BREAKDOWN: Industrial Agriculture

By Joshua Headley / Deep Green Resistance New York

By Joshua Headley / Deep Green Resistance New York

In no other industry today is it more obvious to see the culmination of affects of social, political, economic, and ecological instability than in the global production of food. As a defining characteristic of civilization itself, it is no wonder why scientists today are closely monitoring the industrial agricultural system and its ability (or lack thereof) to meet the demands of an expanding global population.

Amidst soil degradation, resource depletion, rising global temperatures, severe climate disruptions such as floods and droughts, ocean acidification, rapidly decreasing biodiversity, and the threat of irreversible climatic change, food production is perhaps more vulnerable today than ever in our history. Currently, as many as 2 billion people are estimated to be living in hunger – but that number is set to dramatically escalate, creating a reality in which massive starvation, on an inconceivable scale, is inevitable.

With these converging crises, we can readily see within agriculture and food production that our global industrial civilization is experiencing a decline in complexity that it cannot adequately remediate, thus increasing our vulnerability to collapse. Industrial agriculture has reached the point of declining marginal returns – there may be years of fluctuation in global food production but we are unlikely to ever reach peak levels again in the foreseeable future.

While often articulated that technological innovation could present near-term solutions, advocates of this thought tend to forget almost completely the various contributing factors to declining returns that cannot be resolved in such a manner. There is also much evidence, within agriculture’s own history, that a given technology that has the potential to increase yields and production (such as the advent of the plow or discovery of oil) tends to, over time, actually reduce that potential and significantly escalate the problem.

Peak Soil

A largely overlooked problem is soil fertility. [1] A civilization dependent on agriculture can only “sustain” itself and “progress,” for as long as the landbase and soil on which it depends can continue to thrive.

The landscape of the world today should act as a blatant reminder of this fact. What comes to mind when you think of Iraq? Cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground? “The Fertile Crescent,” as this region is also known, is the cradle of civilization and if we take a look at it today we can quickly deduce that overexploitation of the land and soil is inherent to this way of life. The Sahara Desert also serves as a pressing example – a region once used by the Roman Empire for food cultivation and production.

But this problem has not escaped our modern industrial civilization either, even despite some technological advances that have been successful at concealing it. The only thing we have genuinely been “successful” at is postponing the inevitable.

Currently, industrial agriculture depletes the soil about a millimeter per year, which is ten times greater than the rate of soil formation. Over the last century, we have solved this problem by increasing the amount of land under cultivation and by the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and crop varieties.

Industrial civilization has expanded so greatly, however, that we currently already use most of the world’s arable land for agriculture. To solve the problems of peak soil today, as we have previously, would require doubling the land currently used for cultivation at the cost of some of the worlds last remaining forests and grasslands – most notably the Amazon and the Sahel. Not only is this option impractical, given the current state of the climate, it is wholly insane.

Another problem we face today is that more than a half-century of reliance on fertilizers and pesticides has severely reduced the level of organic matter in the soil. An advance in chemical fertilizers and/or genetic engineering of crops, while promising boosted yields in the near-term, will only further delay the problem while at the same time possibly introducing even greater health risks and other unforeseen consequences.

Decreasing Yields & Reserve Stocks

According to an Earth Policy Institute report in January, global grain harvests and stocks fell dangerously low in 2012 with total grain production down 75 million tons from the record year before. [2] Most of this decrease in production occurred as a result of the devastating drought that affected nearly every major agricultural region in the world. The United States – the largest producer of corn (the world’s largest crop) – has yet to fully recover from the drought last year and this is a cause for major concern.

Overall, global grain consumption last year exceeded global production requiring a large dependence on the world’s diminishing reserve stocks. And this isn’t the first time it has happened – 8 out of the last 13 years have seen consumption exceed production. In an escalating ecological crisis this is likely to be the new “normal.” This fact, in itself, is a strong indication that industrial civilization is dangerously vulnerable to collapse.

The issue here is two-fold: resource scarcity (industrial agriculture requires fossil fuels in every step of the process), soil degradation, and climate disruptions (droughts, floods, etc.) are severely reducing the yields of industrial agriculture; at the same time (and precisely because of those facts), we are becoming increasingly reliant on carryover reserve stocks of grains to meet current demands thus creating a situation in which we have little to no capacity to rebuild those stocks.

