Capitalist agriculture: class formation and the metabolic rift

In this fourth installment on our series on food and climate, we look at the dynamics of capitalist agriculture in terms of production, class formation, and the ‘metabolic rift’ in the nitrogen cycle.

Submitted by Out of the Woods on March 6, 2015

Part 1 looked at the first emergence of agriculture at the end of the last ice age. Part 2 looked at the early modern emergence of specifically capitalist agriculture though enclosures and colonialism in the Little Ice Age. Part 3 analysed the political economy of hunger.

Centralisation, urbanisation, and class formation

Everywhere the farmers were howling, and the London Economist, with reference to these starvation-wages, prattled quite seriously of “a general and substantial advance.” What did the farmers do now? (...) They introduced more machinery, and in a moment the labourers were redundant again in a proportion satisfactory even to the farmers. There was now “more capital” laid out in agriculture than before, and in a more productive form. With this the demand for labour fell, not only relatively, but absolutely.1

Ever since enclosures and colonialism began turning farming into capitalist agriculture around the world, agricultural capital has become increasingly centralised. Investment in labour-saving machinery reduced the demand for agricultural labour, driving an exodus from the countryside to the towns.

The productivity gap between the most and least productive farms exploded in the 20th century, from a ratio of 10:1 to 1000:1.2 Today in the post-industrial states, agriculture typically employs less than 5% of the labour force. 54% of the world’s population is urban, a figure expected to rise to 66% by 2050.3

But while there has been a secular trend towards the substitution of machinery (and subsequently, chemical inputs) for labour, the process of capitalist development has not been a straightforwardly homogenising one. Indeed ‘small’, ‘family’ and ‘peasant’ farms continue to make up a significant proportion of world farming by both land area and production volumes. In terms of land area, estimates for such small farms range from 25-70% of the world’s agricultural land, producing up to 80% of the world’s food.4

This wide discrepancy in estimates hints at the imprecision of terms like ‘small’, ‘family’ and ‘peasant’. For instance, Henry Bernstein points out that “the notion of the ‘family farm’ is often used to refer variously to family-owned, family-managed or family-worked farms, which can be misleading.”5 Similar ambiguities pertain to the use of the term ‘peasant’, which sometimes means anyone who works the land for their own subsistence, sometimes refers to various sharecropping arrangements, and sometimes refers to the specific extra-economic obligations of serfdom. Land area can also be a misleading measure of farm size:

In modern capitalism, a more relevant scale is farm capitalization: the amounts of capital required to establish different types of farming - their ‘entry costs’ in economists’ terms - and to reproduce them.6

It is this notion of capitalization which - perhaps unsurprisingly - helps make the most sense of capitalist agriculture. Geographically ‘small’ farms can be highly capitalized. Mazoyer and Roudart identify a ‘threshold of capitalization’ or a ‘threshold of renewal’, which represents the level of reinvestment (and hence, minimum level of gross profit) required to maintain the viability of the farm.

The gains in productivity achieved by developing farms have lead to a secular tendency of lower agricultural prices, in real terms, and lower incomes for farms that have not adequately invested and developed.7

This process corresponds to a secular trend towards greater capitalization in agriculture to maintain viability. However, not all farms operate at the same threshold of capitalization, and this accounts for the fact that the tendency towards greater substitution of mechanical and chemical inputs for labour does not simply create an ever-smaller number of larger capitalist farms worked by landless wage labourers. This does happen, but alongside this process a range of more differentiated and complex relations to capital proliferate.

The persistence of ‘peasant’ agriculture, ‘family farms’, and practices such as sharecropping thus cannot be understood simply as relics from a pre-capitalist world, but as differentiated moments in the developing reproduction of capitalist agriculture. The differences in thresholds of capitalization reflect several factors. One is the differential rent arising from differences in the productivity of land. For example, Mazoyer and Roudart suggest that prime vineyards can support viable farms of a much larger extent than on less fecund land.8 Another is the availability of unpaid labour in ‘family’ or ‘peasant’ contexts: “it quite often remains true that the strong competitiveness of peasant farms is based on underpaid family work.”9

Perhaps most significant factor is the relatively low point at which economies of scale in terms of farm area turn into diseconomies. It is clear that a worker with the latest agricultural machinery can work a larger area than one with only hand tools or animal power. But combining ever-more workers on the model of the factory does not yield ever-greater economies.

The diseconomies of scale include transportation costs, waste from standardising across different micro-ecologies, and the overhead costs of managerial and administrative labour. Mazoyer and Roudart argue that this means that “beyond several workers, there is no longer any economy of fixed capital in practice (...) in agriculture significant economies of scale are only attainable up to a modest threshold, corresponding to an autonomous work team of several persons.”10 These factors together mean that:

...for a capitalist entrepreneur to maintain a business, he must not only pay market prices for the wage laborers and the lands that are farmed but also must extract from the capital invested in agriculture a profit rate higher than or equal to the profit rate attainable in the rest of the economy. Now, that is not necessarily the case for a family farmer (...) The threshold of renewal for capitalist enterprises is therefore much higher than that for family farms.11

