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Contemporary agriculture: climate, capital, and cyborg ecology

Agriculture is probably the productive sector most vulnerable to climate change, for the obvious physical reasons. It is also the sector which is the basis for all others. UN bodies have focused on a ‘food security’ approach, incorporating many controversial practices such as transgenic (genetically modified) crops, high inputs of agrochemicals and water, and increased integration of farmers into commodity and financial markets. Against this model, agrarian social movements spearheaded by La Via Campesina have proposed a vision of ‘food sovereignty’, based on local production, distribution, and organic methods. While sympathetic to these social movements, we find the strict distinction between traditional and modern methods closes off important possibilities. We propose to rethink these questions of social relations, nourishment, technology, anti-capitalist struggle, and scientific and practical knowledges through the lens of cyborg ecology.

Climate change and food security

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report (‘AR5’) in 2014 reported that:

Negative impacts of climate trends have been more common than positive ones. (…) Since AR4 [2007], there have been several periods of rapid food and cereal price increases following climate extremes in key producing regions, indicating a sensitivity of current markets to climate extremes, among other factors. Several of these climate extremes were made more likely as the result of anthropogenic emissions.

The report finds that while some regions, mainly northern high latitudes, could see increased agricultural yields, on balance the impact on yields is likely to be negative. In the near-term, out to 2050, the impacts are not catastrophic, with only 10% of projections showing yield losses of more than 25%, compared to the late 20th century levels. However, “after 2050, the risk of more severe impacts increases”.

Business-as-usual global warming puts average global temperatures on course for 4-6°C warming by 2100. The IPCC warn that “Global temperature increases of ~4°C or more above late-20th-century levels, combined with increasing food demand, would pose large risks to food security globally and regionally (high confidence). Risks to food security are generally greater in low latitude areas.” Parsing the IPCC’s somewhat technocratic language from their previous reports into plain English, author Mark Lynas writes that “it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that mass starvation will be a permanent danger for much of the human race in a four-degree world.”

As the above references to food price rises and ‘low latitude areas’ suggest, these impacts are unevenly distributed. Mass hunger is mediated by market dynamics, and doesn’t necessarily require an absolute scarcity of food (see our short article here). Indeed, already today hundreds of millions go hungry, while at the same time up to half of the world’s food supply goes to waste and substantial areas of land are dedicated to producing cattle feed and biofuels. “The 2008 food crisis, which pushed around 100 million people into hunger, was not so much a result of a food shortage as (…) market volatility.”

Hence, even under the more extreme climate scenarios, the technical possibilities for feeding the world’s population exceed the economic ‘optimum’, which reckons not in terms of needs but ability to pay. The editorial from a special feature on food for the journal Nature comments:

Admittedly, climate change adds a large degree of uncertainty to projections of agricultural output, but that just underlines the importance of monitoring and research to refine those predictions. That aside, in the words of one official at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the task of feeding the world’s population in 2050 in itself seems “easily possible”.

However, the practicability of feeding everybody, and indeed of producing the food required to do so (a separate matter, still eminently possible), is premised on the idea ‘all the options are on the table’, including controversial practices such as transgenic crops (GMOs), ‘modernisation’ of land tenure (new enclosures), further integration of small farmers into financialised markets, and the use of synthetic fertilisers and insecticides. Practices such as these have become flashpoints in a polarisation between two visions of world food production, one of them multinational, biotech-led, the other a ‘peasant’ alternative promoted by social movements like La Via Campesina and intellectual-activists like Vandana Shiva.

Agribusiness and agrarian struggles

As we discussed in our previous article, there is no single class of ‘peasants’, but rather several heterogeneous strata of wage labourers, sharecroppers, petty commodity producers, patriarchal family farms, and small-scale capitalist farmers. Nonetheless, agrarian social movements have emerged from these strata to challenge aspects of capitalist agriculture, particularly dispossession from the land, and the use of transgenic crops. Among the more famous of these movements are the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil, and the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (ELZN) in Chiapas, Mexico. Both movements have organised land-takeovers and established growers’ cooperatives, whilst also engaging in wider social movement struggles.

