In 1898, Alfred Russell Wallace published ‘The wonderful century’, describing the increasing wealth of the rich and the increasing numbers of poor people  remaining in misery, and ‘…during the whole century, –applying small plasters to each social ulcer as it became revealed to us … ‘The struggle for wealth, and its deplorable results, … accompanied by a reckless destruction of the stored-up products of nature, … irretrievable.’

In the 120 years since Wallace’s prescient warning, scientific knowledge and total wealth vastly increased, but so did the concentration of wealth and power in few hands, the number of poor, the incidence of diseases, damage to the land and to biodiversity, and the likely severity of climate change. Also, the links among these trends have become ever tighter. The structure of this tight mess of problems and threats needs to be understood so that an effort to solve one aspect of this untenable state is not causing a blockage elsewhere or is countered by short-term interests or privilege.

This book shows the need for a system change with uncommon breadth and detail, and describes ways toward a more sustainable and equitable state of the agriculture and food system. In an introduction and 20 independent but linked chapters the two editors and 22 invited authors document the prevailing capital- and profit-driven food and agriculture system.  They describe its several causes and structural drivers and its effects: the inequality, widespread hunger and food insecurity, and the severe cumulative damage to the natural environment with increasing likelihood of ecological, economic, social and human disaster. They contrast this with a more inclusive, agroecology-based world view, describing more benign agricultural production paradigms, already followed on parts of the agricultural land, and several ways of transformation to sustainable, more equitable food production, distribution and consumption systems.

The book advocates a rapid transformation of the food and agriculture system: changing from large-scale monocropping of mainly livestock feed –with high energy and chemical inputs– to smaller-scale, more diverse production of food and other crops in a biodiverse environment; and encouraging people away from current industrial high-meat, high-additives diets to more diverse, more plant-based diets. Several chapters include local or regional examples of successful transitions.

Chapter 1. After a brief 500-year history of science towards dominant reductionism, specialisms, materialism and a quantitative focus, the chapter describes the need for a more holistic approach, setting free innovation in agriculture and the policies guiding it. These should be based on science with traditional knowledge: locally adapted varieties, practices and experience; plant breeding recognizing the importance of mixed cropping, soil microbiomes, a focus beyond single genes; policies beyond just profits, considering qualitative aspects such as ecosystem health, land ownership and labour questions. Several ways of changing parts of the system are described at the end.

Chapter 2 describes on a broad canvas the millennial history of humans’ view of nature, including of our cousins and ancestors –the other animals–, the ongoing alienation of our species from all others and its harmful present consequences. Hunter-gatherers apparently considered animals other individuals within their joint environment. Ancient sedentary agriculturists started to domesticate (dominate) some of them as well as some plant species, narrowing their focus to the parts of their environment they had modified, and viewing some animals and plants as property and others as pests or threats. This worldview, justifying human exploitation and oppression of other animals, has shaped our history for some 10 millennia.

The large-scale industrial rearing and slaughter of the last half century with the ensuing still greater distance of consumers to their food animals has caused more severe mass suffering of the animals killed, and epidemics – jumping from animals to humans, or caused by the high-meat (and high-calorie) diets. While biological reality is the living world as a web of life comprising animals (including humans), plants, insects and micro-organisms, the human worldview has been ignoring that with long-term, continuing destructive effects, including those on the state and future of humanity.

Chapter 3, the political economy of the global food and agriculture system, describes three successive food regimes: British; American; and from 1980s, neoliberal. These government-capital economic alliances increasingly converted regions of small farmers into producers of food- or feed grains, first for cheap wage-foods for labourers in the new growing industries in home countries, later also in developing countries; still later for intensive mass-reared livestock producing lower-cost meat that changed diets– first in Europe and the US, then in middle-income countries. Effects of these processes include poverty and intermittent hunger in the source countries; different epidemic diseases by empty-calorie diets of the poor and by excess calorie and animal-origin diets of the middle class and rich; massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions; severe biodiversity losses; and increasing inequality with ever fewer people very to extremely rich and a majority losing income or resources. This neoliberal free-market system with its many unsustainable aspects has been championed by the development industry as well, focusing on merely quantitative changes within the system and ignoring its clear road to climate, environmental and social disaster. The final section summarises the many initiatives in several countries to build or convert to multifunctional, environment-sparing agriculture, often in the form of family farms producing a range of crops beyond the staples, needing less and different inputs.  It notes that policies are changing accordingly in several countries, with agribusiness interests aiming to block the changes.

