This review is based in part on my interview with one of the editors, Laila Kassam, which you can listen to here.
Agriculture is at the root of multiple crises facing humanity today. Environmentally, it is responsible for habitat destruction, topsoil loss, aquifer depletion, pesticide and fertilizer pollution, ocean dead zones, dubious genetic experimentation, and a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Socially, its practice depends on a permanent underclass of slave-like labor controlled by monopolistic corporate forces with pernicious political influence. Philosophically, it reduces non-human life—plants, animals, fungus, etc.—to objects to be controlled and manipulated rather than relations with whom to live in reciprocity; this “dominionism” (as enshrined by the Abrahamic religious tradition) is the toxic foundation of contemporary capitalism (and which, I must add, is too often ignored by socialist theory).
We have to eat, of course, so what are we to do?
“Rethinking Food & Agriculture: New Ways Forward,” an anthology edited by Amir Kassam and Laila Kassam, takes a deep dive into these ecological and cultural concerns, from the Neolithic Revolution to the present day, and explores sustainable solutions.
Over the course of twenty copiously referenced essays and 400+ pages, this substantial tome delivers an exhaustive examination of contemporary farming and food systems. A reader with no familiarity with the subject matter will receive a detailed education and an over-arching perspective. For me, a former organic farmer who has studied these topics for nearly two decades, there were many facts that were new to me, and many ideas that were newly connected or contextualized. In terms of style and reading level, this is a scholarly collection, so it requires attention, but each author begins with the basics of their chosen topic.
The volume does not shrink from controversial subjects and wades right in with its opening article, “Setting innovation free in agriculture,” in which biologist Rupert Sheldrake critiques materialism, “the scientific priesthood,” and biotechnology, and calls for a re-emphasis on traditional agricultural practices. Traditional practices include intercropping, the use of night soil, and small-scale holdings. Science has demonstrated that these techniques are all beneficial, but research usually does not focus on them. Sheldrake calls for scientific research to reorient to cover the practical questions of farmers and gardeners rather than technological projects such as gene-editing and agrochemical development, which are pursued for their profit potential, not successful food production per se.
Sheldrake writes: “Science and economics are not theory-neutral. They are expressions of worldviews, and we need to be aware of the prevailing worldview, or else we will follow it through blind faith.” This is not to throw science out the window; it is just to dispense with the notion that science is—or even can be—approached without drawing on cultural values. Such values affect what is studied, who funds it, and which results are reported widely, and which are suppressed. Thus, the dialogue around any issue—including agriculture—is invisibly circumscribed by notions of what’s considered appropriate; what’s “fit to print,” as the NY Times puts it. A conversation without such limits, and that was truly free of preconceptions, would not shrink away from the marginal or lionize the popular, as is currently the case, but would cover the whole story.
It’s appropriate that the book opens with these concepts, as it clearly intends to tell a wider narrative with fewer of the usual constrictions. As Laila Kassam put it in our discussion:
“I really wanted to be able to uncover some of these beliefs that we have internalized without knowing it… our society is set up to keep us in this state of being unconscious of all of these things. I myself have gone through a journey that is never-ending, trying to unlearn so much of this stuff. To me, this is our unconsciousness around how we view our relationship to other animals… [which] seems to me to be one of the root causes of so many of the issues we are facing today.”
In “Agriculture planted the seeds of alienation from nature,” Jim Mason & Laila Kassam delve into the history of the Agricultural Revolution, with a focus on how human relationships to animals were altered to the detriment of both animals and humans. Mason & Kassam address well-established facts of the transition to agriculture—such as the overall decline in human health, the increase in labor as a proportion of time spent, and the escalation in social inequality—and also point out how much we gave up in terms of our metaphysical connections to the world, something that has only worsened over time. As we integrated the abuse of animals into our means of survival, we deadened ourselves and our sensitivity to the natural world, with the result that our species now stands at the precipice of extinction and seems reluctant to step back.
