The extent to which modern agriculture shapes every aspect of our society often goes unrecognized. Our agricultural methods lie at the heart of how society organizes itself and as a result are entwined with some of the biggest problems facing society, most notably the existential threat of climate change. This paper will proceed in three parts. The first outlines the problems of industrial agriculture and hopefully motivates the need for social movements to address this problem. The second short part suggests the value of urban agriculture in addressing these problems. The third and primary part considers our research of the edible city of Andernach in relation to the theoretical notion of the post-politicisation of society. The primary concern is over the effectiveness of non-agonistic, institutionally led, top down urban agriculture such as the city of Andernach, and what role they can play in addressing the problems of industrial agriculture.
Part 1: The Problems of Industrial Agriculture
The first problem is that of damage to the environment caused by modern agriculture. Although it is generally well known that modern agriculture is contributing to various environmental harms to the planet, it is perhaps under-appreciated the extent to which these harms are occuring. For only a small sample of these impacts, Brown, Perez, and Miles note that there are approximately “220,000 deaths attributed to pesticides worldwide/year.”(p. 9) The majority of these impacts can be attributed to the adoption of new agricultural technologies since the green revolution. This shift in agricultural technology was characterized by increased mechanization, and increased use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which both decreased the need for farm labour while increasing yields. Notably for the sake of this essay, it is the adoption of these technologies which allowed in part for the astonishing population growth of the second half of the 20th century, as well as the accompanying increased movement away from rural areas and agricultural work towards urbanization. This meant less people living and growing their own food in rural areas, and more people living in cities buying processed food grown by corporate farms. From the perspective of farmers it has been noted that this trend had place them in a situation that has been dubbed “the technology treadmill”, which is defined as: “the self-reinforcing cycle of technological dependency, driven by the application of technology and investment capital to agriculture.” (Brown, Perez, Miles, p. 5) An example of this is given by the former authors, who note that pork raising businesses in the US “went from over 500,000 in 1982 to 60,000 in 2006, with no decrease in production overall” (p. 11) This cycle means that competition drives the adoption of new technologies by farmers to increase efficiency and scale of production, which eventually results in increased yield and lower prices. These lower prices eventually drive farmers using traditional but inefficient methods out of the market, which results in the current state of agriculture which is dominated by industrial methods of farming with it’s accompanying impacts on the environment and public health. As for the environmental effects, they are too numerous to fully account for in such a short essay. A report called the “Environmental Impacts of Agricultural technologies” provides a brief overview. They report that monoculture, the growth of a single crop, reduces biodiversity and increases the need for pesticides. That continuous planting of the same crops rather than rotating crops exhausts nutrients in the soil and increases the need for synthetic fertilizers which damages the soil and waterways. Intensive livestock systems emit large quantities of greenhouse gases, and Ween notes that a UN report in 2006 estimated that livestock farming is responsible for almost one fifth of global carbon emissions, although she mentions that a Robert Goodland “challenged this figure and claimed it is, in fact, 51% when you add in animal respiration, the loss of natural carbon sequestration by the forests that are cut down, the impact of forest burning, livestock feed production and the full impact of refrigeration and transport.”
The second problem is that of the damage to ourselves caused by the aforementioned urbanization and it’s attendant ills that resulted from the green revolution. Ween notes that
“The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs predicts that by 2050 around 6.3 billion people (66% of the global population) will be living in urban areas, up from 3.8 billion today.”
