Can Britain Feed Itself? How Industrialism reshaped England and the world
There was an argument made that it could in 2007 you can read it here
However, my own research into this question suggests that the most people Britain could feed, on its own resources, is around 8 million people. This is the conclusion I reached after looking into the claims of an "Agricultural Revolution" during the industrial revolution. My research is presented below:
One result of industrial revolution in Britain was the factory system. This drew on raw water resources initially then later on steam power. This system relied in part on cheap labour from children and women to undercut the cottage-based weavers. The good and reliable quality of the fabrics produced aided the growth of factories. The stories of the conditions in factories are well documented and are consistent with reports of the modern industrial revolution taking place in China in the early part of the 21st century. Hours are long and workers are fined for a variety of transgressions. In fact, the similarities between the revolutions in China and the one in Britain 200 years earlier are startling, and reveal that the logic of the industrial system is timeless and that claims of social progress in this regard are dubious. What is seen as progress is perhaps more likely to be due to changes in who benefits from the industrial system rather than any fundamental change to the underlying logic. Thus communities and groups enriched by the industrial system may find that such circumstances are temporary and that they may once again be thrust back into conditions they thought they had escaped forever. This is the argument made by Hedges and Sacco (2012) in regard to the “sacrifice zones” of America, whereby industry and jobs in once prosperous areas have been move off-shore to locations with cheaper wages, such as China and Mexico, leaving sections of the American population near impoverished.
The timelessness of the injustice of the industrial technological system can be seen by comparing accounts from Britain in the 18th Century with accounts from China in the 21st Century.
Here is an account from a British mill published in 1844, it concerns a conversation between a cut-worker who fines workers for various infringements of factory rules (here fines are called bates):
‘When he had been there a fortnight, the master asked him, ‘How it was that he had so little in his bate book’; the man replied, ‘I think there’s a great deal, I ‘bate the weavers so much that I can’t for shame look them in the face, when I meet them in the street’. The master answered, ‘ You be d—d, you are five pounds a week worse to me than the man that had this situation before you, and I’ll kick you out of the place’. The man was discharged to make room for another who knew his duty better.’ Pike (1966), pg 63.
Compare this with an account from the Chun Si Handbag factory in China in 2000:
Chun Si, owned by Chun Kwan, a Macau businessman, charged workers $15 a month for food and lodging in a crowded dorm--a crushing sum given the $22 Liu cleared his first month. What's more, the factory gave Liu an expired temporary-resident permit; and in return, Liu had to hand over his personal identification card. This left him a virtual captive. Only the local police near the factory knew that Chun Si issued expired cards, Liu says, so workers risked arrest if they ventured out of the immediate neighbourhood […] Liu also found that Chun Si's 900 workers were locked in the walled factory compound for all but a total of 60 minutes a day for meals. Guards regularly punched and hit workers for talking back to managers or even for walking too fast, he says. And they fined them up to $1 for infractions such as taking too long in the bathroom.’ Dexter and Bernstein (2000)
The working conditions as described above for China in 2000 are also remarkable similar to those in Britain over 150 years earlier. The following description of workers lodging houses was written in 1833:
‘The extraordinary sights presented by these lodging-houses during the night, are deplorable to the extreme. Five, six, seven beds are arranged on the floor – there being in the generality of cases, no bedsteads, or any substitutions for them; these are covered with clothing of the most scanty and filthy description.’ (Pike 1966, pg 51).