Thus, ‘family farms’, even when the means of production are worked by those who own them, are able to survive, but only through the exploitation of unpaid labour, and even then, often only because the reproduction of the farming family is subsidised by off-farm incomes. For example, in the US:

According to USDA data from 2012, intermediate-size farms like mine, which gross more than $10,000 but less than $250,000, obtain only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, and 90 percent from an off-farm source. Smaller farms actually lost money farming and earned 109 percent of their household income from off-farm sources. Only the largest farms, which represent just 10 percent of farming households in the country and most of which received large government subsidies, earned the majority of their income from farm sources. So, 90 percent of farmers in this country rely on an outside job, or a spouse’s outside job, or some independent form of wealth, for their primary income.12

This could perhaps be compared to industries such as trucking or taxi cabs, where the means of production are often owned by formally self-employed workers, who nonetheless occupy a subordinate position in the value-chain, with the greatest profits captured downstream by properly capitalist intermediaries. This does not of course preclude some family-owned farms successfully accumulating capital and employing non-family wage labour. Here we see the analytic inadequacy of the ‘family’ concept for assessing agrarian class relations.

...there is no single “class” of “peasants” or “family farmers” but rather differentiated classes of small-scale capitalist farmers, relatively successful petty commodity producers and wage labour.13

Alongside the persistence of unpaid family labour and reliance on second jobs, the agrarian workforce is further differentiated through various relations. These include sharecropping, where workers are allowed to use land in return for pledging a portion of the product to the landlord. While this may appear similar to a feudal peasant-lord relationship, sharecroppers are usually producing commodities for the market and their landlords typically operate as capitalists, and there are no obligations of military service such as those which characterised European and Japanese feudalism. This does not preclude an element of subsistence production, i.e. production for the workers’ consumption among sharecroppers, but it would be a mistake to view such arrangements as a throwback, rather than a mode of labour exploitation thoroughly integrated into modern agricultural markets.

Agrarian relations are also often strongly gendered. The nonprofit GRAIN contends that “women are the main food producers on the planet, although their contribution remains ignored, marginalised, and discriminated against.”14 For example, Henry Bernstein cites a rural Tanzanian activist on the sharecropper wives who work the land, only for their husband to receive payment, allowing him to live in the city, returning only to implore his wives to produce more once the money runs out.15

The activist refers to this arrangement as ‘slavery’, but however it’s classified, such relations of micro-exploitation proliferate alongside the more familiar capital-labour wage relation. It is also often the case that individuals move between seasonal sharecropping and wage labour or work in several different modes at the same time. The category of ‘peasant’, while useful in drawing attention to persistent agrarian social relations other than simple wage labour, can also obscure these complexities.

The metabolic rift and the Green Revolution

...all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil16

While Karl Marx is mostly known as a theorist of industrial capitalism, he was also interested in the effects of the capitalist mode of production on agriculture and the soil. Marx’s work on this topic is scattered across some comments in Capital, his earlier philosophical manuscripts, and his notes on the work of his contemporary, the agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig. This ‘ecological Marx’ has been reconstructed most notably by John Bellamy Foster and his collaborators, centering on the notion of the metabolic rift.

In biology, metabolism is the set of life-sustaining transformations of matter and energy flows. A metabolic rift therefore, is a rupture in such flows. The prime example of such a rift, and the one which preoccupied Marx, is the depletion of soil fertility under the pressure of competitive commodity production.

Traditionally, soil fertility was maintained by practices such as crop rotation, fallowing, and use of livestock. But as agrarian capitalism drove both productivity and urbanisation, the result was a steady depletion of soil nutrients. This was in part a result of producing greater yield demands on the soil, and in part a result of the spatial break in the nutrient cycle as human waste accumulated as a public health hazard in the cities as opposed to being metabolised by detritivores in the soil. In places, this problem was countered by the use of ‘night soil’ (human excrement, gathered by night to spread on the fields).This maintained fertility, but was also a vector for infectious diseases.

In industrialising England, the crisis of soil fertility was met by the massive import of guano, as the colonies were plundered to sustain the agricultural production of the core (the potato blight which depopulated Ireland is now thought to have been imported with potatoes alongside Peruvian guano).17 Guano remained a vital agricultural input until the early 20th century, until the invention of the Haber-Bosch process, a method for fixing abundant atmospheric nitrogen into bioavailable forms by means of ammonia synthesis.

While in 1900 the world consumption of the three principal mineral fertilisers, nitrogen (N), phosphoric acid (P2O5), and potassium (K2O) did not reach 4 million tons of fertilizer units, in 1950 it was a little over 17 million tons, and, at the end of the 1980s, it reached 130 million tons.18

According to FAO data, this figure had reached 160 million tons by 2008, although the rate of growth has slowed since the late 1980s.19

Graph based on Worldwatch Institute spreadsheet compiled from UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and International Fertilizer Industry Association data.

