Saturday, October 15, 2022

The third agrarian revolution: from production and consumption to relations

In the 19th century Swedish agriculture underwent big changes. The earlier agriculture system was founded on a high share of permanent meadows where winter feed for the livestock was harvested. The manure was spread on the arable land where food for humans were grown. During the summer (4-6 months depending on where in Sweden you were) livestock grazed the utmarker (back country) the land which now mostly is densely forested, but was much more open in those days.  With the introduction of crop rotations the production of fodder was brought into the arable land and at the same time most of the permanent meadows were plowed and converted to arable land. Through the use of leguminous plants, in particular clover, the availability of the important nitrogen increased substantially.

The population also grew, but food production increased considerably more than the population. According to the recently published Agrar revolution by professor Mats Morell, the total energy production per person and day went from 4,000 kcal in the beginning of the 19th century to more than 5,000 kcal in the end of the century and the availability of animal foods was even higher than the consumption today.

The higher yields were mostly gained through an intensification of work. People worked more and a longer time of the year. One such example is the introduction of potatoes. The potato gave a higher yield but it also prolonged the work in the fields as it was planted after the grain was sown and harvested after the grain harvest. Finally, a lot of the potatoes were further processed into brännvin (vodka) during winter. In a similar way more and better feed gave more milk, and more cheese- and buttermaking. The increase in animal production also took more time. 

The increased work was made possible by an industrial production of tools, fabrics, nails etc, which meant that the rural population could spend more time in farming and less time in reproducing what they needed in their households and for the production. In order to buy these things they also had to sell more from their farms. Oats to England, milk and butter to the cities and vodka were early important income sources. Agriculture thus developed from self- sufficiency towards the market economy. This was facilitated and encouraged by social and political changes such as enclosures and redistribution of farm land.


In the beginning of the 20th century this development was considerably augmented by the introduction of fossil fuels which caused very radical changes in agriculture and food systems.

-Even if yields per hectare and liters of milk per cow have increase very much has the labor productivity increased much more. While the yields of grain have increased with a factor of four or five productivity per hour worked has increased hundred times or more. Fossil fuels for tractors, combines and other machinery have played a pivotal role in this.

-Already with the first coal powered steam ships, transport costs shrank enormously which increased competition in agriculture commodities. This has continued and been amplified by diesel engines, smart logistics such as containers and pallets as well as a rapidly expanding road network. The transport solutions and the competition led to a much higher degree of specialization regionally and even continentally.

-Even more important was the large scale use of nitrogen fertilizers, made by fossil fuels. They increased yield and made it possible to decouple plant and animal production. Some areas developed livestock production much bigger than they could feed while other areas became large scaler exporters of feed.  Artificial fertilizers paved the way for agriculture into a linear production model instead of a regenerative self-generating system.

These three aspects of fossil fuels – mechanization, transportation and artificial fertilizers – have together with the market resulted in profound changes of the food and agriculture systems with effects which are not always apparent. The emergence of mega-cities, the depopulation of the countryside, the deforestation of the Amazon, the abandonment of natural and semi-natural grasslands in Europe, the homogenization of diets globally and the very rapid increase of chicken consumption are just a few examples of such effects. 

In a certain sense, this has been very successful. Despite an increase of the global population 1.5 times, the production of the croplands of the world increased from 3,700 kcal per capita and day 1960 to almost 6,000 kcal sixty years later, while the acreage expanded only 10 percent. The consumption of animal products, vegetable oil and vegetables have increased tremendously at the expense of staple crops such as tubers and grain, which in turn to a larger extent have been used for animal feed or biofuel.  

In light of the fact that the increases of production all the time predates the increase in population and that the agriculture market is a surplus market, it is strange that the dominating narrative is how we shall be able to feed a growing population. If anything increased production drives increased population rather than the other way round. Even that perspective has shortcomings however, if it were the case populations should grow also in the wealthiest countries, but they don’t. The cause of both the increase of production and the growth of the population is rather the transition from self-sufficiency to a market economy that was part of the first agrarian revolution. But I will not delve more into this interesting question here and now.


The impressive gains in production –often called the second agrarian revolution – are mainly a result of the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, increase in irrigation (also allowing multiple cropping) and a much more intensive use of agriculture land. Contrary to common belief the net primary production, the photosynthesis, in the fields has not really increased much, but we (the humans) take a much bigger share of the primary production. This has been accomplished through the extermination of weeds that compete with the crops and insects that eat them as well as the redistribution of the net energy from the roots and the straw to the grain. Another way to express the same is that agriculture doesn’t bind more carbon (energy) than the natural eco systems it has replaced; we just take more of the carbon. This efficiency, if we should call it that, apparently leads to that there will be less energy left for other life forms. Which is just another way of describing the loss of bio-diversity.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES, describes in its recent report on values and valuation of nature that we can view humans’ role and relation to nature in four different ways; that we live from nature, that we live with nature, that we live in nature and that we live as nature. The four perspectives are not mutually excluding.

