During the mid-nineteenth century, agriculture in Europe and North America was confronted with an alarming crisis which in some respects resembles the situation in agriculture today.
At the heart of the nineteenth-century crisis was declining soil fertility. Crop yields fell steadily. There was limited scientific knowledge of the soil; age-old practices of crop rotations and fallows, and spreading manures and composts on the soil had been disrupted by urbanisation of the population and market pressures. With the growth of farming for the capitalist market, the produce of the soil, and therefore its nutrients, were transported far from their source on the farm to the cities, where the accumulation of human waste posed the problem in another aspect.
In desperation, farmers raided the famous battlefields of the Napoleonic wars in search of the bones of the fallen soldiers to grind and spread on their fields. The value of bone imports to Britain increased from £14,400 in 1823 to £254,600 in 1837. The crisis seemed to confirm the gloomy prophecies of Thomas Malthus, to the effect that linear growth of the food supply could not possibly keep pace with exponential growth of population.1
The problem was solved – in the short term at least – by a deeper understanding of the chemistry of the soil and plant nutrition, as well as by the extension of the global reach of capital. Humphrey Davy in England and German chemist Justus von Liebig were the leaders in this scientific field. Liebig was a supporter of the notion that there was no sharp distinction between inorganic and organic chemical processes, a contested idea at the time. Liebig’s investigations, of both plant nutrition and the processes of putrefaction and decay, revealed the roles of the elements nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in plant nutrition, as well as trace elements. Liebig pointed to the role of nitrogen in particular, the element which constitutes 78% of the earth’s atmosphere. He was unsure whether plants absorbed nitrogen directly from the air, or through the soil (later it was determined that some plants, like the legumes, were able to fix atmospheric nitrogen, but most could not). He recognised that nitrogen could be supplied to the soil in the form of chemical fertiliser, not just animal manures.
Liebig’s discoveries accelerated the frantic explorations to find the world’s best sources of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, which could be mined for use as fertilisers. Guano – the deposits of excrement built up over thousands of years by migrating seabirds on islands in the path of their migrations – had been used as a fertiliser for thousands of years by Andean farmers (the word guano is of Quechua origin), and proved to be a rich source of all three of these elements in a form readily accessible to plants. The European and North American powers descended on these islands, some of them just tiny specks in the ocean, in search of guano. The United States alone claimed nearly one hundred Caribbean and Pacific Islands under the Guano Acts of 1856; the UK, Germany, Australia did likewise. The islands were mined, in conditions close to slavery, by labourers from Hawai’i and other Pacific Islands, and from China, and the fertiliser was shipped back to Europe and North America. Gradually the spectre of widespread famine in Europe receded, at the expense of these colonial slaves.
Meanwhile another source of nitrates was discovered in the sedimentary rocks of the Atacama desert, very close to the rich Peruvian guano deposits. Such was the value of these resources that in 1879 Chile, bankrolled by British capital, launched a war of conquest against its neighbours Bolivia and Peru, grabbing the territories which contained guano and mineral nitrates. The territories Chile conquered included the Bolivian port city of Antofagasta; the outcome left Bolivia landlocked and impoverished thereafter. Chile was enriched for a fleeting moment, before the wealth ended up in the vaults of British bankers.2
The biggest advance in the application of the science of soil chemistry to agriculture took place after Liebig’s death, and it happened as an indirect consequence of the militarisation drive in the early years of the twentieth century. The alkali nitrates are useful not just for fertiliser, but also for explosives. Since Britain now monopolised the world’s biggest sources of nitrates in Chile, German industry, as part of its war preparations, prioritised the search for a way to synthesise nitrates directly from atmospheric nitrogen, for use in munitions. On the eve of the Great War, they succeeded: the process developed by German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch in 1913 to produce synthetic ammonia, using high pressure and catalysts, quickly became the main source of nitrates for both munitions and agriculture in the industrial countries. The Chilean nitrate industry fell into ruin.
Today some 230 million metric tonnes of ammonia are produced worldwide annually, using the Haber-Bosch process, chiefly by China, Russia, the US and India, most of which is used for fertilisers. With the increased agricultural productivity made possible by widespread use of nitrate fertilisers, the world’s population grew from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 8 billion today. It is estimated that about half of the nitrogen found in human bodies originates in the Haber-Bosch process.
