Developing an Environmentalist Critique of Modern Agriculture

Environmentalist critiques of modern farming first emerged in places like Western Europe, the United States, and Canada during the late 1970s. Mounting evidence of the biodiversity, soil erosion, and off farm pollution impacts of agricultural intensification and specialization was brought to public attention by campaigning scientists and journalists and by conservation groups in both the EU and North America. In the classic former enclosed landscapes of lowland England and northwest Denmark and throughout the bocage landscapes of northern France and Belgium, for instance, the removal of hedgerows from the late 1960s onward to facilitate larger scale farming operations had brought about dramatic visual change. Southern member states of the EU such as Spain, Portugal, and Greece underwent a transformation of their farm sectors following accession in 1986. Here, intensification of production on the best land was accompanied by the marginalization and decline of traditional farming practices, and geographers and ecologists reported a steady erosion of biodiversity and a growing threat from groundwater contamination, soil erosion, and fire due to a complex double movement, which saw the expansion of intensive arable production on irrigated land and the loss of long established and environmentally sympathetic dryland arable production systems elsewhere. Soil erosion had long been recognized as a major environmental threat in the US before this date, but evidence published by the National Resources Inventory in the mid 1980s revealed a significant upswing in rates of soil loss since the early 1970s. Evidence marshalled by campaign groups like the Conservation Foundation suggested that off site damage resulting from the sedimentation of watercourses and from pollution far outstripped the on site costs of reduced soil productivity.

By the late 1980s it was becoming increasingly clear that high levels of agricultural subsidy offered to farmers by governments, and directly coupled to production through price support, were a major driver of these and other reported types of agricultural change and environmental damage. In the United States, it was noted that environmental concerns have been little considered when farmers had been encouraged through the United States Department of Agriculture's commodity programs to 'plant fence row to fence row' in pursuit of increased production and overseas markets. The result was an almost oceanic shift in land use that swept away many of the soil conservation practices previously in place and significantly exacerbated the soil erosion and diffuse pollution problem.

Critics of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were by now offering a similar farm policy explanation for many of the environmental problems associated with European agriculture. The high price guarantees available to farmers under the CAP since the early 1960s had encouraged a widespread intensification of production as producers strove to increase output by bringing hitherto unfarmed land into production, by applying more bought inputs like fertilizer and pesticide to every hectare of land in production, and by stepping up stocking rates. This essentially policy centric understanding of agri environmental change prevailed in the public debates of the time, not least because it offered agri environmentalists a policy target for their campaigns. Moreover, by attaching blame to policies rather than farmers this construction made possible a series of new alliances between agrarian and conservationist interests, and hence rendered politically feasible a series of attempts throughout the 1990s to green the farm policies of industrialized countries.

In the event, progress toward a fully sustainable agrienvironmental policy has been slow, reflecting the culturally embedded nature of agricultural support and the ability of farmers' groups to defend traditional policy entitlements. As a case study in environmental governance and policy experimentation, however, agri-environmentalism offers geographers a rich object of study. Agri environmental policy development is interesting as much for what it tells us about the nature of the policy process and the still culturally embedded ways of constructing the countryside and the role of farming within it, as it is a route map for environmental reform. It is to these aspects that we now turn.