A few points must be made here. Firstly, it seems that in 19th Century England conditions outside of main towns were not nearly so bad (perhaps because of the mass-migrations of people to the towns seeking work). Secondly, some ‘model’ factories were remarkably good by comparison with others of the period. For example, New Lanark was highly regarded as a clean, efficient workplace where staff were well looked after. However, perhaps such models were the exception rather than the rule, an idealised, and mostly unrealistic, presentation of the ‘new world’ and its economics? Or perhaps it was a vision of what might have been possible on a broader scale under a different system of organisation. Of the more common, less appealing workplaces, small operators were often reported as being amongst the worst offenders. So it may be that enterprises of this type are better if organised on a larger scale with concern for the broader local community. Perhaps this simplifies regulation and control? However, contradicting this view is the more recent experience with large factories in developing countries suggests the same problems remain, even with very large facilities. For example, the on-going controversies associated with the large production facilities producing for Apple in China (e.g. Foxconn). Such evidence suggests that similar problems exist regardless of the size and scale of individual factories, and furthermore that the problems continue despite oversight attempts by Apple (in response to bad press coverage on this issue) in an effort to enforce minimum standards for its producers (Cole & Chan, 2015).
The reader may well ask the question as to why people in England were so desperate so as to have to accept such conditions, and whether such treatment of people was a long-standing practice before the industrial revolution. It seems that a main contributor to such desperation was the systematic dispossession of common people of their traditional land through a process of privatisation associated with what has been called the enclosure movement. At the same time along with the re-shaping of agricultural production was a re-shaping of the entire landscape. This environmental transformation included draining of wetlands and cultivation of previously unused areas, and included some degree of environmental degradation (Hill pg 268). This seems also to have coincided, at least at a time, with unfavourable climatic periods (a 250 year cold period ended in 1700, Hill, pg 254).
Hill (pg 129) also points out that any increases in agricultural production as a result of these changes did not necessarily lead to an increased standard of living: much produce was exported and people and children had to work much harder. Also much of the land was taken from the poor such that one advocate of enclosure had a change of heart declaring:
"I had rather that all the commons of England were sunk in the sea, than that the poor should in future be treated on enclosing as they have generally been hitherto.’ ‘By nineteen out of twenty enclosures the poor are injured, and some grossly injured."
Apart from understanding the process of impoverishment of English peasants, it may be that arguments about English enclosures in the 17th and 18th century are in other ways relevant today. It seems the same attitudes and logic used to justify enclosures 200 years ago exist as a justification for similar courses of action now. The argument is one of how resources are best managed. Should communities and individuals be allowed to own and manage land and resources, or should they be consolidated and placed in the hands of larger, more powerful organisations managed by people who do not depend directly on the resource, but rather survive on the rents or profits extracted from them? The latter logic is typically applied today even to natural and common resources, such as water. The basic premise is that consolidated management under a profit driven model is more efficient than management divided between communities and individuals. This might lead one to ask: why would the impersonal profit driven model be more efficient? What makes it so? I would suggest that answer lies in the claims that the profit motive drives innovation, thus new ways to use resources so as to produce more (this is one purpose of technology). The danger here is that such innovation gives only short-term rewards, with long term detrimental effects, or – in other words - that increases in production come at the expense of something else. This something else could be the environment or the depletion of non-renewable resources brought in from somewhere else, thus depleting some other resource. There is also an assumption that communities and individuals will not be as innovative. However, the high rate of innovation of small start-ups in Silicon Valley, versus that of large companies (who often acquire their innovations through the purchase of these smaller companies) would seem to contradict this. Given these trade-offs, and the dubious premises from which the claimed benefits are meant to arise, why then did enclosure proceed, and continue, in relation to the privatisation of many public assets now? I would suggest that the answer comes down almost entirely to the dominant systems of power.
Enclosures were enforced by state power. The resistance and revolts by the dispossessed were suppressed by armed troops. In the modern age legal processes for dispossession are equally backed, not so much by principles of justice, but rather by the ability to enforce laws and the difficulties for groups with limited money and influence to see them changed by peaceful means such as challenging them in the courts or persuading legislators of their case. Legislative change contrary to the established logic is so hard to achieve now perhaps because of the entrenched acceptance of the assumptions and conclusions used to argue for privatisation. Serious evaluation and acknowledgement of the faults would lead to change which would be disruptive for those in power, and lead to strong criticism from the many who are convinced that they benefit from the status-quo. This includes not just the elite in western societies, but the vast multitude of the population who are convinced of the claims made about the market systems that are in place.