The thesis of “agriculture as wrong turn” is not new, but Mason & Kassam’s attention to the animal aspect is less common. They describe the central role of animal exploitation in enabling and promoting widespread violence, war, and colonialism and also make explicit the link between animal oppression and the development of capitalism.
The widespread cruelty of the contemporary animal agriculture industry is a theme running throughout the volume and is touched upon by several of the authors. Robert C. Jones writes about the intersection of foodieism and meat and describes the contradictions involved with “locavore” animal consumption and slaughter.
“An increased awareness of the destructive nature of industrialized animal agriculture and fishing, including environmental degradation, individual and public health threats, and the atrocious conditions under which animals are raised, has led to a shift in attitudes toward meat and meat production. This acknowledgment, coupled with a sentimental nostalgia for a time when a majority of Europeans and Americans were farmers and craftspersons, has led to a booming alternative food movement… Yet, despite this supposed concern for the animals’ lives and deaths, relatively little public attention has been paid to the experiences of their short lives or the brutality of their slaughter.
“In truth, an overwhelming majority of animals raised on “local” farms are sent to industrial slaughterhouses, butchered alongside their kin raised in factory farms. Animals raised in “humane” conditions routinely suffer branding, dehorning, forced impregnation, tail docking (without anesthesia), overcrowding, beak trimming, castration, tooth filing, ear notching, and nose ring piercing.”
Currently, about three quarters of agricultural resources worldwide are devoted to raising animals or food for animals, for both meat and dairy production, so the topic is vitally important but is generally ignored, at least in conventional discussions. Even in environmental or politically leftist circles, there is at least a hesitancy and often a hostility to discussing the ecological effects of animal agriculture. This is a societal phenomena, reinforced not just by media, but by religion and other cultural factors. “Rethinking Food & Agriculture” takes the subject head on, returning to it repeatedly throughout. This might be distasteful or uncomfortable for some readers, but the planetary issues of animal agriculture are real in a material environmental sense—setting aside ethical considerations—so we’ve really got to move past the insolent and ultimately juvenile conversation stopper, “But I like bacon.”
In “Political economy of the global food and agriculture system,” Philip McMichael draws a line from European colonialism to our current phase of “free trade” globalization. Land and labor in the global south are exploited for export crops to such a degree that local populations suffer starvation. Traditional, community-based methodologies and structures based on subsistence and local conditions are replaced by corporate powers that seek maximum production no matter the cost. The result is the loss of local sustainability for international trade, and with it, both human self-reliance and natural biodiversity. When the media talks about issues of “trade” what is actually at stake is culture and ecology, and this chapter illustrates this well. In addition to the global north extracting from the global south, the north has forced upon the south such curses as pesticide use, monocropping, and harmful diets that benefit no one but the capitalist ownership class.
Running counter to all this are peasant-led food-sovereignty movements. That such movements are sometimes connected to explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist perspectives is another layer of reality that is ignored or misrepresented by the corporate media. The huge farmer-led demonstrations that recently took place in India barely made a blip in the news in the US, though they were significant both numerically and historically.
“Neocolonialism and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition: A gendered analysis of the development consequences for Africa” by Mark Langan and Sophia Price provides details of how corporate players like Syngenta, Monsanto & Unilever are expanding their markets—and western hegemony—under the cover of “sustainable development.” The “modernization” that is supposedly being brought to Africa by NGOs and ‘philanthro-capitalist’ organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is resulting in land grabs, the replacement of local agriculture with export agriculture, and more hardship for locals, specifically women.
In “Will gene-edited and other GM crops fail sustainable food systems?,” Allison K. Wilson describes the technical aspects of genetic modification and describes what kinds of modifications have been made so far in this rapidly growing field of research and development. She answers the question posed by her title with a conditional, “yes,” given that the motives behind GM so far has been profit and market expansion, not crop varieties that are higher yielding, in spite of what is continually promised.