As Joseph Tainter describes in The Collapse of Complex Societies, a society becomes vulnerable to collapse when investment in complexity begins to yield a declining marginal return. Stress and perturbation are common (and constant) features of all complex societies and they are precisely organized at high levels of complexity in order to deal with those problems. However, major, unexpected stress surges (which do occur given enough time) require the society to have some kind of net reserve, such as excess productive capacities or hoarded surpluses – without such a reserve, massive perturbations cannot be accommodated. He continues:

“Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.” [3]

Current global reserve stocks of grains stand at approximately 423 million tons, enough to cover 68 days of consumption. As population and consumption levels continue to rise while productive capacities fall, we will be more and more dependent on these shrinking reserves making our ability to address future stresses to the system significantly low.

Disappearance of the Arctic Sea Ice

One such “insurmountable calamity,” may be quickly on the horizon. This week, senior US government officials were briefed at the White House on the danger of an ice-free Arctic in the summer within two years. One of the leading scientists advising the officials is marine scientist Professor Carlos Duante, who warned in early April:

“The Arctic situation is snowballing: dangerous changes in the Arctic derived from accumulated anthropogenic green house gases lead to more activities conducive to further greenhouse gas emissions. This situation has the momentum of a runaway train.” [4]

Over the last few years, the excessive melting occurring in the Arctic region due to rising global temperatures has altered the jet stream over North America, Europe, and Russia leading to the very unprecedented heat waves and droughts responsible for most of the declining returns in agricultural production in recent years. As the warming and melting continue, these extreme weather events will exponentially get worse. In addition, the melting of the sea ice will significantly raise sea level with the potential to displace more than 400 million people.

The UK-based Arctic Methane Emergency Group recently released a public statement also indicating:

“The weather extremes from last year are causing real problems for farmers, not only in the UK, but in the US and many grain-producing countries. World food production can be expected to decline, with mass starvation inevitable. The price of food will rise inexorably, producing global unrest and making food security even more of an issue.” [5]

Social, Political, and Economic Instability

No civilization can avoid collapse if it fails to feed its population, largely because continued pressures on the system will result in the disintegration of central control as global conflicts arise over scarce necessities. [6] This process can occur rapidly and/or through a gradual breakdown. A likely scenario of rapid collapse would be the breakout of a small regional nuclear war – such as between Pakistan and India – which would create a “nuclear winter” with massive global consequences. If that could be avoided, then the threat of collapse will likely be more gradual through the continued decrease of marginal returns on food and essential services.

As these crises continue to increase in frequency and severity, their convergences will usher in a period of prolonged global unrest. [7] This was directly seen as a result of the 2007-08 grain crisis in which many countries restricted exports, prices skyrocketed, and food riots broke out in dozens of countries. Many of those countries were located within the Middle East and are credited as the fundamental circumstances that gave way to the Arab Spring in 2011.

This year the food price index is currently at 210 – a level believed to be the threshold beyond which civil unrest is probable. Further, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is already reporting record high prices for dairy, meat, sugar and cereals and also warns – due to the reduced grain stocks from last year’s droughts – that prices can be expected to increase later this year as well.

Another factor driving up the costs of food is the price of oil. Because the entire industrial agriculture process requires the use of fossil fuels, the high price of oil results in a corresponding rise in the price of food. The future of oil production and whether we have reached “peak oil” may still be a matter of contention for some, but the increasing reliance on extreme energy processes (tar sands, hydraulic fracturing, mountaintop removal, etc.) is a blatant indication that the days of cheap petroleum are over. This implies that costs for energy extraction, and therefore the price of oil and food, will only continue to rise dramatically in the foreseeable future.

As the struggle for resources and security escalates, governments around the world will rely more heavily upon totalitarian forms of control and reinforcement of order, especially as civil unrest becomes more common and outside threats with other countries intensify. However, this is also likely to be matched by an increase in resistance to the demands of the socio-political-economic hierarchies.

