CHAPTER 7 – A POLITICAL ECOLOGY APPROACH TO INDUSTRIAL FOOD PRODUCTION
• As with all commodities, food is shrouded in mystery, with consumers having limited knowledge about
what went into making them and their prices.
• The fact that these relations and costs are hidden and largely incomprehensible is something Marx
called commodity fetishism. Put another way, most consumers see food as having a price, a brand,
a country of origin, but would find it difficult or impossibly to answer a host of basic questions about
most of what they eat with any precision.
• Political ecology gives attention to the political economic tendencies, power imbalances, and
ecological instabilities in how systems operate.
Agriculture as a Relatively Closed-Loop System
• Intercropping patterns (planting multiple crops in mutually beneficial combinations) helped soil loss,
pests, and drought.
• Another way of understanding the locally oriented nature of agricultural landscapes is that they had to
be based upon relatively ‘closed-loop’ cycles of biological and physical materials:
• Soil is the ‘living skin of the earth’, a combination of biological and physical materials that ultimately
underpins all human civilizations; without great care it tends to be lost much more quickly than it
The Industrial Revolution in Agriculture: Scale, Mechanization, and Standardization
• The scope of traded food increased with the onset of European colonialism and the rising movement
both of tropical commodities and of temperate grain and livestock products.
• Colonialism established new trade patterns and dependencies
• The distinctive capitalism imperatives of incessant competition, growth, and accumulation are
entwined with the pressure to achieve economies of scale: in essence, to increase output per
worker in order to reduce the relative cost of labour in production.
• Economies of scale are primary attributed to the wonders of technological innovation but another
crucial element is the role of fossil fuels in running machines and factories and in reducing the friction
of distance in moving commodities around – sometimes described as the compression of time and
o US & Canada are the most advances, making them the world’s largest surplus-producing
and exporting region
o Farmers make up only 2% of the workforce, only 1/400 farmers in the world, yet account
for more than 1/8 of total world agro-exports by value and an even greater volume of
basic food staples.
• Oil, natural gas, and coal account for about 4/5ths of the world’s total primary energy supply, with oil
providing all the liquid fuel that powers transportation systems.
• In order for technology to replace human labour, the production process must be standardized in
terms of both physical space and the nature of work. Small fields with different croups and small
animal population cannot compete with large, labour-saving machinery.
• The basic imperative is thus to reduce biodiversity in terms of the numbers of plant and animal
species on farms, the ways they interact, and the biological structure of individual species.
o Biodiversity – the range of plant and animal species in a given area, and their complex
• Thus the loss of biodiversity can be seen from the large scale of monoculture (single crop) fields
down to the microscope scale of plant and animal genetics.
o Monoculture – the biological simplification of a farm or landscape to focus on the
production of a single crop, which also typically entails a reduction in genetic diversity
within that given crop type.
• Genetic enhancement – in conventional terms, the yield gains made by crossing varieties within the
same species of plant and livestock breeds. This practice was instrumental to the rising productivity
gains in the second half of the 20 century. The Industrial Grain-Oilseed-Livestock Complex
• Today only 10 crops account for roughly 3/4s of humanity’s plant-based calories, and only 5 livestock
animals are responsible for virtually all meat, eggs, and milk consumed on a global scale.
• Industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex – describes how agricultural systems across much of
the temperate world are dominated by a small number of grain and oilseed monocultures and a small
number of livestock species reared in high-density factory farms and feedlots, with large volumes of
grains and oilseeds cycled through livestock.
o Focused on:
o Maize and wheat, & a few secondary grains
o Soybeans and secondarily canola (or rapeseed)
o Pigs, poultry, and cattle
At the centre of livestock revolution.
• Industrial reared animals consume more than 1/3 of the world’s grain harvest
• Livestock revolution – global expansion of production and consumption of livestock in recent years
that makes meat and dairy products more accessible for wider segments of the human population
while creating ethical and environmental concerns.
• Animal flesh has been driven to the centre of human diets, known as ‘meatification’ of diets. Average
person eats 2x as much meat as 3 generations ago, despite the human population doubling.
• A person in an industrialized country consumes more than 2.5x more meat than someone from a
developing country. US & Canada – 4x more poultry, 3x more beef, 6x more cheese, 1/3 more
calories, 50% more protein, and nearly 100% more fat.
• 1/4s of all US pigs are confined in operations with more than 5000 animals, 99% of meat chickens are
raised in operations which sell more than 100,000 birds a year.
Agriculture as a Through-Flow Process
• The range of ways that biological and physical problems are magnified or created due to the increase
of external inputs needed to produce massive outputs:
o Reduced fallowing (leaving fields unplanted for a season to let them regain fertility) and
short time horizons driven by competitive pressures
o Reduced recycling
o Reduced soil moisture retention and increased erosion
o Damage done to soil biota (the living component of soil) from increased tillage (ploughing
and compaction by large machinery)
o Weeds and insects
o ‘thirstier’ enhanced seeds
o Increased risk of animal health, diseases and behaviours
o Increased food safety concerns
• The net result is a system with deep biological and physical instabilities – a system that hinges on its
ability to override those instabilities with a host of inputs (which therefore might be understood as
biophysical overrides), such that the system comes to resemble a through-flow process.
o Defined: external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides used to compensate for the
biological and physical problems caused by industrial agriculture.
• The principal source of energy on farms shifts from the sun to fossil fuels.
• One of the most fundamental problems in industrial agriculture is the speed at which key nutrients
and soil organisms are lost, which has been called soil mining. Soil mining in industrial agriculture is
primarily overridden with three fertilizers – nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium – from inorganic
• Pest problems become problematic within industrial monocultures are overridden with a large volume
of chemical pesticides, the umbrella term for herbicides (targeting weeds), insecticides, fungicides,
o Defined: natural or artificial ingredients used for preventing, destroying, repelling, or
mitigating pest infestation.
The Hidden Environmental Costs of Cheap Food • Through-flow process depends upon a large budget of non-renewable resources.
• The fact that this burden does not register as costs within the prevailing economic system – and is
largely externalized – is a major reason why industrial food has long been so cheap.
• Food Miles
o As scale and mechanization expand, landscapes are specialized to produce large
quantities of a few crops, rural populations decline, communities are separated from their
surrounding countrysides, control is centralized in large corporate intermediaries, and
food travels further from land to mouth.
o Food miles – describes the distance that food travels from ‘and to mouth’ or ‘field to
fork’. The increasing recognition of the oil and carbon emissions embedded in food miles
has had an important role in local food movements.
• Soil Mining
o One of the least recognized environmental costs in the industrial food system. Some say
it’s the most worrisome of all global environmental problems.
o Soil degradation has played a part in the decline of civilizations.
o Rather than responding to the causes, the primary industrial response has been the
repeated, short-term fix of industrial fertilizers to replace lost nitrogen, phosphorous, and
potassium, and these fertilizers involve a host of environmental costs.
• Fertilizers from Production to Farm
o Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are by far the largest soil input by volume. Manufactured
through the Haber-Bosch process of combining atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen, with
natural gas and coal used as the main feedstock, or key resource input.
o Fertilizers accounts for a significant share of both the overall fossil energy budget and of
the carbon emissions in industrial agriculture.
• Pesticides from Production to Farm
o The pesticide treadmill