Is our diet wrecking the environment?

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Ultra-processed foods have come to dominate the “western diet”

In the first of a series on food and the climate crisis, Amy Leather explains how capitalist agriculture has shaped our diet and the planet.

Earlier this year the Lancet medical journal published what they called the “planetary health diet”. They claimed that if their universal scientific targets for healthy diets were adopted, not only would it save at least 11 million lives but would also help avert global environmental catastrophe and prevent the collapse of the natural world. Their central message was that “the world’s diets must change dramatically” to both save ourselves and the planet. The diet they recommended was largely plant-based, and therefore boosted the claim that only by going vegan can we save the planet.

We must be clear that changing our diet alone is not enough to address the issue of global warming. A 2014 IPCC report found that total global emissions from agriculture, forestry and land use are about 24 percent of the world’s total (of which about 15 percent from livestock). So even radical transformation to our diet would leave three quarters of emissions untouched.

The real problem is the fossil fuel industry. A report out in 2017 found that just 100 companies were responsible for 71 percent of global emissions since 1988. So a very small number of corporations — mostly fossil fuel corporations — are responsible for the vast majority of emissions. The solution to climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels and make a rapid switch to renewables such as solar, wind and tidal to generate energy, alongside a massive drive to increase energy efficiency. To seriously tackle global warming we cannot simply rely on persuading individuals to change their diet.

However, it is true that global food production and modern agriculture are enormously destructive, not only in terms of contributing to climate change but also the destruction of wildlife and the pollution of rivers and oceans. Agriculture is a significant cause of tropical deforestation while the whole of modern industrialised agriculture is reliant on the use of fossil fuels, from fertilisers and pesticides to plastic packaging and transportation. Some studies estimate that it has destroyed up to 75 percent of the world’s plant genetic diversity and uses up to 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water.

To understand this we need to look at how food is produced under capitalism rather than blame individual consumers for the wrong food choices.

Food cannot be abstracted from capitalism. It is a commodity to be bought and sold. The growing, making, processing and selling of food is big business where the bottom line is profit, regardless of the impact on our health, the environment, workers or animals. The much derided “western diet” — high in saturated fat, salt, red meat, refined grains and processed foods — is a consequence of this system rather than a response to consumer choice.
Neither can we abstract one aspect of food production from the rest of capitalist agriculture. Just because something is vegan or organic does not mean it has been produced sustainably.


Agriculture under capitalism is characterised by monocultures where just one crop is repeatedly grown, usually in vast quantities. It allows for the mass standardisation of cultivation, processing, distribution and sale - all of which lower market transaction costs for each ton of food produced. But monocropping strips the soil of its nutrients. In contrast growing different crops helps replenish the soil and gives back nutrients, as does setting aside land leaving it fallow.

Modern agriculture is also characterised by the use of hybrid seeds and now genetically modified (GM) seeds. Although hybrid seeds create an initial stronger offspring, they lose their vigour quickly and the kernels from the hybrid crop cannot be replanted. The giant seed companies gain since farmers have to buy new seed every year. Hybrids rely on heavy use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, both by-products of the oil industry.

Farmers end up on what may be termed the agricultural treadmill. At first the hybrid seeds and chemical pesticides are embraced with the promise of a higher yield and lower costs. But their ongoing use increases costs as pests become more chemical-resistant and fertilisers deplete the soil’s nutrients. Creatures that weren’t previously pests become so as their natural enemies are destroyed by pesticides. Changes to soil qualities from overuse of fertilisers leave crops more vulnerable to disease and damage. So called “superbugs” and “superweeds” develop in response to widespread and continuous use of chemicals. And so farmers then have to buy more inputs including more pesticide.

Another feature of industrialised agriculture is the rearing of animals indoors in giant warehouses or feedlots. This has only been made possible through the widespread use of antibiotics, which is now impacting on their effectiveness.

In his new book Eating Tomorrow, Timothy Wiseman vividly shows how the state of Iowa in the US Midwest, at the heart of the cornbelt, offers a stark vision of agriculture under capitalism.

The vast landscape is dominated by corn and soya. In fact it is devoid of people and farmers since the small family farms have been wiped out by giant holdings. Nearly all of the corn and soybean grown is genetically modified, leading to a large rise in herbicide use, specifically Monsanto’s Roundup. GM crops were engineered to survive extensive spraying, indeed they were marketed as “Roundup-ready” which reduced the need for weeding.

Much of the corn and soy is not actually used to feed people. An increasing proportion is for animal feed and biofuels. In Iowa there are some 8,000 pig farms with over 20 million pigs being raised in the state at any one time. In addition there are more than 40 ethanol refineries where the rest of the corn is turned into biofuel.

Although biofuels have been presented as environmentally friendly they require vast amounts of water and land, while displacing only a small amount of gasoline consumption. Their use has driven land grabs and deforestation. They are largely a side effect of the unsustainable overproduction of grain.