The common claim that technology allows greater productivity has often been made in relation to farming. Firstly in relation to one or more agricultural revolutions in England dating from 1500’s to the present day and the so-called Green Revolution in the 1970’s affecting mainly developing countries such as India. These revolutions are typically linked to a combination of changes in technology and associated “modern” practices which in turn are claimed to result from large scale operations and innovations driven by profit-seeking capitalists.
Let us begin with England’s agricultural revolution. Since an influential work on this in 1912, this revolution has been identified as most prominent in the period from 1750 onwards. It was attributed to the use of innovative farming methods, such as the use of clover crops to fix nitrogen in the soil and thus increase production, as well as the introduction of turnips which could grow over winter and provide fodder. Claims of the success of the revolution are supported in part by population figures and food prices which historically appeared to hit limits until the period following 1750 when England’s population increased rising from around 6 to 9 million between 1750 and 1800, then to almost 18 million by 1851. During these periods of population growth, food production appears to have increased to match demand without significant pressure on prices (Williamson 2002). Of course, the period of the agricultural revolution occurred simultaneously with the enclosures of small farms forming larger farms and the reclamation of waste or marginal land all of which has been seen to contribute to the increased food production over this period. However, a level of dispute, and perhaps spin, associated with agricultural improvements is indicated by the following statements of Overton (1996) in relation to earlier claims:
“Almost all the features of this early depiction of an ‘agricultural revolution’ are in some dispute, but there is general agreement about two particular criticisms. The first is over the role of the “Great Men’ as pioneers and innovators. It has been shown that ‘Turnip’ Townsend was a boy when turnips were first grown on his estate, Jethro Tull was something of a crank and not the first person to invent the drill seed, and that although Coke of Holkham was a great publicist (especially of his own achievements), some of the farming practices he encouraged (such as employment of the Norfolk four-course rotation in unsuitable conditions) may have been positively harmful. Despite this evidence, the myths associated with these individuals have proved extremely difficult to dislodge from literature not directed at a specialist historical audience, including popular histories and texts for use in schools.” (pg 4)
More thorough modern analyses of historical records present a far more complex scenario than perhaps evident in the popular histories referred to by Overton (1996). Williamson (2002) explores what he calls the ‘difficulties’ of the ‘conventional’ explanations of the English agricultural revolution. He raises questions regarding the calculation of yields which were based mainly on simple calculations of raw wheat production ignoring perhaps other farm outputs and impacts of producing fodder crops. Another factor was climate. There were over the period of the industrial revolution known extended climate fluctuations. Williamson also suggests that some waste lands were intensively used prior to the period of supposed improvements. These areas were often marginal, and even if enclosed would only ever return poor yields. Furthermore, Williamson (2002) points out that the text book techniques cited in relation to the agricultural revolution could not be used for improvement on all soils and in all areas equally, in fact, as Overton suggests, in some cases they could be quite harmful. In any case, large farms were favoured on the belief that they were more efficient and that, with access to capital, large improvement projects could be undertaken. On this basis parliamentary acts of enclosure were passed and enforced. However, Williamson notes that the claims of higher yields also were not true. On average large farms produced lower yields than small farms. That small farms have the same, or higher production, per acre is now an established principle that applies equally today and across all areas of the globe (UN, 2008). But in regard to the English revolution, there were some additional factors that contributed to the lower efficiency of large farms. First, the large landowners were more interesting in money making than food production, thus some of the large scale improvements they made to the land were aimed more at resale values of the land, rather than agricultural production. They had wider personal interests too. Thus improvements may include the creation of extensive parks and gardens, forests and areas dedicated to sports such as hunting or shooting. In short, vast areas were converted into “elaborate pleasure grounds”. Second, these capitalists often had little agricultural knowledge and were prone to adopt fashionable techniques quite unsuited to the local environment and which had little chance of success (Williamson, 2002).