The MST and ELZN do not only recruit from the existing rural population, but also draw on a second generation of members returning to the land from the precarious, impoverished urban proletariat; an attempted ‘re-peasantization’ or ‘decolonial exodus’ from the wage labour relation.

Post-autonomist thinker Paolo Virno defines exodus from the class relation thus: “Exodus is a committed withdrawal, the recourse to force is no longer gauged in terms of the conquest of State power in the land of the pharaohs, but in relation to the safeguarding of the forms of life and communitarian relations experienced en route.” However, one of his main examples is explicitly settler-colonial – North American workers fleeing wage labour for the frontier “in order to colonize low-cost land”. For Latin American land movements, especially in the case of the ELZN, this flight for autonomy from the state and the wage relation has an expressly decolonial aspect. Paolo Virno, Virtuosity and Revolution. The MST is one of the more high-profile member-organisations of the ‘peasant international’ La Via Campesina (LVC), which claims to represent 200 million farmers. Both MST and other LVC member-groups have consistently organised against multinational agribusiness, and particularly against genetically modified crops. On international women’s day in 2008, a large occupation by 1,000 MST and LVC activists destroyed GM corn, while as recently as March 2015 another 1,000 MST women destroyed GM eucalyptus. LVC has described GM crops in Mexico as “a crime against humanity”. These actions have incurred violent repression, with assassinations of activists, including the murder of MST activist Valmir Mota de Oliveira, who was executed during an occupation of a Syngenta GM site in 2007.

An examination of the grievances with GM crops is instructive. These fall into two basic categories: economic and technical. Prominent among the economic grounds for opposition is the effect on trade, with MST activists citing cross-contamination as leading to loss of organic status, and subsequent loss of premium prices for their produce. This is a grievance that unites the various commodity-producing agrarian strata grouped under the category of peasantry. Another economic grievance is the effect of seed monopolies on input prices. For example, Vandana Shiva claims seed prices in India rose 71,000% after Monsanto cornered the market, and argues that seed patents represent an enclosure of the genetic commons.
This aspect of monopoly and enclosure raises a third economic objection; demands for local control versus the globalised centralisation of capital.

Technical grievances refer to the properties of specific transgenic crops, sometimes dubiously described as “poisonous”: they are often designed to require high inputs of water, synthetic fertilisers, and insecticides (the monetary costs of which also constitute an economic grievance; though this high-input requirement is common to the non-GM high yielding varieties of the Green Revolution too). These factors can lock in the ecologically damaging aspects of industrial agriculture, such as workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals, death of pollinators, and pollution of waterways by agrochemical runoff. Indeed, GMOs like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready lines are specifically designed to lock-in monopolistic use of their accompanying agrochemicals. There is also the question of the ‘ecological arms race’ triggered by pest-resistant GMOs. For example, in 2014, it was found that Bt maize – genetically engineered to produce insecticidal toxins derived from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium – had created selective pressure for Bt-resistant pest species.
Such an arms race, in turn, further locks-in monopoly control by big agribusiness, amplifying the economic grievances.

LVC’s proposed alternative to the dominant ‘food security’ approach is ‘food sovereignty’, understood as the right to “healthy and culturally appropriate food”, prioritising “local food production and consumption”.
Similarly, Vandana Shiva’s understanding of food sovereignty is that:

Self-organized production rests on the principles of agroecology, and self-organized distribution rests on the the principles of localisation – local consumption through local markets.

Shiva’s advocacy of local markets here comes within pages of her decrying that “food has been reduced to a commodity”, while at the same time advocating “fair trade”.
This tension reflects the class composition of contemporary agrarian social movements, which “brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers.”
Insofar as a common interest is found, it is that of petty commodity producers versus the big capital of agribusiness. But, as these remarks have already intimated, opposition to the centralisation of capital is not necessarily opposition to capitalist relations per se.

The organic yield gap

Shiva claims that “organic farming produces more food and higher incomes.”
The latter part of this statement is very likely true; many Western consumers are willing to pay a premium for largely imaginary health and nutrition benefits.
The first part of the statement, however, is more questionable; or at least, more complicated. A comprehensive meta-analysis published in Nature found “5% lower organic yields (rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils), 13% lower yields (when best organic practices are used), to 34% lower yields (when the conventional and organic systems are most comparable).”
Shiva however, argues precisely against a like-for-like comparison, insisting that the alternative to high-input monoculture is low-input biodiversity (i.e. forms of polyculture).

