Food and the sociogenesis of climate change

Food and the sociogenesis of climate change

Mark Harvey

There is now widespread recognition that the planet has entered a new epoch in which humans have radically changed its environmental characteristics – in natural science terms, the Anthropocene. Some have argued that the emergence of industrial capitalism marked a new and more dramatic phase in this process – the Capitalocene,(1) others that agriculture and land clearance occurring some 8000 years earlier were climatologically significant.(2) Here, I want to advance the concept of the sociogenesis of sustainability crises, of which climate change is one instance of unprecedented global significance. Social science has been slow in developing a theoretical shift to analyse the complex and historically changing interactions between different societies in different natural environmental resource contexts. Many sustainability crises (e.g. ground and surface water pollution, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, land subsidence, over-abstraction of finite resources, disease epidemics) arise from such interactions.(3)

To explore the concept of sociogenesis of climate change (CC-sociogenesis) I focus here on food. In the recent COP21 Climate Change conference in Paris, the national plans for mitigating climate change were overwhelmingly directed at the emissions from burning fossil fuel energy. A few, including those of Brazil and China, announced more muted ambitions for low-carbon agriculture. Yet, the production of food generates 2 ½ times more greenhouse gases than the whole of global transport. Greenhouses gases from agriculture come from many sources: deforestation, ploughing topsoil, methane from cows and rice, nitrogen phosphate fertilizers, farm machinery and irrigation, food transport, food waste, to name some of the most significant. As the global population expands to an anticipated 9 billion from its current 6.8 billion, and as global consumption of food changes dramatically with rising incomes, the challenges for climate change mitigation can only intensify.

To demonstrate CC-sociogenesis, a contrast will be drawn between China and its food production and consumption in relation to its natural resource environment of land, water and sun; and Brazil, the global superpower of food production, but also with a very different trajectory of domestic consumption, and within a totally differently endowed resource environment: a lot more land, water and sun. But we also see a societal ‘attraction of opposites’ in which food trade flows lock the two contrasting CC-sociogenic countries in a new global combination.

I had assumed that, along with its population of 1.35 billion growing to 1.4 billion in the next decades, China had a lot of land on which to grow food. But, it has less agricultural land per capita than the UK, and even less water. That is what nature “provides”. Enter politics of land and food production. The trajectory of peasant farming and landholding is like no other: following the revolution in 1949 and the overthrow of feudalism, small-holdings were gradually consolidated, first under collective farms then in People’s Communes, relatively large scale agro-industrial organisations that transformed rural infrastructures. The ‘liberalisation’ under Deng Hsiao Ping in the late 1980s brought about a total transformation under the Household Responsibility System, only possible in a single-party central command state. Land was divided into millions of household farms of less than a quarter of a hectare (the unit of measurement for land in China is the mu, a fifteenth of a hectare). The state retained freehold of the land, peasants had rights to leasehold. It was a peculiar blend of egalitarianism of property rights with stimulation of small peasants to produce food for the market: “market socialism”.(4)

The politics of food were dominated by a conception of food security guaranteed by food self-sufficiency. Heavy subsidies were given, notably for the nitrogen phosphate industry, but also to peasants to get cheap fertilizer. As one expert interviewee put it: ‘A farmer just buys a bag of fertilizer and dumps it on the land, making sure that there’s enough by dumping too much.’ Times 250 million. The consequence of this pattern of landholding and food policy has been ecologically disastrous: overuse of fertilizer has resulted in contamination of ground and surface water, greenhouse gas emissions, and degradation of 30-40% of the limited agricultural land resources. This is a severe sociogenic sustainability crisis of multiple dimensions: climate change but also the immediate impacts of pollution.

More politics. China has responded to these sustainability crises in a distinctive way with a raft of ‘red lines’: three red lines on water use, protection and quality; a red line on not reducing agricultural land below 1.8 billion mu; a red line on fertilizer use, prohibiting any increase beyond the level to be reached in 2020. These measures are both important – although they still lack implementation – but also framed by the Chinese land and water resource context and by the self-inflicted nature of the sustainability crises. There is a kind of double movement of promoting production and marketization followed by regulation.

And again politics. Two other major political shifts have modified the Chinese CC-sociogenesis. The first involved a succession of laws enabling the consolidation of land holdings, promotion of cooperatives and markets in land-leases, which was combined with possibly the most socially engineered urbanisation of rural populations by any developing country. This policy, explicitly aimed at the modernisation and professionalisation of agriculture, has been complemented by the abandonment of food self-sufficiency. Since joining the WTO in 2001, with the exception of wheat and rice, China has an increasing reliance on food imports.

This political shift was also driven by major changes in food demand, with growing incomes of a rapidly expanding middle class urban population. Yet the ‘nutrition transition’ in China is also distinctively culturally conditioned.(5) The growth in per capita meat consumption has been dominated by pork, followed by poultry, with beef expanding at a much slower rate from a much lower base. Meats have different GHG footprints, poultry the lowest, pork next, and beef much the highest. So the societal character of consumption is also CC-sociogenic – the greatest contrast being with India, where the growing middle class incomes has seen virtually no dramatic rise in per capita meat consumption. And China is now tentatively introducing guidelines for meat consumption responding to climate change concerns. But Chinese are increasingly eating out in the proliferating McDonalds, Burger Kings and KFCs, a significant new conduit for eating more meat, especially beef. From a climate change perspective, if there is a per capita consumption of x kilograms of meat per year, you have to remember to multiply that by 1.35 billion.

And that leads us to Brazil, from where China now obtains the overwhelming majority of soymeal to feed its domestic pork production. Brazil has now also become the largest exporter of beef to China to meet its growing demand.