So what did happen? Some answers are offered by Williamson (2002) who reviews this period from the perspective of a landscape historian. He argues that such a perspective - which looks at fundamental patterns of landscape and land use - is essential to understanding the agrarian changes associated with the agricultural revolution.
Firstly the role of new crops such as turnips, is somewhat questionable. Many soils were either too light for growing turnips, or too waterlogged.
The change of farms also radically reshaped social geography. Land once accessible and open to all inhabitants is now restricted to rights-of-way. Instead of being a part of the village, farm houses were placed centrally within their new fields.
The changed social landscape and the reduced freedom of movement is captured by John Clare in The Mores (Williamson, 2002):
Fence now meets fence in owners little bounds,
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
These fields were often used for grazing rather than arable farming as this required less labour and hardship, simplified estate administration and in general made a suitable setting for a mansion (thus the popularity of “landscape parks’ in this period) as well as an uncomplicated and prosperous life (Williamson, 2002). Humphrey Repton captured this sentiment as follows:
‘.. a pasture shows us […] animals enjoying rest after fatigue, while others sporting with liberty and ease excite the pleasing idea of happiness and comfort annexed to pastural life. Consequently, such a scene must be more in harmony with the residence of elegance and comfort, and marks a degree of affluence …’ (cited in Williamson 2002, p 46).
The population of villages in the hands of a single proprietor were often reduced in size (by demolition) so as to reduce the number of people required to be supported by rates on the landholder, in particular those who may become a burden through age or ill-health. This also reduced the costs of repair of buildings.
Similar losses of freedom were experienced due to the enclosure of the once-common fenlands. Williamson (2002) explains that these were intensively used for a variety of purposes, such as:
'fowling, fishing, raising breeding stock and collecting thatch. Hill (1969) quotes Fuller who suggested telling the fenmen ‘of the great benefit to the public, because where a pike or duck fed formerly, now a bullock or sheep is fatted; they will be ready to return that if they be taken in taking that bullock or sheep, the rich owner indicteth them for felons; whereas once that pike or duck were their own goods, only for their pains of catching them’ (pg 153)
Williamson (2002) explains that of general concern in all periods of enclosure, was the effects on small farmers and the poor. The decline of small owners and occupiers seemed to be hastened by parliamentary enclosure. The costs and loss of common rights often lead to small owners selling out immediately to a prosperous neighbour. Many cottagers and labourers lost common rights with no compensation. The loss of these rights made the poor more vulnerable as there was no longer an opportunity to glean and graze common lands in hard times as an alternative to relying on poor relief. The conversion to grazing land also reduced employment opportunities. Eden, in his State of the Poor of 1797, noted that the poor were ‘not one-third of their present figure before the enclosure’ (Williamson 2002):
‘Before the fields were enclosed they were solely applied to the production of corn; the Poor had then plenty of employment in the weeding, reaping, thrashing etc., and would also collect a great deal of cash by gleaning, but … the fields being now in pasturage, the farmers have little occasion for labourers and the Poor being thereby thrown out of employment, must of course be supported by the parish’
Karl Polanyi (1957) describes the enclosure movement as follows:
‘Enclosures have appropriately been called a revolution of the rich against the poor. The lords and nobles were upsetting the social order, breaking down ancient law and custom, sometimes by means of violence, often by pressure and intimidation. They were literally robbing the poor of their share in the common, tearing down the houses which, by the hitherto unbreakable force of custom, the poor had long regarded as theirs and their heirs'. The fabric of society was being disrupted; desolate villages and the ruins of human dwellings testified to the fierceness with which the revolution raged, endangering the defenses of the country, wasting its towns, decimating its population, turning its overburdened soil into dust, harassing its people and turning them from decent husbandmen into a mob of beggars and thieves.’
