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Agribusiness and biotechnology threaten nature and peasants / II Totally broken nutrient recycling, agriculture is no longer sustainable

Agribusiness and biotechnology threaten nature and peasants / II Totally broken nutrient recycling, agriculture is no longer sustainable

By Julio Boltvinik

It is important to understand that it is neither a lack of technology nor a lack of understanding of ecological processes that hinders the development of sustainable agricultural systems. A humanistic and sustainable system, socialist and based on solid ecological principles, would take care of sustaining the earth, as Marx said, "as the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations."


The physical separation of a growing part of the population from agricultural space due to the urbanization process, which intensified after the industrial revolution, led to the first breakdown of the traditional recycling of nutrients in agriculture, illustrated in the previous installment with a quote which shows how London's human excrement, instead of returning to earth, was thrown into the Thames. This trend, critically observed by Anderson, Liebig and Marx in the 19th century (as I commented in the delivery of 01/27/12) has intensified

“As capitalism developed in the 20th century. The higher the percentage of the population that lived outside the field, the breakdown of the nutrient cycle was even more complete. As soils were stripped of nutrients and organic material, they became less fertile, and there was much concern about what to do with soils that were so worn. At the same time that agricultural soil was stripped of its nutrients, the drains that contained them littered many lakes and rivers.1

The graph, reproduced from the aforementioned work by Foster and Magdoff (FyM), shows three geometric figures each one formed by three segments. The a) shows the farming integrated that prevailed before the rise of the industrial revolution (before 1850) in most of the planet. In it there is a flow of energy and nutrients from plants (P) to animals (An) and to humans (H), represented by the continuous upward arrow on the far left, and two dotted downward arrows that carry nutrients back. from H and An to the soil (to the plants, P). This recycling of nutrients (plus crop rotation and land rest) conserved soil fertility. Figure b) shows what was narrated in the quote: most human beings already live in cities to which the countryside exports food; the upper segment of the figure has been separated expressing the spatial hiatus between country and city, and only a dotted line remains in the recycling of nutrients: from animals to the soil (plants); recycling from humans to plants has disappeared.

But there would still come a second break in recycling. FyM explain that the availability of cheap synthetic nitrogenous nutrients after World War II made legume plants (which take nitrogen from the air and fix it to the soil) to nourish non-legume plants, which allowed more specialized uses. ground. Among the legumes, clover and alfalfa stand out, with which the cattle were fed. In addition, it was in the interest of large companies to carry out the breeding close to their processing facilities, so it was geographically concentrated. The authors conclude thus:

These two developments in the second half of the 20th century have led to a new phenomenon that resembles that of the separation of people from the agricultural land that so preoccupied Marx and others: the separation of farm animals from the agricultural land that produces their food. Large-scale poultry and hog farms (correctly called factory farms) are owned by corporate integrators or by individual farmers under contract to them. And cattle flocks with tens of thousands of heads are not uncommon. This break in the physical connection between animals and the land that produces their food has worsened nutrient depletion and organic material from growing soils. Agricultural farms have to use large amounts of synthetic fertilizers to compensate for the loss of vast amounts of nutrients in their sold produce.

Figure c) of the graph shows the double spatial separation: animals (and no longer only humans) live and are raised far from farmland, as well as the absence total nutrient recycling: the dotted arrow in figure b) has disappeared.

FyM list the severe environmental consequences of the double breakdown that eliminates nutrient recycling: 1) Large amounts of non-renewable energy are needed to produce, transport and apply fertilizers. They add that around 40% of the energy used for agricultural production is for the production of nitrogen fertilizers. 2) As synthetic fertilizers are soluble in water, contamination of surface and groundwater is generated. The excess of agricultural nutrients leads to the pollution of estuaries and areas of the sea. 3) Even in cities close to farms, most drainage sludge is unsuitable for fertilizing farmland because drains have been contaminated with toxic substances by businesses and households, although here the authors note that the standards of the US environmental agency (which are much more lax than those of Canada and Europe) do consider such sludge adequate. 4) The absence of good rotations in most agricultural farms, caused by the availability of synthetic fertilizers, has resulted in the loss of organic material from the soil and in a decrease in the diversity of organisms that live in it, which facilitates the growth of parasites and pathological agents. This in turn leads to increased use of pesticides (which poison agricultural workers), which is then an indirect result of soil degradation. 5) The cruel conditions of animal husbandry in large-scale facilities create conditions in which diseases can easily spread, inducing the use (even preventive) of antibiotics that contaminate food and lead to the generation of bacteria resistant to them that they become a risk to human health. They claim that the Soviet and European agricultural model

Oriental was a copy of the capitalist. Only China would have been different during the Mao period, which slowed urbanization, stimulated local industry and agricultural self-sufficiency, and Cuba, which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, promoted organic agriculture.

FyM explore what can be done here and now and what with an ecological socialist perspective of world transformation. In the here and now they point out that there are few options: a) Encourage the consumption of local foods; b) recycling (back to the farm) of (non-toxic) food waste from homes, restaurants and markets; c) experiences such as Community Supported Agricultural Farms, in which US families buy shares in a farm's production prior to planting; d) Preventing toxic waste from companies and households from being discharged into the drainage would allow the use of sewage sludge to recycle nutrients, but this would be resisted by companies due to higher costs. From the socialist perspective:

It is important to understand that it is neither a lack of technology nor a lack of understanding of ecological processes that hinders the development of sustainable agricultural systems. A humanistic and sustainable system, socialist and based on solid ecological principles, would take care of sustaining the earth, as Marx said, "as the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations." We can be sure of one thing: future generations will only see us with contempt if we surrender to a system like the present based on the principle of ‘Aprés moi le dèluge’ (after me, the flood).


Source: Own elaboration based on John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, "Liebig, Marx and the Depletion of Soil Fertility", in John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, 2002, p. 162.

1 John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, "Liebig, Marx and the Depletion of Soil Fertility," in J.B. Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2002, pp. 162-163. This article is also available in the book Hungry for Profit, quoted in the delivery of 01/27/12.

Julio Boltvinik - Mexico - Economist from UNAM, with master's degrees in economics and economic development from El Colegio de México and at the University of East Anglia (Great Britain) and a doctorate in social sciences from the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) of West (Guadalajara). http://www.julioboltvinik.org - This article, published on February 3, 2012, is the second in the series "Agribusiness and biotechnology threaten nature and peasants" The first, In the 19th century, the first notable breakdown of agricultural nutrient recycling can be read here


Video: Farm Tank 2016 Panel - Food Transparency (June 2021).