In Defense of Industrial Agriculture

A serious socialist agricultural policy would reject the pastoral utopian dreams of organic agriculture, while demanding that industrial agriculture, like all industry, be placed under democratic ownership.

In Defense of Industrial Agriculture

Insofar as there is a left approach to agricultural policy in the western world, it is one that is hostile to industrial agriculture. Almost every Green Party in Europe has policies which promote organic as an alternative to industrial agriculture; anti-capitalist parties in the Global South like the ZANU-PF and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are hostile to genetically-modified organisms; and even center-left parties like the French Parti Socialiste are committed to expanding the percentage of agriculture which is organic. It is easy to see why so many on the Left are hostile to industrial agriculture. Major agricultural firms, such as Monsanto, are villains par excellence. Battery farms (where chickens are kept tightly packed in identical cages) are unimaginably cruel; global livestock agriculture emits more methane than do most countries; agricultural runoff causes dead zones in bodies of water worldwide; and farmers who borrow to modernize their practices often find themselves in a permanent cycle of debt, ending in suicide. All of this is undeniably true.

So too, however, is the poverty of the sweatshop and the pollution of the smokestack, and socialists do not generally advocate a return to a pre-industrial mode of production.

When it comes to agriculture, however, some of the most popular causes on the Left are the equivalent of alleviating anger at production speed-up by abolishing the internal combustion engine. Foremost amongst these follies is support for organic agriculture, i.e., using “traditional” techniques that reject agricultural chemicals and the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Organic agriculture has a good, eco-friendly image, but if it were to be adopted widely, it would be a disaster, both for humans and for global biodiversity. If we are to preserve biodiversity and continue to avoid the Malthusian trap that has been predicted for the last two centuries—an ecological limit on our ability to sustain and nourish the human race—we must not only reject organic agriculture, but also learn to embrace industrial agriculture, pesticides and all.

To understand the human cost of trying to replace industrial farming with organic farming as the main way of producing food, it behooves us to look at how farming was done before industrial agriculture. For most of our history, the majority lived and died tilling the land. Pre-industrial farming is backbreaking work that kills people off at ages when most office workers remain hale. In much of the world, this lifestyle is not a thing of the past, though those who live it wish it were. This includes where I do my fieldwork, the Altiplano of Peru and Bolivia.

For the average peasant farmer there, who has a small plot for potatoes, life is harsh, and also short. Every spare sol and boliviano is spent on the children’s education, in the hope that they can get a better life as a bricklayer or electrician. Yet as tough as things are for these contemporary peasants, there is one threat they are safe from which their ancestors wouldn’t have been—hunger.  The mechanization of agriculture, by freeing labor to cities, assisted in funding the welfare state peasants rely on. And agricultural research stations, such as the Centro Internacional de la Papa, have developed more nutritious versions of the Andes’ staple crop. While potatoes are still sometimes filled with maggots, hunger is a thing of the past in the Altiplano. But many of the older folks still remember how, in a bad year, it was common for the old, the young, and the infirm to just waste away. Even in periods without famine, death from hunger was a constant for most farmers throughout history.

This was the state of most of humanity until industrial agriculture came along—tilling the fields, constantly in pain, and dying hungry. Three major changes liberated many of us from this fate: mechanization, chemical agriculture, and the genetic engineering of new breeds of plant and animal. Few pieces of technology are more important in human history than the mechanical thresher, and its descendant, the combine harvester. Without these machines, most people would still be living on farms; even the most dedicated organic farmer doesn’t reject their use.

Plowing Into Modernity

Chemical agriculture and genetic engineering have proven more controversial, and are usually used to determine what is, and isn’t, organic. The first step in the rise of chemical agriculture was the rise of soil science, and the first major breakthrough in soil science was understanding that nitrogen is the main limiting factor in soil fertility. This was discovered by multiple scientists independently in the early nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process in 1913 that chemical agriculture truly began. The Haber-Bosch process permitted us to bypass the main limiting factor of plant growth—namely a lack of nitrogen in soil that can be readily used by plants—and turned nitrogen into one of the cheapest inputs of agriculture. It also inaugurated a new age of chemical agriculture, which over the course of the twentieth century meant that many of the old blights on crops were temporarily put at bay. This has come with costs, of course—the decline in bird and insect populations caused by pesticides is all too real. Regulations to prevent such ecological havoc in the future, and undo the harm of past ecological damage, is of course necessary. But the simple fact remains that without the Haber-Bosch process, agricultural productivity would be at least a third lower than it is today, and possibly less than half—meaning that about half of the world relies on the Haber-Bosch process to have the food they need to live.

