A green new deal for agriculture: for, within, or against capitalism?

Benjamin Selwyn


Covid-19 has highlighted the destructiveness of modern agro-industry upon biosphere and humanity. Its contribution to environmental degradation intertwines with socio-economic inequality and labour exploitation. There are increasing calls for a green new deal (GND) to counter these dangers. This article argues that a GND for agriculture must combat environmental degradation, social inequality and labour exploitation, rather than aim to re-boot capitalist economies. This article identifies a number of areas for discussion and political action - reorientation of state subsidies, workers' rights, agrarian reform, the decommodification of food, agroecology, possibilities for urban agriculture, the application of new technologies, and rewilding.


Climate change is fundamentally about class, because it means chaos for the many while the few profit. (Labour for a Green New Deal, cited in Taylor 2019)

Food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability on Earth. (EAT-Lancet Commission 2019, 5)

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil. (Marx [1867] 1990, 638)


1. Introduction

Even before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic the Inter-Academy Partnership had characterised the world’s food system as broken. Over 800 million people were hungry, 600 million suffered from obesity and another 2 billion people were overweight, while one third of food produced globally (over 1 billion tonnes) was wasted every year (Carrington 2018). The outbreak of COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the system’s worst aspects. It has also highlighted the conditions under which zoonotic diseases (those that spread between animals and humans) emerge. If there ever was a time to re-consider the possibilities of establishing a new food system, this is it. Unsurprisingly, then, within the current conjuncture there is a stampede across the political spectrum towards visions of a green transformation, with the idea of a green new deal (GND) at the forefront.

The rationale for such a transformation is clear. On the one hand, the world economy is set to triple in size by 2050 – entailing three times more production, consumption and trade based upon current trends (Hawksworth and Chan 2015). On the other hand, the 2018 Special Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that ‘Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ (IPCC 2018). Failure to do so threatens an ‘existential risk to humanity’ (Spratt and Dunlop 2019).

The global food system is a major contributor to climate breakdown, contributing directly to the sixth mass extinction of wildlife. It generates between 20 and 35 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gasses (GHGs), and uses 70 percent of global fresh water and 40 percent of global land (Clapp, Newell, and Brent 2018, 80). The livestock sector (especially industrial-scale beef production) has a particularly severe impact on climate breakdown: 33 percent of global croplands are devoted to feed crops, 26 percent of the world’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing, and the sub-sector generates around 15 percent of total GHG emissions (FAO 2012; Garnett et al. 2017, 27).

This article shows how the capitalist food system, in particular its agro-industrial segment, depends upon two core relations – accumulation-driven commodification, and the exploitation of labour and nature – which in turn cause many of the maladies mentioned above. The policies and investments that support capitalist agro-industry are, arguably, a leading contributor to ecocide – massive damage caused to the planet’s flora and fauna (Higgins 2012).

This article’s originality derives from its aims – to (1) contribute to understanding the root causes of agro-industry’s deleterious impacts upon society and environment, (2) provide policies towards a GND for agriculture, and (3) further discussion about how such policies can facilitate a socialist transition. It does so, in part, by differentiating among alternative GNDs, in order to contribute to constructing the political alliances that can realise its potentially transformative potential.

The relative novelty of GND-type transformations means that their form, content and trajectory have not yet been firmly determined. Are they part of a project to save capitalism from itself through generating an epoch of green capitalism? Or do they have a more transformative potential? If the latter, then they must confront and transform the core relations (of accumulation-driven commodification and exploitation) of the contemporary agro-industrial food system. If the former, then it is quite likely that these relations will remain in place, to contribute further to social polarisation and ecocide.

A growing number of green transformations are pro-capitalist. These aim to boost capital accumulation, including through new rounds of commodification/marketisation of nature. Examples of these include the European Union’s Green Deal (discussed here). Other programmes aim to operate within capitalism, whilst delivering important social reforms for labouring classes. An example is the UK Labour Party’s Labour for a Green New Deal (henceforth L4GND, also discussed here) (Labour for a Green New Deal 2019a). Given that it was considered ‘the most radical [GND] in the world’ (Jacobs 2019), it may well influence other radical GNDs internationally.1 This article also introduces a range of criteria and policies that, it suggests, constitute a socialist GND, to be implemented as one lever against capitalism.

The ultimate challenge for a socialist GND is to restore the metabolic interaction between humans and nature through a new, non-exploitative society where the ‘conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property’ is ‘the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations’ (Marx 1981, 754).

Following this introduction, the rest of this article is organised as follows. Section 2 outlines a brief conception of a socialist transition, to establish a benchmark against which to assess non-socialist GNDs. Section 3 identifies the inherent environmental, financial and social unsustainability of capitalist agriculture, in particular agro-industry. Section 4 discusses win–win green ideologies – based upon the core assumption that business and the environment can benefit mutually from the right policy packages. Section 5 outlines two emblematic green solutions – the EU’s Green Deal and the UK Labour Party’s Green New Deal. This section also outlines the basics of an ideal-type anti-capitalist, socialist GND. Section 6 discusses the visions for agriculture embodied in these green transformations. Section 7 outlines a number of key areas in agrarian political economy for academic research and political conversation. Section 8 concludes.