Modern studies have confirmed that enclosure in the midlands lead to a marked increase in unemployment. However, there were environmental benefits from planting hedges and recreating habit in this badly degraded region (Williamson, 2002).
So while land in one of the most productive areas was being laid to grass, there were other changes that compensated. In fact there were two clearly significant changes to the land. One was from various forms of drainage. This included “floating’ fields which involved having moving water run across fields to increase plant growth. However of the changes there were three developments that now seem most significant. One was the draining of land by hand-digging underground drains filled with plant material, tiles or rocks. Williamson (2002) notes, however, that this was done mainly by small-farmers or tenants at their own cost, not by large capitalist farmers. This was an old practice that increased in extent towards the end of the 1700’s, but was mainly concentrated in the south east of England. A major increase in grain production resulted from the pumping of the fenlands using steam-powered pumps introduced in 1825. There had been attempts to drain the fens since medieval times, but these were not very successful. Williamson (2002) briefly documents the extensive environmental and ecological damage resulting from this reclamation.
The other most significant contributing factor to increased grain production identified by Williamson (2002) was the increased application of chalk and lime to land which neutralised acidity. Neither turnips or clover will grow well on acidic soil and cereal crops are also badly affected by acidity due to increased availability of harmful elements such as aluminium and manganese and a poor microbe population. Spreading of chalk through a process of marling (digging to the chalk under the soil surface and spreading it over fields) had been undertaken since medieval times. But the creation of roads allowed the transport of larger quantities of material. Lime was even easier to transport but needed to be purified in kilns first. The availability of coal led to the emergence of a large number of kilns for the production of lime. Liming became an extensive practice, and was perhaps the most significant factor behind the production increases in the 1800’s. Williamson (2002) states that it ‘was in areas of acid soils that the real improvements occurred’ (pg 80). On the heathlands of East Anglia wheat yields nearly doubled, whilst barley yields virtually tripled.
But again this was largely an environmental revolution with large scale alterations in soil chemistry. Even at the time observers worried about the effects such as the increased rate of spontaneous abortion amongst sheep on marled land. The Raynbird’s noted in 1849 that ‘Although marl has been found … most excellent for wheat, yet a sad mortality in the sheep has been observed whilst feeding on land that has been recently marled’ (Williamson, 2002 pg 82). Williamson (2002, pg 82) also notes:
‘Moreover, the destruction of thousands upon thousands of acres of
ancient, semi-natural habitats – acid heath, chalk heath, and downland – was an ecological disaster on an awesome scale’.
Williamson (2002) describes how this led to the extinction of the great bustard by the 1840’s
There were three more factors which led to the feeding of England’s growing population over the 1800’s (although many English were poorly fed). One was the change in climatic conditions which, for the 40 very wet summers prior to 1820, lead to poor harvests, offsetting any improvements made. Another was the increasing use of manufactured and imported fertilizers. Until around 1820 the output of grain was largely dependent on the availability of manure. The production of manure through grazing and the availability of fodder thus restricted arable farming. In the 1820’s increasing amounts of locally sourced fertilizers were used. Then from around 1840 increased use of imported guano and manufactured super phosphates were applied. New fodder crops, such as oil cake made from rape seed also enabled high stocking rates. These measures dramatically increased yields, but at considerable expense with profits being marginal making such farming ‘a precarious enterprise, in which high investment brought profits for so long as agricultural prices remained high’ (Williamson 2002, pg 154). Finally, the remaining ‘gap in supply was filled by imports’ (Williamson 2002, pg 157). Note, also the use of fodder crops and enclosed land contributed to breeding sedentary animals which could be quickly fattened. These displaced somewhat hardier animals which had grazed over broader areas.
