Ecological and social conditions are mostly ignored in a system in which profit is the goal: Fred Magdoff discusses capitalist agriculture
Fred Magdoff, Professor Emeritus, University of Vermont, Plant and Soil Science, in an interview conducted by Farooque Chowdhury in June 2021, discusses aspects of capitalist agriculture, and politics with the agriculture system. The interview was conducted in view of Fred Magdoff’s (with Professor Harold van Es) forthcoming 4th edition of the Building Soils for Better Crops. Fred Magdoff, a regular Monthly Review contributor, is author of numerous articles and books on soil fertility, ecology, ecological agriculture, problems of capitalist agriculture, and the U.S. economy, including Minimizing Nitrate Leaching in Agricultural Production: How Good Can We Get? (1992), A Rational Agriculture is Incompatible with Capitalism (2015), Approaching Socialism, Harmony and Ecological Civilization, Multiple Crises as Symptoms of an Unsustainable System, An Ecologically Sound and Socially Just Economy (2014), The Problem is Capitalism, The World Food Crisis: Sources and Solutions (2008), Twenty-First-Century Land Grabs: Accumulation by Agricultural Dispossession (2013), Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal, Leibig, Marx, and the Depletion of Soil Fertility: Relevance for Today’s Agriculture, The Great Financial Crisis, Causes and Consequences (with John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2009),
What Every Enviromentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism (with John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2011), and Creating an Ecologial Society (with Chris Williams, Monthly Review Press, 2017). Farooque Chowdhury is author/editor of a number of books in Baanglaa and English including Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis, The Great Financial Crisis, What Next, Interviews with John Bellamy Foster (ed.) and a pamphlet-series on the Great October Revolution, writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Farooque Chowdhury: Your (with Professor Harold van Es) book Building Soils for Better Crops is coming out of print shop soon. It’s going to be the book’s 4th edition. Why is the book in such a demand?
Fred Magdoff: I think that there are a number of reasons. There are few solid resources on managing soil using ecologically sound practices. In addition, the book, while rigorous and comprehensive, is written using what might be called plain language, with a minimum of jargon. It was written to be accessible to farmers in the United States and extension agents who advise farmers. We know that it is also used in university agroecology courses here in the U.S. We have heard directly from farmers and extension agents that they have found the book to be very helpful. Although it has been translated into Chinese, I hope there will be more use of the book abroad. The material can be customized for situations and conditions in other parts of the world. While specific details may differ, the general problems such as erosion, loss of organic matter, loss of biodiversity, common use of intensive tillage, and so on are experienced in all countries. And the general approaches to creating a healthy soil are also the same no matter where you live.
The practices discussed and promoted will help repair and heal soils degraded by erosion as well as loss of organic matter, soil biodiversity, and soil structure caused by industrial-style farming promoted by corporations that uses high amounts of inputs from off the farm, poor crop rotations (including mono-cropping), intensive tillage, and separation of animals from the land that grows their feed and concentrating them in factory-style farms.
FC: Is there any reason for an ordinary reader like me who is concerned with ecology-environment to go through the book? Or, is the book only for farmers, soil scientists and students?
FM: Farmers, people who work with them (such as agricultural extension educators) are the main audience for the book. But we hope that people who are interested in gardening will find it of use. Those interested in ecology and environmental issues may find certain chapters of particular interest. For example, Chapter 8–“Soil Health, Plant Health and Pests”—contains discussion of some basic ecological concepts, and how to build strengths of natural systems into agricultural ecosystems. This means paying attention to the promotion of healthy habitat in and surrounding the field as well as in the soil. The chapter also discusses the ways that plants defend themselves from diseases and insects, even emitting chemicals that attract beneficial insects to counter insects feeding on their leaves. Because soil supports all terrestrial life, it is one of Earth’s key natural resource. It is not only essential for our food supply but also influences key regional and global cycles such as the carbon cycle and the hydrologic cycle. All people–especially those interested in the environment and ecology–should become more familiar with their properties and importance.