Chapter 4 describes the same struggle between corporate short-term interests and the ecological, social and economic goals of the farmers, associations, local NGOs and several governments summarised in the final section of Ch. 3. It focuses on Africa and the example of the corporate-led New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN).  In the context of UN’s sustainable Development Goal 2 on Zero Hunger, NAFSN speaks of sustainable development– that ecological, social and economic goals can be balanced through corporate-backed Alliance initiatives in Africa to bolster food supplies. These words are being translated into ‘development’ actions of land being taken from farming communities for large-scale high-input corporate agriculture: a neo-colonial variant of the neoliberal system, quietly embedded in flanking development assistance from donor countries. The chapter critically follows the words of NAFSN and the disproportionate impact of its actions for women in Africa. It concludes that NAFSN is effectively serving agribusiness interests and that its words and image have no relation to its activities.

Chapter 5 shows how FAO’s successive global food production models with their intensive, pesticide- and fertilizer-based crop and livestock production systems have ignored the large and widespread pollution and climate change by these systems, and their negative effects on biodiversity and small-scale, less intensive agriculture, as well as on livelihoods. The recent estimates of some 70 per cent more food production needed for the expected peak population are considered unrealistic. More integral analyses at national or regional scales indicate that other factors than productivity are central in food security, adequacy and access. These include avoidable food losses post-harvest, the proven high yields in diverse sustainable agriculture systems, and the relations of food prices and poverty. The chapter closes with the thought that international agribusiness in particular benefits from the quantitative production-focused models.

Chapter 6 discusses the ethics and moral aspects of animal agriculture and fisheries: the mass killing of sentient and possibly sentient animals under conditions of generally great suffering. After an extensive discussion of speciesism in the context of racism, nationalism, sexism, it concludes that it is doubtful whether systemic speciesism –knowingly ignoring mass suffering and killing of non-human animals– can be eliminated or rapidly undermined, adopting veganism while advocating consumer choice and effective activism may help moving from speciesism to global justice.

Chapter 7 summarises the main ways in which current food systems are unsustainable and the main factors driving them. It notes the several ways in which apparent food  costs are kept low – by ignoring damage to agricultural soils, loss of land under natural vegetation with its economic, biodiversity and climate-regulating values and by tax-funded subsidies to mainly large-scale high-input agriculture.  It exposes the narrative on current and future food shortage by noting the one-third of food lost between harvest and consumers, the global obesity epidemic, the policies to divert food production to fuel, and the high and increasing proportion of resource-intensive meat consumption versus plant-based proteins.

Chapters 8 and 9 argue the need to transform the agriculture and food system by a change in mindset: from a Green Revolution to an Agroecology paradigm. Summarising the concepts and arguments developed in older and recent literature, Chapter 8 shows the increased sense of urgency to start acting on the transformation from the conventional industrial model of the food system to the agroecological model. It describes the complexity of the food system, and how farmers and consumers have started  the transition, despite inaction at political level and the prevailing rigidly high-input agricultural production system with its hidden costs.

Chapter 9 summarises the quantitative successes of the science-based large-scale high-tech agriculture system, and its several downsides making it unsustainable, such as damaging its ecological base and maintaining a grossly unequal food supply– with a billion people hungry and another billion suffering affluence diet-caused diseases. This is contrasted with agroecological systems that are complex, skills-intensive and small to medium-sized, with little if any advantage of larger scale. These work best when farmers work cooperatively, sharing knowledge, activities and some machinery. Ideally, such a system would produce much less meat and more plant-based protein while the general diet would follow suit with positive effects on human health.

