By Julio Boltvinik
In the series of articles "Agribusiness and biotechnology threaten nature and the peasantry" I seek to take into account scientific-technological developments (such as biotechnology) and changes in the forms of organization / domination (such as contract farming). In this contextualization, climate change and, more generally, environmental deterioration caused by capitalism and, in particular, the depletion of the natural fertility of agricultural soil will play a central role.
As the culmination of the introductory chapter of an excellent collective book, Magdoff, Foster, and Buttel (1) quote Volume III of Capital in which Marx says: “The moral of the story is that the capitalist system opposes [collides with] rational agriculture, or that rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (despite the fact that it promotes its technical development), and that it needs the hand of the small peasants [of the small farmer] who work personally [on their own; for themselves] or the control of associated producers ”. (2)
Previously, the authors point out that, in the present circumstances, issues such as the scale of agricultural units, the global or local organization of food systems and appropriate technology, although significant, “are secondary to the commodification of agriculture and in fact nature itself with a single purpose in mind: profit generation ”. In this they interpret Marx's quote as if he had added to the italicized sentence because it commodifies nature. Although the discussion of this blunt (and enigmatic due to its location) text goes beyond the scope of this installment, I must say that if the excellent and important thirteen chapters (by various authors) included in the aforementioned book demonstrate something, it is that, at present , such an addition allows to characterize the current agricultural reality, whose capitalist commodification threatens human beings and nature.
In the series that began with this installment, I intend to review, among others, this book in order to seek an update on the topic addressed in the ten installments of the Series "Poverty and persistence of the peasantry" (published between May 21 and on August 27, 2010 in this space) that focused on a debate whose core took place in the first decades of the second postwar period. I seek to take into account scientific-technological developments (such as biotechnology) and changes in the forms of organization / domination (such as contract farming). I must also try to answer whether, as I argued in the first installment of that series, agricultural capitalism (still) needs poor peasants. In this contextualization, climate change and, more generally, environmental deterioration caused by capitalism and, in particular, the depletion of the natural fertility of agricultural soil will play a central role. I start with this aspect.
Foster and Magdoff (FyM) report that in the period 1830-1870 the main ecological concern in Europe and the United States was the depletion of the natural fertility of the soil (loss of nutrients); They add that this was the period of guano imperialism, the development of modern soil science, the gradual introduction of synthetic fertilizers, and the formation of radical proposals for the development of sustainable agriculture. Towards the middle of the 20th century, the problem seemed solved due to the massive application of synthetic fertilizers supplied by the industry of the branch. (3) (See graph with current data from four countries). Today, instead, a "growing understanding of the ecological damage inflicted by dependence on synthetic chemical inputs has generated a new interest in sustainable agriculture in which the recycling of nutrients plays a central role." Liebig discovered in 1840 the role of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in plant nutrition. The US economist EU Henry Carey, Liebig and Marx analyzed the causes of the depletion of soil fertility. Liiebig argued, say Foster and Magdoff, that: “The two problems of contamination of cities with human and animal excrement and the depletion of natural soil fertility were connected, and that organic recycling that returned nutrients to the soil was part of a rational urban-agricultural system ”.
The authors indicate that Marx's critique of capitalist agriculture was based on Liebig and Carey but, above all, on James Anderson contemporary Scottish agronomist and political economist of Adam Smith, who can be credited with the paternity of rent theory. of the earth, but also, unlike David Ricardo who attributed it to the "original and indestructible powers of the soil", he perceived that the human being can increase or decrease these powers. Anderson argued that anyone who has heard of agriculture knows that “When animal manure is applied to the soil, it increases its fertility; and that any circumstance that tends to deprive the soil of manure must be considered wasteful.
It is possible, he said, through the prudent application of human and animal waste to sustain the soil forever without the addition of external manures. Yet London, with its gigantic waste of such natural sources of fertility, carried daily into the Thames, through which it subjects the inhabitants to the most offensive stinks, indicates how far society has drifted away from a sustainable agricultural economy. "
Based on Anderson, say FyM, Marx argued that the irrationality of capitalist agriculture is linked to the contradiction between country and city from which capitalism was born and around 1860 he began to focus directly on the nutrient cycle. Thus, he pointed out in volume I of Capital (as cited by our authors) (4) that capitalist production disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth by preventing the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing, disrupting the eternal natural condition for soil fertility. And he added that all progress in capitalist agriculture is progress not only in dispossessing the worker but also the soil. Capitalist production, therefore, Marx concluded, develops the techniques of production while undermining the original sources of all wealth: the soil and the worker. And so Marx concluded that: From the vantage point of a higher socioeconomic formation, private property of particular individuals of the land will appear as absurd as the property of one man over another. Even a nation, or all nations together, do not own the land, they are simple owners, its beneficiaries, and they have to inherit it in an improved condition to successive generations, as boni patres familia.
Julius boltvinik - Mexico - Economist from UNAM, with master's degrees in economics and economic development from El Colegio de México and at the University of East Anglia (Great Britain) and a doctorate in social sciences from the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) of the West (Guadalajara). http://www.julioboltvinik.org/; - This article, published on January 27, 2012, is the first in the series "Agribusiness and biotechnology threaten nature and peasantry"
1. Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederik H. Buttel (Eds.), Hungry for Profit. The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2000. The introductory chapter called “A Global Vision” is written by these three authors.
2. P.150 of vol. 6, Volume III of Siglo XXI editores. In brackets I have included the wording of the edition of the Fondo de Cultura Económica (vol. III, p. 131). In the case in which there is a second version in brackets, after the semicolon, it is my translation of the English version of Capital cited by the authors.
3. John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, “Liebig, Marx, and the Depletion of Soil Fertility. Relevance for Today’s Agriculture ”, Chapter 2 in Magdoff, Foster and Buttel, op. cit.
4. Both in this quote and in the following one, FyM does not provide the chapter and section of El Capital to locate the passages in the Spanish translations, and I have not had access to the English edition that they quote.