The most common genetic modifications to date have been for herbicide resistance and pesticide production. In the first case, a variety is manufactured that can survive applications of glyphosate; over the last two decades, these “Round-up Ready” crops have led to increasing use of the Monsanto-invented herbicide since a) the crop can tolerate it, and b) weeds are themselves becoming resistant, which then requires heavier doses of Round-up, and additionally, of other, stronger herbicides. In the second case, a plant is modified to produce its own pesticide so that an insect pest eating it is killed. Bt corn is the primary example of this, and the amount of pesticide produced by a field of such crops exceeds the amount that would have been applied otherwise. In neither case was the trait of “higher yields” sought or delivered.
Increasing agricultural pesticide use has been implicated in the sharp drop in insect populations and in various mutations in aquatic animals, among many other problems. The Monarch butterfly’s crash over the last twenty years is at least partially attributed to the fact that their host food, Milkweed, is far less common due to increased herbicide use. Yes, Monsanto is killing the Monarch.
The book focuses as much on possible solutions as it does on the problems, which is both refreshing and practical.
At the halfway point, Amir Kassam & Laila Kassam offer the chapter, “Paradigms of agriculture.” After a discussion of the so-called Green Revolution (which, despite its name, was heavily dependent on chemical inputs), they discuss the benefits and blind spots of the most common alternative paradigms to conventional agriculture. What follows is a highly abbreviated summary; there is much more to say about all of these, and indeed, the book does so. But here’s a flavor, so to speak:
- Organic Agriculture
Initially based on building soil health, organic agriculture shuns the use of chemicals and generally utilizes composts and animal manure. After over half a century as a farmer-led movement, “organic” is now legally defined by government-based certifying rules that are, like such regulations too often end up being, subject to being diluted by industry. While organic certainly produces food that is less toxic, favored methods such as tilling degrade soil over time, and other factors—like wise water use and labor conditions—do not need to be considered at all for certification. Also, the dichotomy often presented by organic proponents of chemical inputs vs. animal inputs is considered a false choice by some.
- Regenerative Agriculture
This term has been appearing in the media more frequently lately, often in the context of “holistic grazing.” As a paradigm, it seeks to be a “holistic land management practice” that focuses on, among other things, soil building, water issues, biodiversity, and carbon capture. The last aspect, of pulling greenhouse gases (GHG) out of the atmosphere, has been especially highlighted in the press, and claims have been made that a cattle operation following its principles can go from being GHG emitting to GHG capturing. This claim is controversial and despite the strident insistence of some of its advocates, is hardly proven or a consensus. However, regenerative systems that are veganic also exist, so grazing is not a requirement of this paradigm.
- Conservation Agriculture
This paradigm originates with the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and aims to conserve soil. Methodology includes no-tilling (or the minimum possible soil disturbance), permanent soil coverage (cover crops or crop stubble), and diversification of cropping (such as rotation and associations with annuals and perennials including legumes). Conservation Agriculture is not the same as no-till systems that can be heavily dependent on herbicides for weed suppression. The Conservation Agriculture paradigm offers many advantages including less erosion, less agrochemicals, reduced machinery, and rehabilitation of degraded lands. It is also practiced organically or with minimum inputs from agrochemicals and does not require any animal inputs such as manure. This system is based on three universal principles and can be used to describe a wide variety of annual and perennial systems around the world, despite its origination in the US.
Developed first in Latin America, this so far loosely defined approach goes beyond organic in its effort to produce “sustainable agro-ecosystems.” Though it utilizes many of the same methods, such intensive tillage, cover cropping, intercropping, companion planting and mulching, it goes further and “seeks to challenge the power of the corporate food regime.” The ultimate goal of Agroecology is “to build a new global food system, based on equity, participation, democracy, and justice, which is not only sustainable but helps restore and protects Earth’s life support systems.”
