In just a couple of centuries since the Industrial Revolution, the human population has increased eightfold. Since 1800, it has grown from about 900 million human beings to 7,600. eight billion road and beyond.
Most of that enormous population expansion has taken place during the period that we must surely call the Great Acceleration, after the Second World War (1939-1945): still in my grandparents’ time, around 1930, only 2 billion human beings populated the planet Earth.
This enormous humanity has been possible only thanks to the industrialized agriculture which, with roots in the 19th century, developed above all from 1920-1930. It involved the progressive elimination of the peasantry, the salarization of farmers, the use of synthetic fertilizers and hybrid (and later transgenic) seeds, the mechanization of farm work, large monocultures, the irrigation of huge areas, long-distance distribution systems and agri-food oligopolies.
A model that, if we were only to judge it in terms of current production, would have to be considered successful. It only has one small problem: it is radically unsustainable. We are farming and raising livestock like there is no tomorrow.
Agriculture outside of nature
The capitalist Industrial Revolution must be interpreted through two key dynamics: the metabolic fracture (in the exchange of these societies with nature) and the implementation of a fossil growth device (capitalist accumulation based on fossil fuels) that leads inexorably to overreaching planetary biophysical limits. These are the two key issues for the “progress trap” (to use the expression of the writer Ronald Wright) that we have got into: metabolic fracture and overreach.
The teacher Joaquim Sempere, in his book The ashes of Prometheus (2018), proposes to distinguish between three components of the metabolic fracture: energy (fossil fuels), materials (intensive use of the mineral wealth of the earth’s crust that leads to extractivism) and agriculture. This last one is the one that most interests us now.
Life forms based on gathering, foraging and hunting, as well as on peasant agriculture, constituted human communities in symbiosis with nature that prospered taking advantage of the fruits of photosynthesis —which does not mean that they did not have appreciable impacts on the biosphere.
The metabolic fracture breaks this situation. Industrial companies are formed that are essentially mining companies, no longer dependent on sunlight and photosynthesis, but on scarce and exhaustible subsoil riches. The impact of these societies on the biosphere is also growing exponentially (that is why we are today discussing the Anthropocene).
Towards agricultural intensification
The new agronomy of the XIX, from the hand of the chemist Justus von Liebig and others, discover first and then perfect the mineral fertilization of plants. After World War I, the Haber–Bosch process of obtaining nitrates inaugurates an era in which it is possible to produce food with an intensity previously unknown.
Agricultural intensification also incorporates synthetic biocide products, whose emblem –already after World War II– is the DDT. An insecticide compound that inaugurates a whole phase of chemical warfare against pests and the so-called “weeds” (but both of them are, above all, a symptom of excessively simplified and unbalanced agrosystems).
What’s more, agricultural production grows enormously in quantity. Thus, we speak of a green revolution, above all, when the countries of the South assume industrial agriculture. Even if it also increases its impact on the ecosystems on which our future depends (it cannot be stressed too much that we are ecodependent and interdependent).
We have, in short, a great agricultural intensification within the Great Acceleration capitalist that unfolds during the last decades.
A fragile and unsustainable model
The bases of this system of production of food, fiber and other goods are extremely fragile :
Their energy balances are very poor (depending on the intensive use of fossil fuels).
Monocultures of annual cycle plants are a bad ecological and agronomic idea.
The peak availability of natural gas and the phosphorus peak put in check the production of synthetic fertilizers.
The spread of biocides is damaging populations of living beings to such an extent that we are even talking about a “insect apocalypse”.
The oligopolistic concentration in agrochemical and seed mega-companies has increasingly onerous social costs.
The loss of traditional varieties damages the resilience of our agrosystems and the destruction of fertile soil directly threatens the survival of much of the enormous, excessive humanity that we are today.
Comer sunlight has a future. Comer oil and phosphate minerals as we do today, that is, consuming a mineral wealth that we have squandered and is rapidly running out, is radically unsustainable.
“There is no known way to feed a population of 10 billion people,” dice Stephen Emmott. Not within the current socioeconomic order, but yes – without a doubt – with agroecology, food sovereignty, conservation of natural and agricultural biodiversity, regeneration of soils and basically vegetarian diets.
Ultimately, with agriculture based on diversity at all levels, recovering the symbiosis with nature: but of course, that requires change the production model and forms of consumption. Change thoroughly… “Producing food, science and dignity”, asked for Kléber Ramírez.
But we remain trapped in the fetishism of merchandise, the accumulation of capital and self-deception anchored in technoscience. Our societies, today, continue to prefer to ignore these existential questions where we literally play the being and not being of civilized life. And perhaps of the same human species.
Jorge Riechmann Fernández is Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at the Autonomous University of Madrid.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.