This was a revolutionary technological advance, and, needless to say, a stunning refutation of Malthus’s dire predictions a century earlier of permanent mass starvation. But Malthus’s predictions were never based on fact in the first place; rather, they rested on fear of the working class. At the dawn of industrial capitalism, whose “special and essential product”3 was a burgeoning working class, Malthus expressed the deepest fears and hatreds of the ruling layers towards those surly and impoverished masses, and the readiness of the ruling classes to condemn them to starvation without a flicker of conscience – it was a natural law, after all! Just as the working class has grown stronger in the 200 years since then, and spread to every country in the world, so also the rulers’ fear and hatred of the class which will overthrow it remain, and Malthusian ideas in various forms remain popular today.
Marx took a close interest in the discussions on the science of the soil chemistry that were unfolding as he prepared Capital, although his primary interest was in the social science of political economy, in particular for his analysis of capitalist ground rent. “I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particular Liebig and Schonbein, which is more important for this matter than all the economists put together,” he wrote to Engels.4 Marx had a high regard for Liebig’s work, seeing in his findings a powerful argument against the reactionary notions of Malthus.
Liebig himself also took part in the discussions on political economy, commenting on such matters as the effects of ploughing the soil, the British monopoly of the guano trade, the diet of slaves, and the history of agriculture. Of these observations Marx notes, “although not free from gross errors, [they] contain flashes of light.”
Marx adds that “To have developed from the point of view of natural science, the negative, i.e., destructive side of modern agriculture, is one of Liebig’s immortal merits.” 5
In Capital Vol 1, Marx expands further on this ‘destructive side’ of modern agriculture: “AII progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. . . . Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.6
A century after Haber and Bosch’s revolutionary invention, it is this destructive side of capitalist agriculture which comes to the fore.7 The relentless expansion of agricultural production into wilderness areas and the cumulative effects of constant heavy application of nitrate fertilisers to the soil (not to mention a host of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals) are wreaking immense destruction on nature, accelerating extinctions, and imperilling the nutrition and health of millions. The truth of Marx’s comment that “increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility,” is starkly apparent today.
Land use and conservation, agricultural technique, the poisoning of waterways by fertiliser runoff, and the contributions of farming to greenhouse gas emissions – these are vital political issues in many countries. The slightest disruption of the patterns of world agricultural production and trade – such as the significant but localised disruption caused by the war in Ukraine – brings the threat of imminent famine to millions across the globe. In some respects, world food production seems to be as precarious as it was in the nineteenth century – yet with little room for further increase in productivity of the soil by chemical means, and with 8 billion mouths to feed. Is Malthus about to claim vindication after all?
These are the questions which George Monbiot addresses in his recent book Regenesis – Feeding the world without devouring the planet.
It is a rather irritating book in some ways. It is aimed squarely and exclusively towards its target readership, the urban professional middle class. The fears and anxieties of this layer, their dietary fads, their consumerist self-preoccupations and illusions, their feelings of alienation, and above all their separateness from the processes of economic production, all condition the narrative far more than they ought to. In its general form and tone the book is something like a conversation at a bourgeois dinner party, where all the guests agree that the root of the problem is agriculture itself (while filling their stomachs with its products.)
But despite all that, the book is definitely worth reading. Based on broad research and up-to-date science, it rises well above the swamp of Malthusian literature that exists on problems of agriculture and environment. There is a wealth of useful facts from which one can form a picture of the problem. As far as he goes – which is not quite to the root of the problem – Monbiot makes a sound argument.
He begins with a survey – wide but not deep – of the dire state of world agriculture, with many points of reference to recent events. This is a valuable part of the book. The problem is not the lack of food being produced, he argues. “Global food production has been rising steadily for more than half a century, comfortably beating population growth. In 1961, there were 2,200 kilocalories a day available for every person on earth. By 2011, this had risen to almost 2,900 kcal. Crop production as a whole has risen much higher, to an astonishing total of 5,400 kcal per person per day. But almost half this bounty is lost through feeding the food to farm animals, using it for other purposes (such as biofuels) and through waste.”8
The chief causes of the fragility in this system lie far from the farm.
In the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, the trade in agricultural commodities is more monopolised and connected to finance capital than ever, he explains9. Four corporations control 90% of global grain trade, another four control 66% of the trade in agricultural chemicals, a similar group, 53% of the seed market (p35), three corporations sell almost half of all farm machinery, another set of four controls 99% of the chicken-breeding market, another four, 75% of beef abattoirs.
