic matter in the soil and retain moisture – soils are less frequently exposed to rain and suffer less erosion.   So organics protects soils from the effects of ploughing, while retaining a cereal as the basic carbohydrate crop (Morse 2006).

Minimum tillage

Within typical commercial farming one approach that has been used is ‘minimum tillage’, or‘no-till’ or ‘conservation farming’ as it is variously called.  By 1996, up to 80% of Australia’s cropping farms were using some or all aspects of this technique (Cullen, Williams & Curtis 2003, 11).  After the grain is harvested, the stubble and crop residue is left on the field to add organic matter.  To kill weeds, the fields are regularly sprayed with herbicides.  This technology has been widely adopted in the last few decades.  Importantly, it comes without the labour costs associated with organic agriculture.
This technology certainly works to improve soils.  The amount of carbon in the soil is higher in conservation farming systems than on conventional farms. There is less ploughing to control weeds and soil is not turned over by the plough – a procedure which kills soil organisms.  Instead, to prepare for sowing, tractors are fitted with machinery that chisels a thin furrow deep into the soil. Crop residues and dead weeds rot down to improve soil, protect the ground from sunlight and retain moisture.
Nevertheless, this technology has certain pitfalls. Most of these weed-killing chemicals have a damaging effect on wildlife.  For example “Roundup’, the most common one, washes into waterways where it kills frogs.  It is acutely toxic to beneficial insects, fishes, birds, earthworms and soil microorganisms. It is also a danger to the health of farm workers (Leu 2006, p. 2; Sundquist 2004, 7).  Other weed killing chemicals are as bad or worse (Sundquist 2004, 7).  For example Atrazine, one of the world’s most commonly used herbicides has been found in rain samples from 30 to 90 percent of sites tested in Greece and the USA.  It interferes with the endocrine system, causing cancers in humans and animals (Leu 2006, p. 2).
The most problematic aspect of no till technology for farmers is that weeds are developing resistance to all these chemicals.  The result is a complicated schedule of different chemical sprays in different months and years to kill different kinds of weeds.  The end result of this is that farmers rarely avoid ploughing for weeds at least once a season – with the attendant problems of soil quality and soil erosion.
In other words, the problems of soil erosion that permaculture or organics can actually solve are not addressed in the long term by ‘conservation farming’.  The toxic effects associated with these chemicals intensifies as weed species develop resistance and more chemicals are sprayed.

Large grazing animals 

Large animals grown for meat generally cause environmental problems.  Overgrazing is a common response to competitive pressures on prices (Watson 1992).  Yet 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 and does not admit rain.  Without cover, the soil easily washes away.  These problems are rampant in grazing around the world (Thomas & Kevan 1993; Crosby 1986).
Grazing solutions adapt permaculture to commercial production.  Deep-rooted perennial pasture species reduce the risks of salinity and soil erosion.  Properties are fenced so paddocks can be rested.  In ‘rotational grazing’, livestock are moved regularly between paddocks.  Nevertheless, these systems do not necessarily have much impact on how many animals can be grazed (the ‘stocking rate’). The solution to grazing pressure is always to reduce herds and farmers worry that profitability will be reduced.  The time required to run a careful grazing management is also relevant (Hutchings 2004; Sundquist 2004).


Another common technique is to combine grazing with timber crops – ‘agroforestry’.  The farm benefits from the biodiversity of species in a woodland environment (Holmgren 1994). This can be profitable – for example improving the quality of milk, the numbers of stock and reproduction rates even though up to 8% of the pasture has been removed to grow trees (Cullen, Williams & Curtis 2003, pp. 10, 14). Nevertheless, agroforestry costs money in fencing and planting trees, and returns on timber take decades.  So innovative farmers pioneer agroforestry but most others ignore it.  For example it is advised that 30% of native vegetation cover may be necessary to prevent ecological damage but figures between 2% and 4% are most common. (Cullen, Williams & Curtis 2003, pp. 13,14).