Contrary to the widely held belief that urbanization leads to modernization and higher health quality, the opposite is often the case according to the Unite for Sight organization. Urban populations are afflicted with higher levels of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes from poor diets low in fruit and vegetables and high in meat, fats and staple crops, as well as the accompanying shift to largely sedentary jobs. Whereas in the past, the fact that most people lived in rural areas enabled them to eat a varied and seasonal diet, in addition to the fact that most work involved high levels of physical exertion, now most city dwellers are unhealthy precisely because of a lack of those things. Although in many other regards, such as access to healthcare, education and employment, we are very well provided for in cities, in these two key lifestyle factors that are the foundation of a healthy body, many of us are sorely lacking. It happens to be the case that what we are lacking in terms of diet and exercise fits well with what the environment needs. As was noted earlier, livestock contributes substantially to global carbon emissions, and integrating small scale agriculture into cities would help significantly to solve several problems at once. Firstly it could help to solve the problem of physical inactivity and poor diet, since small scale agriculture and urban gardening entails growing diverse crops such as fruits and vegetables, as well as being more labour intensive and less susceptible to mechanization than growing grains and raising livestock. Secondly, integrating small scale agriculture into cities means a higher consumption of fresh vegetables, which if adopted on a large enough scale confers significant benefits on the environment, as Ween notes that it has been estimated that due to livestock’s enormous contribution to carbon emissions, that “a reduction of 25% of meat consumption, could arrest CO2 emissions and solve climate change overnight.” Thirdly, according to an article in Scientific American, research has shown that small scale farms “ use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms” as well as finding that “small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.”
The third problem is the political dimension of the increased industrialization of agriculture, which manifests itself through the ever increasing influence of agrobusiness on our democracies. For evidence of this, it is sufficient to point out the existence of what have been called “perverse subsidies”, which are agricultural subsidies that agrobusiness lobby which are characterized by their preferential treatment towards large scale production and exclusion of small scale farmers. For instance, in the US where these subsidies are particularly egregious, it has been noted that “almost 30 percent of subsidies go to the top 2 percent of farm operators”, and that these subsidies “ultimately cause distortions that lead to economic inefficiency and prevent environmental costs from being internalized.” (Robin et al. p. 2) A perverse subsidy might be based on a farmer’s average production per hectare over several years, which means that the farmers who adopt traditional techniques for increasing soil fertility, such as letting the land lie fallow or growing a cover crop, which by definition entails lower production per hectare, will not receive subsidies. Whereas farmers who use high intensity production methods which are damaging to the environment such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, will receive subsidies that increase their competitiveness. Subsidies can also directly damage human health and not just the environment, as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reports:
“National dietary guidelines advise consumers to cut meat and dairy consumption and increase their intake of fruit and vegetables. But more than 60 percent of agricultural subsidies have directly or indirectly supported meat and dairy production, while less than one percent benefit fruit and vegetable producers.”
All of these facts ought to make agricultural reform on of our top priorities.
Part 2: The Solution of Urban Agriculture
Having at this point thoroughly established that the damage to the environment and human health caused by modern agriculture is a problem with which social movements should be concerned, we can now move on to asking whether urban agriculture in it’s many forms can play a role in solving these problems. Bohn and Viljoen note that the environmental impact of agriculture can be thought of in broad terms, by reference to the total amount of non-renewable energy that is used in production. They observe that
“The energy (mainly nonrenewable) currently used for conventional industrialised food production in Europe, for example, exceeds by far the energy received in return from consuming the produced food.” (p. 154)
This fact demonstrates the extent to which our food system is entirely dependent on fossil fuels and nonrenewable energy sources, whereas for most of human history, all of the energy used in producing food was exerted by humans and other draught animals. The energy that we used in order to farm came of course, from the renewable energy of the sun converted into calories through plants. We are now however in an era of surplus energy that is being used up at an alarming rate and causing climate change. This surplus energy extends even into our own physical bodies in the form of the epidemic of obesity, as we can now produce so much food with so little physical effort that it is easy for us to store the excess calories as body fat. This is the root of the motivation behind urban agriculture, the idea that food production should not be solely the domain of rural areas but is a process that all humans should be involved in. Urban agriculture is based in part on the realization that farming by hand using traditional organic production techniques is the most natural way to exercise because it is easy and dignified and can be done by people of all ages and abilities with proper guidance, and most important the energy expended comes back to us in the form of healthier foods than are produced by industrial agriculture. Bohn and Viljoen notes that “studies have shown that a city like London could produce about 30% of all fruit and vegetable requirements of its population from within the city boundary. It could achieve this by only using currently abandoned, leftover space.” (p. 154) They refer to studies in the UK that have shown incredible improvements in health of those who participate in urban agriculture. The studies in Middlesborough and Cambridge found a 70% decrease in purchasing produce during the growing season. Those with personal garden allotments surpassed the recommended thirty minutes a day of exercise, and those who had previously eaten less that the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables later increased their intake after getting allotments,
“If this trend is validated in further research, it will indicate the significant behaviour change impact that may be attributed to even relatively modest urban agriculture interventions.” (Bohn & Viljoen, p. 159)
An even more extreme example is what occurred in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s main trading partner and source of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The Slowfood organization notes that because of the food shortage that occured:
“Today half of the fresh produce consumed by two million Havana residents is grown by ‘nontraditional urban producers’ in abandoned lots and green spaces wedged into the crowded typography of the city.”