The final development that unleashed agricultural productivity was in genetic engineering. Anyone who has seen a teosinte plant next to a maize plant can be assured that all agriculture is about genetic modification, about changing the genetics of plants and animals to better suit human needs. What changed in the twentieth century is that the process sped up significantly. The first advance was the establishment of massive cross breeding programs, such as the one which Norman Borlaug ran out of Mexico, to develop new versions of old crops, the most important of which is short-stemmed wheat. This variety of wheat, by being shorter and thus less top heavy, was less likely to fall over, reducing waste. Similar programs to Borlaug’s were established in Britain, America, India, and in scores of other countries, to produce crop varieties with various desired traits. This whole process was sped up further with the development of gene editing. The techniques which enable genetic modification were invented in 1973, and the first genetically-modified crop was produced ten years later. Since then, DNA editing technology and knowledge of the roles that various genes play has progressed to the point that gene editing can be done in a manner more precise than anyone could have dreamt of fifty years ago. This has been a great boon to humanity even under the constraints of capital, permitting food to be grown in marginal land and increasing the nutritional value of staple crops. But so long as the technology is primarily controlled by the diktats of capital, most research in GMOs will focus on improvements which assist with agrobusiness margins, rather than on the needs of the world’s poorest farmers. GMOs could be even more of a boon to humanity if owned and directed to be used at a wider scale by a socialist state.

Organic agriculture is a rejection of this industrialized way of producing calories. It rejects the use of herbicides and pesticides for fields; it rejects the use of antibiotics for livestock; and it rejects genetically-modified crops and artificial fertilizers. Some of these positions are understandable. The overuse of antibiotics in animal husbandry is a major driver of the evolution of antibiotic resistance—a threat to public health. And many pesticides and herbicides have significant environmental costs and need to be either regulated or, in some instances, banned. But the ideological fervor for organic farming is predicated on harmful pseudoscience, perhaps the most significant example of which concerns GMOs.

Greens Against GMOs

All agriculture involves genetic modification. Thus, the main difference between a GMO crop and a “traditional” one is that the latter had its genes modified longer ago, and with less human control. But an ideological preference for the traditional processes drives many to argue for universal opposition to GMO crops, including Greenpeace, most European Green parties, and half of the world’s elected anti-capitalist parties (especially in the developing world). Creationists and flat earthers harbor similarly anti-scientific ideas, but unlike those delusions, opposition to GMOs today carries measurable human costs.

As a stark illustration, consider how anti-GMO activists have hindered the development and distribution of Golden Rice, a version of rice fortified with Vitamin A. Around 250 million children under the age of five are vitamin A deficient, many of whom have died unnecessarily in the years since Golden Rice was developed, and will continue to die as Golden Rice is withheld from public consumption. In no country where vitamin A deficiency leads to a sizable number of deaths is Golden Rice legal. Its illegality results from an organized campaign by anti-GMO activists and multinational NGOs, who have brought up unfounded health and environmental concerns to relevant regulatory bodies to tie up its release in endless battles over certification. Most recently this has occurred in the Philippines, which had several years of Golden Rice production without any harm to the environment, but which has recently recriminalized it due to the unproven ecological fears of organic farmers. Put in stark terms, allowing this one GMO could have avoided the preventable deaths of millions of children. A categorical prohibition on all GMOs, guided by the ideological pursuit of organic agriculture, would surely magnify this pointless waste of human potential.

Though much of the anti-GMO movement is largely fearmongering about the technology itself, there is indeed a legitimate left critique of GMOs’ application under capitalism. As commercial products, GMOs are the property of private companies which patent their DNA. These companies often ensure that the plants are infertile, forcing farmers to pay every year for new seeds, rather than relying on seeds from last year’s harvest. This can trap farmers in cycles of debt, with negative consequences to their wallet, and often, to their lives. In the United States, farmers suffered lawsuits claiming copyright infringement from private owners of GMO crops, merely for having GMO seeds waft over from neighboring fields onto their own.

Additionally, many of the current popular uses of GMOs are less noble than that of Golden Rice. Instead of solving hunger, many GMO producers are solving the problem of fortifying sales of their herbicides and pesticides. Take Bayer, the successor to Monsanto. Its most popular GMO line is RoundUp Ready, which permits plants to survive the toxic spray of the glyphosate herbicide RoundUp, also owned by Bayer. RoundUp is very efficient at killing plants—but glyphosate herbicides and pesticides like it also have negative health consequences for people.

