Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Grains of Truth (2017)

Book Review from the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The Great Climate Robbery'. New Internationalist, £9.99.

This volume has been produced by GRAIN, ‘a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems’ ( It consists primarily of excerpts from or summaries of reports issued by them, focussing on how global warming is in part caused by current methods of food production, but also dealing with a number of other topics.

It is claimed that ‘the industrial food system is a major driver of climate change’, with around half of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the food system. This covers deforestation, food waste, refrigeration, transport, processing and packaging. Farming practices contribute as well, in the form of petrol to run machinery and the use of chemical fertilisers. A small number of giant fertiliser companies are the major users of shale gas from fracking, and, once applied to the soil, fertilisers result in large amounts of nitrous oxide, which is far more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Cutting out the use of chemical fertilisers could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to ten percent, it is argued, and would allow farmers to rebuild organic matter in the soil and so increase fertility. Of course profit is the force behind these industrial farming methods.

Different kinds of food make different contributions to climate change. The worst are red meat, cheese, fish and poultry, with lentils, fruit, milk and vegetables having the least impact. Processed foods, which use soybeans and palm oil among other products, are big greenhouse gas emitters and are being consumed more and more. Cutting down on meat and dairy production – which does not imply everyone becoming vegan – could make a major change in emissions.

If industrial agriculture is the main enemy, small farmers are seen as very much part of the solution. Peasants occupy only a quarter of the world’s agricultural land but, it is claimed, produce most of the world’s food. A brief discussion is given of what counts as a family farm, since some large industrial farms are ‘family-owned’, but there is no consistent definition of what is a small farm (it varies from one country to another), and it is not even clear from the text whether a small farmer is the same as a peasant. About half of all small farms are in China and India, but small farms have in general been getting smaller. Small farms are more productive than really large ones, and contribute much less to climate change.

The reader is told that ‘global food production could be doubled within a decade’ if better policies towards small farmers were adopted. But also, ‘the world produces plenty of food to feed everyone, year after year’, with hunger being caused by poverty and exclusion, not a lack of food. Some further discussion of these points would have been a very good idea.

A couple of chapters contain some interesting material that does not relate very directly to the book’s main theme. One deals with restrictions on the use of seeds, which further penalise, and indeed criminalise, small farmers. Another covers aspects of the control of the global food system; for instance, the Gates Foundation has spent $3bn in agricultural grants, but little of this money actually goes to farmers.

It is not possible now to say definitively how food production will be organised in socialism, but considerations such as those raised here will certainly be central. 
Paul Bennett

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