Thursday, January 28, 2016

Food as a business is the second fall of man

There are three megatrends that have shaped our food system over the last centuries: 
1) the commercialization of the entire food system, 
2) the use of energy and applied technology (be it in the form of machinery or nitrogen fertilizers) to replace animate labor and processes, and 
3) demographic changes, such as population growth, demographic transition and urbanization, and the related lifestyle changes. 

These three megatrends are mutually reinforcing. Any of them alone would not produce the changes that can be observed today. For example, the application of energy and mechanization in farming, in particular the use of fossil fuels, has increased productivity per agriculture worker by between fifty and two hundred times, which meant that the share of population engaged in farming dropped tremen­dously. The use of nitrogen fertilizers (produced with huge energy investments) has been a major driver for the increase of crop yields per area unit. Without fossil fuels, globalization and massive urbanization could not have happened. And without urbanization there would be little development of markets for agriculture products. Similarly, without commercialization of farming there would be little incentive to mechanize and use chemical fertilizers, as both pre-suppose market driven farming. 

The existence of markets in most human societies for some thousand years or longer is not at all the same as the existence of a ‘market economy’ and even less a globalized capitalist market econ­omy. As farmers become integrated into the market economy, they no longer reproduce and regenerate their production system. They buy their seeds and breeds in the market; they feel that they don’t have to take care of the reproduction of the soil, because they can compensate for this by buying chemical fertilizers in sacks. They don’t have to take care of the balance between nature and what humans take away. Land, water and forests have been gradually transformed from commons to tradable commodities. 

The time perspective of farmers in my native Scandinavia has, until very recently, been intergenerational, some refer it to as ‘glacial time.’ The sustainable regeneration of productive forces, including labor and the knowledge needed, was engraved in the memes of those farming societies. This is in absolute contrast to the entrepreneurial approach farmers are encouraged to apply today. ‘Farming as a business’ is a code word for farming now from Narvik to Cape Town, from Alaska to the Tierra del Fuego and from Vladivostok to Tasmania. 

The market, initially just a tool for distributing surpluses, has become the conductor of the whole food system, from farm to fork. The commercialization of farming also leads us to view land, water, nature as private property and the life of the land, our sym­bionts, as commodities. The divide between society, culture, the economy and nature that we currently experience is a divide alien to farming, and can never be sustainable. If the transition from hunting to farming was the First Fall of Man, farming as a business is the Second Fall.