Contrary to popular belief, the war on the land does not have a fixed origin point. Only the monocultural outlook sees everything as having a single cause or even beginning at a particular time. Indeed, some might say that the deliberate use of fire represents mankind’s first attempts at a war on the land, but there are many examples of the wise and ecological sensitive use of fire for land management, even on a large scale, throughout our history. Others might say that the war on the land started the first time a group of humans clear-cut a forest or ploughed up a grassland. But at what point does a localised setback for the diversity of life become an entrenched, spiralling global collapse? Others might blame money, private property or the state, or the Romans, the Akkadians, the modern European empires, or the enclosures. Some might go so far as to blame civilisation, or cities, or even farming. But all these are only pieces in a puzzle, threads in the Gordian knot that we have tied up into a noose and looped around our own necks.
But even if we don’t know who started the war on the land, or how or when or why it started, we certainly know what it’s about. It is the simplification of nature, its reduction to natural resources, and its over-exploitation, over-pollution and degradation. It is the idea that we can, nay that we must, control and manage every natural process, and redirect, reshape and reimagine them entirely towards our own short-sighted, narrow-minded benefit. It is the undermining of biological processes, which grow out of the diversity of locally specific interrelationships, and their replacement with mechanical or synthetic processes, which are uniform and violent, making no allowances for the particular features of the landscape or the unique composition of the life that lives there. It is tractors, the weight of sauropods, crushing the earth beneath them, tearing through the soil and ripping it apart, maintaining straight lines of single species as far as the eye can see, with fertilisers to replace a living soil, pesticides to replace a living ecosystem, but nothing to replace the diversity of life that once flourished there. This is not the only form that the war on the land can take, or even that it has taken throughout history. But this is how far it has progressed today.
And, of course, the war on the land is simultaneously a cause, an effect and an extension of the war on each other and the war on ourselves. For we are a part of the land and the land, indeed, is a part of us. How could they not be connected? If we are nature, experiencing itself, then what we do to nature we also do to ourselves, and what we do to ourselves and to each other, well, we also do that to nature. And indeed, it is since the end of the Second World War that the war on the land has kicked into a higher gear, for at that time the great powers of the world decided to beat their swords into ploughshares. They continued with the highly profitable systems of wartime production but now, instead of just provisioning the army, they sold the weapons to their farmers as well. The farmers then used these weapons to exterminate everything that lived on their farms and to extract ever greater yields from the land without returning to the soil all they had taken from it. This arrangement proved so profitable that over the next few decades it was rolled out to the majority world, under the Orwellian name of the Green Revolution.
Thus, the nitrogen fixed by the Haber-Bosch process was transferred from bombs into fertilisers, chemical weapons were rebranded as pesticides and tanks were transformed into tractors. Of course, nations continued to lift sword against other nations, so much so that there has never been a war-free year since 1945. And of course, they continued to learn war, to the point that the world in arms now spends more than €1.8 trillion a year, enough to end world poverty and hunger more than 7 times over, according to the estimates of the UN Development Programme. For we have not renounced war, but rather extended it, going so far as to declare war on life itself. And, of course, as in all wars, the corporate world has made a killing.
Today, after more than 70 years of better living through chemistry, the land is entirely spent. NPK fertilisers have dramatically boosted crop yields in the short term, but by undermining the inter-relationships between plants and soil microorganisms they are slowly but surely starving the soil and rendering it lifeless. Now, increasingly lower yields of significantly less nutrient dense crops are being extracted from the exhausted remnants of the soil using ever-increasing quantities of fertilisers, produced using massive amounts of fossil fuels. And these fertilisers do not even stick around in the soil, instead they leach out into the waterways and slowly choke them to death. And so we keep on applying them, bombing the land over and over again.
Meanwhile, broad spectrum pesticides are exterminating entire ecosystems and, without competitors, predators or parasites to keep them under control, pests are proliferating. As pests have developed resistance to the chemicals that we spray to control them, an evolutionary arms race has unfolded, resulting in ever increasing quantities, and varieties, of poisons contaminating the land, along with larger and more destructive pest outbreaks, with no natural enemies to control their populations. These poisons are now everywhere, in the soil, in the water, in our blood, in breast milk, imperilling the survival of all life on earth and still failing to keep pests, diseases and weeds under control in our food systems.