The National Land and Water Resources audit of 1997-2002 showed that 6 million hectares of agricultural and pastoral land in Australia is suffering from dryland salinity problems and predicted 17 million hectares would be affected by 2050 unless drastic measures were taken (National Dryland Salinity Program 2004, p. 10).   There are also salinity problems with irrigated agriculture – 2.5 million hectares in Australia at present (Murray-Darling Basin Commission 2004).
With irrigation, a constant supply of water causes the water table to rise.  Salts lower down dissolve and rise to the surface.  A salt pan 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).
Where land has been cleared a similar problem arises – dryland salinity. Rainfall on higher areas is taken up 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 brought water up from their roots, released it as vapour into the air and stored it in their foliage.  Water did not move down the slope, causing problems of salinity further down (Lawrence & Vanclay 1992).
There is a commercial angle to these issues.  Irrigated land is very profitable before problems of salinity develop.  Clearing slopes for pasture or cereal crops is also profitable.  Once salinity develops it is expensive or impossible to reverse.  A common finding is that almost all the area of land up slope from the salting problem has to be replanted with trees and shrubs – 80% is a typical requirement.  Then, it is likely to take between 50 and 100 years for the salting to be reduced (National Dryland Salinity Program 2004, p. 39; Stirzaker, Vestessy & Sarre 2002, p. 35).
The unfortunate reality is that in most areas where salinity is a problem there are no tree or shrub alternatives that can return a profit. ‘The conclusion of recent studies is that no profitable system of farming, even applying “current best practice” could control salinity’  (National Dryland Salinity Program 2004, pp. 73, 79, 83).  Large amounts of public money would have to be spent.  We are talking about planting 17 million hectares of trees, in areas with low rainfall, and compensating farmers for all this area taken out of grazing or cropping.

Deep drainage

A quick fix engineering solution is to dig channels deeper than the water table.  The water coming up and carrying salt is drained away from the zone where plant roots grow.  About 10,000 kilometres of these deep drains have been constructed (National Dryland Salinity Program 2004, p 87).  There are various drawbacks.  The raised edges of channels have to be maintained to prevent surface water from draining into channels, filling them when rainfall is heavy.  If the channels become blocked, they will also fill up – spilling salty water onto fields. What can be done with the salty water from these drains?  It is all too common for farmers to channel their drains to a big pond on edge of their farm.  After heavy rain, the pond spills onto the neighbouring farm.  Salt leaks out to destroy roads and buildings.  Grand visions of channels all the way to the coast become a rationale for ignoring these negative effects.

Costs of salinity

The long term ‘costs’ of Australia’s salinity problem are difficult to assess.  The annual cost in lost production and destroyed infrastructure is estimated at $230 million – only a small fraction of the value of Australia’s $35 billion agricultural industry (Stirzaker, Vertessy & Sarre 2002, p. 4). So, while these up front costs of salinity are low, the costs of stalling salinity are prohibitive.  Yet other large costs are looming.  The Murray river is becoming too salty to supply Adelaide with drinking water – by 2020 it will be too salty 40% of the time (Stirzaker, Vertessy & Sarre 2002, p. 5).

Environmental problems beyond the farm gate

Ecological problems are not confined to the paddock. Farming, food transport and storage uses fossil fuels, an irreplaceable resource. 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 the United States, three units of energy are used in farming for every unit of food energy consumed.  Adding the energy costs of transporting and processing food, there are ten units of energy needed.  As a result, seventeen percent 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 ( Mannion 1995; Soule & Piper 1992).  So modern agriculture is dependent on cheap fossil fuel energy – especially oil.
One reason that all this is a problem is the global warming.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change maintains we need to cut carbon dioxide emissions (and fossil fuel use) by between 60 and 80 per cent.  To allow for economic growth in developing countries, rich countries would have to cut emissions to about 5% of what we now use (Trainer 1995).  Unless this is done the most likely result is a devastating climate change that would seriously increase the costs of agriculture (Flannery 2005, Maslin 2002).   This is just the beginning of the problems of global warming.  The likely results are catastrophic.
We are also likely to run out of accessible oil reserves.  The peak of oil discoveries was in 1960 and since then less and less oil has been discovered.  Yet the world consumption of oil is rapidly increasing.  An estimate can be made of when oil is going to become much more expensive – the oil crunch.  Most forecasts are of dates between 2003 and 2020.  (Campbell 1997 Heinberg 2003), What would make most sense is to begin setting up the physical and social structures that are going to be necessary in an agricultural economy without cheap oil (Gunther 2002; Holmgren 2002).
Without cheap energy for transport and refrigeration, we would have to produce almost all food in the local neighbourhood – within walking distance (Trainer 1995).  However today, the average distance food has travelled to reach the plate of a United States resident is 2000 kilometres (Durning 1991, p. 159).  This far flung distribution of food makes perfect economic sense.  Consumers spend more buying exotic foods. For a large supermarket chain, producing a uniform product and distributing it over a large area is cheaper than marketing a variety, different in each locality.  Bananas from Coffs Harbour are sent to Sydney to be bought by big food conglomerates and redistributed back to Coffs Harbour to be sold.
Packaging of food also 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.   They become part of a system in which unnecessary mountains of plastic, aluminium and paper are manufactured and distributed.