A table presented by Shiva claims physical yield gaps of 23%, 66%, and 75% in favour of “biodiverse” vs “monoculture” production for three comparison sets.
However, the reference is to an unspecified “Navdanya study” (Navdanya is the NGO Shiva co-founded), not a peer-reviewed scientific publication. The claim is not as implausible as it may sound. Polyculture practices can fill more ecological niches in the same space, and can, in principle, therefore boost physical yields while preventing weeds and limiting pests. On the other hand, polycultures can be less amenable to mechanical harvesting, and so are often more labour-intensive and less economically productive. A study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society did find “that two agricultural diversification practices, multi-cropping and crop rotations, substantially reduce the yield gap (to 9±4% and 8±5%, respectively) when the methods were applied in only organic systems” (these same techniques also boosted non-organic production, maintaining a yield gap in like-for-like comparison).

We have not been able to find any meta-analysis or systematic review in the peer-reviewed literature that shows yield gaps in favour of organic agriculture, especially in like-for-like comparison. However individual studies – rather than systematic reviews or meta-analyses – do exist. One 2007 study found that “for most food categories, the average yield ratio was slightly 1.0 for studies in the developing world.”
As even the favourable studies don’t find large superior organic yields, we are compelled to doubt Shiva’s claims on this count.
However, Shiva also makes an important argument against a narrow focus on physical or economic yields:

The promotion of so-called high-yielding varieties leads to the displacement of biodiversity. It also destroys the ecological functions of biodiversity. The loss of diverse outputs is never taken into account by the one-dimensional calculus of productivity. When the benefits of biodiversity are taken into account, biodiverse systems have higher output than monocultures.

This claim is plausible so long as ‘output’ is understood broadly to include both negative and positive ‘externalities’. Notwithstanding the problems with attempting to price so-called ‘ecosystem services’, estimates suggest they “contribute more than twice as much to human well-being as global GDP.”
When factors such as the poisoning of essential pollinators by insecticides, the depletion of soil fertility and the emissions involved in synthetic fertiliser manufacture, emissions from transport and refrigeration, possibilities for soil-based carbon sequestration, and the pollution caused by agrichemical runoff are all taken into account, it does seem plausible that the narrow economic efficiency of capital-intensive agriculture may disappear using a wider ecological calculus.

Additionally, most comparisons between conventional and organic are under optimal conditions – precisely the kind of stable, predictable growing conditions threatened by climate chaos. “Extrapolations of future crop yields must take into account the high likelihood that climate disruptions will increase the incidence of droughts and flooding in which case (…) OA [organic agriculture] systems are likely to out-yield CA [conventional agriculture] systems.”
This is because conventional high-yielding varieties are optimised for fairly specific growing conditions, including high water inputs, and for grains in particular, “temperatures over 30°C cause an escalating pattern of damage.”
However alternative practices can have greater climate resilience. For example, intercropping a taller crop can provide cooling partial shade, while organically farmed soils are often more resistant to water and wind erosion. Ecological efficiency should also include the effects of shifting from feeding cattle (feedstock)
and cars (biofuels) to feeding people, and measures to reduce massive food waste. It is precisely this reckoning with a multiplicity of incommensurable use-values which eludes capitalist commodity production.

Cyborg ecology

Imagine you’re a rice plant. What do you want? You want to grow up and make babies before the insects who are your predators grow up and make babies to eat your tender shoots. So you divide your energy between growing as quickly as you can and producing toxins in your leaves to repel pests. Now let’s say you’re a researcher trying to wean the Californian farmer off pesticides. You’re breeding rice plants that produce more alkaloid toxins in their leaves. If the pesticides are applied externally, they count as chemicals – and large amounts of them find their way into the bodies of illegal immigrants from Mexico who are hired to pick the crop. If they’re inside the plant, they count as natural, but they may find their way into the bodies of the consumers who eat the rice.

