Why We Need A Green New Deal for Agriculture

A brief two-part series on the problems and possible solutions facing our current global food supplies

Part one: How we grow and transport our food says much about the society we live in

Memphis, Texas — abandoned to global corporate agriculture

Random notes from a deep green conservative

I ALWAYS got a laugh from my family when I described the fresh broccoli that arrived in our weekly bag of organic veg as “meaty”.

For a much maligned vegetable grown only five kilometers away, it was a taste sensation.

Local seasonal produce can take epicurean delight to a whole new level.

But it’s more than about taste. It is also about communities becoming more self reliant, using far less non-renewable resources and making an existential re-connection with the earth that provides for us.

This may sound like a rather romantic notion in the era of mega monocultural farming that currently occurs in Australia, US and Canada.

In fact it may soon become a welcome necessity.

Not in the flippant ‘green-dream’ sense as US Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi recently described the New Green Deal, but as a hard-nosed, practical response to the myriad of serious problems confronting modern agriculture.

Take where I currently live in the remote Central Australian desert. We’re at the end of one of the longest and most unnatural food chains in the world. Our food miles (or kilometers in our case) are huge.

Dozens of large Kenworth and Volvo road trains, Ghan Railway container freights and Qantas jets with big cargo holds roar up the thousands of kilometers from capital cities like Adelaide, Melbourne or Sydney every week.

They deliver everything from tomatoes to fresh oysters to Australia’s remote top end.

What is not transshipped onto more remote centers is stacked into supermarket shelves that empty alarmingly quickly if there are floods or other bottlenecks in the system.

Whereas until quite recently relatively small farms, market gardens, local orchards, abattoirs and backyards supplied the bulk of our local food, nowadays deliveries are likely to include grapes from California, oranges from Brazil or questionable semillon blanc from New Zealand.

Local food production hardly exists in many parts of the western world today — except for thriving but still relatively small community gardens and farmer markets.

The globalization of agriculture has provided cheap and convenient food for millions of western consumers.

It has also made enormous profits for international chemical, fertilizer and seed companies plus their shareholders and bankers.

The downside is a far more sinister story. History will probably judge the era of global food production as the most inequitable, wasteful and ecologically disastrous farming and food distribution systems ever devised.

It is notoriously hard to pin down precise food mile greenhouse gas emissions data.

In broad terms, however, agriculture is generally credited with about ten percent of emissions, with food transport roughly accounting for about ten percent of this figure.

In other words, food miles account for about one percent of global GGE’s.

It doesn’t sound much, but it also doesnt take into account the following problems that the progressive scientific community and the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation have reached consensus on. They are:

  • the wastage of up to third of food produced by global farming systems
  • the industrial scale poisoning that is occurring in many farming landscapes
  • the consequent and impending collapse of biodiversity around the planet due to the exponential growth of monocultural farming practices
  • the draining of precious fresh water resources from aquifers and river systems like the Murray-Darling in Australia and the Colorado in the US
  • the rapid concentration of profits in the hands of food retailers at the expense of farmers in a food chain that is becoming increasingly vertically integrated
  • the millions of tons of plastic food packaging that are seriously polluting our environment.

Then there has been the human toll — the hundreds of thousands of family farms and local jobs that have been lost to modern farming around the western world over the last forty years.

Those farmers that have remained in the global food system now operate on razor-thin profit margins averaging around two to three percent on turnover.

They have to keep getting bigger just to survive.

I had never really seen a modern rural ghost town until my wife Morna and I stopped for a night in the small town of Memphis, Texas, last year.

Surrounded by corporate cotton farms as far as they eye could see, the bucolic old town center was nearly all boarded up.

Our respective moods were not improved by the fact that we had suddenly found ourselves in a dry county after a long day driving.

The town had had a life cycle of perhaps a hundred and twenty years — and then been sacrificed to global agriculture.

Compare this to pre-WWII Europe. When the allied armies landed on the shores of Normandy in 1944 they were nearly stopped in their tracks by hedgerows and tiny fields that had sustained the country’s food supply for a thousand years.

Now these hedgerows are nearly all gone, along with the birds and the insects and even the worms in the soil. Eight out of ten partridge species have disappeared from French farmland over the past 50 years.

Travelling in western NSW about 15 years ago, Morna, never one to let an antique shop go by unnoticed, commented on how many we were passing in the small river towns.

It wasn’t until later that we realized that these previously wealthy districts were selling off the family silver as farms and associated businesses were sold up to mainly corporate, or Pitt Street farmers.

The history of modern farming is not a happy or sustainable one. At its core lie corporate greed and an unthinking relationship with the natural world.

Agricultural systems have overreached and quickly collapsed in the past, and will no doubt do so again.

But I like to think that we’re a bit smarter than that.

The idea of a Green New Deal currently taking shape in the US offers a bright ray of sunshine in the dismal grey of conventional politics.

How America manages its transformation into a cleaner, greener country will greatly affect the thinking and actions of other countries.

It is also important that food miles and agriculture must be front and center of the GND if the idea is to have long-term credibility with emerging young voters, not only in the US, but around the world.


Next week: What a Green New Deal could look like for agriculture.

Author, journalist and mentor. I call myself a deep green conservative.

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