Three balanced and varied meals per day. This is what should be eaten daily to adequately support the human body. This seems to us to be a simple matter, and in fact, it is a given. But is it really? There was a time, not so far from now, when almost the entire population was in the fields, unless it was in the vegetable garden. The peasants produced the food. Family self-production was then common and farms were numerous. The situation has almost been reversed, and our « developed » countries now have only a few meager percentages of their working population in agriculture. This is a completely new model of society. Is it solid? What happened? And what is happening right now?
INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION BETWEEN FIELDS AND CITIES
The industrial revolution accompanied the privatization of land and its uses by the « enclosures » that erected fences around the land. The « landlords », for the first time, are assuming rights of access to the land, while the workers in the fields are losing their autonomy. At the same time, factories swarm in the cities, which are hastily expanded to house the manpower needed for the great work of Production that will liberate mankind. This workforce comes from the countryside, from which cities could it have come? The workers of the Industrial Revolution are therefore landless peasants attracted by the sirens of the city, when they have not been pushed there by necessity. The development of cities produces city dwellers who gradually come to have no connection with agricultural production. This becomes all the more true with time as pigs, rabbits and chickens that fatten up in the backyards of buildings are soon relegated to the outskirts of cities, as the problems of saturation of their dejecta become unmanageable. As the city becomes denser, the vegetable plots are also shrinking and today, the large cities that concentrate more than half of the world’s population are « off the land » and « de-grown ».
This city/countryside divide and the ensuing reorganization of agricultural production is only one of the seeds of agricultural productivism, which will be conquered at the end of the Second World War. The Second World War left the western countryside devastated and unequipped, and famine hit hard during the Second World War. The reconstruction of Europe, pushed by the Marshall Plan of the United States, is also that of our countryside, which must become places of progress, and allow to feed the whole population at an affordable price. Tractors, whose technology is derived from tanks, arrive from the Far East, along with pesticides, derived from wartime chemistry, and industrial fertilizers. The mechanization of agriculture is a fundamental change in the mode of production, which upsets the traditional balance of the villages. And a tractor is expensive: to pay for it, you have to produce more. The cycle of indebtedness of peasants, concentration of land, and the race for productivity begins. It is concreted in the Common Agricultural Policy concluded in 1962, which organizes by law the agricultural productivism.
Since then, the race to the front has continued to accelerate, and if the CAP had indeed made it possible to organize an agriculture capable of feeding the whole of Europe, the « perverse effects », which are in fact effects that logically follow from the nature of this mode of production, are now being felt. Intensive agriculture weighs heavily on the planet, on the farmers, and on the consumers. The farmers absorbed by this system, which, to a large extent, was « sold » to them from above by means of canvassing, incentives of all kinds and pressure, particularly financial pressure, are often forced to transform themselves into « farmers » when they are not reduced, as in intensive livestock farming, to fattening animals in factories. Consumers, on the other hand, are eating products whose taste has become terribly stale and whose quality is increasingly poor. Traces of chemical pollutants are so numerous in industrial food that many experts are sounding the alarm: our bodies are intoxicated. With the inevitable rise in oil prices and the concentration of land in the hands of mega-owners-speculators, the ability of the agricultural system to feed the population seems compromised: it will become more and more expensive, and there are fewer and fewer farmers. We stop everything and start again, otherwise? More and more good wills are being heard in this sense, especially from « small producers », unions close to peasant agriculture, but also from « consumers » who develop links with those who feed them. The hope is there, it is fertile.
NEW CHALLENGES AND WAYS OUT
But at the same time, productivist attacks are taking new forms, the danger of which calls for our greatest attention. In this issue, we focus on four specific issues: seeds, GMOs, health standards and soil. The big seed industries are developing mind-boggling projects that directly threaten the food sovereignty of the people. The current revision of a European seed legislation package poses a serious threat to farmers around the world who may no longer have access to traditional seeds. GMOs, which generate exemplary citizen opposition, play a particular role since they constitute a frontal attack on biodiversity as well as a health danger that we are only just beginning to measure, so much opacity is the rule underlying these technologies. The same logic of domination can be found in the application of sanitary norms by the AFSCA in Belgium, whose regulations are tailor-made for the agro-industry, to the point of becoming an obstacle for « small producers » who often cannot cope with the hygienic imperatives that are unsuited to the nature of their work and their production. The soil, finally, is not a simple resource: it is the beginning and the end of life, the foundation of all civilization. Intensive agriculture is destroying it, which shows the impasse that this model constitutes.
These four issues are discussed after a general overview of the agricultural situation in Belgium. Then, two meetings with farmers allow us to better understand the difficulties faced by the workers of the land, the hopes that inhabit them, the tensions that cross the profession. As solutions to the crisis of productivism in agriculture, three paths are envisaged: urban agriculture, which is regaining its colors and allows city dwellers to connect with the land from which they also come; agroecology, as a solution to malnutrition, malproduction and malconsumption in the world, elsewhere as well as here; and peasant agriculture, which is another name for a similar approach, and which is a way of life more than a simple mode of production. The file is opened and closed by the voice of representatives of Belgian farmers’ unions, a way of positioning our point of view in the living alternative.
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