In Chapter 10 the two editors offer a revealing detailed historical account of the generally ignored or overlooked drivers of the rapid change to large-scale, profit-focused industrial agriculture. Aspects of the change include mechanization of agriculture, fertilizer and pesticide adoption, scale increase of holdings, industrialization of crop production and animal production and slaughter, and concentration of profit and power with displacement of small and larger family-size farms by large farm businesses. Those drivers include the stocks and excess production capacity of military vehicles and engines and of high-nitrogen and high-phosphorus products for explosives and toxins after the first and second world wars. These were repurposed to tractors and their engines, and to fertilizers and pesticides. Their promotion and initial surplus led farmers to more intensive cultivation, high fertilizer rates and concentration into larger holdings, managed uniformly at lower cost, producing standard variety bulk grains in quantity.

Selection and breeding of higher-yielding varieties needing high fertilizer applications reinforced the trend. The emerging grain excess was taken up by large enterprises feeding and slaughtering cattle or chickens en mass – leading to lower meat prices and a great increase in the proportion of meat in the diet, mainly in industrialised countries. The resulting gradual soil degradation, damage to the biodiversity also leading to greater need for pesticides, and the greatly increased suffering of livestock mass-handled as if unfeeling blocks of meat, the accumulation of toxins from growth hormones and antibiotics in the food chain, as well as the great increase in greenhouse gases by these changed modes of operation, were long ignored or hidden. Export of this newly developed large-scale profit-focused system to developing countries was eased by the Green Revolution: international efforts of selection and breeding  of high-yielding wheat, rice and maize varieties needing fertilizers, pesticides and dependable water from the expanding irrigation areas. While the industrialisation of agriculture was driven by industrial and financial interests, the research efforts toward the similarly high-input varieties for developing countries was initially focused on commercial farmers as well, before extending to the dominant crops and small farmers in the countries served.

The last section describes several multifunctional agroecology paradigms such as Organic Agriculture, Regenerative Agriculture and Conservation Agriculture, their longer-term perspective and more cooperative nature, and how natural land-based ecosystem processes are incorporated in them. It emphasizes zero tillage because tillage damages soil biodiversity and releases around 90% of CO2 released from crop fields, and discusses Conservation Agriculture in more detail, comparing it with other paradigms. The chapter closes with a discussion of political aspects of the needed change toward a food system that is inclusively responsible, sustainable, and just for all.

Chapter 11 focuses on soil health and the revolutionary potential of Conservation Agriculture. After a historical account of the ages of ploughing, soil erosion and loss, and the more severe effects under more intense and deeper cultivation with industrial machinery, it discusses the several interacting ways in which ploughing and nitrogen fertilizer damage the soil biota, reduce soil organic matter content and nutrient uptake by crops, waste fertilizer and acidify the soil. After discussing the processes occurring in a soil under Conservation Agriculture and their direct and longer-term effects, the chapter describes the successively more integral ways in which people have been seeing the soil.

The multi-author Chapter 12 describes the many kinds of cumulative damage from plough-based agriculture, such as to soil productivity and biodiversity, and its unsustainable level of CO2 emissions. These effects are compared with Conservation Agriculture, which reduces input costs (power, fertilizer, agrochemicals, water), yield variability and CO2 emission, producing similar yields of a wider range of crops and improving biodiversity within and around the CA area. Conservation Agriculture mitigates climate change in several ways, including lower CO2 emissions and lower energy and other inputs and is better adapted to climate change by its greater resilience to drought and other stresses.  Conservation Agriculture is practised on a steadily growing part of the world’s cropland (106Mha in 2008-9, toward 180Mha – 12.5% of the total in 2015-16), on farms of all sizes. Lack of understanding the key principles of Conservation Agriculture causes poor results in some cases (and is one of the reasons why it is not expanding in some areas, RB).

Chapter 13 reports in well documented detail many negative unintended effects of the several genetic modification methods of plants and animals, which are often suppressed or ignored in the public discourse and in the regulation or licensing process. Also, the intended traits themselves, narrowly focused to arm plants against competition or predation, have negative effects on soil and insect biodiversity. The conventional agriculture system for which GM crops have been developed, with its food security aim through high yields, is based on high inputs. These have been increasing further with the need for herbicide spraying on herbicide-tolerant GM crops and for insecticide spraying against secondary pests on Bt GM crops containing a toxin against its main pest. The various biocides used have been spreading on and in non-crop plants, animals and soil organisms, harming earthworms, soil fungi, insects and birds that support and protect the crops. Sustainability is also impaired by many unintended genetic changes in different commercial GM crops, such as decreased yield, loss of pest or pathogen resistance. In contrast, sustainable agriculture systems are based on a varied complex of practices such as complex cover crops, intercropping, multiyear multi-crop rotations, integrated pest management, no-till and continuous soil cover. The traits selected for use in such biodiverse systems vary among crops and farming systems, and tend to promote complementarity rather than competition between crops.