They report that approximately 300 000 people are employed in organic urban gardening in Cuba alone.
Part 3: The Edible City of Andernach as a Post-Political Practice Based Movement
Moor, Catney and Doherty present a critique of practice based movements from the perspective of their relation to the idea of the post-political society. They write that practice based movements are often more attractive than traditional contentious forms of activism, given that they are safer and more focused on making a positive difference in the world rather than critiquing society, which is perceived by many as a negative and emotionally difficult undertaking. Therefore, practice based movements make people feel good and are more empowering in an era of declining trust in institutions. (Moor, Catney, Doherty, p. 3) Although it must be noted that the case of the edible city of Andernach complicates this notion of declining trust in institutions, as it is a top down project which is led by an institution, it is nevertheless the case that our interview with Lutz Kosack revealed a similar ethic of positivity lying behind it, when he stated that: “Instead of focusing on the apocalypse, or on negative things such as the demise of birds and insects, we try to focus on the positive things we can do. The edible city is something fun and positive which spreads the message of nature conservation.” We can infer from this that it is very likely that the edible city of Andernach is capable of existing and emerging from an institution without significant grassroots political pressure precisely because it does not significantly challenge the status quo. Conventional agriculture and supermarkets have no reason to be fearful of the edible city as its food production is for the most part decorative at the moment, and it appears that it does not contribute significantly to the dietary intake of the citizens. Focusing on “positivity” and “spreading the message” certainly appear to be laudable goals, but perhaps they lack the urgency and aggression to challenge existing power structures.
Moor, Catney and Doherty note the disagreement in the literature that surrounds practice based movements, which are seen positively on the one hand for allowing the continuation of political engagement given the general decline in traditional forms of participation, whereas on the other hand they have been criticized for being overly focused on promoting individual welfare rather than advancing “collective goods.” (p. 3) A good example of this could be the trend of veganism, which often appears to be motivated in large part by individual health and appearance concerns, despite it’s undoubtedly positive effects for the environment. A parallel might be drawn to the edible city of Andernach in this case, as a main point of criticism is that it is overly focused on appearance and seems in many ways to be more of a marketing campaign for the city rather than a concrete solution to providing a significant amount of food independence to it’s citizens outside of the industrial system. When we observed the city of Andernach, we noted that the cultivated spaces were rather small in comparison to the available space in the town, in addition to appearing to be largely decorative. For instance, we did not see any vegetable beds in dense rows of production as one would see on an organic vegetable farm, instead the few vegetables they had were arraigned in decorative but inefficient circles and other shapes. We also did not see any significant potato fields or other staple crops that would be indispensible if Andernach’s goal were to feed its citizens with as much local produce as possible. Nor did we observe any attempt at expansion into empty spaces, it appeared that most of the edible city consisted of some small decorative planters within the city and in front of the city hall for instance, with the majority of the project concentrated around the medieval gates of the city, which is probably not incidentally the place a tourist might be most likely to see them. Having worked on organic farms in the past, I personally expected to see rototillers, broadforks, hoes, or any of the variety of tools used everyday on a productive farm, but these tools, as well as the workers wielding them, were nowhere to be seen. Therefore, the edible city can be seen as fitting within the model of a post-political practice based movement, as Moor, Catney and Doherty write that:
“the post-political manifests itself as non-conflictual environmentalism that focuses on developing concrete solutions to environmental challenges that do not question or challenge the system and ideology driving environmental degradation.” (p. 4)
One of the primary ways that neoliberal institutions have sought to cope with the mounting pressure from the public to deal with environmental degradation is through the individualization of responsibility. Rather than the traditional form of political engagement, in which citizens might pressure governments to enact regulation on a particular pesticide, or to eliminate perverse subsidies, the forces that benefit from the present arrangement have long sought to shift the burden onto ordinary citizens by painting them as consumers. Instead of voting at the polls, the citizen as consumer votes through their purchases. It is in this sense that Moor, Catney and Doherty characterize practice based movements as “apolitical”, as they focus on making changes through the free market rather than through ideological or structural changes to the system, they put the onus of social change and the moral responsibility squarely on the consumer and their choices. (p. 3) It would be far too uncharitable to the edible city of Andernach to label it entirely as a post-political movement, however Moor, Catney and Doherty provide a useful rubric through which we can assess the extent to which it might be described as such. They identify three levels which are constitutive of the post-political. Firstly is “whether movements advance an idea that challenges the existing order”, which Andernach might be said to do, albeit in a very limited way. (p. 4) Although the city of Andernach certainly prefigures the idea of urban agriculture to some extent, it certainly would be an exaggeration to say that it challenges the dominance of agrobusiness by providing an alternative model for feeding a city. It would probably be fairer to say that it challenges the way cities ought to be landscaped. Secondly in Moor, Catney and Doherty’s classification is the presence of “agonism”, which is
“whether or not actors agree that society is made up of conflicting interests, and that politics is therefore about a confrontation between contradicting stakeholders.” (p. 4)
They identify another authors research who identified Transition Towns as a primary example of a practice based movement which lacks agonism and is thus partly post-political, writing that
“In contrast to climate justice activists who engage in open conflict to challenge the systemic injustices and inequalities involved in climate change, Transition Towns proposes that real social change emerges from turning environmentalism into a non-political, and instead common-sense issue that all can agree upon. Engaging agonism, to them, frustrates this goal.” (p. 4)
Transition Towns are remarkably similar to Andernach, in that they are local city led initiatives which aim to increase sustainability and increase local independence notably in terms of food production. However, if Transition Towns are to be characterized as firmly post-political, non-agonistic, practice based movements, it does not bode well for Andernach in this regard, as it is a movement which seeks to implement changes in many domains at once, some of which are much more counter to the system than those proposed in Andernach. Transition Towns seek to implement their own local complementary currency for instance. Third among Moor, Catney and Doherty’s classification of post-political practice based movements is engagement with “subversive, contentious, militant or transgressive action.” (p. 4) Needless to say, this is another characteristic in which Andernach is lacking. In summary, what this classification reveals is not necessarily that the edible city of Andernach is intentionally cooperating with neoliberalism at any level. We can only say that the edible city is an insufficient means of challenging or subverting the existing order, and that if it is to be described as a movement then it is a firmly practice based and post-political one, despite its unquestionably relevant goals and good intentions.
