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Moving to a sustainable system of food production within a degrowth paradigm

I read an interesting report in the last few days – The Economics of the Food System Transformation – published on January 29, 2024 by the – Food Systems Economics Commission (FSEC) – which “is a joint initiative that brings together 21 commissioners from 19 global institutions”. The topic is very relevant to research I am engaged in at present as part of my upcoming book release on Degrowth and Capitalism. It is also relevant to my lived experience which I will briefly touch on.

As I read the Report from the FSEC I was reminded of the early contribution of Austrian-French intellectual – André Gorz – who I had spent many hours reading when I was a postgraduate student.

André Gorz wrote extensively about the industrial nature of Capitalism and how it was shaped by the conflicting class ambitions of labour and capital.

He supported worker self-management and was occupied by developing practical strategies for workers to assert control over their workplaces.

That work was the context in which I used his ideas in my own early work on labour processes etc.

However, in the early 1970s, following the release in 1972 of the – Club of Rome – Report – The Limits to Growth – André Gorz also made valuable contributions which I consider should define the way forward for progressives.

The Club of Rome’s study concluded that resource limits ultimately curtail the capacity of the economic system to grow.

I was too young to really appreciate what was going on at the time in the ecological space and our youth was devoted to the anti-war movement and struggles against colonial imperialism and the battles with Marxism between the continental structuralists who had embraced post modernism and those that preferred a more nuanced Marxist framework, such as the existential Marxism of Jean-Paul Satre.

So, while I had a copy of ‘The Limits to Growth’ not long after it was published, it didn’t occupy a central place in my mind.

But I was aware of the views of André Gorz on the topic, which were seminal in the emergence of the so-called ‘décroissance’ (degrowth) literature.

André Gorz introduced the term ‘décroissance’ during a debate that was published in 1972 by his magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

What separated his ideas from those in The Limits to Growth, was that he placed the ecological challenge squarely in the context of the viability of the capitalist system of accumulation.

I will write much more about how this perception provides progressives with an alluring alternative to the Green New Deal narrative that dominates most progressive activism on the topic of climate change.

The Degrowth movement, as it reflects the lineage from André Gorz’s décroissance, is

The Green New Deal (GND) movement is more aligned with the ‘sustainable development’ approach that emerged with the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987, which maintained that economic growth could continue with approach regulative controls.

In other words, these movements are not part of a critique of the viability (or desirability) of capitalism and market allocation via profit incentives.

I clearly reject the concept of sustainable development and the allied GND.

In 1972, André Gorz wrote:

Is global equilibrium compatible with the capitalist economy, given that the material resources on our planet are not endless?

He thus directed the Limits ideas into a more substantial critique of the very production form under capitalism and in doing so establihed a lineage that persists today in the degrowth thinking.

I will have much more to write on those topics in the weeks ahead as I bring all my ideas together on the topic.

But André Gorz also wrote in his 1972 article that:

L’économie de profit doit être remplacée par une économie décentralisée et distributive. Ce n’est que dans les communautés intégrées, « à l’échelle humaine », que l’ajustement de la production aux besoins et des besoins aux ressources – ainsi que le souci de ménager et de soigner l’environnement – peuvent reposer sur des décisions collectives plutôt que sur des contraintes bureaucratiques et policières. L’activité libre, l’autodétermination des producteurs associés à l’échelle des communes et des régions l’emporte sur le travail salarié et les rapports marchands. En fin de compte les écologistes apportent une caution scientifique à tous ceux qui ressentent l’ordre présent comme un désordre barbare et le rejettent.

This appeal to human agency (and existentialism) within his Marxism rehearses the way in which the ideas of John-Paul Sartre had also evolved as his work became more political and less literary over the course of his life.

In this passage, André Gorz rejects the ‘profit economy’ and advocates the evolution to a ‘a decentralized and distributive economy’ where ‘integrated communities at a human scale’ produce for need and protect the environment.

Where decisions are taken by collectives rather than authoritarian bureaucracies.

He was thus an early advocate of localism and the degrowth strategy will require highly decentralised mechanisms for producing and distributing food, which brings me to the Report I cited at the outset.

The Report writes that:

… the recent evolution of food systems has fuelled – and continues to inflame – some of the greatest and gravest challenges facing humanity, notably persistent hunger, undernutrition, the obesity epidemic, loss of biodiversity, environmental damage and climate change. The economic value of this human suffering and planetary harm is well above 10 trillion USD a year, more than food systems contribute to global GDP. In short, our food systems are destroying more value than they create.

They note that discussions around food production and food security are often ignored or downplayed in proposals to deal with climate change.

Importantly, the Report argues that “transforming food systems worldwide” into “an inclusive, health-enhancing and environmentally sustainable global food system” would deliver massive benefits in the form of better health outcomes and reduction in climate damage.

They estimate that such a transformation would deliver benefits “worth 5 to 10 trillion USD a year, equivalent to between 4 and 8 percent of global GDP in 2020”.

They acknowledge that:

… negotiating change across a multitude of diverse stakeholders with unequal power and varying prospects from the transformation is an enormous challenge

But, on the positive side:

Evidence shows that embracing equity and inclusion is key to making a transformation politically viable and thus essential for success.

So you will be getting the drift I think.

You will find the word ‘profit’ is mentioned only twice in the 117-page report.

In one instance, they write that “The power of corporations and the nature of institutions are often intertwined” but that “Despite the concentrated nature of power in food systems, a growing number of diverse interests are emerging.”

They claim that it is possible to engage “stakeholders” to allow for such a transformation to take place.

This includes the promotion of “green business entrepreneurs” and identifying “new business opportunities … can shift perceptions of the innovations among interests vested in the status quo”.

Policies advocated all seem to be designed to change incentives as a result of market shifts driven by subsidies and taxes.

I consider this a major flaw and is consistent with the dominant progressive themes that climate initiatives can be achieved through market mechanisms – manipulating the price of carbon-intensive products and subsidising desirable production.

In general, progressives seems to have been lured into this ‘market-style’ thinking. Everything has to be moderated through the price mechanism. This is a neoliberal framing.

Markets are constantly being corrupted by the wealthy and ‘rigged’ in their favour.

A non-neoliberal framing is to reject the market logic and use the regulative and the legislative capacity of the state to make illegal activities and functions that we deem to be unnecessary to the well-being of the people and which may potentially undermine our prosperity.

This is also my perspective on eliminating carbon-intensive industries – better to regulate them out of existence than try to play smart with carbon taxes or trading schemes.

I will come back to that idea presently.

The Report also notes that “The global increase in meat consumption is incompatible with both the 1.5°C climate target and the land targets agreed upon in the 2023 Kunming-Montreal Convention on Biodiversity”, and clearly support major dietary changes.

However, they do not advocate the promotion of vegetarianism or veganism, rather believing that the market will shift diets as taxes are placed on climate-damaging meat products.

The authors are thus firmly in the ‘reform capitalism’ camp and believe that such reforms to the price allocation system will do the trick.

The same sort of hope is to be found in those that want to reform the European Union, despite the neoliberalism being embedded in the very legal structure (the Treaties) of the EU, which are virtually impossible to change.

I reject the reform approach if the core of the problem is rotten.

In that sense, I am in the André Gorz camp – that “L’économie de profit doit être remplacée par une économie décentralisée et distributive”.

The root of the problem, which underpins the market system, is that private profit is privileged in our resource allocation decision making.

In other words, I do not think we can achieve a wholesale transformation of food production and distribution within the power structures of capitalism.

And echoing André Gorz, I think the future is cooperatives operating on a local scale in both production and distribution.

As a final reflection, I am part of an experimental development on the coast of Victoria, Australia, which has turned a degraded dairy farm into what is called “Australia’s most sustainable housing estate”.

A typical developer would place 950 odd houses on the land purchased, filling it up with roofs and concrete, but our estate will only allow around 220 houses, with more than 50 per cent of the land devoted to restoring water systems, flora and providing safe environments for local fauna.

All the houses are passive and must reach high energy efficiency requirements.

It is a marvellous experiement and one of its features at the eastern end of the estate is a large, cooperatively-owned community farm.

This picture of the farm is as it was in the early stages.

It is now fully functional and provides food security for the residents and donates a lot of food to various needs in the local area (hospitals, aged care homes, schools, etc).

It is fully organic and massively productive.

The farm community members have individual plots and there are other plots that are farmed by a farmer that we employ – boosting productivity and continuity of supply.

The farm satisfies the requirements set out by André Gorz in 1972 for food production to be local, cooperative and based on need rather than profit, while also protecting the environment.

In my view, every housing development that is approved should be required to have similar food production capacity.

Conclusion

The FSEC Report in my view is in a long line of progressive inputs that think reforming the capitalist system is the way to go while leaving the essential characteristics – profit seeking, response to market incentives etc – in place.

I agree with André Gorz, that a degrowth paradigm is incompatible with the ongoing nature of capitalism and that we should be pursuing initiatives that undermine that mode of production.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2024 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Hard to disagree with Gorz. Love his work. I think this is a fair translation – “The profit economy must be replaced by a decentralised and distributive economy. It is only in integrated, “human-scale” communities that the adjustment of production to needs and needs to resources – as well as the concern for the environment – can be based on collective decisions rather than on bureaucratic and police constraints. Free activity, the self-determination of associated producers at the level of municipalities and regions, prevails over wage labour and market relations. At the end of the day, environmentalists give scientific backing to all those who perceive the present order as a barbaric disorder and reject it.” I have thought that a “rural job guarantee” in some form would cover this and what you and friends are doing in Vic. Cooperation in rural landuse can directly reduce chemical use, self exploitation, land degradation. James Rebanks in the UK has been working of watercourses etc etc sustainable grazing. Needs his book income to keep going.

  2. Translating: The State has to rule over all private activity! and not the other way around, like it happening right now.
    How is that going to happen in the EU (just like in the UK, or the USA, or Australia).
    Sincerely, I don’t know.
    Can anyone?

  3. While feeling in harmony with Bill’s argument, I do not wish to wait for capitalism to collapse. It seems to me that multiple strategies are needed now for transitioning the economic system to one that’s compatible with ecological sustainability, social justice and genuine democratic decision-making. One strategy is to continue and try to grow the direct campaign against capitalism, a process that’s necessary but very slow. Another strategy is to undermine capitalism indirectly by destroying the credibility of its offshoots, neoliberalism and the flawed neoclassical economics (NCE) theory that purports to justify neoliberalism.

    Neoliberalism is already tottering, following its role as the main cause of the GFC and its failures during the economic responses to the GFC and the COVID pandemic. While neoliberalism has lost credibility among many intellectuals, a few economists and some members of the public, it is still clung to by most politicians and the mainstream media. Neoliberalism just needs a strong push by a coordinated public campaign to push it over into the bin.

    The absurd assumptions of NCE must be challenged by scientists as well as ‘heterodox’ economists. Some of us are working on it.

  4. Hi Bill,

    I’m very interested in the direction that your work is taking, synthesising the insights of MMT with the biophysical limits of the real economy, and it’s implications for degrowth to a steady-state economy. I’m not sure if this if the place to do this (and if not, perhaps you could contact me privately and reject this response; I have emailed you once or twice but never got a response), but I think you might be interested in a couple of my recent publications (one which I think you peer-reviewed). You can find them at the top of the publications page of my website. They draw on insights from MMT and ecological economics, and direct these toward education. If you get a chance to read them I would be keen to get your (further?) feedback on them, good or bad! Thanks Bill and keep up all the great work you do; you’re a leading example for younger academics like myself!

  5. I like and approve of Bill’s collective, co-operative approach, but many aspects of it seem long-range, utopian. Having seen Ujamaa in action, and having worked on local food and rural development for the Department of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, my conclusions have been:
    1. While industrial agriculture is at the core of the problem, it is also at the vanguard of the solution — for instance, far greater gains come from a large firm adopting new techniques that reduce wasteful water use, than from local agriculture solutions.
    2. Local food production is typically less productive than large-scale organic production, and far more costly energy-wise in terms transport (this is not actually true of Bill’s model, because the community is directly tired to the food consumed, but this holds in general). There are some clear quality benefits to local food transformation — e.g., particular local sausages, or the effects of terroir in local wine production. There are clear energy savings from larger vs smaller slaughterhouses (which can be co-operative and organic, instead of the low-margin, massive profit-oriented operations that exist in most of the developed world — especially North America).
    3. Larger-scale operations are much easier to support with agricultural insurance mechanisms, or risk-sharing/management options, such as supply-management systems, or indeed the use of buffer stocks, such as Australia’s former Wool Price stabilisation scheme, which Bill cites as the model for the job guarantee.
    4. Local production can never offer the diversity of production that the current international food system does — this is especially the case for production in Northern climes. So international trade in agriculture will still be responsible for most of humanity’s food consumption;
    5. Micro-agriculture can be very innovative, but cannot meet the scale of need (of course, in the longer term, one could presumably reorganize itself around local communities in the way Bill proposes, but that will be a transformation that takes several decades). Small and medium-sized production is far less innovative than large-scale production, because large-scale producers can much more easily set aside portions of their land or resources for testing/research. Small- and medium-sized producers are more energy-intensive and rely to a greater extent on industrial fertilizers;
    6. The key issue, to me, is thus how to work through the transitional period in agricultural production; we have to focus on cooperatives and not-for-profit organizational forms in large-scale production, but many many farmers, being highly independent-minded, may oppose the social and economic control over their activities that such new options tend to impose.