The dangers of this concentration are further exacerbated by the shift to just-in-time delivery systems, which means that there are meagre stocks of food warehoused across the globe to provide a cushion in case of shocks and disruptions of production. Responsibility for what stocks of food there are has been increasingly been shifted from governments to the private sector, and consequently, in a world characterised by vast speculative trading in these commodities, knowledge of the size of these stocks of food becomes a tightly-guarded business secret.10
In 2008 and 2011 there were big spikes in the price of food, leading to hunger. Wheat prices rose 33% and 38% in those two years. But there was no worldwide shortage – on the contrary, wheat production increased in both years. The price spikes were driven by a cascade of speculative decisions by bankers and commodity traders. Monbiot estimates that on the biggest commodity exchanges in Chicago, between 65 and 215 times as much wheat is traded in the US as is actually harvested – in other words, the same crop is exchanged many times over.11 Commodity futures markets, supposedly devised in order to smooth out the weather-driven booms and busts in farm produce prices, have become the source of vast, de-stabilising speculation.
On the farm itself, Monbiot aims his heaviest fire at the expansion of livestock raising, with its insatiable demand to new land to bring into production – to grow crops just to feed the animals themselves – destroying forests, wetlands and savannahs along the way. Just 1% of the world’s land is used for buildings and infrastructure, he says, while crops occupy 12 percent, and grazing occupies 28% – that is, more than two-thirds of agricultural land. Yet meat and milk from animals fed entirely by grazing provide just 1% of the world’s protein.12
As living standards in countries like China rise, the proportion of protein and fat in the diet increases. This is why, although human population growth rate has fallen to 1.05% pa, the growth rate of livestock has increased to 2.4% pa. In the last fifty years, the number of beef cattle has increased by 15%, the number of pigs has doubled, and the number of chickens has increased fivefold. Incredibly, half the calories that farmers grow are used for raising livestock.13
This continuing expansion of livestock-raising is the chief driver of what Monbiot calls ‘agricultural sprawl,’ putting immense strains on nature through encroachment on wilderness, over-exploitation of scarce water resources and the consequences of increasing use of fertilisers and pesticides. Grazing is responsible for three times more deforestation than palm oil.14
Some of the figures he quotes are quite alarming, such as the consequences of new, extremely effective (and indiscriminate) pesticides called neonicotinoids: a 2017 study showing that the biomass of insects in German nature reserves had fallen by 75%, a lake in Japan where in just one year after the first use of neonicotinoids in surrounding farmland, the mass of animal plankton dropped by 83%.15 The secondary effects on populations of birds that feed on the insects and fish that feed on the plankton are catastrophic.
The leaching of fertilisers is equally devastating for rivers and lakes, and now also in large parts of the oceans. The oversupply of nutrients causes massive blooms of algae and weeds, which photosynthesise by day, but at night (when they respire but are not photosynthesising) and when they die, can draw all the oxygen out of the water, killing all other forms of aquatic life. Since 1960, Monbiot reports, global production of phosphate fertilisers has risen fivefold – double the growth of the world’s population in that period – and nitrate fertilisers almost tenfold. 16
Water use has increased so much that 4 billion people suffer from water scarcity for at least one month a year, and some 33 major cities, including Sao Paulo, Cape Town, Los Angeles and Chennai, are threatened by acute water stress.
Irrigation consumes 70 percent of the water human beings draw from rivers, lakes and aquifers. In the Indus River system, 95% of the river’s flow is already extracted, mostly for irrigation for food crops and cotton in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The current levels of extraction are only possible because in recent years, the Himalayan and Hindu Kush glaciers in the catchment are melting faster than they are accumulating, leading to increased flow. Obviously, this cannot go on forever.
In New Zealand these tendencies in farming are most obvious on the formerly dry Canterbury plains, now transformed by irrigation from aquifers and heavy application of nitrates into lush green dairy pastures. In the last three decades, according to Mike Joy, a freshwater ecologist at Victoria University of Wellington, use of nitrate fertilisers has jumped by 670%, and the number of dairy cows by 85%. Runoff of nutrients, combined with excessive demand on aquifers, has resulted in waterways in farming areas becoming slimy algal soup, unfit for swimming, and threatening drinking water supplies.
Monbiot explains at some length the complexity and interconnectedness of this system of food production, trade, and finance, in order to convey how fragile and brittle it is, and how precarious the world’s food supply. But he can’t quite bring himself to use the c-word to describe this ‘complex system’. This might seem curious, since it is very clearly the capitalist character of agriculture he is describing. He comes so close. At first I assumed he was just going out of his way to avoid offending his target readership, many of whom might recoil at the terms capitalism and socialism – so last century!
It soon becomes clear that the problem is deeper than that. Monbiot himself seems to be incapable of conceiving production other than for the capitalist market, that is, driven by profit. The solutions to these problems that he proposed are all based on the assumption of production for the market.