In order to deepen our understanding of the problem of the post-political practice based movement’s ineffectiveness in bringing about significant changes, we can consider the thoughts of Raphael Schlembach on the post-politicisation of society and the importance of agonistic movements. He defines the post-political society as a “hegemonic dominance of neo-liberal ideas over the realm of public discussion and deliberation”, which is to be contrasted with a traditional politics that is characterized by conflict and opposition. (p. 235) Maintaining agonistic forms of politics is of particular importance in a post-political society which maintains its dominance essentially by avoiding conflict, which it maintains by favouring consensus and deliberation and “closes down the avenues for any challenge to the present socio-economic relations.” (Schlembach, p. 235) Schlembach is influenced in this line of thinking by Ranciere, who says politics must be oppositional and open to differences of ideas, whereas the neo-liberal consensus consists of a common ideology of promoting the growth and maintenance of liberal economies which does not tolerate deviance from this basic premise. An example of this is how the police played a role of enforcing a particular notion of public space during the occupy movement. Schlembach believes an essential part of their message consisted in the act of reclaiming public space:
“The occupation of squares, parks, streets and buildings….represents the axiomatic claim that public spaces are the loci of political deliberation and action.” (p. 235)
The edible city of Andernach can be contrasted with this in that it is also a rethinking of the role of public space, but one that emerged out of an institutional context, and in this sense it complicates the idea that public space can only be reclaimed through agonistic methods. On the one hand it may give us hope that conflict is not the only means of effecting change, on the other, we might be concerned that top down change is prone to being superficial. For example, with the fact that the level of involvement of the public seems rather minimal, for instance when Lutz Kosack stated firmly that “It’s a top down project. Citizens are free to pick.” Or also his observation that “the citizens themselves launch the growing process only in particular cases.” What seems to have happened is that because of the project’s top down orientation, citizens are, in a way, relegated to passive participation in the movement, they are only “free to pick.” They are notably not free to plant crops in vacant spaces, or to choose what is planted and when, so perhaps it is unsurprising that the level of involvement seems low. So it would be highly dubious to describe the edible city as a re-appropriation of public space in the same vein as the occupy movement.
Nevertheless it is important to note that this papers primary thesis, i.e., that the edible city of Andernach fits into the model of a post-political practice based movement, is not solely a negative one. There are so many social movements with different agendas, that it would be absurd to assume that the aim of each one is to singlehandedly change the world. Moor, Catney and Doherty note a rising awareness in the literature that the increased focus on proliferation of social movements whose action repertoire is primarily practice based can be described as part of a dual strategy, they state that:
“while oppositional activism challenges what is wrong, practice-based politics demonstrate what the status quo could be replaced with. Moreover, promoting alternatives does not only complement oppositional work, but also legitimizes it by showing that there is an alternative, and that the movement is thus not only opposing whilst failing to provide opportunities themselves.” (p. 5)
The authors believe that it should be noted that there is an apparent tradeoff between breadth and depth in social movements. Practice based movements tend to focus on breadth through diffusion of their practices, but in doing so they tend to sacrifice depth, which in this context means radicalism and ideological unity. It is easy to see why this is the case, as wider participation in the movement inevitably makes it more mainstream and introduces the necessity to appeal to a wide variety of people to retain membership. Moor, Catney and Doherty found in their analysis of practice based movements that
“overtly subversive or transgressive political work is avoided because it can compromise funding, influence, and importantly, diffusion, as it can put off potential participants, thus limiting upscaling, as well as political or economic partners, thus limiting translation.” (p.13)
Unfortunately, we did not collect any information in our research interview with Lutz Kosack about whether he hoped to move the edible city towards any more oppositional strategies, but he did demonstrate a firm preference for what I will call a type of practice based action repertoire that I will label “prefiguration within the mainstream.” For instance, in his citation of Eric Kastner where he essentially said “nothing good is done unless you do it”, it meant that any action towards a better society is better than none at all. The subtext of this kind of ethos frequently seems to lie in an awareness of the huge number of people who hope for radical changes to society, but are too cynical to do anything about it other than criticize the status quo. Although this accusation is occasionally used as tactic in politics to silence what may be valid criticism, there is nevertheless some truth to the idea enshrined in the saying “actions speak louder than words.” The motivation behind this “prefiguration within the mainstream” is presumably that experimentation within a mainstream context, even if it is by necessity less radical than experimentation within a more alternative context, is more likely to cause lasting change since it is integrated within the existing structures of society. In summation, if many more cities were to focus on the pedagogical benefits of organic gardening within the city as Andernach does, it would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction.
A contribution from Julien Luttermann
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