The result has been massive soil erosion. Iowa has lost 50 percent of its topsoil and 50 percent of the organic content in its soil. The increased animal manure together with the over-application of fertiliser has run off into rivers, causing considerable pollution. The state has had to create the biggest water treatment plant in the world in Des Moines to try and protect the region’s drinking water from the nitrates, E-coli and potassium laden sediment that flows downstream from the fields of Iowa.

But the problems don’t just stay in Iowa. All that fertiliser and manure runs off down the river and empties out in the Gulf of Mexico, leading to an 8,000 square mile “dead zone” where all sea life is suffocated and dies.

You would think the Iowa experience would be a stark warning as to the dangers of industrialised agriculture, but no — this is what agribusiness wants to roll out across the planet.

So how have we ended up in such a situation? At its most basic the growing of crops is the conversion of nutrients from the soil and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into plants that can be eaten either by us or by animals to produce milk or meat. For thousands of years the vast majority of people had a direct relationship with the land and the source of food. Since ancient times farmers have known that applying extra nutrients, for example animal manure, to soil can improve crop yields.

Capitalism destroyed this direct relationship. People were forcibly separated from the land — for example, in Britain through the Acts of Enclosure — and driven into the newly emerging towns and cities to work in the new textile mills and other industries.

This had a huge environmental impact, something identified by Marx and Engels, who were writing during the years of industrialisation as capitalism was coming into being in Europe. Crucially Marx talked of something called the metabolic rift. As people were forced off the land and into the towns it meant that the nutrients from the countryside, essentially in the form of food, had to be transported to the cities where workers lived. However these nutrients were not returned to the countryside but instead dumped in rivers and seas as waste. This one-way flow of nutrients — from the countryside to the cities — was detrimental to soil fertility.

Early capitalist agriculture addressed the problem of the declining fertility of soil by digging up graveyards and burial sites from the Napoleonic Wars in order to source bones to grind up and use as fertiliser. British farming in the 1800s relied on imported guano, a nutrient-rich excrement of bats and seabirds. In the early 19th century industrial fertiliser was developed and produced in Britain.

These solutions only postponed the problem. They did nothing to solve the metabolic rift while further contaminating rivers, aquifers and streams. Therefore the central problem of capitalist agriculture — that of the erosion of soil fertility — existed from the very start of capitalist development.

However, it was in the post-war years that agriculture, farming and consequently our diet underwent a great transformation in the West. Essentially there was and still is overproduction of the key grains, maize, wheat and soybean, which are at the heart of most processed food — the cornerstone of the “western diet”.

As Eric Holt-Gimenez outlines in his book A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism, the US experienced an agriculture boom during the Second World War and emerged in 1945 at the forefront of agricultural markets. During the war the US government invested billions of dollars into oil related industries such as petro-chemical plants. After the war they sold these newly updated facilities to private oil and chemical companies. The giants we know today such as Monsanto and Dupont bought them for half of what they were worth. These manufacturing facilities, which had produced things like nitrates (for bombs) and toxic chemicals (for poison gas), were refitted to produce synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. The US government had also invested in car plants to make jeeps and tanks which were then converted after the war to make tractors and combines.

Meanwhile the banks were flush with money from recently printed war dollars which they were able to lend to farmers to buy chemicals and machinery. More land was brought into production, farms got bigger, production soared and food prices came down. Soon Europe also began to overproduce food but instead of cutting back on production, governments used subsidies and quotas to ensure a continuous oversupply. This lowered the price of grains for powerful traders and the cheap surpluses could be channelled into food aid and dumped in overseas markets.

In the 1970s US farmers were encouraged to grow corn. This helped fuel development of new, even cheaper, processed foods. In recent years the equivalent of $500 billion in agricultural subsidies has been given annually to corn, soya, meat and dairy as cheap raw materials for intensive livestock production and for highly processed foods. It is these subsidies that have helped fuel the growth of the corporations at the heart of our food system. They changed what it was profitable to grown and this in turn led to changes in what we ate. “Consumer choice” had nothing to do with it.

For example, the new mass production models of rearing poultry in the US were so successful that by the 1970s the industry was producing far more chicken than people typically ate. Flocks grew from an average size of about 70 chickens before the war to 30,000 in 2002. But there was a limit to how many roast chickens people would eat each week. Instead, with the assistance of food science and marketing, the poultry industry repackaged chicken in a whole array of new products — including chicken nuggets, chicken strips for salads and cat food.

Processed cereal was another massive growth area where the giant food processors were able to use US agricultural surpluses of corn and wheat to create a very profitable export. They turned a cheap commodity into a much higher value good, albeit one that is completely nutritionally debased and relies on marketing and packaging. Even those in the industry admit that if the salt was taken out it would be better to eat cardboard for flavour.


