By Esther Vivas
Industrial agriculture has made us dependent on oil. From cultivation, harvesting, marketing and even consumption, we need it. The green revolution, the policies that we were told would modernize agriculture and end hunger, and that were implemented between the 1940s and 1970s, made us "junkies" of this fossil fuel, in part thanks to its relatively cheap price. The machining of agricultural systems and the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are the best example. These policies meant the privatization of agriculture, leaving us, farmers and consumers, in the hands of a handful of agribusiness companies.
Although the green revolution insisted that it would increase food production and consequently end hunger, the reality did not turn out to be like that. On the one hand, the production per hectare did grow. According to FAO data, between the 70s and 90s, total food per capita worldwide rose by 11%. However, this did not have an impact, as Jorge Riechmann points out in his work 'Caring for the (T) earth', in a real decrease in hunger, since the number of hungry people on the planet, in that same period and without counting China whose agricultural policy was governed by other parameters, also rose by 11%, from 536 million to 597.
Instead, the green revolution had very negative consequences for small and medium farmers and for long-term food security. Specifically, it increased the power of agro-industrial companies throughout the production chain, caused the loss of 90% of agriculture and biodiversity, massively reduced the water table, increased salinization and soil erosion, displaced millions of farmers from the countryside to slum cities, dismantling traditional agricultural systems, and made us dependent on oil.
A 'junkie' agriculture
The introduction of large-scale agricultural machinery was one of the first steps. In the United States, for example, in 1850, as the Food, Energy and Society report states, animal traction was the main source of energy in the field, representing 53% of the total, followed by human power, with 13% . One hundred years later, in 1950, both amounted to only 1%, before the introduction of fossil fuel machines. The dependence on agricultural machinery (tractors, harvesters, trucks ...), even more necessary in large plantations and monocultures, is enormous. From production, agriculture is "hooked" to oil.
The current agricultural system with the cultivation of food in large greenhouses regardless of its seasonality and climate also shows its need for petroleum derivatives and high energy consumption. From hoses to containers, padding, screens to roofs and covers, everything is plastic. The Spanish State, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment, is at the forefront of cultivation under plastics in Mediterranean Europe with 66 thousand cultivated hectares, most of it in Andalusia, and in particular Almería, followed, at a greater distance, by Murcia and the Canary Islands. And what to do with so much plastic once its useful life is over?
The intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are yet another example of the food model's addiction to oil. The marketing of fertilizers and pesticides has increased by 18% and 160%, respectively, between 1980 and 1998, according to the report Eating oil: food supply in a changing climate. The dominant agricultural system requires high doses of fertilizers made with oil and natural gas, such as ammonia, urea, etc., which replace the nutrients in the soil. Oil multinationals, such as Repsol, Exxon Mobile, Shell, Petrobras, have investments in the production and marketing of agricultural fertilizers in their portfolio. Synthetic chemical pesticides are another important source of dependence on this fossil fuel. The green revolution, as we analyzed, generalized the use of pesticides and, consequently, the need for oil to make them. And all this, without mentioning the environmental impact of the use of these pesticides, pollution and depletion of land and water, and on the health of farmers and consumers.
We also observe the need for oil on the long journeys that food takes from where it is grown to where it is consumed. It is estimated that food travels an average of 5,000 kilometers from the field to the plate, according to a report by Friends of the Earth, with the consequent need for hydrocarbons and environmental impact. These "traveling foods", according to this report, generate almost 5 million tons of CO2 per year, contributing to the exacerbation of climate change. Food globalization in its race to obtain maximum profit, relocates food production, as it has done with so many other areas of the productive economy. It produces on a large scale in southern countries, taking advantage of precarious working conditions and non-existent environmental legislation, and subsequently selling its merchandise here at a competitive price. Or it produces in the North, thanks to agricultural subsidies in the hands of large companies, to later commercialize said subsidized merchandise on the other side of the planet, selling below cost and creating unfair competition for indigenous production. Herein lies the reason for the kilometric foods: maximum benefit for a few; maximum precariousness, poverty and environmental pollution for the majority.