  6. Taking account of the amount of time to effect paradigmatic change and the rate of evolution of ecological overshoot, most visibly manifest at present with accelerating global warming effects, all bound up and driven by the magnitude of an exponentially growing human population (has grown from 2.5B to 8B in my lifetime), how can intelligent humanity be distracted by the micro scale matters as worthy of any major attention?

    Does anyone really see that we have any other option than to rapidly change to a command and control wartime based economy to be able to sensibly respond to global warming without everything going something like Mad Max? Private profit extraction while kidding ourselves that we are countering global warming, at this late stage of human induced ecological overshoot, is where our political masters are at present. Essential to that change I see moving to a system of government by sortition to bury capitalism where we currently get the “best” government that private money can buy, aka “democracy” – yet another term that has been bastardised by those plutocrats running the world who have manufactured our consent. In the interim a benevolent dictator?

    What might be possible if the current system of the exploitation of resources for Military Keynesianism was employed in an Ecological Keynesianism can be imagined.

    Certainly, for individuals to do a change of living as Bill is doing is desirable and admirable but bear in mind all those counter things that we do that add to humanity’s future livability problems. Such matters include international travel and the like that we have a capacity to rationalise away.

    In a similar manner that humans have difficulty in thinking exponentially we are handicapped by our linear thought processes when it comes to anticipating the outcomes of dynamic systems (they’re everywhere). Only by building real world approximating mathematical models that include empirically derived essential variables that drive a dynamic system can we have the prospect of anticipating non-linear changes. Advances in modern weather forecasting show us the way.

    Still, we have the choice to do something or metaphorically curl up in a corner and do nothing by continuing as we have in decades past. Breaking down the demarcations between artificial human-made academic silos is a vital component, as Mark has referenced. How many times in the recent past has the demise of neoliberalism been anticipated? We must all become noisy empirical economists.

    It’s the elected decision makers (and their neoliberal advisers) that control the public purse that we must rapidly change. The existence of billionaires and ever growing private charities demonstrates our failing economic system.

  7. As a result of capitalism farmers across the world are largely caught up in an industrial system that emphasises production over food quality and is highly dependent on fossil fuel and inputs derived from it.

    Much of the return from this production is captured by the suppliers of artificial inputs who are astonishingly adept at convincing gowers of the ongoing need to use their products. Their marketing messages in a sense are true, because ongoing use of artificial fertilisers and chemicals leads to soil deterioration and a shutting down of the natural exchange of sugars (liquid carbon) from the plant’s photosynthesis for nutrition and disease protection which are gathered and delivered by soil life.

    The result has been catastrophic – massive loss of soil carbon as CO2, declining food quality with alarmingly low nutrient density and mineral levels, plus the protection from disease that healthy food should confer has been lost through the disappearance of the natural soil food web.

    Fortunately food is increasingly being grown using an understanding of natural proccesses to build back soil function, sequester carbon from CO2 as stable soil carbon and nourish plants, animals and humans with minimal inputs.

    The food choice to be made to reduce climate change should not be “plant or animal” but rather “how was it produced?” Animals have an important role in plant production, and grazing of grass land with appropriate management is unsurpassed as a means of sequestering CO2, as well as concentrating nutrients in food where human plant diets cannot be grown at any scale.

    Regardless of where we are in the process of moving to a fairer and sounder organisation of human activity, it seems the health and stability of the environment has to receive utmost consideration in all decision making if we are to survive as a species.

  8. Few things (one of which is off topic)
    1) In terms of “use value” (as Marx called it) I see no reason to believe there are no obvious limits to growth as there are no obvious limits to the knowledge humans can collectively acquire over time. Resources may be finite, but what we can learn about how to deploy them, the extent to which we can learn how to squeeze more “use value” from them has no obvious limit. Similarly, while there obvious limits to how much we can increase life expectancy there are no obvious limits to how much we can improving quality of life (healthy life expectancy).
    2) While a rational and effective state will be careful to allow local governments and individual workplaces autonomy to avoid excessive centralization, the idea can be taken too far. There is a reason imperial are obsessed with breaking apart even potential rivals. Size matters.
    3) (off topic) I wonder if you could comment on the labor theory of value or point to where you commented on it. Seems to me Ian Wright has effectively challenged the dismissive assumptions people of all political stripes have made about it.

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