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What is wrong about industrial agriculture?

Without soil organisms soil organic matter will run out and soil fertility will collapse.
Without soil organisms our crops are not nutritious and our health starts to suffer.
Without soil organisms the soil cannot hold enough water nor will it resist erosion.

Foto: courtesy of ILEIA's Farming Matters magazine. Land grabbing speelt een steeds grotere rol
In the eyes of industrial agriculture, soil is just a substrate that keeps the plants upright and happens to be located outside, in the open. In this concept there is no need of an expert with knowledge about the unique combination of local soil and local crops (the farmer), as soils are only considered a medium that needs to be supplied with seeds, chemical fertilisers and some water to start operating. From the same perspective, crops don't need to be locally adapted: they are produced from standard seeds with uniform properties worldwide. Yet the truth of the matter is that soil is a living medium, with specific soil organisms, water retention capacities and its own tolerance and reactions to certain chemicals and pesticides and to the environment in general. Crops planted in one location start always (and immediately) adapting to local conditions through epigenetic mechanisms, which influence their fenotypes first. Their genotypes follow suit, but that needs more time, to grow the consecutive generations that can express the gene patterns required to survive best under the local conditions. Therefore selection and breeding over longer periods adds to the vitality of a crop variety, improving its local performance over the years. This is exactly what local land races are all about and their adaptability becomes all the more important with climatic conditions rapidly changing!

It follows that an industrial farm manager hired to distribute standard seeds and petrochemicals over a big agricultural enterprise (the farm factory) is not necessarily the same person that knows how to keep the land and crops in a vital shape: that quality is reserved to the local farmer, if he is experienced that is, familiar with his soil and his local crop varieties in stead of married to his air-conditioned tractor. By now extensive proof (also from FAO) is there to show that industrial agriculture uses way too many (finite) external resources and confronts Society and Environment with tremendous costs that are passed on to the taxpayer and with a bit of bad luck, to his medical bills as well. That amounts to tripping over the same stone twice.

The mantra of Genetic Modification (GM) research is always: we can do better and go faster than traditional breeding, by changing a specific sequence of amino acids overnight (in the genetic code of the DNA). But what about epigenetics overlaying the whole genetic structure, and what about all the rest of the hardwired genome beyond the modified gene sequence? Why is it that nobody is interested (or publishing) about the collateral damage that a Genetically Modified Organism has incurred on the total of its DNA, as a consequence of the GM intervention? Are there more genetic defects that have sneaked into the genome by the time that the original GM organism has entered the market place? Nobody is interested in an ex-post assessment, because that type of research does not bring in additional money. It might even prove a liability, when unexpected defects in the genome are displayed.

It is not bold to say that if industrial agriculture produces inferior food and feed, and if it destroys the production capacity of the land (step by step), it is hardly sustainable and thus a true waste of time, money and resources.

Why then continue to promote an agro-industrial development system that has already failed the sustainability test and degrades the soil? It's all about money.
Advocating industrial agriculture as the solution for global hunger is the ultimate paradox, as it will lead to exactly the opposite: degraded soils left without organic matter. They are the sad result of exploitation under years of industrial cultivation. Humus mining might be a better word to describe it. A minimum quantity of active humus, the living form of organic matter, is a pre-condition for being able to maintain and build the soil's natural fertility. It has preciously little to do with fertilisers coming from a bag. On the contrary, using chemical fertilisers is the perfect recipe for slowly but surely cannibalising soil organic matter. Family farmers (predominantly women) as a group produce locally most of the food that is required on a global basis; they are also the ones that preserve soil organic matter best. They must not be bullied from their plots, by governments and big corporations that mostly look at agriculture from an industrial perspective. The result is a rapid elimination of soil organic matter under capital-intensive monocropping systems, and has the loss of immense carbon quantities attached to it.

International corporations go after highest returns on their investments and look for opportunities f.i. in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa at the moment, to create vast, centrally managed enterprises controlled by few. In order to accomplish that, they grab the land traditionally cultivated by local farmers, mostly with help of high-ranking government officials, to make it look 'legal'. Dutch investors are on #6 of the Top-10 of foreign land grabbing and have acquired an acreage that equals 37% of the Netherlands! Such companies do very little to promote a sustainable way of agriculture, because they know that it interferes with their industrial cultivation methods. The consequence is a steady loss of living organic matter in those soils. Industrial cultivations are therefore only suitable of harvesting short term profits, and useless when it comes to conservation of the most important production asset: the land.

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Land grabbing is an increasingly awkward problem. In 2016 Dutch investors were on #6 (even before China on #7) of the Top-10 of foreign land grabbing and have acquired an acreage that equals 37% of the total Netherlands territory! That amounts to 1.25 Million hectares.

After the change of ownership (or should we say robbery), most of the original farming population is denied access to the land. Compensation (if at all) for their losses is in most cases a token of the real value.