In 2007, more than 29 million tonnes of food were imported into the Spanish State, 50% more than in 1995. Three-quarters were cereals, cereal preparations and feed for industrial livestock, most of which came from Europe and Central and South America, as stated in the report Food kilometers. Even typical edibles, such as chickpeas or wine, we end up consuming from thousands of miles away. 87% of the chickpeas we eat here come from Mexico, in Spain their cultivation has plummeted. What's the point of this international food rush from a social and environmental point of view? None.
A typical Sunday meal in Great Britain with potatoes from Italy, carrots from South Africa, beans from Thailand, beef from Australia, broccoli from Guatemala and with strawberries from California and blueberries from New Zealand as desserts, according to the report Eating oil: food suply in a changing climate, 650 times more greenhouse gases, due to transportation, than if such food had been grown and purchased locally. The total number of kilometers that the set of these "traveling foods" add from the field to the table is 81 thousand, the equivalent of two whole circles of planet earth. Something irrational, if we take into account that many of these products are grown in the territory. Britain imports large quantities of milk, pork, lamb, and other staples, even though it exports similar quantities of them. Here, the same thing happens.
And once the food reaches the supermarket, what happens? Plastic and more plastic, with petroleum derivatives. Thus, we find a primary packaging that contains the food, a secondary packaging that allows an attractive display in the establishment and, finally, bags to take it home from the "super". In Catalonia, for example, of the 4 million tons of annual waste, 25% correspond to plastic packaging. Supermarkets pack everything, sale in bulk has gone down in history. A study commissioned by the Catalan Consumer Agency concluded that shopping in local shops generated 69% less waste than doing so in a supermarket or a large area.
A personal anecdote illustrates this trend well. As a child, at home they bought bottled water in large eight-liter glass jugs, today almost all the water that is sold is bottled in plastic containers. And it has even become fashionable to buy it in packs of six and a half liter units. It is not surprising, then, that of the 260 million tons of plastic waste in the world, most of it is containers of water or milk bottles, as indicated by Fundación Tierra. The Spanish State, according to this source, is the main producer in Europe of single-use plastic bags and the third largest consumer. It is estimated that the useful life of a plastic bag is 12 minutes on average, but it can take about 400 years to decompose. Draw conclusions.
We live on a plastic planet, as the Austrian Werner Boote brilliantly portrayed in his film 'Plastic Planet' (2009), where he stated: "The amount of plastic that we have produced since the beginning of the plastic age is enough to wrap up to six times the planet with bags. " And not only that, what impact does its omnipresence have on health in our daily lives? A testimony in that film said: "We eat and drink plastic." And this, as the documentary denounces, sooner or later, takes its toll on us.
Large-scale distribution has not only generalized the consumption of huge amounts of plastic, but also the use of the car to go shopping. The proliferation of hypermarkets, department stores and shopping centers on the outskirts of cities has forced the use of private cars to travel to these establishments. If we take Great Britain as an example, and as the report Eating oil: food suply in a changing climate indicates, between 1985/86 and 1996/98 the number of trips per week per person by car to do the shopping went from 1 , 7 to 2.4. The total distance covered also increased, from 14km per person per week to 22km, an increase of 57%. More kilometers, more oil and more CO2, also to the detriment of local trade. If in 1998 there were 95 thousand stores in Spain, in 2004 this figure had been reduced to 25 thousand.
What to do?
According to the International Energy Agency, conventional oil production reached its peak in 2006. In a world where oil is scarce, what and how are we going to eat? In the first place, it is necessary to take into account that the more industrial, intensive, kilometric, globalized agriculture, the more dependence on oil. On the contrary, a peasant, agroecological, local, seasonal system, less "addition" to fossil fuels. The conclusion, I think, is clear.
It is urgent to bet on a model of agriculture and food antagonistic to the dominant one, which puts the needs of the majority and the ecosystem at the center. It is not about a romantic return to the past, but about the urgent need to take care of the land and guarantee food for everyone. Either we bet on change or when there is no choice but to change, others, as so often, will do business with our misery. Let's not let history repeat itself.