All crises, THE crisis (the industrial agri-food system is central to all of them)

by GRAIN | 10 Apr 2019

The crises that all of humanity is confronting, linked to the capitalist, extractivist, and colonial model that now dominates most societies on the planet, have reached such a magnitude that they are no longer just being denounced by the same social movements that have been talking about them for fifty years; they are now found in the official reports of governments, international organisations and scientific organisations that have not been co-opted by corporate interests. A particular feature of all these crises is their close interconnection with the industrial agri-food system — indeed, they are all deeply and causally rooted in it.

The climate crisis

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its recent report to the Conference of the Parties, states that unprecedented and far-reaching changes in all aspects of society are necessary if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 °C instead of 2 °C, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement. A UN News item on that report is very explicitly titled, “Reducing global warming by 0.5°C: The difference between life and death.” [1]

The existing global agri-food system, promoted by a powerful transnational food industry, is responsible for nearly half of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions (the figure ranges from 44% to 57%, according to research by GRAIN over the last decade). [2] 

In our analysis of the impact of industrial meat and dairy production, we found that, as a group, the biggest five producers of these items are today responsible for a larger volume of annual greenhouse gas emissions than Exxon, Shell, or BP, the emblematic oil companies that (for very good reason) continue to be targeted for their role in the climate crisis. [3].

Massive destruction of planetary biodiversity 

There exists a scientific consensus that the earth is currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction of species and that, for the first time, it is being caused by a single species among the millions inhabiting this planet: human beings.

Here again, agroindustrial production takes centre stage: industrial monocultures are advancing, occupying immense areas, and destroying forests at an accelerated rate. 

According to a recent FAO report, commercial agriculture and livestock production generated nearly 70% of deforestation in Latin America in the first decade of the new millennium. [4] From 1990 to 2005, 71% of the deforestation in Argentina, Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela was due to increased demand for forage crops, and 14% to other commercial crops. The FAO report reads: “Deforestation, chiefly caused by the conversion of forest land to agriculture and livestock areas, threatens not only the livelihoods of foresters, forest communities and indigenous peoples, but also the variety of life on our planet. Land-use changes result in a loss of valuable habitats, land degradation, soil erosion, a decrease in clean water, and the release of carbon into the atmosphere.” [5]

Soil destruction by industrial agriculture 

Likewise, our planet’s soils are threatened by an accelerated process of desertification due to the imposition of an extractive agricultural model that does not consider soils as living organisms, but rather as an inert substrate for industrial agriculture. Soils are one of earth’s most astonishing ecosystems, in which a bewilderingly diverse array of plants, fungi, bacteria, insects, and other living organisms — the majority of them invisible to the human eye — coexist in an unending process of creation and decomposition.

Agricultural industrialisation, which began in Europe and North America and was later replicated with the Green Revolution in other parts of the world, began with the postulate that soil fertility could be maintained and improved using chemical fertilisers. The importance of soil organic matter was ignored or undervalued. Decades of industrialising agriculture and imposing industrial technical criteria on small-scale farming undermined the processes whereby soils obtain new organic matter, and protect the organic matter they contain from being carried away by water or wind. The effects of chemical fertiliser application and non-renewal of organic matter were not noticed immediately, since soils possessed large quantities of stored organic matter. But as time passed and this organic matter was used up, the effect became more visible — with devastating consequences in some parts of the world. [6]

This conclusion is ratified by the most recent FAO report on the status of the world’s soils: “the overwhelming conclusion from the regional assessments is that the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition. The most significant threats to soil function at the global scale are soil erosion, loss of [soil organic carbon] and nutrient imbalance.” [7]

The water crisis 

“By the middle of this century,” wrote the United Nations in its 2003 report on the development of the world’s water resources, “at worst 7 billion people in sixty countries will be water-scarce, at best 2 billion people in forty-eight countries.” [8]

Agriculture (fundamentally industrial agriculture) consumes the lion’s share of the drinking water available to human beings. According to UN figures, “agriculture accounts for 70% of fresh-water withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers – up to more than 90% in some developing countries.” [9] It is crucial to understand that the use of water in industrial agriculture fundamentally interferes with the water cycle. Soil water retention decreases radically and the resulting runoff causes flooding, while industrial grain production for export essentially amounts to an export of millions of litres of water from producer to consumer countries. This situation causes a huge disequilibrium in the water cycle. In the 2004/2005 season, Argentina exported over 42.5 billion m³ of water in the form of grain. [10] 

When water monopolisation, privatisation, and widespread agrotoxin contamination are added, the result is a grave problem that can only be solved if this cycle of overuse, appropriation, and contamination is broken. The human right to water, and its global recognition as an uncommodifiable public good, must be central to the work of social movements in the coming decades. 

The agrotoxin-induced health and environmental crisis 

The industrial model of food production is predicated on the massive use of agrotoxins, since the sale of these poisons is the main source of agribusiness revenues. The sale of Roundup (the herbicide whose active ingredient is glyphosate) accounts for 40% of Monsanto’s revenues, a larger share than it derives from selling Roundup-resistant soybeans. [11] 

Given this economic importance, it is understandable that the global rollout of agrotoxins had to be facilitated by turning the idea that there is no other way to farm into a matter of “common sense.” Not an easy task, given that agriculture was developed over a 10,000-year period during which agrotoxins were not available. 