In Developing Countries

In developing countries, peasant and tribal subsistence has been replaced by food production for the international market (Bennett 1987; Trainer 1994).  A wealthy landlord or business class monopolizes land.  Ted Trainer estimates that 80% of land in developing countries is owned by 3% of the population (Trainer 1994; p. 17; see also George 1988; Trainer 1995).  On the land used to produce cash crops for the international market, environmental  problems are similar to those in developed countries – erosion, toxic pollution, overgrazing and so on.  As in developed countries, these problems are caused by competition on the international market.
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 irreversible  (George 1988; Pearce, Barbier, Markyanda 1990; Fargher & Cadaweng 1990; Trainer 1994).
One billion of the world’s six billion population are undernourished (UNDP 1998; Sachs 2005).  One response is for families to have as many children as possible.  They hope some of them will survive to provide for their parents (Bennett & George 1987, p. 22). Increasing population is the norm in developing countries. This is a response to food insecurity – caused by the takeover of land for cash cropping for a global market.
One way of looking at this is to consider how much land outside their own country is used by wealthy consumers. Africa, a continent where many starve, actually has more farming land per person than the United States but much of it is used for export crops (Trainer 1995, p. 155).
Crops such as rubber, sugar, tea, coffee and meat are all grown in areas where wild animals and plants were dominant.  Sixteen million hectares in developing countries are planted for export crops of coffee, tea and cocoa (Trainer 1995, p. 155). Annually, 100 million kilos of meat is exported to the United States from Central America – mostly from land that was recently tropical rainforest (Trainer 1995, p. 34; see also Pearce, Barbier, Markyanda 1990; Revkin 1990; Trainer 1994). Recently, World Wide Fund for Nature has found that 20% of a national park in Sumatra, Indonesia has been occupied by illegal coffee plantations exporting their product and selling it to companies including Nestle, Kraft, Lavazza and Starbucks – this is a park that is home to endangered Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses (Shahab 2007).
As Jules Pretty points out (1999) sustainable agriculture solutions can work well in developing countries if the training and government infrastructure are in place to support them.  With labour costs very low in these countries it makes sense to use more labour and few industrial inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Nevertheless, 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 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.

How these problems are related to the economic and political structures of global capitalism.