Chapter 14 explains the value of agricultural biodiversity and heterogeneous seeds, and calls for sustaining these to avoid disaster risks from plagues or disease by widespread use of a narrow set of extremely selected varieties, hybrids or genetically modified crops. It shows how these form the basis for resilience, sustainability, food sovereignty. Three coalitions are identified that are contesting control over agricultural biodiversity and seed systems. Currently the most powerful is the Agribusiness coalition, promoting capital-intensive proprietary technologies and large-scale industrial commodity technologies, supported by restrictive legislation and private and public research systems, harming biodiversity, particularly agricultural. The Green Revolution coalition, many international institutions and governmental and private donors with in effect similar outcomes, emphasizing packaging of science and technology (homogeneous seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, equipment) for delivery to smallholders – who become dependent on a system controlled by others, losing resilience and other benefits of biodiversity. The third is the diffuse Ecological Food Provision coalition, social and political movements of farmers and other small-scale food producers in biodiverse agroecological production systems. With growing support from civil society these groups aim for transition of all food systems to become more resilient, sustainable, and equitable.

Chapter 15 shows how healthy diets should guide responsible food systems. It summarises the gradual change from mainly local whole foods to widely sourced processed foods, many of those with excess sugars and deficient nutrient contents in industrial and middle-income countries, and the consequent increasing rates of diet-related diseases and of death or disability. The mainly medical and pharmaceutical response to the diseases epidemic is extremely costly and palliative rather than curative.  The continued good health and longer life expectancy of smaller groups or populations in several of the same countries that have a more whole-food diet with less or no meat show a clear association of diet with health and longevity. Large studies have identified animal-derived and processed foods, particularly processed meat and red meat, as major risk factors for several diseases, including cancer.

The most recent multi-country analysis of what constitutes a healthy diet recommends predominantly whole plant foods, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, with less than 15% of daily calories from animal-derived foods: these are not essential in a healthy diet. Several studies have shown that a low-fat, plant-based diet lowered high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, reduced obesity and diabetes, and successfully treated cardiovascular diseases. While several governments have actively promoted such diets, industry influence has weakened and in some cases eliminated explicit statements about the negative health effects of meat, or prevented its removal from the list of essential diet elements.  Plant-based diets could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than half, while animal agriculture is a major factor in climate change.

Chapter 16 is a crucial part of the book for those wishing to combine rethinking with changing. It reflects on the dominant family of knowledge systems, rational in the western scientific tradition, considered objective but laden with values underpinning the current dominant food and agriculture systems. This is contrasted with inclusively responsible knowledge systems with a far wider range of values such as biocultural diversity, equity and social justice, and the health, well-being, sovereignty and rights of humans, as well as nonhuman animals and the natural world. The great variety of local knowledge systems of farmers, relevant to local contexts, is evolving and updated through experience and adaptation of new knowledge from elsewhere, including from scientific research. This process gradually evolved from top-down through participatory technology development to on-farm, with-farmer and by-farmer research, also benefitting scientific research. However, the current dominant knowledge system resists revolutionary (paradigm) change by its widespread power and links with major vested interests. It gives examples of the resulting ignorance, error, myths and bias delaying change in agriculture, and overcome or bypassed by overwhelming concrete evidence. These include examples of powerful knowledge systems to produce, support and promote narratives aligned with interests of dominant powers, ignoring realities on the ground and the interests of the many. Lessons from the examples: Narratives and evidence for inclusively responsible food and agriculture systems should serve the true needs of the many and the needs of the natural world with its ecosystem functions, taking account of the complexity and diversity of grounded realities; and power relations need to be reversed putting first the good of farmers, their communities and the natural resource base.