Williamson (2002) highlights the link between agricultural and industrial change. Industrialisation of some areas de-industrialised other areas, and wages fell across the south and the east of England. This in turn served the agricultural change, as the new practices required a large ‘flexible’ workforce which was provided by the large number of landless and underemployed workers in the arable areas of England. Work was often spread thinly among the poor, to keep them from claiming poor rates which concerned the landowners and farmers who were expected to contribute towards poor funds. Rather than recycling materials available within farm boundaries, farmers increasingly relied on external inputs and manufactured products, some coming from other nations. The high levels of investment and income needed to sustain this so-called ‘high farming’ required high incomes. Consequently, the flooding of European markets with cheap grain from the newly expanded mid-west of America led to a long period of depression. The problems of farmers and pastoralists were then added to as increasing amounts of produce came in from Australia and America, including cheap dairy products and meat on refrigerated transport. This led to various degrees of slump and depression until the Second World war (Williamson 2002). The result was a retraction of land farmed. The abandoned and weed choked fields of Essex being described by a journalist as a ‘civilised waste’. The rough, wild, landscape which developed as farming declined favoured wildlife which flourished - reversing some of the environmental damage inflicted by the previous expansion. But following the war, a new environmental onslaught took place, with new policies and new technologies, including tractors and herbicides. Hedges which had long served to preserve various species of plants and animals, were dramatically removed to make way for large combine harvesters and monocultures. This has since been followed by the progressive expansion of suburbs and road ways (Williamson, 2002).
Williamson (2002) concludes with a summation of the agricultural changes over the period:
“The agricultural revolution succeeded in feeding England’s expanding population, and allowed the industrial revolution to take its course, but not without significant costs. In essence, rampant demographic growth and escalating production of material goods were achieved at the expense of environmental destruction, increased social inequality, and a severance of the intimate ties between people and the land. Yet, this is a world with which we should be familiar, for it is the one in which we live. The scale of the game is global now, but the essential rules remain the same.” (pg 178)
A similar explanation can be given for the growth in industrial agricultural output in Russia (Sharashkin 2011):
“The collectivized sector of agriculture (99.6% of agricultural producers were collectivized by 1955) witnessed a significant growth over the post-war decades (Matskevich 1967). By the mid-1950s, grain production exceeded the 1913 level (pre-WWI and prerevolution) and between 1950 and 1970 increased by more than 2.3 times to 186.8 million tonnes (Goskomstat 1971). Production of meat by kolkhozes and sovkhozes rose six fold between 1940 and 1970 to 8 million tonnes per year. These advances were largely achieved by government-mandated and government-sponsored industrialization of agriculture. Thus, between 1950 and 1974 the production of plough-tractors increased by 79% to 218,000 units per year, and the production of cereal harvesters increased by 91% to 88,400 units per year. Between 1950 and 1972, the supply of NPK fertilizers to Soviet agriculture increased almost ten fold, and the rate of NPK application increased from 7.3 to 55.9 kg/ha per year (Goskomstat 1975).'
The destructive effects of capitalism are so obvious that they cannot be ignored, reshaping landscape with the emergence of roads and cities, which have brought change in so quickly that in some places the older generation can barely recognise the cities in which they were raised (China particularly, but also other places). These destructive effects are recognised by proponents of capitalism and even presented as positive, such as Joseph
Schumpeter who said ‘Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism’ (Schumpeter, 1942). More recently, Clayton M. Christensen has been promoting the idea of ‘disruptive innovation’, a theory which is debunked and criticised to its very foundations by Lepore (2014).
We can compare the industrialised system of England in the early 1800’s with the (at that time) less industrialised United States of America. Lyson (2004) describes the industrial landscape of the United States prior to mass-production being predominant:
'The Census of 1870, for instance, shows that in the three most rural northern New England states, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, there were 12,162 manufacturing establishments. On average, these places employed fewer than ten workers. Sawmills, blacksmith shops, flour and gristmills, wagon-making enterprises, and leather-related industries, such as saddle/harness shops and shoe factories, predominated.’ (p 10)
So we see evidence of many small craft workshops in the United States, which Lyson (2004) further describes:'
'Much of this economic activity was organized around small, skilled, artisan shops. Artisan shops are places that employ a handful of workers and do not use water or steam power in the production process but rather rely on hand- or foot-powered machinery. Factories that relied on water or steam power were virtually unknown in the United States in the early 1800s and this type of economic organization did not penetrate rural areas of the country to any great extent until after the Civil War. In 1810, for example, only 2.8 per cent of the American workforce could be found in such factories.’ (p 11)
Furthermore, Lyson (2004) suggests that at that stage mass-production in factories did not provide efficient benefits.