Be that as it may, the crisis caused by the massive contamination of soils, water, and ecosystems, and the grave human health problems they cause, has been recognised at the global level. The 2017 report to the General Assembly by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food states: “Pesticides, which have been aggressively promoted, are a global human rights concern, and their use can have very detrimental consequences on the enjoyment of the right to food. Defined as any substance or mixture of substances of chemical and biological ingredients intended to repel, destroy or control any pest or regulate plant growth, pesticides are responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, 99 per cent of which occur in developing countries, where health, safety and environmental regulations are weaker and less strictly applied.” [12]

The same report also states: “The assertion promoted by the agrochemical industry that pesticides are necessary to achieve food security is not only inaccurate, but dangerously misleading. In principle, there is adequate food to feed the world; inequitable production and distribution systems present major blockages that prevent those in need from accessing it.”

Destruction of agricultural biodiversity

The reports published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1996 and 2012 paint a dire picture of the status of agricultural (or seed) biodiversity. Seeds are, of course, the only source of food for human beings, now and in the future, yet the twentieth century saw the loss of 75% of the agricultural biodiversity created by peasants in ongoing interaction with nature over the last 10,000 years. [13] Furthermore, the FAO unequivocally named the main cause of this loss biodiversity — industrial agriculture — in its 1996 report titled The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

To this grave situation must be added the new threats to agricultural biodiversity represented by the corporate concentration of the world seed market and the enactment of seed laws that promote seed appropriation, criminalise heritage and native seeds, and facilitate the introduction of genetically manipulated seed. The result is that we are being exposed to a mass-scale experiment with unforeseeable consequences. 

The world food crisis 

The most recent UN report on the global status of food security and nutrition pulls no punches about the current situation either: “According to a joint study by various UN agencies, the number of persons suffering from hunger has increased during the last three years, setting the world back in this area by almost a decade; the situation is worsening in the majority of African subregions, improvements are slowing down ‘considerably’ in Asia, and it is worsening in South America.” The chilling figures indicate that 821 million people — one person in nine — suffered from hunger last year. [14]

The other side of the coin, also documented in this report, is the rise in obesity and excess weight among much of the world population: “Obesity in adults is increasing: more than one in eight, or 672 million, are obese.”

The ETC Group homed in on this issue in its report Who Feeds Us?: “At least 3.9 billion of us (52%) suffer from malnutrition. Beyond those who are hungry in the traditional sense, this number includes the many more who have sufficient calories but are suffering, often severely, from nutritional deficits and damage (lack of micronutrients, vitamins or protein) or from the ill health caused by overconsumption.” [15]

It is no small matter that over half the world population should suffer from nutritional problems. But here again, the key to understanding the reasons can be found at the root of the problem itself: an industrial agri-food system that no longer seeks to feed human beings, but rather to convert food into a commodity for the sole purpose of lining the pockets of large corporations. 

Looking to the future

We now have a body of information sufficient to say with certainty that we can no longer continue along this doomed path. No one, as yet, appears to have done a study integrating the fragmented information on these various crises, but there can be no doubt that they will interact synergistically, vastly increasing the damage and accelerating various processes of degradation and destruction that are already underway. 
Perhaps it will be too late to take effective, transformative measures by the time anyone manages to complete an analysis of the complexity of these multiple crises. 

The reaction of governments, which are responsible for undertaking the necessary transformations, has not been remotely sufficient to confront, even in a fragmentary way (let alone comprehensively), the terminal civilisational crisis we face. The question that immediately arises when considering these “seven plagues” is: How can it be that the industrial agri-food system and the large corporations that profit from it sit at the centre of all these crises, and yet it never occurs to governments or international organizations to identify them, question them, or demand that they be dismantled, so that we do not continue to rush headlong into an unprecedented catastrophe?

The fundamental issue is that the core of all these crises is a societal model revolving around accumulation, financial speculation, consumerism, and a form of “development” that it is actually impossible to achieve. Worse still, the subjection of governments to corporate interests means that they are continually proposing false solutions that will only exacerbate these ongoing crises. 
However, there is room for optimism when we learn that the steps necessary to get on a different path are already being taken by local people around the world. We know from them that food sovereignty, peasant agroecology, the local production of healthy food, and the construction of mutual, non-patriarchal relations that are respectful of diversity are being put into action by thousands of communities, organisations and peoples. Sooner rather than later, these voices will be heard, and a better world will open up before us. 

 1. United Nations, “Reducir el calentamiento global en 0,5°C, la diferencia entre la vida y la muerte,” 8 October 2018,
2 GRAIN, “Alimentos y cambio climático: el eslabón olvidado,” 1 November 2011
3. GRAIN and IATP, “Emissions impossible: How big meat and dairy are heating up the planet,”
4. EFEAgro, “La agricultura provocó el 70 % de la deforestación en Latinoamérica,” 20 July 2016,
5 FAO, The State of the World’s Forests 2018,
6. GRAIN, “Cuidar el suelo,” 18 October 2009,
7. FAO, Status of the World’s Soil Resources 2015, Technical Summary,
8. UNESCO, Water for People, Water for Life: The United Nations World Water Development Report, Executive Summary, 2003,
9. UNESCO, The United Nations World Water Development Report 3, Water in a Changing World,
10. Walter Alberto Pengue, “Argentina: ‘Agua virtual,’ agronegocio sojero y cuestiones económico ambientales futuras,” 16 October 2016,
11. Euronews, “What is Monsanto?,” 23 May 2016,
12. United Nations Human Rights Council, A/HRC/34/48, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 24 January 2017, 
13. FAO, “Crop biodiversity: use it or lose it; FAO launches 2nd State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture report,” 26 October 2010,
14. United Nations, “El hambre en el mundo afecta a 821 millones de personas,” 1 September 2018,
15. ETC Group, Who Will Feed Us? The Peasant Food Web vs. the Industrial Food Chain,

Author: GRAIN
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