I have begun to show how the ecological problems of food production are related to economic and political structures.  There are three basic classes in today’s world.  Firstly, there isthe global capitalist class.  The richest 2% of adults own more than half global household wealth.  The richest 1% alone owns 40% (UNU-Wider 2006).  For example 25 million rich Americans receive as much income as 57% of the world’s people (New Internationalist 2004, p. 21).  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 between 10% and 20% of the world’s population – no more than one billion people.  For example, the richest 10% of adults account for 85% of the total of household wealth (UNU-Wider 2006).  20% of the world’s people in the high income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures (UNDP 1998, 2) 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 – 840 million – do not get adequate energy and protein in their diet and at least another billion are anaemic from food shortages (UNDP 1998 49, 50; Sachs 2005). Each of these three groups have a role in the ecological problems of food production.  It is their interaction 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. Now, most land is being used to produce food for the commodity economy – for sale for cash.
In developing countries today, larger landowners produce food for a global market.  Much land is controlled by the global rich and is used for cash crops.  These are exported for sale to the affluent consumer class in developed countries. 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 the shareholders in the transnational companies that manage this farming, environmental controls interfere with profits.  If profits fall they move their shares to another company or another country.  So farmers in poor countries compete to reduce prices.  Often they crash – cotton by 47% between 1998 and 2001 and coffee by 69% in the same years (New Internationalist 2004, p. 18).
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.
Large food companies dominate markets.  In 2003, four companies based in the USA and linked in two alliances, controlled 80% of the world’s seed market and 75% of the agrochemical market.  Six corporations handled 85% of the world market in grain and 15 controlled 85 to 90% of coffee sales (New Internationalist 2003, p. 20; Garcia 2004).  Multinationals also dominate the market in other commodities such as tobacco, tea, cocoa and sugar (Trainer 1995).  International competition squeezes small farmers and large companies alike.
In the developed world with high wages, the effect is to reduce human labour in farming – through high input agriculture and heavy machinery.  For investors, spending money on more sustainable farming would just reduce profits.  Managers know they cannot afford such risks.  For small owner operated farms, the price of environmental repair is too high.  Farm income is minimal.  In many industrialised countries government subsidies prop up farm incomes while supermarket chains make the profits (Crosthwaite, Malcolm, Moll, Dorrough 2006; Garcia 2004).
The basic problem of capitalism and the environment is a mismatch between profit and sustainability.  For example, it costs money to halt soil erosion so in any given year profits are higher if you do nothing (McLaughlin 1993, p. 32). The economic system makes it difficult for owners and managers to choose a more expensive strategy.
Along with this, a capitalist system makes it very hard to regulate markets.  Owners are assumed to have full rights to use their property for 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 powerful lobby group (McLaughlin 1993).
For a government in the developed world, a serious investment in environmental repair could be achieved in one of two ways.  Firstly, regulations could force changes on the industry.  The profitability of farming would drop as farm owners had to pay to conform to the regulations.  Export earnings would fall and food prices rise. Alternatively, taxpayers could fund this restructuring.  Then, 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.
Either way, this investment in rural restructuring would be at the expense of the profitability of the economy.
Governments are of course aware that agriculture is gradually destroying farmland, 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.  For example in Australia, Prime Minister Howard has announced a plan for the Murray Darling.  The plan is to forestall the salting up of Adelaide’s water supply and to maintain an industry facing prolonged drought.  The basic idea is to use less irrigation water.  Open channels are to be replaced by pipes.  Some irrigators will sell their water licences back.  This is a 10 year program with an average funding of $1 bn per year (Farr 2007).  This is just scratching the surface of the problems in agriculture and yet it is worth about 3% of the annual value of Australia’s agricultural industry (ABS 2006).   What this reveals is firstly that commercial agriculture has not been able to run sustainably.  This failure has ended up costing Australians a lot of government money.  Secondly, the costs of actually fixing the problems are so large as to call into question the future of  agriculture in Australia.
A fundamental group to be considered are the affluent consumers of the global market.  Capitalism has depended on sales of mass produced consumer goods to the employed populations of industrial countries.  With increases in productivity, the provision of consumer goods has continually increased.
Consumers buy food that appears on the shelves which is either the cheapest or fits their desire for luxury goods. 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 environmental ignorance.
But why does this consumption 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, and no control over their conditions at work.  Work is perceived as a burden not as a creative and sociable pleasure. It is in consumption and leisure that affluent workers exercise free choice and 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 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 an appropriate reward for hard masculine labour and necessary for healthy growth; sugar a sweet pleasure and an apt reward for appropriate femininity; coffee, tea and chocolate – all stimulating but legitimate drugs, an aid to concentration at work or a reward after work.
These factors make it difficult to get consumers to reform their food purchasing habits environmentally.  It becomes unlikely that consumers would embrace tough environmental regulations if this meant they would pay more for food or have less choice of foods.

Ruralisation and Suburban Farming

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.  Within capitalism, it makes sense economically to separate farms from affluent cities – so that cheap labour or large machinery can be readily used.  It makes sense culturally for alienated workers to want luxuries from far off – as compensation for their forced labour.
This separation is not necessary.  People could be reorganised to grow their own food locally (Trainer 1995). Frederick Gunther, a Swedish writer, suggests relocation of urbanites andruralisation.  We have to stop transporting food long distances and start composting our sewerage. Agricultural products would be produced close to consumers, with villages of 200 people supplied by farms of 40 hectares.  Villages would end up a kilometre apart. Food would not be imported into the village. The energy used in redistributing and recycling soil nutrients would be one percent of that used just to treat sewerage now.   There would be no energy needed to make synthetic fertilisers – replaced by waste recycling and legume crops (Gunther 2002, 266)
Writers such as David Holmgren and Ted Trainer think relocation out of the cities is not necessary to achieve local farming.  It would be more practical to make use of the land available in our suburbs to produce most food in the cities where people now live (Trainer 1995; Holmgren 2005).