The complexity of a knowledge system underpinning practical efforts at change can be managed by a set of principles for inclusive rigour:

  • eclectic and mixed methods; diversity and balance; improvisation and innovation;
  • adaptive iteration; triangulation; inclusive participation and plural perspectives;
  • optimal ignorance and appropriate imprecision; interactive and experiential ground truthing.

These principles are supported by rigour from participation; reflexivity; and responsible relevance. The final pages summarise practical aspects of action and short-term and long-term change.

Chapter 17, Social movements in the transformation of food and agriculture systems, leads from ‘A corporate food system for the few’ to ‘The way forward: Growing a veganic food system’. It enumerates the many problems attached to the current, profit-driven corporate system such as malnutrition and obesity, environmental toxicity, farmers’ debt and insecurity, loss of farmers’ seed sovereignty; and refutes their commonly held but ineffective solutions, such as focusing on the example of milk against hunger and malnutrition. The roots of these problems are usurpation and oppression within the system, and are related to the misleading narrow production-based notion of food scarcity.  Solutions to these problems are found in grassroots social movements, linking a transition to agroecology to food sovereignty, agrarian reform, mass mobilization to human rights, and political advocacy. The example of Seed the Commons is described: A small grassroots organization including farmers and consumers working toward agroecological farming without commodified domesticated animals.  The chapter disproves the notion that animal-based agriculture would be the only alternative to industrial farming and exposes the misleading use of the term regenerative grazing for continued large-scale rotation grazing, providing an account of grazing from colonial times. The final sections describe the way forward to a veganic food system, which can take many forms, including fully following the principles of agroecology.

Chapter 18 systematically describes steps toward system transformation from the current global food regime toward ‘economics of happiness’ by discussing the root and costs of globalization and the needed shift to localization, focusing on local food, trade treaties, subsidies, taxation and health and safety regulations. Globalization, with the freedom of multinational businesses and banks to select among national economies for cheap labour and resources, low taxes and lax environmental and social protection, is described as the current shape of a historical 5-centuries sequence of conquest and colonial exploitation, with different identities of the actors. Vast costs of globalization are listed such as in livelihoods; displacement of people from rural communities to urban slums; environmental breakdown by a capital-driven resource-intensive, growth-based consumer economy; increased CO2 emissions; a growing gap between rich and poor; loss of food security. Localization, economic decentralization enables communities, regions and nations to take more control over their own affairs, where citizens, through a democratic process, determine the rules for business – instead of business determining rules for society. Localized food systems are more diverse, resilient, lower-input, and adapted to local conditions.  Since the structure of the current economic and political system favours globalization, its transformation depends on policy changes, including trade treaties prioritizing healthy local and national economies rather than increase corporate profits and GDP. Preparing for this, some countries are starting to shift direct and indirect subsidies favouring the large and global (fossil fuel, motorways, hypermarkets, …) to decentralized renewable energy and local economic activities. Low taxation of labour and higher effective tax rates on capital- and energy-intensive technologies, and particularly on fossil fuels would result in healthy diversification of the economy and more regional production. Many small-scale, grassroots initiatives in different countries have shown the feasibility and benefits of localization even within the current policy environment.

Chapter 19 describes two world views, one the industrial agriculture ‘path of death’, with repurposing of military toxin production facilities to fertilizers and biocides for agriculture and livestock production, which has led to monocultures, pollution of air, soil and water, and biodiversity reduction. The other, the ‘path of life’, with the principles of diversity, the law of return —maintaining ecological cycles—, and sharing nature’s gifts in the commons, practised by the several types of ecological agriculture. Linking the two is a historical section on rediscovering the living soil.

In the final chapter –short, and best read in full– the editors briefly explain seven aspects of inclusive responsibility: toward holistic paradigms; a narrative of abundance; ecological and multifunctional paradigms of agriculture; decentralizing power in the food and economic systems; diets promoting human and planetary health; powerful social movements and civil society; and an ethical framework for inclusive responsibility that brings together the key areas of future needs that invites everyone to become seriously involved in addressing our interconnected global crises.

The core of the book looks to me like the struggles between a tyrant and the populace: the few extremely rich persons and the small number of tightly connected very large corporations actively, often under the radar, trying to block any changes toward the many, often small- or medium-scale, more long-term oriented, more ecologically and socially operating systems that might reduce their wealth, power or dominance.