FC: You, in the book, have claimed that an article by three scientists in Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin No. 135, (1908) “is strikingly modern in many ways.” You have also claimed that Edward Faulkner’s Plowman’s Folly is as valid today as in 1943 when it was first published.” After so many years, more than a century, and more than 70 years, how such claims stand as, by this time, capitalism has turned more aggressive, more intensive, more wide; its clawing of everything including soil has turned more brutal? How do you substantiate your claim?
FM: There is a mountain of evidence that supports the claims you mentioned. Many articles in recent scientific journals and books indicate both the profound importance of soil organic matter (as claimed in the 1908 publication) and the value of greatly reducing soil disturbance that commonly occurs when farmers plow and harrow soils to prepare for planting (as Faulkner claimed in the 1940s). Some farmers are already using these ideas to improve their practices.
Agriculture that developed under the conditions of capitalism in the United States and Europe, emphasized production of undifferentiated commodities to sell into regional, national, and international markets. The emphasis and incentives of the system lead toward many problematic practices such as mono-cropping: growing the same crop again and again without rotation and covering large areas of land with a single crop. These lead to loss of soil fertility, biodiversity, and water storage capability. It also leads to soil compaction and creates conditions that promote outbreaks of organisms that harm plants (usually referred to as pests). There are also built-in incentives to create ever-larger farms, putting small farmers out of business. In other words, ecological and social conditions are mostly ignored in a system in which production for profit is the goal. However, farmer experience and scientific evidence indicate that we know how to grow an abundance of food using ecologically sound methods. What’s needed is a system that not only encourages such an approach and has a goal of providing everyone with a varied and wholesome diet.
FC: In the book, you write, “Many civilizations have collapsed from unsustainable land use, including the cultures of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, where the agricultural revolution first occurred about 10,000 years ago. The United Nations estimates that 2.5 billion acres have suffered erosion since 1945 and that 38% of global cropland has become seriously degraded since then.” And, “In the past, humankind survived because people developed new lands. But a few decades ago the total amount of agricultural land actually began to decline as new land could no longer compensate for the loss of old land.” And, “We […] are running out of land. We have already seen hunger and civil strife […] over limited land resources and productivity, and a global food crisis break out in 2008. Some countries with limited water or arable land are purchasing or renting land in other countries to produce food for the ‘home’ market.”And, “The food we eat and our surface and groundwaters are sometimes contaminated with disease-causing organisms and chemicals […] Pesticides […] can be found in foods, animal feeds, groundwater, and surface water running off agricultural fields. Farmers and farm workers are at special risk. […] [H]igher cancer rates among those who work with or near certain pesticides. Children […] are also at risk of having developmental problems.” And, “[F]armers are in a perpetual struggle to maintain a decent standard of living.” How do you relate these issues in the book?
FM: The book’s purpose was not to go into details about the ecological damage done by conventional agricultural practices. Rather it was to discuss how to manage an agroecosystem holistically in order to try to avoid such problems. Thus, we only briefly point out the damage caused by the lack of attention to ecological principles as agriculture developed under the constraints and incentives of the profit motive. The dramatic increase in the use of pesticides in the 20th century took place in the context of ever larger fields, decreased emphasis is on crop rotation, and ignoring soil health. Each occurrence of an insect or disease or weed that might harm crops as was treated as a separate issue, each dealt with by applying pesticides, the suggested approach of the agro-chemical corporations (who, of course, profit from sales of these materials). However, the problems of soil degradation and pest outbreaks that plague farming are primarily the result of inadequate and un-ecological management of farms and fields–lack of good rotations and/or polycropping, not using cover crops, intensively tilling soil, and so on.
FC: The issues you have addressed in the book are related to, if I’m not wrong, a particular type of agriculture–a capitalist agriculture, an agriculture defined by imperialist world market system. It’s the reality irrespective of country, other than a few, in today’s world. Does the book signal this?