In a study of early factories in Indianapolis, Robert Robinson and Carl Briggs found “that firms with large numbers of workers and large investments in capital had no efficiency advantage over firms with small workforces and limited capital investments. There were no economies of scale in any industry in 1850, 1870, or 1880. Nor did the introduction of water- or steam-powered technologies—the defining characteristics of factories—result in greater output....” (italics added). (p 14)
So why then were factories emerging in England, and then later across Europe? Lyson (2004) suggest that the answer lies in the very structure of the society, which in turn depends on transport infrastructure. In particular, the opening of mass markets – through mass distribution channels – seems to allow a restructuring of society and production along the lines of mass-produced, homogenised products. Lyson (2004) summarises this process as follows:
'Over time, of course, technological improvements in manufacturing processes emerged. Water, steam, and later electrical power supplanted human labor in production. Manufacturing output became standardized and routinized. At the same time, efficient transportation networks opened up regional and national markets to local manufacturers. Mass markets articulated with mass production. Workers in factories that adopted mass-production techniques became increasingly differentiated along task lines as capital in the form of machinery was substituted for labor in many industries. Michael Piore and Charles Sabel make the point well: “By World War I . . . industry after industry had come under the domination of giant firms using specialized equipment to turn out previously unimagined numbers of standardized goods, at prices that local producers could not meet.” The culmination of this transformation from craft production to mass production was most evident in the assembly lines of the Ford Motor Company.” (p 14)
So what then about agriculture? We know that the construction of the train system in the United States reshaped manufacturing (through the creation of mass markets), and also led to a mass of cheap food flooding into England and Europe as more and more land in the United States was converted to agricultural purposes, again driven by the opened access to these regions and their new ease of access to markets. However, agriculture presented unique challenges to attempts to introduce mass-production techniques, as Lyson (2004) describes:
'Unlike manufacturing, which adopted assembly-line techniques in the early part of the twentieth century, it was clear to most agricultural scientists that the system of relatively small-scale, family-based farming that existed at that time could not be organized along mass-production lines. There was too much idle time for labor in the production process; hence the division of labor along specialized task lines was difficult, if not impossible. Furthermore, there were simply too many different and interrelated tasks involved in producing food and fiber to allow much headway to be made in dividing labor among those tasks. Finally, there was incredible variability in conditions across farms in terms of soils, climate, and other environmental variables. This environmental variability meant that farming; enterprises; took; different forms in different places. Even within the same state or within the same county, the variability across farms could be tremendous. Unlike factories, which could standardize the production process, farms could not standardize the environmental conditions under which they produced food.’ (p 16)
So how was this problem dealt with? It seems farming had to made amenable to mass-production techniques. One of aspect of this is specialisation and homogenisation. Specialisation was achieved by farmers taking advantage of their ‘comparative advantage’ i.e focusing on what grew best in their area, given the soil, climate etc. Lyson (2004) explains how this has played out in the United States:
'Producers in the Great Lakes states, for example, have been able to establish and maintain a niche in dairy production. Producers in the Plains states have been able to raise hogs cheaper than farmers elsewhere, while farmers in California and several other Sunbelt states have used subsidized water and a favorable growing climate to become the leading producers of fresh fruits and vegetables. More recently, agricultural regionalization within the United States has given way to global regionalization as producers from all over the world participate in an emerging “global” agricultural marketplace’ (p 3)
Homogenisation was achieved by introducing specialised machinery and controlling the supply of water and nutrients in the form of manufactured chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Lyson, (2004) comments on this also:
'Throughout most of this century, farm management professionals have emphasized substituting capital, in the form of machinery, chemicals, and other off-farm inputs, for land and labor.’ (p 3)