Emerging Alternatives

As system disruptions continue to occur and food and other essential resources become scarcer, remaining populations will have to become locally self-sufficient to a degree not seen for several generations. The need for restructuring the way in which our communities have access to food and water is greater now than perhaps ever before – and there are more than a few examples being built around the world right now.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation at the Ecosocialist Conference in NYC on precisely these alternatives. Speaking on a panel entitled “Agriculture and Food: Sustainable or Profitable?” was David Barkin, a Distinguished Professor at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana in Mexico City, who has been collaborating with thousands of communities in Mexico and Latin America involved in constructing post-capitalist societies. [8]

In his presentation he spoke greatly about local groups – comprising of 30,000-50,000 people each, together being more than 130 million people – throughout Mexico and Latin America that are rebuilding their societies based on five principles that were written by the communities themselves and then systematized.

  • Self-management; through a process of participatory democracy
  • Solidarity; through rejecting the notion of wage-labor and re-organizing the entire work process
  • Self-sufficiency; which includes contacts and exchanges between many organizations so that you are not limited to the resource or climate-base of a single community but a development of trade networks
  • Diversification
  • Sustainable regional resource management; most communities in Mexico and Latin American define a region based on the natural definition of watersheds, although that may not be the most applicable natural definition in other parts of the world

He also spoke of groups such as the EZLN as examples of groups building alternative models – not models that are working at a super-structural level to change government policy, but models that give power and control directly to the community for the purposes of self-sufficiency and sustainability.

In Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador there is a phrase “El Buen Vivir” or “Sumak Kawsay,” – a cosmology that is said to come from indigenous cultures – that is actually informing how communities are rebuilding. It is proposed to promote sustainable relationships with nature and for communities to be less consumerist.

In addition to radically rebuilding our communities so that they exist not only wholly independent from industrial agriculture but also in harmony with the natural world, we need to build a greater resistance movement against industrial infrastructure that continues to threaten the very possibility of people all over the world from taking these steps.

Mining and its infrastructure, which is required for the development of solar panels and wind turbines, uses gigantic volumes of water for it to work. Because of this, in many parts of Mexico (where North American mining companies currently have concessions on 40% of the country’s land area) and Latin America, mining is a question of taking water away from agriculture. The struggle against mining is not just a struggle against environmental destruction, but it is a struggle for food.

The same can be said of foreign investments in wind turbine farms in Mexico and Puerto Rico, where local communities actually oppose these “renewable energy” infrastructures because they not only degrade the environment but also because it steals land that might otherwise be used for the direct needs of the locality.

Those of us in the most developed and industrialized nations need to radically alter our conceptions of sustainability and what is possible – a process that should be guided and influenced by those currently most vulnerable. Many well-meaning activists in the West tend to take perspectives that never really question our own standard of living – a standard of living David Barkin so rightfully articulated as an abomination.

We tend to favor “green energy” projects and the further development and industrialization of the “Global South” so that we don’t fundamentally have to make any sacrifices ourselves. Embedded in these perspectives are the racist and colonialist ideas that less developed countries in the world either don’t know what they want or don’t have the ability to create what they want themselves and thus need the technology and advances of the West to save them.

David Barkin’s presentation was a blatant reminder that this is far from the truth. Right now, in Mexico and Latin America, there are communities directly involved in building their own alternatives. And these aren’t communities of just a few hundred people; these aren’t small, insignificant projects. These are communities as large as 50,000 people each – an entire network of more than 130 million people – directly struggling and fighting for a radically different future.

We have much to learn and our time is running out. As industrial agriculture’s ability to produce food for the global population continues to decline, our resistance and our alternatives must escalate in lockstep – and there’s no reason for us to continue to ignore the alternative models and successes of our brothers and sisters in the rest of the world.

BREAKDOWN is a biweekly column by Joshua Headley, a writer and activist in New York City, exploring the intricacies of collapse and the inadequacy of prevalent ideologies, strategies, and solutions to the problems of industrial civilization.



[1] Peak Soil

[2] Earth Policy Institute, Grain Harvest

[3] Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies

[4] White House Warned on Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral

[5] Governments must put two and two together, and pull out all stops to save the Arctic sea ice or we will starve

[6] Can a Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?

[7] Why Food Riots are Likely to Become the New Normal

[8] David Barkin – Ecosocialist Conference

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