In this article, starting from the issues presented in “Capitalist agriculture: class formation and the metabolic rift”, we will try to draw the conclusions to date, and at the same time to understand if among the new 4.0 technologies there are solutions to the issues related to capitalist agriculture.
Agriculture has undoubtedly changed over the years. Since the enclosurese system and colonialism came to an end in Europe, the process that will inevitably lead to the capitalisation of agriculture has begun.
Investments in labour-saving machinery have reduced the demand for agricultural labour, leading to an exodus from the countryside to the cities.
The productivity gap between the most productive and least productive farms exploded in the 20th century, from a ratio of 10:1 to 1000:1. Today in post-industrial states, agriculture typically employs less than 5% of the workforce. 54% of the world’s population is urban, a figure that is expected to rise to 66% by 2050. (1)
Although the replacement of labour by machinery has led to the abandonment of the countryside by millions of people, small farmers continue to represent an important percentage of world agricultural production, both in terms of surface area (ranging from 25 to 70%) and production volume. In this sense it can be said that the small agricultural realities, in their complexity, are feeding the world.
In addition to small farmers, many family-run businesses have had to adapt to the capitalist system in terms of production, meeting all the problems arising from the case. It is no secret that the land and its nutrients are struggling to keep up with the high consumer demand resulting from the increase in the world population. As a result, farms are being called upon to capitalize more and more to maintain profitability. This leads to the creation of real diseconomies.
Perhaps the most significant factor is the relatively low point at which economies of scale in terms of agricultural area turn into diseconomies. It is clear that a worker with the latest agricultural machinery can work over a larger area than one with only hand tools or animal energy. But the combination of more and more workers on the model of the factory does not lead to ever larger economies.
Diseconomies of scale include transport costs, waste from standardisation across different microecologies, and the overall costs of managerial and administrative labour.
Alongside these problematic relations between agriculture and the market, one cannot help but say a few words about the relationship that agriculture has with the environment. Mass productions that have as their only development the production of capital, with incessant rhythms and tiring for the land, are no longer sustainable. Karl Marx also spoke of this when he mentioned the “metabolic fracture”.
The metabolic fracture is the disconnection or imbalance of the metabolic interaction between humanity and the rest of the derived nature of capitalist production and the growing division between the city and the field. (4) In some comments to The Capital, the philosopher expressed his concern about the exhaustion of soil fertility under the pressure of the production of competitive goods.
Traditionally, soil fertility was maintained by practices such as crop rotation, harvesting and livestock use. But since agricultural capitalism guided both productivity and urbanization, the result was a constant depletion of soil nutrients.
Things seemed to be better when in the 20th century the Heber-Bosch process was introduced, a method for fixing abundant atmospheric nitrogen in bioavailable forms by means of ammonia synthesis, with which it was possible to synthesize many products, one of the most famous being manure.
For this little chemical parenthesis we refer you to the words of the article from which we started:
What Fritz Haber could not predict, however, was the cascade of environmental changes, including increased water and air pollution, disruption of greenhouse gas levels and loss of biodiversity due to the colossal increase in the production and use of ammonia.
The Haber process is now responsible for fertilizing the food that feeds almost half the world’s population. The problem is that, from the point of view of climate change, the high temperatures and pressures required by the process are very intense and, in addition, natural gas (CH 4) is needed as a source of hydrogen (H 2).
Therefore, to the extent that fossil fuels are the energy source, the process contributes to greenhouse gas emissions twice, since the steam reforming method to produce H 2 gas from CH 4 produces CO 2 as a by-product. It contributes three times as much if emissions from the transport of fertilisers produced in agricultural regions are included.
A continuous and incessant production, which not only despite everything, does not fully satisfy the world population, but which also creates numerous damages to the land and the environment. It seems quite obvious that things as they stand are no longer humanly, economically and environmentally sustainable. What should we do?
For years now, the academic world, governments and major institutions have set themselves the goal of solving these serious problems, and there are numerous possible applications of 4.0 technologies that could solve some of them alone or in communion.
As reported by the website of NanoLyse, a European collaborative research project dedicated to the development of analytical methods for the detection and characterization of engineered nanoparticles in food products, nanotechnology applications for the food sector are the subject of extensive research and development.
A number of nanomaterials are already in use as food additives or in food contact materials, mainly in countries outside the EU. Future visionary uses include beverages that can be tuned in taste and colour according to consumer choice – thanks to specifically designed nanoparticles. The reality is more sober.
Current applications focus on nanoencapsulation of vitamins and flavourings, for example to protect them from deterioration during storage or to create specific nano-dimensional micelles that would allow fats with a full fat taste. At the same time, very limited knowledge is available on the potential impact of engineered nanoparticles on consumer health.
The development of nano-particles technologies could therefore in the future represent an excellent solution against diseases and bad nutrition, the problem is that there are still not enough data to exonerate them from possible counter-identifications on human health, and it is for this reason that we will have to wait for the long time of research.
Technologies for waste
Another very interesting field of 4.0 that could somehow solve some of our problems, are all those technologies that deal with giving life to production waste that normally should be thrown away, or reused only minimally.
Through many of these technologies, instead, it is possible to recover sometimes all the material, other times a good percentage, thus reducing the impact on the environment, avoiding waste and disposal costs.
An example is Precious Plastic, a machine for everyone, built with light elements and easy to assemble. This machine allows to recycle in an infinite way and with zero impact all the plastic scraps, creating new numerous objects, beautiful to see and funny to build.
The machine is connected to an open source platform, where there are tutorials and projects available to everyone!
In the specific food sector there is Zera Food Recycler, patented by WLab. Unlike many DIY food composters, this machine has a minimal design and takes up little space, it only takes one day to transform waste into fertilizer, produced on average by a family in a week. It is self-sufficient and equipped with a smartphone application.