The food and agriculture systems have since the first agrarian revolution, and even more since the time after the second world war, been shaped of the view that we live from nature. The focus has been totally dominated by which commercial products we can extract from farming. For instance, in animal production the desired products – meat, milk, eggs – are all important while being a pig, a cow or a hen is just a support function in this production. As long as they produce they are fine. The ecological roles of animals have totally changed and through breeding and feeding they are converted to the machines as Descartes described them. Agriculture textbooks from the end of the 19th century are thus describing a farm as a factory and animals as machines.

Agriculture oriented to self-sufficiency or subsistence is oriented to the maintenance or enhancement of the resources of the household and the farm and as much as possible these resources are generated within the household, the village or the kin. The market oriented farm entrepreneur buys fuel, seeds, breeds, knowledge, labor, nutrients, weed and pest regulation etc. in the market place – even the land is bought or sold as a commodity. Industrial agriculture follows the same principles as other industries and most of its capabilities are sourced from other industries and other continents.

Through the high degree of mechanization and the ever growing scale the capital needs are huge which spells the end of family farms, something that is easily observed. In general, the central role of agriculture for society and culture is lost and even the farm sectors itself discuss it as an industry like any other. The traditional word for farmer in Swedish is bonde, which means somebody that lives in a particular place with ties to the place (I believe the word peasant has a similar original meaning). Today’s farmers like to talk about themselves as managers or entrepreneurs with no particular ties to the landscape.

Production and consumption are separated with no apparent links and the impact of what people eat spreads like a web over the whole world and deep down to the ocean floor. Farmers often complain that most people no longer know anything about the food they eat. For sure, that is true, but most farmers today also don’t produce food but agriculture commodities for the food (or other) industries. As little as consumers know where the food come from most farmers don’t know where and in which form their commodities finally are consumed. For instance, one fourth of the Swedish milk is converted into powder which is exported to many different countries (among others to West Africa where it competes with the local production).


A transition to a fossil-free energy system will happen regardless of climate-policies because fossil fuels are getting more expensive to extract. As I have shown, fossil fuels have been a determining factor in our society and in agriculture and their demise will have equally large repercussions. There are alternative energy sources but on a system’s level they are not as flexible and easily useful as fossil fuels, something that is very apparent these days with an energy cost crisis in Europe. When the alternatives should be produced without the use of fossil fuels their costs will increase as well. Energy consumption will go down in all sectors except for the energy sector where more energy will be spent on producing, storing and using energy (e.g. use of hydrogen as storage of energy entails very high losses).

Food and agriculture systems will change considerably as a result. Cost increase for artificial fertilizers will lead to more expensive food but it will also change production methods and trade. Grazing will, for instance, become more competitive compared to feed crops, crop rotations will improve with more pulses or other leguminous plants, crops and livestock will be re-integrated and nutrient flows from farms to cities must be re-circulated. Many of the current trade flows will become uncompetitive and food markers will be re-localized to a large extent.

The transition will also lead to more competition over land, water and biomass which also can be used for energy production. Meanwhile, the same resources are also needed to maintain or restore all the ecological support systems that our society and food production is dependent on.

The same market forces that have driven the increase in production, consumption and population has proven unable to create sustainable systems. That the market was not been able to supply food for all was always apparent for those millions that went to bed hungry every day, but this insight seems to spread to society at large. Already before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, globalization was in reverse. Ten years ago, calls for increased self-sufficiency and a robust food system was seen as backward and foolish in Sweden, today they are on top of the agenda.


In farming, when innovation is discussed it is mostly about technology but the innovations we need are cultural and social. The big challenge is not to produce more food but to develop a food system built on a more humble view of the role of humans in nature. We need to see agriculture and the food we eat as the main tools we have to manage and live in nature. Ecological and social feedback needs to be strengthened at the expense of economic feedback. To get there we need to go beyond the market and emphasize and develop the relations between us and nature, between us and the soil, between us and the farm animals and between the humans in the food chain. Both production and consumption need to be re-grounded in the landscape and farm entrepreneurs should return to being peasants. That will be the third agrarian revolution.


The article is an English version of my honory doctorate lecture 7 October 2022 at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences