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Since the Second World War, agriculture in the northern industrialised countries has undergone a revolution. Whilst that revolution has dramatically increased yields, it has also been responsible for:

  • Extensive rural depopulation and loss of farmers from the land;
  • Widespread degradation of the environment;
  • Production-related contamination of food with agrochemicals and bacteria;
  • An increase in the routine abuse of farm animals; and
  • The ruination of Third World economies and livelihoods through the development of unfair trading systems.

Taken separately, the many adverse impacts of industrial agriculture might be held to be mere side effects of an otherwise successful system. Taken together, they paint a picture of a system that is destructive, socially unjust and unsustainable. It is also a system in deep, and growing, crisis.

Confronted by mounting evidence as to the environmental destructiveness of industrial agriculture, and increasingly unable to avoid discussion of its social impacts, mainstream agronomists and policy-makers have belatedly recognised the need for change. "Sustainable agriculture" has become the buzzword of the moment. But "sustainable agriculture" has come to mean all things to all people. The question therefore arises: Sustainable agriculture for whom? Whose interests are we seeking to sustain? And to the detriment of whom?

To answer those questions requires going beyond narrow - and frankly sterile - debates on the technologies that might make for a more "sustainable agriculture" and confronting instead the political and economic forces that have driven farmers into agriculture's present disastrous cul-de-sac.

Farmers do not operate in a political or economic vacuum; nor do the retailers and food processors who buy their food and market it to the consumer. The pattern of land ownership, the size of farms and how they are managed; the choice of crops grown, who grows them and how; the role of workers, their pay and conditions; the means by which foodstuffs are processed and marketed, at what cost to their quality and for whose profit; the impact of agriculture on the environment; the prices charged to the consumer; who gains and loses from the current system; and, ultimately, who enjoys economic and political power are all factors that are shaped not by the decisions of individual farmers or consumers but by the wider political economy in which agriculture operates. The majority of small farmers, for example, have not chosen to leave the land: they have been forced to do so by circumstances over which they have no control.

In that respect, the ability of farmers to make a living is determined not only by the weather and other natural factors, but also by the agricultural policies of their national governments; by the policies of other countries and international agencies; and by international agreements. Neither the formulation of national policies, nor the policies themselves, are "neutral": on the contrary, they reflect the priorities of the dominant interest groups within agriculture and, more broadly, within the food industry as a whole.

It is this set of external influences - and the economic and political structure from which they flow - which has proved the dominant force in shaping the direction that agriculture has taken over the past half century or more. Indeed, governments, international agencies and commercial interests have deliberately manipulated farmers into mechanising production and using "off-farm" chemical inputs to increase output. As production has expanded, prices have been driven down and farmers have been left with little option but to increase production in order to maintain their income. The result is a structurally-encouraged tendency towards overproduction, environmental degradation, and rural depopulation. Increasingly in debt, trapped onto a chemical treadmill, wedded to producing only those crops that bring in the highest return on investment, and vulnerable to even slight changes in prices or in the cost of inputs, many farmers have gone out of business.

Concomitant changes in the food industry - partly the consequence of takeovers, partly the result of new technologies - have compounded the problem by concentrating the control of retailing and processing in fewer and fewer hands. In Britain, 83 percent of food is now sold through supermarkets, 60 percent of it being retailed by just five companies. Food distribution has become a centralised operation, and the bulk of food grown in Britain passes through just one of 20 depots. Supermarket chains provide advice to farmers, agree standards to which food is to be grown, often state the amount and timing of chemical applications, grade food, distribute it and retail it. Moreover, by buying in bulk, they have driven down farm gate prices and undermined local and wholesale markets. In the process, producers have become separated from consumers, who now have little control over what they eat or, indeed, the prices they pay for their food; food quality has declined; and, ultimately, public health has been jeopardised.

By favouring some and disadvantaging others, current policies have entrenched the power of specific vested interests and undermined the power of others. The losers have been consumers and smaller producers: the winners, corporations and larger farmers.

Those who have benefited from the process now dominate policy, pushing the whole process of food production in a direction that serves their immediate and long-term interests. Agricultural research, for example, is dominated by the industry, effectively ensuring that research that supports chemical farming has been funded at the expense of research which would benefit a less-intensive approach. At the farm level, the need to purchase inputs has created a dependency on the agrochemical industry, whose influence on policy has grown correspondingly.

Change to the existing system inevitably threatens those who have the most to gain from maintaining the status quo. The influence they currently enjoy on policy has effectively ensured that reform is restricted to those measures that do not undermine their interests. By definition, such measures are generally limited to addressing only the most flagrant abuses of the system and stop far short of the deep structural changes that are needed to achieve a truly sustainable agriculture. In that respect, the strategies now being employed by those who benefit from the system, for retaining their power and control, are among the major factors undermining alternate systems of food production which would liberate farmers from the chemical and financial treadmill on which they find themselves.

At the farm level, such alternatives do not need to be reinvented, merely developed and encouraged. Throughout the industrialised North, there are farmers who, from the outset, have tried to defy conventional wisdom and resist the pressures to adopt intensive chemical farming. Over the years, they have relentlessly ploughed their own furrow, developing methods of controlling pests and building fertility which do not rely on the use of synthetic chemicals. Building upon existing knowledge, individuals have succeeded in creating their own marketing networks; evolving new forms of land ownership; and developing, as far as possible, an agriculture that, in the words of Wendell Berry, "depletes neither soil nor people".

There are no "off-the-shelf", easy blueprints for realising the promise which the alternatives hold out. On the contrary, differing histories, environments, social conditions and political structures demand a diversity of responses if real change is to be achieved. Groups campaigning in isolation for specific changes in legislation to encourage such alternatives are unlikely to have sufficient influence to challenge the status quo. Problems ranging from environmental degradation to rural depopulation, from dependence on agrochemicals to concentration in the food industry, are interlinked, and cannot be addressed either on a single issue basis or through universal solutions. Indeed, unless groups are aware of the need for a deeper restructuring of industrial society, they may even end up legitimising the very processes and interests they are seeking to change.

At issue is the question of power - of who controls the land, inputs, production, marketing, research, decision-making and policy, and with what aims and priorities in mind. On that respect, what unites groups, from farmers to environmentalists, from consumers to animal welfare campaigners, is not an identical vision of the future, but the desire to regain an element of control.

To campaign for changes of a structural nature, it is vital that groups should come together to form alliances which cut across narrow sectoral boundaries, allowing campaigns to be fought on a broader front. In forming such alliances, differences between groups do not magically disappear: the amount of weighting to be given to environmental protection, animal welfare, food quality, price, the protection of local communities, and so on, will always be a matter for negotiation. Those that have begun to form such alliances, however, have come to recognise that though the differences between groups should not be underplayed, they are of less importance than their common commitment to change - and that emphasising them only plays into the hands of those wielding power.

Source: Special study by The Ecologist.

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