But the market comes with its own imperatives, the demands of its ruling capitalist class, and these include, at this stage in the development of capitalism, the extreme monopolisation of industry, agriculture, and trade, and its consequent standardisation and uniformity in the articles of trade; the close integration of production with financial speculation, and the domination of world trade by a handful of competing industrial superpowers. There can be no environmentally-friendly world of independent producers adapting to their given soils and climatic conditions and developing local diets, no breaking up of the Global Standard Farm and Global Standard Diet as Monbiot craves, so long as profit still drives production.
The dairying boom in New Zealand, for example, with its exponential growth in nitrate fertiliser use, is not driven by the dietary preferences of the people of New Zealand, but by the imperatives of the capitalist world market, in the form of the market for milk powder in China (which itself is a product of the proletarianisation of China – as women were drawn into the workforce, the demand for infant formula rocketed).
Monbiot partially recognises this with his factual critiques of the futility of ‘buy local’ campaigns and the ‘free-range’ and ‘organic’ fakery and pretensions, and the actions he accurately describes as Micro-Consumerist Bollocks. (He indicates that if all food in England and Wales was produced organically, 40% more land would be needed. Moreover, leakage of nitrogen from farms using only animal manures is 37% worse than from conventional farming.)17
But ultimately, given his inability to imagine production other than for the market, what he proposes is as futile as the solutions he correctly critiques. His wish to decentralise agricultural production, relying on randomness as a protection against the tendency to concentration of capital – or, as he puts it, “to increase the number of nodes, reduce their size, weaken their links, compartmentalise the network, increase its redundancy, increase its diversity”18 – is a vain longing to turn back the clock.
Ain’t gonna happen, so long as capital rules. Capitalist domination of agriculture, finance and trade must be overthrown, and replaced by an economy that is planned in accordance with the needs of human beings, before any solution to these problems can be found. With an economy planned by the producing classes, in relations of mutual cooperation and support rather than competition, the scourges of financial speculation and monopoly price-fixing can be banished, food production can enjoy all the advantages of integration and trade, while also planning for adverse local weather events. So simple, yet so difficult to conceive!
That still leaves the problem of the soil. A post-capitalist government of the working class and small farmers would still face the problem of feeding the 8 billion mouths without “ruining the more long-lasting sources of [its] fertility.”
If advancing the science of soil chemistry was key to overcoming the soil productivity crisis of the nineteenth century, Monbiot makes a convincing case that soil ecology is the science that will be key to the next phase of agriculture. He describes the soil as the most neglected ecosystem. We are just beginning to understand the extraordinarily complex reciprocal interactions between plants and the microorganisms in the soil – all the predatory, competing, and symbiotic relationships between plants and the bacteria, algae, fungi, nematodes, springtails, mites, earthworms and so on – and how these combine to determine soil fertility. This is a science still in its infancy, just as soil chemistry was in Liebig’s day, such that even the taxonomy of life forms in the soil is constantly changing.19
The second part of Monbiot’s book reviews various experiments in methods of agriculture which are less destructive to the soil, and the issues of soil ecology which they are exploring. These provide an exciting glimpse of possible future developments.
One example – among many – is the recent progress towards developing perennial cereals.
Cereals – grasses – were the principal group of plants cultivated by human beings since the dawn of agriculture. Their evolutionary reproductive ‘strategy’ of producing relatively small numbers of seeds, but investing a high quantity of energy and protein in each seed, made them especially suited for use as human food. But not all the cereals were domesticated: the varieties of cereal which have been cultivated and selectively bred since neolithic times have all been annuals.
Large areas dominated by annual plants are rare in nature, Monbiot explains.20 They tend to colonise ground in the wake of a catastrophe, such as a fire, flood or landslide that exposes bare rock or soil. They survive only until the damage to the soil structure is mended, at which point the perennial plants return and overwhelm the annuals.
“But it’s not hard to see why our ancestors selected them. Plants that colonise bare ground have evolved to grow fast and invest much of their energy in seeds, rather than in deep roots or dense foliage, so that they can spread as far as possible before the new land closes up… The problem is that in cultivating annuals we must keep the land in the catastrophic state they prefer. Every year we must clear the soil of competing plants, puncture or turn it, and plaster it with the nutrients required to raise a crop from seed to maturity in a few months. However sensitively it is conducted, annual grain production relies on sustaining an ecological disaster for its success. But if instead we grew perennial grain crops, we would not depend on smashing living systems apart to produce our food.”21
He reports on current efforts to use gene sequencing and related techniques to improve the yields and other qualities of various perennial crops. There are huge advantages in reducing erosion, making it possible to control weeds without pesticides, growing crops with greater resilience to drought, and improving carbon retention in the soil. (There were some experiments in developing perennial grains in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 30s, under the leadership of the outstanding agronomist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov – though of course without the advanced tools of genetic engineering available today – before Vavilov fell afoul of the anti-scientific charlatan Trofim Lysenko who was favoured by Stalin. Vavilov was falsely accused and persecuted to death in 1943.)