Social Alternatives to Capitalism


The aspects of capitalism that lie behind environmental damage are unlikely to disappear without a radically different social organization.  Yet Soviet style nationalisation seems no better at dealing with environmental problems.  Despite the fact that the government is in a position to control environmental damage – through its ownership of firms – there are other problems.  One is the inefficiency of allocation of resources that goes with government bureaucratic structures. (Feher, Heller & Marcus 1983).  Another is that labour is alienated – people do not have any control in their jobs.  As in capitalist societies, people expect an increasing affluence to justify their compliance. The environment comes last for a government attempting to increase consumer satisfaction despite the inefficiencies of the bureaucratic command economy.  The sense that good work is not rewarded by opportunities for private consumption erodes dedication and undermines efficiency.  Waste is endemic.

The Gift Economy 

The ‘gift economy’ is another kind of alternative to capitalism that may be considered to be more benign environmentally.
There would be no money and no wage labour.  Instead people would produce things for their own consumption or as gifts.  It would be a vast extension of the kinds of voluntary work now done by citizen groups. Clubs and associations would produce technologically complex goods and services. People would be motivated to work by desires for status and the pleasure of giving, as well as by the knowledge that their work was necessary for the whole community.  The standard of living would be the effect of multiple gift networks (Vaneigem 1983; Coates & Leahy 2006). Coordination would be by links between collectives of producers and consumers, and by collectives of researchers, media and administrative workers.
This social alternative could help the environment.  Farmers would 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. Status would come from work that looked after the natural environment.  Because ‘income’ would depend on gifts, no amount of hard work would lead to wealth.  There would be no point in producing useless items.
Creativity and choice would be here turned to creating a productive process which was also environmentally benign. People would not depend on increasing material well being for their creative outlet.  An organic agriculture with an emphasis on tree crops would work well – enjoyable and creative work as well as sustainable production (Mollison & Holmgren 1978; see also Mollison 1988; Soule & Piper 1992; French 1993; Fern 1997).
The gift economy would depend on generosity and egalitarianism.   Pleasure would come from giving to those in need.   Other species would also be regarded as appreciating gifts of care and concern.

An end to Civilisation?

This is a somewhat rosy view.  Where would the political will come from?   More likely we will end up like civilisations in the past that have undermined their agricultural base.  A last days flurry of grand projects and expensive wars.  The inevitable collapse in food production.  A corresponding collapse in population.  Finally, the ruling class is massacred by an ungrateful populace (Diamond 2005).  A scenario one would not wish on anyone’s grandchildren!  Yet the sooner this takes place, the more chance the biosphere will still be habitable (Jensen 2006).

Summary of Main Points

  • The problems of modern agriculture come from technologies that maximise profits by cutting costs.
  • Technological solutions to these problems are only accepted if they promise to compete on profits.
  • Environmentally adequate solutions are unable to dominate the market.
  • Environmental problems in agriculture also go beyond the farm gate.
  • In developing countries, cash crops displace poor farmers and take up the habitat of wild species.
  • Global capitalism lies behind much of this.
  • Social alternatives to capitalism might work but do not have much popular appeal at present.

Discussion Questions

  1. What environmental problems are addressed by minimum tillage, agroforestry, deep drainage?
  2. What are the problems with these solutions?
  3. What are the economic disincentives for food forests, organic agriculture, localized agriculture?
  4. Why is it so hard to get effective environmental reform of agriculture?
  5. Would nationalisation or a gift economy work better than capitalism to solve the environmental problems of farming?
  6. Is a collapse of civilisation the most likely outcome of our current environmental crisis?

Sociological Reflection

Go to your local large supermarket.  Check out the origin of the foods you usually eat. For all the foods you usually buy, is there an organic alternative available?  What is the price difference?  Where is the organic food grown?  How many of the foods that you usually eat could be grown in your own neighbourhood?   How would you cope emotionally if your diet was restricted to foods that could be grown in your local area and fresh foods that would be available only when harvested?  Check out the pesticides and herbicides sold in the supermarket.  Go on the web and find out if the chemicals contained in these products could be harmful.