Donna Haraway’s point is not just to note that ‘natural’ does not equal ‘good’, a fallacious appeal to nature all too common in environmental rhetoric. Crucially, her claim is that the neat distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ itself does not withstand scrutiny. As Haraway puts it in the Cyborg Manifesto: “the certainty of what counts as nature — a source of insight and promise of innocence — is undermined, probably fatally.” Riffing on Haraway, we call this insight cyborg ecology.

A cyborg suspicion of ‘organic holism’ – the notion of an original wholeness – and sharp binaries between natural and artificial, living and nonliving, can be productively applied to many aspects of the contemporary advocacy of organic farming. This perspective can generatively be contrasted to Shiva’s claim that “to be organic means to be whole and wholesome”,
and the corresponding sharp binary distinction between “authentic organic farming [which] gives life [and] pseudo-organic farming [which] ends life.”
For Shiva, the organic ‘whole’ includes a need to “respect physical work, give it dignity”. She insists:

We need to shift the way we define and perceive physical work. Replacing people has been defined as liberating people from work. Physical work has been defined as drudgery and as degrading (…) In fact, it is being without work that is degrading.

From our perspective, this association between labour intensivity and ‘dignity’ is to be rejected in the first instance. We suspect that Shiva would agree in most instances with Camus when he said “the machine is bad only in the way that it is now employed.”
Further, the corresponding binary between a traditional, ‘natural’, stable, life-giving, low-tech agriculture – based on fulfilling hard work – on the one hand, and modern, ‘synthetic’, dynamic, high-tech, capital-intensive agriculture – that is toxic, part-automated and degrading – on the other, is itself part of the problem to be overcome. A story about two starkly opposed sides, it is of a piece with the self-image of colonial-capitalist modernity, in which good things like progress and modernization occur when dynamic Europe meets the people without history. Affirming the traditional side of this binary against capitalism is inadequate, and also inaccurate. As scholar of agrarian studies James C Scott insists:

The term ‘traditional’ (…) is a misnomer. (…) The apparent spread of variolation across four continents is a further instance of how ‘traditional peoples’ will embrace techniques that solve vital problems. Examples could be multiplied. Sewing machines, matches, flashlights, kerosene, plastic bowls, and antibiotics are only a tiny sample of the products that solved vital problems or eliminated great drudgery and were thus readily accepted.

For Scott, so-called ‘traditional agriculture’ is dynamic and plastic, the work of bricoleurs who make use of whatever materials and techniques are to hand, including selective use of the products of science and technology. The practical knowledge thus acquired – which he calls mētis – often runs ahead of scientific knowledge since it is based in trial-and-error experimentation and tinkering. Bricoleurs may know that something works before they know how it works, albeit at higher risk of inferential errors (false positives/negatives). Therefore, rather than affirm the traditional side of the traditional-modern binary we should inquire into, and seek to overcome, the conditions under which it makes sense.

That is, what conditions are necessary for labour-saving agricultural technology to be experienced as dispossession and urban poverty, rather than relief from drudgery and a multiplier of communal wealth? Under what conditions does scientific knowledge confront the mētis of producers on the land as the vanguard of capitalist dispossession, and when can it, instead, form one of the stock of materials available for bricolage? To what extent can traditional techniques be combined with modern technology to boost yields, reduce toil, and maintain ecological relations at the same time? One such practice is Integrated Pest Management (IPM):

Although IPM approaches have always included insecticide tools, there are other approaches that can be effectively incorporated with IPM giving chemicals the position of the last resort in the chain of preferred options that need be applied first. Note that the current practice of seed treatment is the opposite: it applies chemicals as the first applied option instead of the last resort. The preferred options include organic farming, diversifying and altering crops and their rotations, inter-row planting, planting timing, tillage and irrigation, using less sensitive crop species in infested areas, using trap crops, applying biological control agents, and selective use of alternative reduced-risk insecticides.

Mētis, bricolage, and disaster communism

Integrated Pest Management is one of many possibilities occluded by the rhetorical binary between life-giving organic and life-ending non-organic agriculture. The mētis practices of cyborg ecology are likely to defy simplistic distinctions between the modern and the earth-friendly. For example, selective application of insecticides, to minimise worker-exposure, may be best carried out by drones. Such ostensibly ‘un-holistic’ practices could exist side-by-side with more traditional methods, as appropriate.

