The Defining Myth of Food Systems, Agriculture and Land use

In my experience the defining narrative that creates problems in understanding the environmental impact of food production is that of scarcity and the idea that humans need to grow more food.

The narrative is we need more efficient ways of extracting more food from land. As most land use scientists will tell you then, the issue is decoupling food production from land-use.

The problem is that this is all premised on the idea that we need to produce more food whereas in fact we produce far too much, taking up more land than is needed, but most importantly using extractive methods that cause pollution amongst many other things.

The main underlying reason for ending up in this stupid situation is revealed from tracing how decisions are made. These in large part conflate growth in the agricultural sector with efficient production of food, partly because of the technologies of representation used, type of poor reductionist science used, but also just fuzzy headed understanding of growth.

Food production is increasingly a capitalist industry. Every year it needs to grow, whether through selling more tractors or more pesticides or destroying small farmers. This drives farming in a certain direction where we confuse the efficient production of food with economic growth in the agricultural sector.

Furthermore issues in the supply chain, in terms of restaurants and supermarkets requirements for fresh out of season produce to be continually stocked requires gluts of food be made available to seemingly account for changes in consumer demand. This is in fact mostly about economically growing brand lines of food and consumers follow rather than lead. The amount of veg that rots in fields, animal products that rot in supermarket and restaurant bins from this is epic.

There is a drive to actually need the most homogenous continuous supply chains so that marginal gains in growth can be harvested off the top of these standardised supply chains. This promotes things like mass fish farming (and it’s horrendous impacts on fish health, environmental health and human health) that can keep growing the supply of handful of fish on which a litany of capital growth projects depend (not diversity of consumer choice as usually suggested).

There are many other dimensions here to unpack such as nutrition or intensive domestication or enclosure or pandemic production of betting on futures but just making some morning notes for now.