The worst part of all of this is that, for all the destruction that they cause, these fertilisers and pesticides are not even necessary. In fact, they are a false economy. A healthy soil, full of life and fed with organic matter, provides more plant available nutrients than even the most expensive fertilisers, held securely by the soil micro-organisms until the plants need them. In exchange for access to these nutrients, plants provide the soil life with carbon, in the form of root exudates, often exuding as much of as a third of all the sugars they produce through photosynthesis into the soil. But when we dump fertilisers onto the soil the plants temporarily become flush with easily accessible nutrients, so they turn off the tap of root exudates, since they are now unnecessary, and the soil life slowly starves. Meanwhile, all the excess nutrients in the soil simply wash away, without all the organic matter and soil micro-organisms to hold onto them, and the plants are left starving, awaiting the application of more fertiliser.
And pesticides are a false economy as well. A healthy ecosystem will keep pests down to manageable levels, for a pest outbreak represents a large food source, something that nature seldom wastes. But when we spray pesticides, we kill both the pests and their predators. The pest populations bounce back faster, and with no predators around to control their number, they reproduce like crazy. If we do nothing then eventually, after much damage to our crops, the predator populations will rebound and feast on the pests, bringing their populations back down to manageable levels. But, more likely, just as the predator populations start to rebound, we will notice the impact of the pest outbreak and spray another round of pesticides, killing both pest and predator and starting the cycle again. As we spray more and more pesticides the pest populations inevitably develop resistance, and so we spray different chemicals with different modes of action, exposing the living ecosystem of the farm to yet more and yet wider toxicity. And, without any natural enemies around to control them, pests continue to decimate our crops, despite all the poisons that we are polluting the land with.
But however much they disrupt nutrient cycles and decimate ecosystems, fertilisers and pesticides are only a symptom of a deeper problem, that of monoculture. When a single crop is grown over a large area the soil is depleted, as having a diversity of living plants always in the soil is essential to the maintenance of the soil ecosystem, and therefore fertilisers are required to maintain yields. And where there is only one type of plant growing as far as the eye can see, protected from all animal interactions and from all plant competition, then crops are vulnerable to pest outbreaks, because there is no ecosystem to keep them under control, therefore pesticides are required to avoid catastrophic crop failures. And once fertilisers and pesticides are used then both the soil ecosystem and the wider ecosystem become further degraded, and we in turn become more dependent on them. Once we are caught in this cycle of addiction, we need to keep increasing the dose just to maintain the same effect. And the bill keeps on rising along with the debt until, eventually, we reach an overdose and the ecosystem around us collapses, taking us along with it.
The war on the land, however, is not just limited to chemical warfare. In fact, it is tillage and other forms of manual warfare that are the most destructive of all our agricultural practices. Cutting through the land like great iron swords, ploughshares make mincemeat of worms and chop up fungal hyphae, destroying the soil ecosystem and dismembering the threads of life that connect all living beings. Turning over the soil and mixing the different layers, ploughing exposes the soil life, which has evolved and lived always in darkness, to the ultraviolet radiation of the sun, killing it instantly. Meanwhile, the organic matter in the soil, the great stock of carbon held by the land, is exposed to the air, where it is bound to oxygen and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. As the organic matter levels in the soil decline, the soil life starves for lack of food, while the soil gradually loses its ability to hold water, making the land more susceptible to droughts and floods, as well as its ability to bind into stable aggregates, making the soil more susceptible to erosion. Then, after tilling, the ground is left bare, for at least as long as it takes for the next crop to germinate, often for much longer, disrupting the soil ecosystem and leaving the soil increasingly vulnerable to erosion.
And just like pesticides and fertilisers, tillage tends towards a cycle of addiction, as the soil is increasingly compacted by excessive cultivation, the use of heavy machinery, the loss of soil life and soil organic matter, and the effects of rain, footsteps and tyre tracks on bare soil. So, it must be tilled again and again to open it up before each successive crop. And with constant ploughing, harrowing, rotavating, and all the other means of mechanical disturbance, the worms and the fungi and the rest of the soil life are never given a chance to recover. Then, without a healthy living soil within which to survive and prosper, our crops must be fertilised artificially, as well as protected from pests and diseases that, without the diverse diet that comes from a healthy living soil, they cannot protect themselves from. And the addiction cycles begin to layer and reinforce each other.