One means by which this new system of production changed the entire social context is captured in Lyson (2004)’s statement as follows:
'American farmers were yoked to a set of technologies that promised to make production easier and more efficient—but at a cost. That cost was that fewer and fewer producers would be needed.’ (pg 19)
And Lyson (2004) explains why these changes took place:
'Social relations in the household and community, along with nonmarket transactions that might impinge upon the “rational calculations” of the farm operator, were deemed “externalities” and largely ignored as unimportant to agricultural production.’ (pg 18)
Thus, the various and diverse industries that used to produce locally in small factories and farms for local use have been supplanted by large specialised facilities that increasingly use less human labour. Diversity is now provided from remote areas (which are industrially similarly specialised) via the transport network. Such a structure allowed another phenomenon, the large city, largely devoid of local agricultural activity. Lyson (2004) describes this also:
'At the same time, places that have little or no local resources to produce food have burst forth as America’s fastest-growing cities. These cities are tethered to food pipelines that extend around the globe’ (p 5)
Such a change of ultra-efficient production introduces a range of vulnerabilities and dependencies. One such dependency is obvious, that is the reliability of the transport network to keep this system sustained (and a necessary on-going investment in transport infrastructure). Another is the dependence on the energy sources necessary to replace human labour and transport the produced goods. Harrington (2015) explains this vulnerability:
'The United States is so dependent on California farms that we could literally face hunger if they failed. But even that frightening scenario would not necessarily force the system to change, as the history of famines from Ireland to Ethiopia shows. That’s because capitalist goods do not flow to where they’re most needed. Instead, they always flow to where they’re most profitable. The market doesn’t care if you’re starving; it only cares how much money you’ve got.’
And it seems this process is rather brutal on the agricultural producers as well (Lyson 2004):
'Farmers today are receiving near record low prices for basic commodities, due to overproduction. And the lack of alternative markets is forcing tens of thousands of Midwest farmers out of business. After the current shakeout runs its course, the farms that remain will be much larger in size, in terms of both acreage and volume of sales.’ (p 37)
Tawney (1920) identified and described the relationship between industrial production and social organisation stating in relation to industrial production that it:
'immensely simplifies the problems of social life in complex communities. For it relieves them of the necessity of discriminating between different types of economic activity and different sources of wealth, between enterprise and avarice, energy and unscrupulous greed, property which is legitimate and property which is theft, the just enjoyment of the fruits of labor and the idle parasitism of birth or fortune, because it treats all economic activities as standing upon the same level, and suggests that excess or defect, waste or superfluity, require no conscious effort of the social will to avert them, but are corrected almost automatically by the mechanical play of economic forces.’
So in this chapter we have seen how ideologies related to the production of manufactured goods extended into food production and the changes in these two areas radically altered human society in ways unprecedented in history. We see that these ideologies are associated with much myth and legend, and that in fact their theoretical and empirical foundations are far from solid. In a sense all of humanity is engaged in a massive experiment based on some expected final outcomes as hypothesised by various utopian visionaries. In fact, the human failings and limitations of these visionaries are increasing apparent. What is being laid bare is the evidence of their rather restricted vision and understanding and their almost complete ignoring of the human, environmental and social factors that would be impacted by the systems of production which were their focus. Also we are starting to understand the various vulnerabilities and dangers that this new system of organisation brings. What we will also discover in later chapters is how this system sets up circumstances that lead increasingly to conflict. The following chapters also considered in more depth its impact on us as humans: psychologically; spiritually; and in relation to our physical health. By understanding this system, how it evolved and from what origins, we than can then start to diagnose the root problem before producing a prognosis followed by a corrective prescription.