FM: The forces of capitalist economies tend to push farmers in certain directions such as mono-cropping, selecting crops based on expected short-term return and not towards what is needed for promoting a balanced ecosystem that can feed all the people in the community, region, or country. In addition, the agri-chemical industry that developed in the 20th century provides much of the information that is readily available to farmers. They, of course, push the use of inputs that they can profit from–especially fertilizers, pesticides, and proprietary seeds (many of which are GM). On the other hand, as we stress in the book, ecological approaches aim towards prevention of problems through management practices that build strong and resilient agroecosystems.
FC: The book says: “The whole modern system of agriculture and food is based on extensive use of fossil fuels […] With the price of energy so much greater than just a few years ago, the economics of the ‘modern’ agricultural system may need to be reevaluated.” So, it means, there’s politics. Am I wrong?
FM: You are not wrong. The current system of large-scale production and intensive use of inputs from off the farm is expensive. And it is not just the fuel used on the farm; a significant amount of energy goes into production of nitrogen fertilizers as well as other inputs.
The system especially harms small farms. Large farmers have economies of scale on use of large equipment. They also have other advantages; because of the quantity of inputs they purchase, they usually get discounts. And when they sell their products they may actually receive more per unit. Thus, there are economic advantages of scale as well as the physical advantages of scale such as using a tractor over more acres. And, of course, being highly mechanized, they produce more per hour of labor than do smaller size farms.This means that they can make profits on lower prices than a smaller farm is able to. This is why smaller farms tend to be pushed out of existence as the number and size of large farms grows.
Any challenge to an entrenched system such as that of “modern” agriculture means confronting powerful economic and political forces that promote and profit from the current system. This means that farmers and farm organizations need to counter these forces politically as well as directly working through organizations to implement new ecologically-based practices. And there are organizations doing this in countries around the world. On all continents there are groups that are promoting agroecology, which promotes both ecologically sound practices and progressive social relations. (A short video about the global reach of agroecology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqfInrTfs-U)
FC: What should the small/marginal farmers, in the face of invasion of large industrial agriculture companies—or we may call these industrial-agriculture complex in view of their world-wide operations beginning from production of inputs used on farms to farming (the actual production) to marketing and their control over policies of state machines—do to survive? Isn’t it a struggle for humankind’s survival, a struggle against capital’s scourging of soil–a base for survival?
FM: Increasing farm scale, the concentration of the input (seeds, agrichemicals, farm machinery) and output (purchasing and processing) industries, and the opening up to widespread food imports from other countries puts immense pressure on small farmers. If they are selling a lot of their crops in local markets, as I just mentioned, it is hard to compete with generally low commodity prices that might be sufficient for a large farm. This is a political and economic issue and cries out for solution at the national level. But, it is also part of a system that tends to degrade soils and pollute the environment.
I think that the best that farmers can do in the face of such pressures is to join together in local groups that promote agroecological practices and also help with marketing products. Pressure can be applied on local institutions such as schools, restaurants, and hospitals to purchase from local small farmers instead of through the normal marketing channels. So even beforea transformation of the entire society or its agriculture, there are approaches that farmers can use to improve the health of their soil and of their farm.
FC: You were in Venezuela, helping with a workshop in a farming community. What’s that experience? How do you relate that experience with lessons of your Building Soils for Better Crops?
FM: The workshop was held in the Andean region of Venezuela in which farmers were growing relatively few economically rewarding crops. The village’s land was mostly on hillsides and evidence of soil erosion was quite visible. It reminded me of something that we stress in the book–that while each farm and field might be different, and farmers in different parts of the world and with unique soil conditions don’t have the same constraints, there are general ecologically sound practices that are widely applicable. Of course, they need to be modified or customized for the particular local conditions. But even under harsh conditions such as highly erodible soils there are practices to ameliorate the situation. For example, cover crops could be grown when the soil would otherwise be bare, providing ground cover and enhancing soil health. Also, diversion ditches that move surface water gently across the slopes can help significantly. With few crops being grown by the village’s farmers, sometimes the same crop was grown in successive years, other crops need to be explored to try to develop a more complex rotation and enhance biodiversity.