Key Books

Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin, Camberwell, Victoria.  Much on agriculture.  An excellent historical and cross cultural comparison of societies facing environmental problems.
Flannery, Tim (2005) The Weather Makers: the history and future impact of climate change, Text Publishing, Melbourne.  Readable and authoritative.
Heinberg, Richard (2003) The Party’s Over- oil, war and the fate of industrial societies, Clairview, New York.  Well written, a good critique of some of the more optimistic scenarios for replacement energy sources.
Mollison, B. (1988) Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual , Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, Australia.  A comprehensive how to manual for sustainable agriculture in different climate zones.
Pretty, Jules (1999) Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practice for Sustainability and Self-Reliance, Earthscan, London.  Global in scope, a thorough introduction to the problems of industrial agriculture and the kinds of alternatives that are working.
Trainer, Ted (1995) The Conserver Society, Zed Books, London.  Shows why capitalism cannot solve environmental problems and what kind of society could.


http://gifteconomy.octapod.org/ Gift Economy – Website of Terry Leahy – author of this chapter – much detailed discussion of agriculture and other topics
http://www.holmgren.com.au – David Holmgren – a founder of permaculture and a leading permaculture designer
http://socialwork.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/ The Simpler Way – Ted Trainer website, detailed information on many environmental and social issues
http://www.undp.org/reports/global/, United Nations Development Programme – Annual reports on everything to do with developing countries

Videos and CDs

Garcia, D. K. (2004) The Future of Food, Lily Films.  A lot about the problems of GM foods and multinational control over agriculture.  Sustainable alternatives.
The Community Solution (2006) The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, Community Service Inc.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s cheap oil vanished and they had to reconstruct their agriculture.  Fascinating.
Post Carbon Institute (2004) The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream, Electric Wallpaper, Canada.  Solutions somewhat different to those proposed by Australian permaculture writers.
Holmgren Design Services (2005) Melliodora, Hepburn Permaculture Gardens: A case study in cool climate permaculture design 1985-2005 A detailed account of the planning and setting up of a sustainable house and agricultural system based on tree crops.  Pictures of the property at different stages from all angles.  eBook from www.holmgren.com.au

Key Concepts Glossary 

Capitalist – Someone who owns productive property, employs labour and markets the product – can be the shareholders.
Capitalist society – Almost all productive property is privately owned by a small capitalist class and can be bought and sold – most people either work for a wage or are part of the world’s unemployed classes.
Alienated workers – People have to work for a 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 distribution of their products.
Gift Economy – The means of production are owned by hobby groups and clubs.  All work is voluntary.  Distribution of goods and services is by gifts.  There is no money and no coercive state apparatus.
Civilisation – Societies with cities. A small wealthy elite based in cities extracts products from the rural hinterland.  A standing army.  Cereal crops.
Developing/ Developed – Idea that developing countries are on the way to become developed (industrialised).  In fact rich and poor countries evolved as two parts of a global relationship.
Organics – Makes no use of artificial (synthetic) chemicals for fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides.
Food Forest/ Forest Gardening – Tree crops and other perennials provide most carbohydrates.
Permaculture – Sustainable (permanent) agriculture and settlement design.   Also these ethical principles – care for the earth, care for other people, distribute the surplus.
Ruralisation – The urban population is relocated to rural villages.
Agroforestry – To establish tree plantations on a farm.  To mix forestry with cropping and grazing.
Salinity/ Salinisation – Agricultural processes bring salts in the soil to the surface, creating salt scalds.
Minimum tillage – Also no-till or conservation farming.  Ploughing (tillage) is minimised. Herbicides to control weeds.  A chisel plough for seeds. Crop residues left on the field.
Monoculture/ polyculture – Monocultures are based on one crop; polycultures on a mixture.
Sustainable – What you are doing is sustainable if it does not undermine the chances of doing the same in future.
Perennial/ Annual – Perennial plants live for a number of years – for example trees, bushes.  Annuals die and set seed each year – for example cereal crops.
Global Warming – Climate change caused by human activities – mainly carbon dioxide from burnt fossil fuels and destroyed forests.
Oil Crunch – Also Oil Peak or Big Rollover.  Oil prices climb drastically as oil fields run out and demand increases.
Subsistence farming/ commodity farming – Subsistence = food is grown for local exchange and subsistence.  No money changes hands.  Commodity = food is grown (as a commodity) to get a cash return.


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Author Biography
Terry Leahy is currently employed as a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology and Anthropology Discipline of the University of Newcastle.  Among other things he teaches the subject “Environment and Society”.  He has recently completed a study of the attitudes of Australians to environmental issues and to environmental politics. He has a long standing interest in permaculture and is at the present time working on a book on sustainable agriculture for rural communities in South Africa.

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