It is to petty commodity producers that the strict delineation of organic agriculture makes sense. Their livelihoods require them to seek the highest market price for their commodities, and an ‘organic’ label is more marketable than a ‘pesticides as a last resort’ one.
It is in this context that much of the activism of La Via Campesina, the MST, and Navdanya takes place. This is also a limit to the autonomy of the EZLN: one can escape the wage relation locally, to an extent, but not generalised commodity production.

Shiva is right to emphasise the importance of self-organisation by agrarian producers, but wrong to translate this into championing local markets. Note that petty commodity production is always confronted by technology as the centralisation of capital (i.e. the threat of being squeezed out by more highly capitalised rivals). Its perspective often seeks to promote commons and cooperatives as alternative forms of production, yet misses the potentials for bricolage from newer technologies, including labour-saving ones, since those technologies come as a threat to the livelihoods of smaller producers. Agricultural bricolage could even include transgenics: treating GMOs as part of the genetic commons overcomes many of the economic objections; developing climate-resilient, low-input strains – conventionally cross-bred with existing varieties to preserve biodiversity – could overcome many of the technical ones. Transgenic techniques can, in principle, be proprietary or commons, used for profit-seeking or ecological ends.

Using GMOs may, of course, be unnecessary and expensive, since there are tried and tested ‘traditional’ methods for developing new crop varieties in a biodiverse manner.
However, the disaster of the 4, 5, or 6°C world we can expect to inhabit by 2100 will be an agricultural situation unlike any humans have ever encountered. Our world will also likely be changing at a rate that may challenge traditional breeding techniques. True, GMOs are not as fast to develop as their boosters claim. And current investments in transgenics are driven by the prospect of monopoly rents through intellectual property, to which conventionally unobtainable, uniquely useful phenotypes are a secondary concern. Could GMOs be useful to us amid disaster? The point is largely moot under capitalist conditions, where the benefits of, for example, golden rice, are offset by the centralisation of capital, the dispossession, impoverishment and urbanisation of the rural population, and the extension of the very market dynamics which ensure mass hunger amidst plenty.

But the prospect of, for example, incorporating symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria – currently limited to legumes – into staple crops is not to be dismissed lightly. For one thing, it would massively reduce dependence on synthetic fertilisers made with the energy-intensive Haber process. However, cyborg ecology is not an inherent preference for the ‘high’ tech. From the cyborg point of view, the assemblage peasant-ox-plough is no more or less a techno-natural mesh than the assemblage AI-drone-GMO. The point is that bricolage practically appropriates whatever materials are to hand. For example as the glaciers that provide billions of beings with freshwater retreat, even maintaining traditional agriculture may well require desalination technology and knowledge of fluid mechanics to maintain irrigation. Or a reprisal of ‘archaic’ stormwater collection and distribution systems could play that role. Or some combination of the two.

It is capitalist social relations which pit agricultural technology against agricultural workers, scientific knowledge against mētis. It is also this system of relations that makes local commodity production appear like the only alternative to global commodity production. They, not machines or transgenics per se, form the barrier to the kind of bricolage necessary to avoid the kind of hunger inevitable under market dynamics. Agrarian social movements are surely essential to overcoming such a barrier, but the perspective of petty commodity production also forms part of that barrier. Yet it is a perspective that is prevalent in the existing movements.

If asked to point to the project of overcoming of commodity relations, we would highlight the communal approach to production and also distribution – i.e. the right to food – that La Via Campesina sometimes speak of, along with many of the related activities of some of their affiliates and allies. The promotion of gender equality, of non-hierarchical grassroots organisation, and certainly, the focus on autonomous social reproduction through non-commodified food, housing, and healthcare provision, cannot be dismissed as merely the parochial perspective of petty commodity producers. But agroecology’s prospects of a wider overcoming will necessitate a communising movement that encompasses urban struggles, refugee movements, and the selective repurposing of technologies bequeathed by capitalism, (re)inventing cyborg methods or reviving old ones, and unromantically finding what is adequate to the unfolding climate disaster.

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