However the issue here isn’t with the GMOs themselves, but with the private production and ownership of them. A socialist agricultural policy would ensure that farmers could use seeds of one year to plant the next year’s harvests, even from GMO crops, and ensure that genetic modifications were geared towards the public good.

Agriculture and the Environment

If one is primarily concerned with the needs of human beings, it is impossible to object to industrial agriculture as such. Though advocates for organic agriculture portray their position as environmentally holistic, it is in fact stunningly misanthropic. Still, for many of them, the supposed costs of industrial agriculture on the natural world is what leads them so strongly to organic agriculture. Yet even on this front, organic agriculture proves itself inferior to industrial. In terms of carbon emissions, the main source in agriculture is livestock farming, and that will be an issue whether agriculture is organic or industrial. As for GMOs, there is no evidence, and no reason to believe, that GMOs are of any greater risk at harming ecosystems than conventional varieties of crop. Scaremongering by anti-GMO activists is largely based in pseudoscientific conspiracy theories, more akin to arguments over the nature of Bigfoot than reasoned science.

The effect of industrial chemicals on the environment, on the other hand, is a real concern. Many agricultural chemicals pose significant risks to the wider ecosystem. This is partially a result of their overuse, driven by the need for profit, but no ideology can prevent, for example, the chemical reactions that weaken eggshells that come into contact with the insecticide DDT. There is a trade-off here between protecting the environment and increased productivity, and pro-growth socialists must acknowledge that there are many times when the state should intervene to protect the environment. However, for all their flaws, chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are the main reason why every would-be Malthusian Cassandra from William Vogt to Paul Ehrlich to David Attenborough has proven a dud: humanity has managed to keep pace with technology to improve productivity faster than population has increased.

It’s also important to note that an organic agricultural field, the natural home to indigenous plants and insects, can actually be more harmful to the environment than a sterile industrial field. To grasp this apparent paradox, it is necessary to understand the main factors contributing to biodiversity loss. Though they vary by region and species, the most important driver of biodiversity loss, by far, is land use change, where wilderness is converted to farmland. And the largest driver of land use change is agriculture.

For many years, there was a debate within the academic community about how to square the land needs of agriculture with those of nature. One side of the debate was called land sharing and the other land sparing. The former advocated for low intensity agriculture—not necessarily organic, but usually so, where low levels of biodiversity can coexist with lower levels of agricultural productivity over a wider area. The latter advocated for the intensification of agriculture in fewer plots of land, to ensure that more land can be preserved for nature. In general, the consensus after decades of scientific research is that land sparing is far better for biodiversity than land sharing. But two conditions have to be met to ensure that land sparing actually works—that the land actually is spared, and that yields are high enough to meet growing populations.

The main concern regarding land sparing is what is often termed the “Jevons Paradox”—that increased supply leads to increased demand. If this is the case for agriculture, then we might spare the land only to need to use more land, until we leave no place for nature. But the source of the Jevons Paradox isn’t something written into the soul of man; it’s a feature of capitalism. When land use is determined merely by market coordination, it is possible that land sparing would mean greater biodiversity loss than land sharing, as every forest and meadow is plowed over for some extra profit. But if agriculture is controlled in a socialist manner, then what land is farmed, and to what intensity, can be planned in such a way that maximizes food production while minimizing loss of biodiversity. Stringent government regulation around where farming can occur, sparing wildlife corridors and high biodiversity areas, could ensure coexistence of higher populations with nature.

Agriculture, like all aspects of human existence, has been inexorably altered through industrialization and capitalism. Since the changes to agriculture caused by these two forces occurred concurrently, many seem to think they are the same, leading some comrades to reject the entire package of industrial agriculture. Socialism must be a forward-looking ideology focused on harnessing the technological advances of modernity for the good of the working class, rather than a movement for a nostalgic, romantic golden age before capital disrupted the “natural” flow of life. In energy, this means embracing nuclear power; in manufacturing, it means embracing factories; and in agriculture, it means embracing industrial agriculture—pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, and all.

In 1896, William Jennings Bryan said, “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Though he said that in a much more agricultural America, it remains true today. All civilization rests on the back of the farmer, and, increasingly, of the industrial farmer. A serious socialist agricultural policy would reject the utopian dreams of organic agriculture, while demanding that industrial agriculture, like all industry, be placed under democratic ownership. Only then can we feed the world and save the planet.

D.A. Villar is a DPhil student at the Department of Biology, University of Oxford. His research focuses on human-wildlife interactions and conservation in the Lake Titicaca region of the Central Andes. He is also Treasurer of Scientists for Labour.