What the Middle East is for oil, Brazil is for food. Geopolitically, it has become the dominant food producer for the global expansion of demand – responding to different countries varied consumption norms. It is the world’s largest exporter of poultry, red meat, coffee and sugar; the second largest exporter of soya products; and the third largest of maize.(6) Given that soya and maize are exported as animal feed, the driving forces of expanded agricultural exports from Brazil are the varied meat transitions occurring in different countries. So, 11 million hectares of land in Brazil are producing the soyabeans to feed pigs in China.

Consequently, Brazilian CC-sociogenesis stands in stark contrast with almost every other country in the world, and so also do its political responses for climate change mitigation. 65% of its GHG emissions arise from agriculture and deforestation, compared to China’s 15%. In the context of the relative abundance of land, water and sun, the key driver in Brazil has been agricultural extensification, not intensification: converting virgin ecosystems, whether in the Amazon or the cerrado, into agricultural land. Here too, the politics of land rights played a key role, with property rights to new land being encouraged by the state for many decades. Until recently, the cycle of deforestation, low intensity cattle, followed up by soy was actively promoted by the state.(7)

Brazil’s agribusiness, particularly but not only for the export market, is dominated by large domestic and foreign transnational corporations, notably the so-called ABCD giants. It has major global meat producers, such as JBS and Marfrig. Although a very rough statistic, over 45% of its agricultural land is held by farms of over 1000 hectares – a magnitude of scale unimaginable in China.

If Brazil’s CC-sociogenesis is distinctive in agricultural production, so too is it in food consumption. As with China, rising incomes (with high levels of inequality) have led to a dramatic meat transition. Moreover, Brazil is a beef culture, although consumption has also grown rapidly in poultry. As a consequence the per capita GHG emissions arising from meat consumption in Brazil is roughly ten times greater than China.(8) Multiplied by a population of ‘only’ 210 million, however, not 1.35 billion. Its per capita consumption of meat is now higher than the European average, and is on an upward curve, where Europe has plateaued or even declined slightly. Brazil is marching in the direction of the USA.

Brazil has responded to its CC-sociogenesis with a distinctive range of regulatory and self-regulatory mitigation policies. All have been dominated by the logic of preventing deforestation, especially in the Amazon biome. The state has played a significant role with a Forest Code, land registration and a dedicated enforcement authority. Unlike anywhere else in the world, it has established a fine-grained satellite monitoring system to detect land use change in real time. Brazil has also witnessed pioneering self-regulation with NGO involvement (e.g. Greenpeace, WWF): the Soy Moratorium banning exports of soy from deforested land, and the Roundtables on sustainable soy, and cattle production. Controversies surround these measures, but the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has declined markedly, with much less evidence for protecting the cerrado. Very little regulatory or policy attention, however, is directed at agricultural production as such, although some of the big players are engaging in innovative experiments in sustainable intensification. Indeed, there is a widespread and striking CC-denial of the beef production-consumption problem.

To conclude, Brazil and China, in their production and consumption of food, show contrasting dynamics of CC-sociogenesis: different societies with different political systems and directions, interacting with their contrasting land and water resource environments, are inducing climate change in markedly different ways. As importantly, they are faced with different policy challenges for mitigation, and in these political dynamics, the contrast between environmental regulations in these countries is also striking, one focusing on agricultural extensification, the other on intensification. The concept of CC-sociogenesis has been developed here for food, and with the cases of China and Brazil. But, the concept is much broader than that, and could equally have examined other countries, and fossil energy or other material economy-environment interactions.

But this leaves us with a significant black hole. The Kyoto process, including the COP21 in Paris, focused on GHG emissions produced within national territories. Brazil and China have now established an umbilical cord for trading in food. It is pointless to wag an environmentalist finger at either consumer or producer countries. New geopolitical economies of food, with distinctive bilateral configurations, are emerging. Yet there is no state-to-state environmental regulation of trade, and the WTO is more intent on deregulating trade than protecting the planet. The analysis suggested here points to the need for a shift in perspective of environmentalist politics, both nationally and internationally.

(1) Moore, J. W. (2015). Anthropocene or Capitalocene? On the origins of our crisis. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Verso Books. London.
(2) Ruddiman, W. F., Ellis, E. C., Kaplan, J. O., & Fuller, D. Q. (2015). Defining the epoch we live in. Science, 348(6230), 38-39.
(3) Harvey, M. (2015). Drinking water: A socio-economic analysis of societal and historical variation. Routledge. London.
(4) Ye, J. (2015). Land transfer and the pursuit of agricultural modernization in China. Journal of Agrarian Change, 15(3), 314-337.
(5) Gill, M., Feliciano, D., Macdiarmid, J., & Smith, P. (2015). The environmental impact of nutrition transition in three case study countries. Food Security, 7(3), 493-504.
(6) Wilkinson, J. (2009). The globalization of agribusiness and developing world food systems. Monthly Review, 61(4), 38.
(7) Fearnside, P. M. (2008). The roles and movements of actors in the deforestation of Brazilian Amazonia. Ecology and society, 13(1), 23.
(8) See note 7 above.


Mark Harvey is Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, and Honorary Professor at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester. He is Director of the Centre for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation, and has been developing a neo-Polanyian approach across a wide range of empirical fields including food and water, biological sciences, and labour markets. The research described in this article was funded by an ESRC Professorial Fellowship ‘The food-energy-climate change trilemma’ ES/K010530/1 with many thanks to Dr Zareen Bharucha and Jen Gresham for their invaluable contributions.

Photo Credit: The Last Cattle Drive, Mark Harvey