Best of SACSIS: Our Agricultural System is Destroying the Earth and Our Health

By Glenn Ashton · 7 Jan 2014

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Picture: Agribusiness courtesty
Picture: Agribusiness courtesty

Over the course of the past century our food supply has shifted from local to global. Most food our grandparents ate was grown regionally, often by neighbourhood farmers. Today our food comes from across the world. More importantly, it is often produced in highly destructive ways, at the lowest possible cost.

Consequently our food production system is responsible for accelerating the rate of destruction of the very ecosystems we are reliant upon in order to maintain our delicate global environmental equilibrium. We cut and clear the lungs of the world, our tropical rainforests, to feed livestock or grow dishonestly named “biofuels”. We bulldoze natural filtration systems and the nurseries for life like wetlands and mangrove swamps to produce luxury foods for obese populations.

Unique, highly biodiverse habitats in exotic places like Borneo, the Amazon and the Congo rainforest are being destroyed to grow industrial scale mono-crops. Although we produce sufficient food for everyone on earth, the relentless, voracious march of industrial agriculture continues to accelerate the destruction of these essential, irreplaceable ecosystems.

This ecocide, the eradication of critical planetary life support mechanisms, is worsened by the reality that significant proportions of new agricultural expansion is not for food but to extract living resources – timber, vegetable oils, animal feed and “biofuels” - produced at industrial scale.

Southeast Asia has become the global epicentre of palm oil production. This crop has already destroyed millions of hectares of rainforest and irreplaceable peat-swamps for endless industrial mono-crop plantations. Their spread across Malaysia and Indonesia has aready devastated Borneo, Sumatra and Papua. Habitat for iconic mega-species like the Sumatran Tiger and rhinoceros, Orang-outang and Asian jungle elephants, as well as countless thousands of less obvious but equally important species has been decimated.

Areas planted to oil palm have more than tripled over the last two decades in order to replace industrial trans-fats, associated with circulatory diseases caused by western-style diets. Now our cookies are killing the rainforest. Even more ironically, the refined palm oil used to replace hydrogenated trans-fats are little healthier. They are implicated in increased heart and circulatory diseases, despite misleading denial from within the industry.

Increasing amounts of bio-diesel are produced from palm oil. Because of its impact, especially on ancient peatlands, it is far from carbon neutral, generating up to 600% more greenhouse emissions than the fossil fuels it replaces. No amount of greenwash can obscure the real destruction of this industry.

Another destructive trend is the impact that removal of the protective coastal mangrove fringes has, in order to develop shrimp and prawn farms. This highly profitable type of aquaculture has caused massive social and environmental disruption, along with losses of important agriculture and water resources. It is also associated with widespread use of dangerous chemicals and antibiotics to treat disease in these intensive production facilities.

Following the destructive logic of the free market, its profitability has ensured its continued global expansion. The cost paid by consumers does not, and cannot reflect the full long-term environmental impacts of this destructive form of aquaculture.

In South America increasingly vast swathes of the Amazon, along with the dry but ecologically sensitive and important Brazilian Cerrado and the pampas of Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina have been covered by an endless monoculture of chemical resistant, genetically modified soya beans. This almost contiguous soya monoculture is disparagingly called “la republica de la soya”, “the soya republic.”

These beans are ground into protein cake for chicken, pig and cattle feed while the oil is processed for food, and increasingly for ‘biofuel.” Diesel made from Brazilian soya oil has a highest carbon footprint of any “biofuel”, even more than conventional petrol or diesel, with nearly a 300% greater environmental impact.

Worse, livestock fed on soy and maize, rather than natural pastures, emits more greenhouse gases than naturally raised animals. They are also more prone to disease and less healthy for the people who consume them.

Along with these trends there is an increasing shift toward leasing or selling communal or “state” land to replace areas damaged by short-term, intensive industrial-style farming or lost to expanding urbanisation. This involves contracts between commercial entities and developing nations, particularly in Africa, to a lesser degree on the old Soviet granaries of the Russian steppe.

These land grabs are primarily driven by middle-eastern, Chinese and western commercial interests. Some countries like South Africa, which continues its pursuit of unsustainable industrial agriculture policy and practice, both participates in land grabs elsewhere in Africa, while also being targeted for internal corporate-led land acquisition.

Land grabs have already caused political instability and social disruption. Serious protests have arisen in Kenya, while political oppression has deepened in countries like Ethiopia, where land appropriated from traditional owners is leased for the benefit of foreign owners, exacerbating risks of hunger and inequality within marginalised tribes. Because leaseholders have little long-term commitment, the likelihood of negative ecological consequences are increased.

How do we counter this litany of woes facing our global food system? Are there alternative ways to feed growing populations? Interestingly the largest international agricultural study yet undertaken, sponsored by major institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations, came to a conclusion that is almost diametrically opposite to the dominant corporate agriculture model.

This study, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, suggested that food production should hark back to its roots and use resources more smartly and equitably. Trade distorting subsidies must end. Local ownership and stewardship require encouragement. Practices that preserve and restore ecological resources need to be pursued. Relevant science and technology can be adopted while constantly bearing in mind the multifunctional role of agriculture.

There certainly are practical models, capable of correcting the wrongs we have wrought on our ecosystems, to produce sufficient food for all. The real (political) trick is to shift control of these resources back to where they are most needed – as Amartya Sen said – to those who are trapped in poverty, without access to good, affordable food. Simultaneously, those able to make informed choices should leverage their purchasing power to encourage a shift away from unhealthy and unsustainable eating choices.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Myway Verified user
7 Jan

Our Agricutural System...

Oh so true and factual is this article.
It is sad nay, pathetic how man's greed and blatant ignorance about his planet just gets worse by the year. I believe that the current greed and corruption which has escalated over the past 20 years or so is not sustainable and the situation will implode. How much longer for mankind? Hunger, pestilence, greed, wars, famine, ignorance and arrogance. It cannot continue to escalate as it it now is doing.
Seems corny to say, "the end of the world is nigh", but I truly believe that it is and I truly fear for my grandchildren.

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