Growing degrowth

On March 26-29 2010 Barcelona hosted the 2nd Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological sustainability and Social Equity. This degrowth meeting linked economic, environmental and social perspectives.  

Many problems related to agriculture are a quantity problem:

  • When there is too much of the same crop on a big field or in one area this is called monoculture. This is bad for biodiversity. It makes the crop vulnerable for pests and the farmers for bad harvests. In general it is a industrialized way of working that is dependent on oil and hardly needs workers.
  • At the moment there is a huge scale enlargement going on in the industrial meat production. This makes the animals also more vulnerable for diseases. The industry depends on a lot of transport: the food is brought in from the other side of the world, the manure has to be transported away from this factory farm and the animals and meat are transported over long distances as well.
  • The free trade ideology is stimulating huge streams of products all around the world. These big streams cause environmental problems and dependencies. This is the case for all products, but for food and agricultural products as well.
  • The companies involved in all this are becoming ever bigger and more powerful. After each acquisition there is less choice for farmers and consumers. Companies  are as well becoming active on more part of the chain: for example seeds & pesticides or land, infrastructure & trade. This results in an abuse of power by those companies.

The production of some crops is too high. There is too much land (and water) needed for the current production of maize, soy, cotton, oil palm and some other large crops. In many countries those export crops push away the products needed for a healthy diet. This is a trend driven by money and the financial power of countries and communities. There is money to produce the animal feed  to produce meat for the rich consumers, there is no money in to use the same fields to produce grain, rice, beans and vegetables for the local people in the South.

Another very important aspect to look at, in relation to degrowth, is the energy use in modern agriculture. After the start of the industrial revolution labour had to be freed for the growing industrial production. Workers were replaced by machines. This also happened in the agricultural sector. This was only possible because of the use of cheap fossil fuel. Oil and gas for transport, for the machines and, even more important, for the production of artificial fertilisers. With the current food production in the West and for the Western market many more kilojoules are needed to produce one kilojoule of food, while agriculture was originally meant to gain energy. Even the production of the so called ‘biofuels’ or agrofuels often needs more energy as input than it produces.
The current conventional agriculture is exhausting the soil. It is reducing the organic matter in the soil. Both in agriculture and many other sectors, economic production and growth are using, and wasting, non-renewable natural resources. The cycle of polluting and attempts for recovering is even adding to the growth figures. This unbalanced use of the word growth is a central issue in the degrowth theories.

Does the previous mean that we should start to eat less? No! But we should choose and produce our meals more efficiently and share our food and resources better. This will improve the situation of millions of people that don’t have access to enough healthy food yet.
An important way to achieve that would be to produce and consume less meat. In general growing  animals is an inefficient way to produce kilojoules and proteins, compared to the production of plants. Livestock farming costs a lot of feed and land.
Another huge problem is that lots of food is thrown away by supermarkets and other retailers and by consumers. People should not buy more than they need, even (or especially?) when it is (too) cheap.
The increasing use of  farmland to produce agrofuels is a dangerous development while it coming in place of nature or food production. In most cases it goes together with a scale enlargement and it makes small farmers loose their land and livelihood. Here agriculture relates to other aspects of consumption and over-consumption.

The quality and the appreciation and respect for quality of food should increase. In general, and probably in line with most degrowth ideas, incomes of people in western countries don’t have to grow. But the position of small farmers has been very precarious in the past years. It is important that the people that produce food in a sustainable and responsible way can make a normal living out of this. Food and eating are important part of our live. Most people prefer to have a good meal three times a day. A bigger part of people’s income could be spend on this. At the moment the average is in the EU is about 19.5 percent (including alcohol), but in the Netherlands this is just 12.5 percent and in for example Germany, the UK and Sweden this is even lower. If you want to degrow and (still) have a nice and comfortable live, it should be easier to reduce the amount of new clothes, electronics and expensive holidays. Set your priorities and choose for quality instead of quantity, especially when it is about food.

In the Global South farmers and peasants have been struggling for food sovereignty for many years. But this is not only something for the south. Also in Europe we should aim to have more small scale sustainable agriculture producers producing for the local market. In many countries all kinds of alternative projects have been popping up in recent years: community supported agriculture, farmers markets, food teams. This is a promising development, as long as we make sure that producing food for the whole population and the the profession of farmer is taken serious and not seen as a hobby.

To improve and degrow the agricultural practice and the food chain it is important that the degrowth movement creates links with networks like La Via Campesina, the Transition Town movement (where food is one of the main issues) and existing progressive farmers, farmers- and/or organic markets, independent small grocery stores and food teams (local groups of alternative consumers).  

Look at good initiatives that have been running for many years or sometimes even centuries . Don’t just copy everything, but see what can work when and where. Try to combine projects to prevent them from staying marginal. Maybe it doesn’t sound like degrowth, but is important that the alternative (social and sustainable) food production and distribution reaches a certain minimum size. There should be distribution points with enough choice. There should be enough of these, so they are accessible for everybody, also for those without cars. The transport of food should be done in big enough quantities to make it efficient and to limit the environmental impact of many small trips. Farmers should be able to produce and sell enough to make a decent living. In short: the agricultural and food alternatives should not stay too small and narrow minded, and should at the same time avoid falling back into the trap of economic growth and competition.

If we want to continue to respond to our needs for food, housing, heating, clothes, without using fossil energy and while regenerating our ecosystems, then we need many more people to do the farming. And when more of us are farming, a bigger part of our incomes should go to food production. This also implies that people should realise food and agriculture are important aspects of a healthy, comfortable way of living and that all the people who make that possible should be appreciated.