Farmageddon

Issue section: 
(393)

From the coast of Peru to the fields of Britain the way food is produced is shaping the environment we rely on for our survival.

Intensive farming techniques, pioneered in the US in the mid-20th century, have been exported across the globe in an attempt to divorce food production from the land it is grown on.

This further alienates workers from the products of their labour, and everyone else from the food that we eat.

Philip Lymbery’s book provides a wealth of documentary evidence to illustrate these trends and ways in which the intensification of farming techniques can, or could, be resisted.

Some of the trends that Lymbery reveals — such as the ecological and nutritional impact of feeding grains to animals rather than letting them graze on grass — have become more widespread since they were first identified in the post-war period by writers such as Susan George.

Her book, How the Other Half Dies (1976), places the blame for world hunger squarely on the shoulders of the US government and agricultural capitalists, a far cry from Lymbery’s “I have nothing against big business”.

Perhaps the biggest downfall of Farmageddon is that its analysis is fundamentally contradictory. On the one hand, it mythologises and idealises what is essentially widespread small-scale peasant production.

The other side of the analysis is a belief in the complex network of charities, NGOs and inter-governmental bodies that form the moral bedrock of neoliberalism. It is from this edifice that the author comes and perhaps explains why he takes such pains to appear even-handed in his analysis.

It is perfectly possible to have large-scale farming where animal and environmental welfare are taken seriously, as Lymbery points out. The problem is not one of scale, though, but of production for the market.

The unsustainable investment in dead labour in the industry is leading to a crisis in agriculture, one that is being delayed by massive subsidies for farmers that play ball.

Again Farmageddon fails to lay the blame at the door of those really responsible: for example, the UK government’s 30-month limit on the lifetime of cows in the wake of the Mad Cow (BSE) outbreak has played into the hands of intensive farming proponents, leading to cows’ weight being artificially increased to fatten them quicker within a time limit.

While the book avoids the pitfalls of an individual response to the issue it addresses, such as buy local and usually expensive organic food, it is trapped by the logic of capitalist production.

There will always be a market for meat produced as cheaply and as quickly as possible in a system ruled by the accumulation of profit, just as there will always be a market for higher-welfare meat for those who can afford it.

Socialists will find much to appreciate in this book because it contains a wealth of documentary evidence of modern agribusiness’s corporate crimes. However, the author’s moralism and political confusion may leave you feeling dissatisfied.