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What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Capitalism, Environmentalism, and Agriculture

You've probably heard the adage that there's more than enough food in the world for everyone, but that the real problem is distribution. This statement, beyond actually being true, is very revealing about Western culture. For modern, industrialised countries, great profits from agriculture - not providing for communal survival - are the goal.

Thus, the explosion of agriculture is an integral part of the world economy. In fact, in Karl Marx's Capital, he explains the notion of value with grain as an example. Since the late 19th century agricultural products have been traded internationally and have been major parts of national revenues. Grain was a staple of the Russian Emipre (and later the Soviet Union). The massive investment in grain allowed the state to trade with Germany and England for steel, which was then used for infrastructural "modernisation".

In the 1920s and 1930s, the emphasis moved away from the state, and toward the corporation, as the engine of the economy. Moreover, since the postwar period, there has been a gradual deregulation and liberalisation of trade. The result has been "globalisation", which is a nebulous term to say the least. Although most disagree about what this word actually means, broadly speaking, it implies two important realities. Firstly, the freedom of capital to move more freely, which creates economic imperialism. Secondly, the proverbial closeness, which has resulted the imposition of Western culture on the rest of the world.

Agribusiness is an excellent example of this. Although there are many outstanding sources that go into great detail on economic imperialism, I am going to focus briefly on the outcome - the proliferation of Western culture. Western cultures have not historically eaten much meat, but the technological advancements made over the twentieth century, combined with huge government subsidies, have created an environment where meat has become inexpensive and plentiful. Various heavyweight companies from North America have set up throughout the world, introducing diets rich in meat to millions of people annually. As a result, more and more livestock are being raised on less and less quality farmland. In fact, much of the deforestation in the Amazon is caused by cattle ranching. It should be quite clear that our current agricultural production, which is centred on meat, is simply unsustainable.

If it is clear that there is a problem, then there needs to be action taken. And here's where there are some significant divergences of opinion. Many advocate for removing products that come from animals from our diets. While this is a noble cause, I disagree that this will create the positive change that we need. Many other agricultural products, particularly soy, cause atrocious environmental destruction - even those who are deemed to be "organic". Beyond pesticide use, industrial farming of vegetables and fruit also creates monocultures, resulting in the loss of biodiversity. Irrigation schemes, such as those of the Southwestern United States have caused natural watersheds to virtually disappear. And to top it off, the average food item purchased at the supermarket has been trucked approximately 3000 km.

This is all to say that a more sensible response to agribusiness is localism. Already, the local movement has been coopted by supermarkets who sell "local" produce. Instead of buying local food from a large conglomerate grocery chain or distributor, we would ideally be purchasing it from a local market. But there are many roadblocks. The first that comes to mind is climate - because nobody in Canada wants to eat rutabaga, carrots, and beets all winter. Just as daunting, there isn't an apparatus available to provide local food in many of the largest or most remote communities. Thankfully, there is technology available such as greenhouses, and there are many initiatives such as community gardens. I would also argue that potentially the best feature of local agriculture is that the livestock are part of smaller herds and are far better cared for. It is important to keep in mind though that meat consumption has to decrease. I recently became a flexitarian - someone with a predominantly vegetarian diet who drastically limits meat consumption. It would certainly be good news if everyone made this positive step.

There are clearly many challenges going forward, but with cooperation and awareness, sustainable agriculture may be closer than we think.

1 comment:

  1. I think you can probably guess that I agree with everything you said here. I am still learning a lot about the environmental impact of eating meat because up until now, and more recently as I have seriously started to reconsider my habits around eating meat, I am someone who has been motivated to become more flexitarian largely because of the pain and cruelty that is inflicted upon the animals we eat. For me, adding knowledge of the impact of the production of meat on the environment makes becoming vegetarian or flexitarian all the more noble in my mind. Although I am halfway through reading the book Eating Animals by Jonathon Foer and have learned a lot about the atrocities that factory farming commits in relation to animals and the environment, I still find myself eating meat more than I would like, both because I have been at the dinner tables of people who eat meat regularly and as a result of my own choice to eat meat. For me, there is a tension between how I have been shaped in our culture to view (and crave) meat as an integral part of my diet and my desire to change for the better. I am not perfect and the better decision is not always the one I end up making, but more recently I have been making a concerted effort to eat less meat as I have learned more about the benefits for animals and for the planet. I would also say that in a way I see more immediate benefits for the environment in eating less meat than I do for the animals we eat. I realize that eating less meat means that fewer animals will be consumed and be exposed to the unbearable conditions of factory farms, however, I do not believe that simply choosing to not eat meat (or as much of it) will bring the change that is needed in agribusiness. I think along with eating less meat we must all be willing to do our part to advocate for a better system overall, one which holds the welfare and quality of life for animals as a top priority along with environmental considerations.