So the post-war period saw a massive industrialisation of agriculture and food production leading to colossal companies with global reach. The food industry is worth $6 trillion per year and this wealth is concentrated in a handful of oligopolies. For example, just four agrochemical and seed firms are now estimated to control over 60 percent of global proprietary seed sales.

These multinationals that dominate agriculture under capitalism don’t actually do a lot of farming themselves. Instead, they make money from the business of farming — selling inputs like seed, fertiliser and pesticide to farmers, storing, transporting and trading grain and then processing the raw materials into food and other products.

The scale of these companies is illustrated by Cargill — one of the big four grain traders. Cargill is one of the world’s largest private corporations with sales of $120.4 billion in 2015. It is at the heart of producing all of the essentials for processed foods, and employs over 150,000 people in 70 countries trading everything from cotton to animal feed, meat, cocoa and salt. All of the eggs used in McDonalds in the US pass through Cargill — some 2 billion eggs a year, 2 percent of the US total.

So this brings us to where we are today. Not only are the food processors looking for new ways to sell food to us but the agriculture giants are constantly looking to expand into new countries so they can make even more profit from selling seeds and inputs to farmers, while changing what is grown to the base ingredients for processed food.

This is where agribusiness aims to expand. Their justification is that their intervention will “help feed the world”. In their colonial mindset these “poor backward peasants” need the help, expertise and technology of the big agricultural giants. The reality is that peasant farmers have great knowledge of their soil and climate built up over generations. They are prolific experimenters with seeds, breeding varieties over many hundreds of years in order to achieve the best crop possible. Modern crop varieties are bred from gene banks filled with such native seeds

The Monsantos of the world have been systematically privatising the genetic material developed by the peasantry over millennia. Because the new hybrid seeds they developed do not breed true farmers were obliged to buy new seeds every year. Far from leading to improved crops many of these hybrid seeds were not as good as the local seeds selected over millennia.

For example in Malawi, Monsanto took over the national seed company and shelved one of the country’s most popular and productive corn seeds. Monsanto’s former country director had co-authored Malawi’s national seed policy — which threatened to outlaw the widespread practice of farmers saving, exchanging and selling their seeds.


What we eat is a consequence of how agriculture is organised under capitalism, where profit overrides all other concerns. No area of food production is out of bounds. Even organic farming has come under the control of multinationals like Walmart. Many such farms now use highly intensive, monocropping farming methods which are no more sustainable than those of regular agriculture.

Plant-based foods are not exempt from these problems. Quinoa is an ancient Andean staple. As Holt-Gimenez outlines, when it became popular in the west and it became clear consumers would pay more for it, what had been a “poor people’s food” became too expensive and they had to look to cheap imported breads and pastas. He continues:

“Traditional quinoa farmers were pushed out of the market as the crop moved from the terraced hillsides, where it was part of a complex cropping and animal husbandry rotation system, to the bottomland pastures where is it is now cultivated as a monocrop in large, mechanised fields. These fragile grazing areas, which have sustained llamas for millennia, are disappearing under the quinoa boom, resulting in erosion, dust storms and hardship for traditional communities.”

And now agribusiness sees climate change as essentially a business opportunity, a chance to expand further and into new areas. GM crops can be engineered and marketed to cope with the changing climate and withstand floods and droughts. In Mozambique Monsanto pushed its Water Efficient Maize for Africa scheme as a way to open up the country to GM corn.

Rather than address the wider agricultural problems the solution is to “stack” GM seeds with lots of different traits, offering a variety of characteristics through genetic engineering such as controlling pests and weeds, incorporating vitamins and resisting drought.

And as agribusiness forces farmers in the developing world to stop producing a variety of crops, the consequent lack of dietary diversity can be solved by fortifying seeds with vitamins, for example Golden Rice.
Such an approach collapses complex farm, labour and management processes into one single seed commodity and allows agribusiness to carry on with the same profit making, albeit destructive practices that have caused the problems in the first place.

The practices of capitalist agriculture have shaped our diets, impacted on the environment and contributed to climate change. At the same time food diversity is reduced —according to a recent report 75 percent of the calories consumed around the world today originate from just 12 plants and five animal species.

Food that is both unhealthy, lacking diversity and destructive of the environment is not a consequence of consumer choice but a result of how capitalism is organised and of corporate interests backed up by governments. Therefore the solution to the problem is not individual dietary changes but a radical transformation of the entire food system.

There are many battles over agriculture and food production. Mass peasant movements resisting land grabs, the resistance in Mexico to GM maize. It was food price rises that in part triggered the Arab Spring of 2010-11 and the recent uprising in Sudan.

As the new climate movements continue our emphasis should be on mass collective action, in which we see peasants, farmers and food production workers as our allies in the struggle to safeguard the future of our planet.

Further reading:
Eating Tomorrow by Timothy Wiseman
A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism by Eric Holt-Gimenez
System Change Not Climate Change by Martin Empson (ed)

Amy Leather is one of the authors of System Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis (Bookmarks, 2019).