Industrial farming is driving the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth, says leading academic

Ian Johnston
Deforestation in Sumatra, one of the world's primate hotspots: W F Laurance

Industrial agriculture is bringing about the mass extinction of life on Earth, according to a leading academic.

Professor Raj Patel said mass deforestation to clear the ground for single crops like palm oil and soy, the creation of vast dead zones in the sea by fertiliser and other chemicals, and the pillaging of fishing grounds to make feed for livestock show giant corporations can not be trusted to produce food for the world.

The author of bestselling book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy will be one of the keynote speakers at the Extinction and Livestock Conference in London in October.

Organised by campaign groups Compassion in World Farming and WWF, it is being held amid rising concern that the rapid rate of species loss could ultimately result in the sixth mass extinction of life. This is just one reason why geologists are considering declaring a new epoch of the Earth, called the Anthropocene, as the fossils of soon-to-be extinct animals will form a line in the rocks of the future.

The last mass extinction, which finished off the dinosaurs and more than three-quarters of all life about 65 million years ago, was caused by an asteroid strike that sent clouds of smoke all around the world, blocking out the sun for about 18 months.

Prof Patel, of the University of Texas at Austin, said: “The footprint of global agriculture is vast. Industrial agriculture is absolutely responsible for driving deforestation, absolutely responsible for pushing industrial monoculture, and that means it is responsible for species loss.

“We’re losing species we have never heard of, those we’ve yet to put a name to and industrial agriculture is very much at the spear-tip of that.”

Speaking to The Independent, he pointed to a “dead zone” – an area of water where there is too little oxygen for most marine life – in the Gulf of Mexico that has grown to the same size as Wales because of vast amounts of fertiliser that has washed from farms in mainland US, into the Mississippi River and then into the ocean.

“That dead zone isn’t an accident. It’s a requirement of industrial agriculture to get rid of the sh*t and the run-off elsewhere because you cannot make industrial agriculture workable unless you kick the costs somewhere else,” he said.

“The story of industrial agriculture is all about externalising costs and exploiting nature.”

The Amazon and surrounding lands in South America are also under increasing pressure from soy plantations.

“Extinction is about the elimination of diversity. What happens in Brazil and other places is you get green deserts — monocultures of soy and nothing else.

“Various kinds of chemistry is deployed to make sure it is only soy that’s grown on these mega-farms.

“That’s what extinction looks like. If you ever go to a soy plantation, animal life is incredibly rare. It’s only soy, there’s nothing there for anything to feed on.”

And that soy is then turned into food for humans, often by “passing it through cattle and chickens”, Prof Patel said.

Some of the world’s most iconic animals, such as elephants, jaguars and penguins, are threatened due to these current farming practices.

In Sumatra, forests that are home to elephants and jaguars are being destroyed to make way for palm plantations, often to make feed for livestock kept in industrial meat factories.

And small fish like anchovies and sardines are being caught on a massive scale to be ground into fishmeal for farmed salmon, pigs and chickens. That means animals like penguins, which normally feed on them, are in trouble.

The South African penguin population alone has plunged by at least 70 per cent since 2004.

Asked what people could do “as a consumer” to try to avoid contributing to such problems, Prof Patel said people needed to think on a bigger scale.

“‘As a consumer’ you are only allowing yourself a range of action. ‘As a consumer’ you can buy something that’s local and sustainable, that’s labelled as organic or fair trade,” he said.

“But ‘as a consumer’, you don’t get to do a whole lot of good. As a citizen, as a decent person, you can demand more from your government, from one’s employer, from yourself.

“Be more aware of your power as part of a society where we can change things. We have this power to change things in the future. What we have to do is make that change.”

He said some people thought being a vegetarian avoided contributing to the extinction crisis.

“I’m vegetarian but it’s not enough. If you are vegetarian and you walk around with your halo of virtue but you are eating tofu that comes from Brazilian soy, then you’re just as complicit in all of this as if you are eating the beef fed on Brazilian soy,” Prof Patel said.

Vegetarianism did not provide a “pure and simple” route out of the problem.

“Capitalism is involved. The capitalist will take your vegetarianism and make money from it with the same kind of techniques they’ve honed in meat manufacture,” he said.

Instead, Prof Patel argued it was time to switch to a world in which resources were shared and looked after, harking back to the days when people had access to common land.

“The commons is only a tragedy because the commons in England were eliminated. Before they were eliminated there were people who could manage resources and nature in ways that were sustainable,” he said.

“The idea of a commons that is managed collectively and the way in which nature is managed well and sustainably, that’s a memory that needs to be recuperated.”

Admitting that changing society so radically would be a challenge, he argued it was essential as people’s current aspirations were based on “images of consumption that are entirely unsustainable”.

Humans, Prof Patel said, would need to find a way to live with less material wealth.

“Re-imagining a world with less stuff but more joy is probably the way forward,” he said.

“There’s a strong case for saying there’s room for ... less individual consumption and loneliness ... and more sharing and communality, getting together around the table, rather than sitting alone in front of the TV.”

"For information about the Extinction and Livestock Conference, go to www.extinctionconference.com.