But the comparison between tillage and drug addiction goes further, for when the soil is tilled the organic matter that remains in the soil is broken up into smaller pieces, making it more easily digested by microbes. This causes an explosion in their population which temporarily releases a lot of plant available nutrients into the soil. However, in the long term, this depletes the soil of organic matter and fertility, in the same way that regular drug binges deplete the brain of dopamine, serotonin and other endorphins in our brains. It has always been the way that the plough has been the harbinger of death for civilisations. But with ploughs drawn by horses and oxen there was only so much damage that could be done, and the process took a long time to unfold. Today, however, with tractors that operate at over 100 horsepower, with the most forceful and effective implements we have ever known, the complete degradation of the land, which previously took many centuries, is now possible within a single lifetime.
None of this destruction, however, is even necessary. For we are constantly told that only large, capital and chemical intensive farms can feed a growing world population. But this is a lie. According to the FAO, between 70 and 80 percent of the world’s food is produced by family farms, while small farmers, defined as those farming less than 2 hectares, are the most productive of all, producing more than a third of the world’s food on less than a quarter of the agricultural land, while also tending to provide the most habitats because of their necessarily diversified production. Meanwhile, successive UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to food have emphasised that only diversified, agroecological smallholder production can feed a growing population in an increasingly unstable climate.
Back in 2011, the Special Rapporteur at the time, Olivier De Schutter, presented a report titled “Agroecology and the right to food” to the UN Human Rights Council. In this report he wrote unequivocally that “we won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations.” For “conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today.” Further, “today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilisers in boosting food production where the hungry live - especially in unfavourable environments.” Indeed, “agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects.” His conclusions are reflected in the chapter headings, “agroecology raises productivity at field level”, “agroecology reduces rural poverty”, “agroecology contributes to improving nutrition” and “agroecology contributes to adapting to climate change”.
In 2015, De Schutter’s successor, Hilal Elvar, presented a report to the UN General Assembly on climate change and the right to food. In this report she included a section titled “agroecology: an alternative to industrial agriculture”, in which she argued that “agroecology is particularly beneficial and well suited to the needs of poor rural communities”, increasing crop and farm resilience, while also improving soil quality, plant health and biodiversity. Responding to claims that “humankind will not be able to feed itself unless current industrial modes of agriculture are expanded and intensified”, she argued that “this approach is wrong and counterproductive and will only serve to exacerbate the problems experienced by the current mode of agriculture.” For “it has been proven that more food production does not necessarily result in fewer people suffering from hunger and malnutrition. The world has long produced enough food” to feed even the expected population maximum, and in fact “hunger and malnutrition are a function of economic and social problems, not production.” She concluded the report by arguing that “there is a need to encourage a major shift from current industrial agriculture to transformative activities such as conservation agriculture” and she recommended that “Scientific research institutions and Governments greatly increase financial allocations to agroecology”.
Then, in 2021, the current Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fahkri, produced a report on food systems and human rights. In this report he argued that what he termed intensive or extractive industrial agriculture “has created food systems that disrupted carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles” and “unsettled the foundations of all ecosystems, leading to increased global rates of soil degradation and erosion and biodiversity loss.” As a result, “industrialized agriculture and food production have been a breeding ground for pathogens”, while the reliance on monoculture and the simplification of nature “creates ecological conditions that facilitate disease” and increase our risk of future pandemics. Therefore, he argued that “agroecology provides a strong response to the COVID-19 food crisis and longstanding food system failures.” Moreover, agroecology “has proven to quickly lead to the tangible realization of the right to food”, while “new research suggests that if we calculate productivity in terms of per hectare and not for a single crop, and in terms of energy input versus output, agroecology is often more productive than intensive industrial techniques.”
Simply by farming with nature, instead of at war with it, by embracing diversity and building habitats, instead of destroying them, we can increase food production while simultaneously rebuilding both the soil food web and the wider web of life. But such solutions offer no profit to the great monopolies that stand at the bottleneck of our global food system. And therefore, we are told consistently that without fertilisers and pesticides, without large, economically efficient monocultures, devoid of life and operated by machinery, we cannot possibly hope to feed the world. The problem is framed as economy vs ecology and, of course, sad as it may be, we must choose economy if we hope to eat. But of course, without ecology there can be no economy. And this worldview, as utterly and completely wrongheaded as it is, is so thoroughly ingrained in our narratives about food and farming that in order to dispel it once and for all some detail is required. So now, in time, let us consider our dependence on the range of artificial chemicals and mechanical processes, and the nutrient cycles and ecosystem functions we have disrupted, each in turn.