A Green New Deal for Food

The pressures facing the agricultural sector can't be solved by one-off tricks that entrench corporate power. Instead, we need solutions with collective ownership at the core.

Policies and programmes designed to facilitate agricultural change must aim for empowerment, democratic ownership, and justice. (Kelvin Murray / Getty Images)

Recent analysis from the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that almost a third of global greenhouse gas emissions relate to the production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food. Farming is a primary global driver of land use change and biodiversity loss, yet despite its significant environmental impact, the global food system fails to provide nutritious food for hundreds of millions of people worldwide and produces massive amounts of waste. It’s also a system increasingly controlled by the largest international firms along the food chain, from providers of seeds and pesticides to commodity traders to retailers.

But the food system and the foundational question of how we feed ourselves remains an underrepresented aspect of discussion across the political spectrum. This is despite the fact that substantial changes to the food system will be crucial for the social transformation necessary to redress the extractive ecological and imperialist violence which underpins contemporary global capitalism. Food systems and agriculture must form a central part of any proposals for a Green New Deal in the future.

Far-reaching changes to food production should be expected in any scenario during the rest of the twenty-first century. In the UK, for example, uncertain weather patterns, rising prices for agricultural inputs like fertilizers, dietary change, net-zero legislation, and Brexit are already creating the dynamics that will affect what we eat, who grows it, and where it’s grown, for decades to come. In the UK and across the world, novel technologies are being touted as the solution to a perceived need to produce more on less land to ‘feed the world’ in the face of climate change, urbanisation, and other emerging social challenges.

Yet this transition in food production highlights an issue that requires scrutiny for anyone advocating an eco-socialist future. We must ask ourselves what kind of change is taking place, whether it’s sufficiently radical, and whether it addresses existing structures of power.

Are lifestyle changes and novel agricultural technologies enough? Or do we need to campaign for more than technological or dietary shifts, pushing instead for social transformation that recasts not just the methods we use to produce food and what food we eat, but also the social relations which structure the food system and allow a tiny minority to extract exorbitant profits from basic human needs?

These questions are relevant not just to agriculture but to an array of sectors. However, it’s in the context of agriculture that I recently looked to develop this argument through a report published by think tank Common Wealth. The report, Farming the future: Transforming the ownership of food systems research and data, examines two aspects that will play an inevitable role in any future changes as to how we farm in the UK and globally: research and development (R&D) into new technologies and farming methods, and the way data about farming is produced, shared, and utilised.

Exploring these processes demonstrates the extent to which the existing trajectories of change will, in fact, lock in existing ways of doing things and consolidate power and ownership in fewer and fewer hands. In the case of R&D, clusters of corporations along the food chain exercise a great degree of control over the future direction of farming through their capacity to steer the agenda towards ensuring their future profitability. As a result of this outsized corporate power, questions about making farming less damaging to biodiversity, air quality, and water quality become transformed into problems solved by machinery and cloud computing.

These techno-fixes in turn facilitate ‘smarter’ application of fertilizers or pesticides. Other proposed pathways rely on the development of biotechnologies like gene editing and look to further commoditise and enclose biological life as intellectual property. ‘Sustainable agriculture’ becomes a vehicle for sustaining future accumulation and shareholder value.

The dominance of this approach would see farmers, landworkers, and communities cede more and more control over how food is produced and what is grown across the world. Crop yields will continue to be dependent on proprietary technologies that rely on fossil-fuel derived inputs. Novel machinery and equipment will continue to be designed to facilitate a way of farming that suppresses biological and agricultural diversity. Smaller farmers will continue to become indebted, and land will be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

In turn, these evolving ways of farming rely on hardware that produces data that is owned, harvested, and monetised—increasingly not just by agricultural companies but by corporations like Microsoft. Public money funds research at universities in partnership with companies that operate within a limited and self-interested framework for how agricultural development should take place. The solutions to challenges like reaching net zero or reducing disease among livestock are framed as gaps to be filled by as yet unperfected technologies alongside markets for carbon capture and storage.

This may be presented as ‘sustainable agricultural change’ given it involves less usage of certain pesticides or fertilizers, but it’s not the sort of change required. Such a programme fosters neither social nor environmental justice.

In the UK, genuinely transformative change could be catalysed, however, through reshaping research and development and data. Establishing networks of food production, distribution, and consumption based on the right to food and the common ownership and management of food chains will, in the first instance, require public investment and legislation to support alternative food systems and break up the dominance of monopolies as part of a Green New Deal for Agriculture.

To make these transformations a reality, existing networks of research and knowledge-sharing that explore ways of producing food using alternative agricultural principles of organic and agroecological farming must receive public support. Existing public investment in promoting the current paradigm of food production must be redirected towards ways of growing food that do not rely on fossil-fuel inputs and global monopolies but, instead, produce social infrastructures of co-operation and knowledge exchange.

Further, public R&D investment in agriculture must increase to reflect the significant challenges provoked to food production by the climate and environmental emergency. The ownership and treatment of agricultural and land ownership data must also be utilised as a public good to help steer the transformation in agriculture and ensure establish a more ecologically just food system and an equitable distribution of land ownership and access.

Policies and programmes designed to facilitate agricultural change must aim for empowerment, democratic ownership, and justice, rather than relying on potential technological fixes which risk further entrenching corporate power. This approach, also relevant to other sectors like energy and transport, must shape how we campaign for eco-socialist change.

And, as with other sectors, change must not be narrowly focused on one sector—agriculture—but also recognise its relationships with land ownership, pay, workplace democracy, trade, and global justice. These complexities necessitate articulation with broader calls for a genuinely eco-socialist and internationalist Green New Deal. Given the centrality of food in how we reproduce our daily lives, reshaping agriculture must be at the heart of any such project.