By Marina Skovgaard Dokken
When you think about the great political and social issues of the day, soil might not be the first word that comes to mind. But in fact, soil is not only a central feature of most of today’s global conflicts and challenges, but a fundamental necessity for the continuation of life on Earth. From the issue of urbanisation eating up valuable farmable land to conflict over ownership, the same soil we step on every day and plant in our garden has sparked many a political controversy over the years. Here is a case for putting a stance on soil on your political agenda.
Today, most countries measure profit in and subsidise agriculture in terms of quantity of produce. Over the years, this has led to fewer, larger farms with larger crops and herds which allows for more efficient and cost-effective farming. Denmark has historically been an agricultural country, but between 1951 and 2002, the total number of agricultural businesses decreased by three quarters. However, the farmed areas have not decreased accordingly. What remains today is fewer large-scale producers, and especially the so-called “pork barons” have herds with tens of thousands of pigs. One way of controlling these enormous herds has been the introduction of antibiotics in the animals’ food to prevent the spread of disease. While this has been effective, and continues to be in praxis, it has led to a grim situation where seven out of ten pigs are infected with MRSA, a kind of potentially deadly multi-resistant bacteria. In 2014, two Danish people were reported dead due to pig MRSA, without having been in direct contact with pigs. It was believed that they had been infected by someone else, meaning that the strand may be spreading from the farms to the general population.
A look at Norway may reveal the benefit of smaller-scale farming in terms of adaptability. Traditionally, Norway’s agriculture has been semi-nomadic, as each summer farmers have brought their cattle to so-called seters; smaller, simpler farms further up in the mountains where there was fresh grass for the animals. Modern, larger farms, however, tend to be constantly located in more easily accessible areas. There are three important factors to consider here. Firstly, Norway only has about two to three percent of farmable land area. Secondly, meat consumption is at an extreme high, as in most other Western countries, meaning that there is a pressure to produce, and therefore expand, within the meat industry. Thirdly, Norway’s larger cities being located in these farmable areas means that urbanisation is also gobbling up and destroying invaluable land. But not only does this industry occupy land; it also makes the meat production more vulnerable. During the 2018 drought, many large-scale cattle farmers were forced to slaughter up to half of their animals due to a lack of food (which again, was due to a combination of a lack of grain farming and the effect of the drought). However, smaller-scale farmers who let their cattle graze in the mountains in the seter tradition were spared from this hard decision, as the temperature in the mountains are much lower and the grass was relatively spared. For a large-scale farm, that kind of nomadic production would be impossibly expensive and complicated, but for a large group of smaller-scale farmers there would have been plenty of lush mountain areas for their animals to graze in.
Yet, we cannot forget that modern agriculture is marked by international trade, and the actions we perform in Europe have an impact across the world. For example, the extensive use of compound feed in modern animal farming creates a huge demand for soy with serious global consequences. The need for soy is one of the main culprits in the deforestation of Latin America, and especially in Brazil it has taken over large rainforest areas. This is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, monoculture – the production of a single crop on a piece of land for years in a row – leads to exhausted soil. Every kind of crop draws different kinds of nutrients from the soil it inhabits and gives different nutrients back, and monoculture drains certain nutrients and overproduces others, creating an imbalance that weakens the soil. Secondly, it is important to consider the human factor. About two per cent of landowners control half of all agricultural land in Brazil, which has led to a large number of poor rural labourers relying on unpredictable day labour or ending up in urban favelas. In response, the organisation known as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) started occupying land in the 1980s and redistributing it to these workers. Today, it is one of the largest social movements in South America. But illegal land occupation is a tough game with little gain relative to the effort in a country where the judges tend to side with landowners and whose exports are a cornerstone in the international food trade.
However, it is not all negative. Switzerland is an example of how sustainable farming can be made viable through political means. In the 1990s, the country began its major agricultural policy reform, increasing subsidies through general direct payments and extra payments for those who could point to sustainable farming practices which included non-marketed goods like landscape and animal welfare. Switzerland’s policy has had a positive impact on a number of different aspects of the agricultural industry. The cultural landscape is being better preserved, protecting the biodiversity that exists within it and making it available for livestock in the summer. In addition, the policy and its resulting larger number of small-scale farmers over a variety of landscapes leads to a diversity of food production techniques and a variety of produce adapted for the landscape. However, even though these policies are largely supported, they are undeniably expensive. The only countries that spend more money on their agriculture compared to output are two equally wealthy countries, namely Iceland and Norway. While all these countries are expectedly expensive to farm in, being characterised by mostly rocky terrain, it begs the question; is this a feasible solution on a global scale?
The short conclusion here is that there is no win-win way forward. Large-scale monoculture exhausts the land, and subsidised small-scale farming is an expensive endeavour. But, as with all climate-related issues, the long-term solution will only get more expensive the longer it is postponed. In a world which, in the coming years, will experience more extreme and rapidly changing weather, we need an agriculture that is diverse, adapted and adaptable enough to handle less-than-optimal conditions and still yield produce, and we need to ensure that the knowledge it relies on is being transferred to a new generation. First of all, we need to acknowledge an aspect of our diet too often ignored: It’s not only what we eat, or how often – it’s wherefrom we eat as well.
Marina Skovgaard Dokken is a student at the Psychology Programme, and quite bad at sticking to a single field of study. She loves books, cold weather, tattoos and disappearing into the wilderness. Matters close to her heart are LGBT+ rights, indigenous rights and nature conservation. She thinks that intersectionality and human rights are the bee’s knees.