The most intriguing of these new developments in food production, however, are experiments in cultivating the soil microorganisms themselves, bacteria in particular, as a source of proteins and fats. This is the first time in history that there is a source of human food that completely bypasses the process of photosynthesis in plants.
There are species of bacterium which draw their energy neither from the sun through photosynthesis nor from the products of other organisms, but from hydrogen. Given a supply of hydrogen and manufactured ammonia, the bacteria can be and are being cultivated in fermentation vats, dried and turned into a high-protein, high-fat flour for human consumption. “It represents, I believe, the beginning of the end of most agriculture,” Monbiot explains, because “this method of food production shrinks, to an astonishing degree, the most important environmental impact of all: our use of land.” 22
The most efficient production of protein today is soybean farming, which occupies 36.5 million hectares of land in the US. To grow the same amount of protein by bacterial culture would require 21,000 hectares – 1,700 times less land. It can be done anywhere in the world. These technologies open the possibility of relieving the colossal pressures farming is placing on the natural environment, and then undoing them, re-wilding vast tracts of the earth’s surface, restoring the forests and repairing the damage inflicted on the rivers and oceans, and sequestering carbon in the soil – while still feeding the 8 billion human beings.
The bacterial proteins contain all nine essential amino acids. Since bacteria are genetically very malleable, there is great potential to genetically engineer them to produce particular vitamins and micronutrients, and to process them into meat substitutes and all manner of new forms of food. And in a poetic refutation of Malthus, in the right conditions they reproduce at an exponential rate.
All these developments are at a very early stage. What they already demonstrate, however, is that the crisis in food production is not technical in nature, nor is it caused by some fixed limit to the productivity of the earth that human society has now reached, as the neo-Malthusians would have it. Rather, it is one aspect of the functioning of capitalism, an aspect that is especially pronounced in the senile phase of capitalism, which, as Marx explained more than 150 years ago, robs the soil just as it robs the worker. There can be no solution to this problem short of overthrowing the political, social and economic system that lies at its source. Whatever the deficiencies in Monbiot’s analysis of the problem, the facts he assembles in Regenesis add considerable weight to that argument.
- You can read a brief and interesting account of this crisis in Marx’s ecology : materialism and nature, by John Bellamy Foster. See especially pp 147-57
- Eduardo Galeano tells this story vividly in Open Veins of Latin America (pp 154-59).
- This expression is used in Marx’s Communist Manifesto, p20
- Marx to Engels in Manchester, 13 February 1866. Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol 42, p227
- Marx, Capital Vol 1, p357 (Penguin edition), Footnote 246
- Marx, Capital Vol 1, Chapter 15 Industry and Agriculture, Section 10 Modern Industry and Agriculture, p330 (Penguin edition)
- The destructive side of modern chemistry appeared much more rapidly, and entangled the German Jew Fritz Haber himself. Haber helped develop the chemical weapons Germany used in the First World War, including the first deployment of chlorine gas at Ypres in 1915. In the 1920s he went on to develop processes to produce mustard gas and hydrogen cyanide on a large scale. Haber was dismissed in 1933 after Hitler’s government barred Jews from government service. He died in Switzerland, while fleeing to Palestine. The industrially-produced lethal gases he had helped to develop were used against many of his own relatives in Hitler’s extermination camps. See photo below of Fritz Haber with Albert Einstein – two outstanding scientists of the early twentieth century.
- George Monbiot, Regenesis, p39
- Ibid, p35
- Ibid, p36-37
- Ibid, p36
- Ibid, p77
- Ibid, p41
- Ibid, p81
- Ibid, p70-71
- Ibid, p71
- Ibid, p74
- Ibid, p55
- Ibid, p12 footnote
- Ibid, p179
- Ibid, p180
- Ibid, p188
Terrific post, James! This piece deserves a wide audience. I had the same reaction to Monbiot – he gives a wonderful overview, yet he can’t bring himself to step beyond criticising the monopolies to damning the capitalist system itself.What I did like about him was they way he gives voice to some of the farmers who are struggling to harness soil biology to increase yields – Tolly in particular. And, as you say, the Finnish flour-from-bacteria and kunza wheat give hope.All the best, JamesMalcolm
Thanks Malcolm. Yes, it’s a frustrating book in some ways, but there is certainly much of interest in the contents.