What Fritz Haber could not foresee, however, was the cascade of environmental changes, including the increase in water and air pollution, the perturbation of greenhouse-gas levels and the loss of biodiversity that was to result from the colossal increase in ammonia production and use that was to ensue.20

The Haber process is now responsible for fertilising the food which feeds almost half of the world’s population. The problem is, from a climate change point of view, that the high temperatures and pressures required by the process are very energy intensive, and additionally, natural gas (CH4) is required as a source of hydrogen (H2).21

Thus insofar as fossil fuels are the energy source, the process contributes to greenhouse gas emissions twice, since the method of ‘steam reforming’ to produce H2 gas from CH4 produces CO2 as a byproduct. It contributes three times if the emissions from transporting manufactured fertiliser back to agricultural regions are included. The purpose of this brief chemistry lesson is to highlight that the metabolic rift in the nitrogen cycle is not resolved but displaced onto the carbon cycle.

The growing reliance on synthetic fertilisers was accelerated from the 1940s with the development of ‘High Yielding Varieties’ (HYVs) of maize, wheat, and rice, specially bred for use as a ‘package’ with both fertilisers and pesticides. While it is often presented as a humanitarian gesture which purportedly saved a billion people from starvation, what became known as the ‘Green Revolution’ did not exist outside political economy, and especially Cold War geopolitics. Harry Cleaver writes:

This association between food production and anti-Communism was quite conscious. Though it may seem a bit unsophisticated today [i.e. 1972], when anti-Communism is called humanitarian intervention in the academic community, during the 1950s the relation was discussed quite openly. “The major problem in the struggle to keep South and Southeast Asia free of Communist domination,” wrote Fulbright scholar John King in Foreign Affairs in 1953, “is the standard of living of their peoples (….) The struggle of the ‘East’ versus the ‘West’ in Asia is, in part, a race for production, and rice is the symbol and substance of it.”22

The performance of the Green Revolution was mixed, but is generally held to have significantly boosted world food production. In addition to fertiliser and pesticide inputs, which had to be purchased on the market from agrochemical firms, the HYVs also required substantial irrigation to produce higher yields. The combined effect of this was thus to raise the threshold of capitalization for farms. Productivity gains increased the agricultural surplus population, and hence the rate of migration to the cities. “The Green Revolution is basically an extension of capitalist agriculture to the tropics”, writes Harry Cleaver.

...if increased food production has been the principal thrust of the new strategy it has not been the only one. Closely tied to the effort to increase output has been the transformation of agrarian social and economic relations by integrating once isolated areas or farmers into the capitalist market system.23

Increased yields in tropical, export-oriented agriculture have also contributed to systematic overproduction, and hence depressed prices on the world market. This in turn has squeezed smaller farmers into greater exploitation of family labour, or into bankruptcy and joining the urban proletariat... or suicide.24


This then is the agrarian context in which climate chaos looms. On the one hand, a vast concentration of capital that has given rise to modern agribusiness and an historic urbanisation of the world’s population. On the other, there has been proliferation of rural social relations organised largely around the market; including family labour, gendered exploitation, sharecropping, small-scale capitalist farms, petty commodity production, and wage labour. Furthermore, the metabolic rift in the nitrogen cycle has been displaced onto the carbon cycle: world food production has become massively dependent on fossil fuels.

Already we hear the dismal forecasts of that most hardy of perennial species - the Malthusian. It is in this context that biofuel production is being promoted as a ‘green’ alternative to fossil fuels - while taking land out of food production. Meanwhile, agribusiness promotes proprietary biotechnology as the solution to hunger and climate-threatened yields, while financialisation leads to greater food price volatility. Will unmitigated climate change (finally) prove the Malthusian prophecies of carrying capacity overshoot correct? These are the questions we’ll take up in the next installment.



9 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on March 9, 2015

Thanks for posting this, good stuff as always. Out of interest, do you want to create a "book" called "Food and climate" which these articles all go in? I think that would be really good. I can do this for you if you're not sure how so let me know

Out of the Woods

9 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Out of the Woods on March 9, 2015

Done. Does the 'book' need a picture/tags?

Chilli Sauce

9 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Chilli Sauce on March 10, 2015

Haven't finished reading this, but what does 'secular' mean in this context?

Out of the Woods

9 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Out of the Woods on March 10, 2015

Secular means longer-term underlying trend, as opposed to fluctuations or cycles (wikipedia).


9 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Dupont93 on March 11, 2015

Incredible work here. I just finished conducting an online seminar on the Anthropocene/Capitalocene and one of the things that was underdeveloped was this thorough analysis of the role capitalization of agriculture is playing in the exacerbation of climate change. Will the next installment deal with the transgression of planetary boundaries explicitly? It's definitely implied in what you're saying, but I suppose I'm curious and hopeful for a spoiler. Thanks so much for your work.

Out of the Woods

9 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by Out of the Woods on March 11, 2015

The Stockholm Resilience Rentre's 'planetary boundaries' analysis?

Probably at least 5 of their 9 'boundaries' would be relevant. Not sure if we'll fit it in, as already trying to cover a lot of ground. Can always split it across more than one article though, so will see! Will also need to read up on it a bit more, just in case it's the Malthusian 'Limits to Growth' stuff rebranded.


9 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by woooo on March 16, 2015

Dupont, what was the series you attended? I read this and have been wondering what an old earth first!er is framing here.