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16.2 The Anthropocene and Agriscience

4 months ago

6 min read

'Today, humankind has begun to match and even exceed some of the great forces of nature [...] [T]he Earth System is now in a no analogue situation, best referred to as a new era in the geological history, the Anthropocene' (Oldfield et al. 2004: 81).

The scientific proposal that the Earth has entered a new epoch—-'the Anthropocene'—-as a result of human activities was put forward at the turn of the new millennium by the chemist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000a). Increasing quantitative evidence suggests that anthropogenic material flows stemming from fossil fuel combustion, agricultural production and mineral extraction now rival in scale those natural flows supposedly occurring outside of human activity (Steffen et al. 2015a). This is a moment marked by unprecedented and unpredictable climatic, environmental and ecological events (Williams and Jackson 2007). The benign era of the Holocene has passed, so the proposal claims; we have now entered a much more unpredictable and dangerous time where humanity recognises its devastating capacity to destabilise planetary processes upon which it depends (Rockström et al. 2009, Steffen et al. 2015b; See chapter 1). The Anthropocene is therefore a moment of realisation, where the extent of human activities must be reconciled within the boundaries of biophysical processes that define the safe operating space of a stable and resilient Earth system (Steffen et al. 2015b).

A profound intertwining of the fates of nature and humankind has emerged (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010). The growing awareness of environmental and human calamity—-and our belated, tangled role within it—-puts to test our faith in the key modernist assumption, namely, the dualisms separating humans from nature (Hamilton et al. 2015). This is a shocking and unprecedented moment because modernist epistemologies have proven exceedingly powerful, contributing significantly towards the organisation of society to the present day (Latour 1993). Conceptions of unique and stable human agency, the presumption of progressive norms such as liberty or universal dignity, and the existence of an objective world separate from human doings are all put to test (Latour 2015; Hamilton et al. 2015).

This insight, without doubt, applies to the food system of which we all inherit. The Green Revolution 1 was underpinned with modern aspirations, being founded on ideas such as linear notions of progress, the power of human reason and faith in the inevitable technological resolution of human problems (Cota 2011). These conceptions, which have traditionally secured the role of science in society, begin to appear increasingly unreliable with the advent of the Anthropocene (Savransky 2013; Stengers 2015). The inconvenient truth is that the technoscientific interventions, which have been implemented as modern agrarian solutions onto our world over the last century, have carried with them serious and unexpected outcomes. What's more, these escalating biophysical disruptions (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions and nitrogen and phosphorous cycle perturbations) that have only recently become perceived must be added to a much broader series of environmental, biological and social repercussions brought about by particular aspects of our modernised food system.

The Anthropocene problematic leaves little doubt that our contemporary food system faces enormous challenges (Kiers et al. 2008; Baulcombe et al. 2009; Pelletier and Tyedmers 2010). Prominent studies point to agriculture as the single largest contributor to the rising environmental risks posed in the Anthropocene (Struik and Kuyper 2014; Foley et al. 2011). Agriculture is the single largest user of freshwater in the world (Postel 2003); the world's largest contributor to altering the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and a significant source (19—29%) of greenhouse gas emissions (Vermeulen et al. 2012; Noordwijk 2014). Put simply, 'agriculture is a primary driver of global change' (Rockström et al. 2017:6). And yet, it is from within the new epoch of the Anthropocene that the challenge of feeding humanity must be resolved. The number of hungry people in the world persists at approximately 900 million (FAO, Ifad and WFP. 2013). Even then, in order to feed the world by 2050, best estimates suggest that production must roughly double to keep pace with projected demands from population growth, dietary changes (particularly meat consumption) and increasing bioenergy use (Kiers et al. 2008; Baulcombe et al. 2009; Pelletier and Tyedmers 2010; Kearney 2010). Complicating matters even further is the need not simply to produce more, but also to manage the entire food system more efficiently. In a world where 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, whilst 1.4 billion adults are over-nourished, the need for better distribution, access and nutrition is glaring, as is the drastic need to reduce the deplorable levels of waste (conservative estimates suggest 30%) in the farm-to-fork supply chain (Parfitt et al. 2010; Lundqvist et al. 2008; Stuart 2009).

The Anthropocene problematic presents serious questions about modern industrial agriculture, which in many guises is now deemed inefficient, destructive and inadequate for our new global situation. But the fallout of this situation is more considerable still, for the Anthropocene strikes a challenge at the very agricultural paradigm currently dominating food provision (Rockström et al. 2017). For this reason the challenge extends well beyond 'the farm' and incorporates a much wider set of structures, practices and beliefs that continue to enact and propel the modern agricultural paradigm into our newly demanding epoch. With this comes the urgent need to reconsider the methods and practices, ambitions and goals that define our current agriscience research. Are they fit for the challenges of our new epoch, or do they merely reproduce inadequate visions of modernist food provision?


  1. The Green Revolution refers to a set of research and technology transfer initiatives occurring from the 1930s and the late 1960s that increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in the developing world. As Farmer (1986) describes, these initiatives resulted in the adoption of new technologies, including: ‘New, high-yielding varieties of cereals... in association with chemical fertilizers and agro-chemicals, and with controlled water-supply... and new methods of cultivation, including mechanization. All of these together were seen as a “package of practices” to supersede “traditional” technology and to be adopted as a whole’.