Crucially, write Kassam & Kassam:
“Agroecology is the only paradigm that actively seeks to challenge the structural root causes of the environmental and social crisis of industrial agriculture, i.e., capitalism. It does this by questioning capitalist relations of production and allying itself with agrarian peasant social movements, which are resisting the advancement of the corporate food system, industrial agriculture, and neoliberal policies. This political dimension of Agroecology is slowing its spread in the industrialized world… Insofar as paradigms such as Organic, Regenerative, and Conservation Agriculture are based on practices that increase the efficiency of input use or substitute organic inputs for agrochemicals, but that do not challenge monoculture and reliance on external inputs or address the sociopolitical dimensions and context, they cannot transform the food and agricultural system at the local and global levels.”
These paradigms can overlap, and indeed, given varying circumstances around the world, such as climate, soil type, local history, cultural considerations and availability of resources, a sustainable system in a given location could practically combine factors from each. When it comes to what physically happens on the ground, there is no “one size fits all” model that can be applied.
That being said, there are dangers that are universal. Kassam & Kassam warn:
“In a neoliberal capitalist economic system, any paradigm that does not work to explicitly challenge the power relations within the food and agriculture system and actively reject the corporate influence and control of the food system is vulnerable to co-option by vested interests, be they corporate, international organization or philanthropic actors.”
That is, in discussing our agricultural systems and deciding how to move forward into a more sustainable future, we cannot afford to limit our scope to merely considering different farming methods—till or no-till, mulch or no mulch, animal-based or veganic, etc.—but we must also completely overhaul the entire food production and distribution system as it currently exists under capitalism. As long as corporate profit is the driving motivation and top-down control is the dominant model, we are on the wrong path: one that leads to planetary disaster. We need new systems based on addressing needs—both human and ecological—that are locally-based and community-organized. Fortunately, people are already working on these, and the book offers many examples.
In the final chapter, “Toward inclusive responsibility,” Kassam & Kassam attempt to pull together all the threads. They present six key themes, unranked, that they hope will offer “guidance, hope, and inspiration” to those working toward the transformation of farming. These themes (which Laila & I discussed one-by-one on my podcast) are:
- Toward holistic paradigms
- Toward a narrative of abundance
- Toward ecological and multifunctional paradigms of agriculture
- Toward decentralizing power in the food and economic systems
- Toward diets that promote human and planetary health
- Toward powerful social movements and civil society
These six themes inform what the editors call an ‘inclusively responsible’ paradigm of food and agriculture which is truly sustainable and just.
Note that these themes go way beyond mere technique. The project of “rethinking food and agriculture” goes to the root of civilization itself. Which is to say, we need “radical” change in a very literal sense; the word “radical” comes from the Latin, “radix,” which means “root”—and from which we also get “radish!”
In the book’s penultimate chapter, Vandana Shiva, writes:
What we eat, how we grow the food we eat, how we distribute it, will determine whether humanity survives or pushes itself and other species to extinction.
A paradigm and worldview based on recognition that we are part of the Earth and members of the Earth family leads to cocreativity. It allows us to provide healthy food for all humans while protecting the diversity of species that weave the food web as the web of life.
A paradigm based on war creates instruments of war, exterminating species, and threatening the lives of human beings through hunger and life-threatening chronic diseases.
If we continue on the destructive path laid by the Poison Cartel, we close our future.
When we farm with real knowledge of how to care for the Earth and her biodiversity, when we eat real food that nourishes the biodiversity of the Earth, of our cultures, in our gut microbiome, when we participate in living economies that regenerate the well-being of all, we sow the seeds of our future.
“Rethinking Food & Agriculture: New Ways Forward” is published by the academic press, Elsevier, and so it has an excessive price tag. Aware that this puts it out of the reach of most people, but wanting to disseminate their message anyway, the editors put together an accompanying website that presents much of the information and many of the ideas. Found at inclusiveresponsibility.earth, the site features excerpts from each chapter and presents the key themes of the book.
My podcast interview with Laila Kassam about “Rethinking Food & Agriculture: New Ways Forward” is available here.