2. Notes on a socialist transition

Considering the possibilities of a progressive GND in the USA, Patel and Goodman (2020, 449) argue for a ‘GND bloc’ involving ‘labour, movements fighting for gender and racial justice and decolonization … and the span of groups pushing for social control over finance’. This article concurs, but suggests that more should be said about the direction of travel of such a social movement-powered GND. Is the end goal a better, greener capitalism, or a transcendence of capitalism, and what are the implications of the answers to these questions for political strategy? Such questions should be addressed as the campaigns for the form and content of GNDs continue, as part of maintaining the coherence and power of the bloc. At the time of writing, in the USA and across the EU, the Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, School-students/Sunrise movements (but not yet the trade union movement en mass) represent progressive forces that could potentially contribute to establishing such a bloc.

Answering these questions within the scope of a single article requires some space-saving assumptions. The assumptions made here are, first, that a GND bloc emerges and wins political office through democratic elections in one country (generating some leverage over state power), before contributing to the internationalisation of other GND blocs and (potentially) states. Second, once in office the political representation (probably a party of sorts) of the bloc begins to implement a GND within a capitalist economic system. Thirdly, the objectives of the GND are simultaneously to fortify the bloc, initiate decisive actions to avoid climate breakdown, and contribute to a transition to socialism. It must always be kept in mind that the new system develops ‘from within an antithesis to the existing development of production and the inherited, traditional relations of property’ (Marx 1993, 278).

How then, do we conceive of (1) a movement towards socialism within a capitalist system, and (2) a GND for agriculture as a lever in that process? There are two key aspects here – decommodification and a decisive shift in the balance of class power. Esping-Andersen (1990, 37) refers to decommodification as ‘the degree to which individuals, or families, can uphold a socially acceptable standard of living independently of market participation. When work approaches free choice rather than necessity, de-commodification may amount to de-proletarianization’. Esping Andersen notes, however, that policies and processes of decommodification have existed, and can support, varied political economic regimes – from Bismarck’s social programmes to the 1945 Labour government’s welfare state.

What, then, makes a process of decommodification co-constitutive of socialist deproletarianisation? It is the equalising of class power. As working classes begin ceasing to exist as servants of capital, so too do capitalist classes begin ceasing to exist as masters of labour. Lebowitz (2010) uses the concepts of ‘inroads’ and ‘encroachments’ into capital’s power over labour to describe the process of establishing socialism. Such inroads would entail labouring classes taking over capital’s decision-making functions, such as resource allocation and investment, in part through political economic programmes such as a socialist GND. Assessing whether a GND is designed to strengthen capitalism, exist within it (albeit with important concessions to labour) or transcend it, therefore, requires a sense of whether it is contributing to decommodificaiton, class equalisation and, ultimately, deproletarianisation.

3. COVID-19 and the unsustainability of capitalist agro-industry

Proponents of capitalist agriculture, and agro-industry in particular, point to its ability to produce high yields cheaply to feed the world’s expanding population (Collier 2008; World Bank 2015). At the aggregate level, such arguments appear reasonable. After all, humanity continues to accelerate away from a Malthusian trap. Productivity increases in agriculture pushed up per capita food availability from about 2716 calories per person per day at the turn of the millennium to 2904 calories in 2015–2017 (Global Agriculture 2020).

However, such productivist narratives occlude ways in which agro-industry destroys the natural environment and contributes directly to pandemics such as COVID-19, the inability of capitalism to adequately feed approximately 800 million people, and the contribution of the food system to a situation where over 2 billion people are either obese or overweight. Rather than a system orientated to meet human need through environmentally sustainable practices, the global agro-industrial system is one where ‘people, animals, plants and the environment [are] controlled in order to maintain order, authority and predictability’ (Lang and Heasman 2004, 279).

Contrary to liberal fantasies (of the existence, or at least the possibility, of self-sustaining and regulating markets), capitalist agro-industry is fundamentally unsustainable – that is, it cannot sustain itself on its own basis (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The unsustainability of capitalist agro-industry.


This is so in four ways. First, it ruins the natural environment upon which it depends. As Bernard and Lux (2017, 1280) put it, ‘[h]eavy use of pesticides, fertilisers, irrigation, intensive ploughing and large-scale monocropping systems’ is leading to the ‘degradation of soil and water systems, erosion and salinisation, loss of soil fertility and  …  displacement and loss of biodiversity’. A consequence of these processes is that globally, an estimated ‘10 million hectares of agricultural land are lost’ every year (Branford 2011, 5). Parts of the UK may have only 100 harvests left due to topsoil degradation (Case 2014).

Such ecocidal dynamics are powered by the market system. Capitalist agriculture requires the prior and continually reproduced commodification of nature (especially land), labour and food (Marx 1990; Polanyi 2001). Capitalist nature is simultaneously commodified and externalised – where its use and destruction are either not incorporated as a cost into production, or are done so very cheaply (Moore 2015). It is not just disaffected environmentalists and Marxists who understand this! In one of its reports, the consultancy firm KPMG noted that the full environmental costs of the US food sector amounted to 224 percent of its earnings (KPMG 2012, 100). As Patel and Goodman (2020, 448) note, ‘[e]ither the industry is profitable by dint of its externalities, or it stops making food and money’.

The agro-industrial livestock sector is responsible for much of the GHG emissions within the total agro-food sector (Weis 2013), and around 15 percent of total GHG emissions (Garnett et al. 2017). This occurs through the conversion of forests and other natural ecosystems to pasture, and the associated loss of organic matter in soils; the enteric generation of methane by ruminant animals; the decline in landscapes’ carbon-sequestration capacity as they are simplified according to monoculture imperatives; the use of fossil fuels for farm machinery in the manufacture, transport and application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the operation of processing facilities (from hatcheries to slaughterhouses); and because of the longer and denser ‘food miles’ required to bring meat to markets, entailing associated refrigeration and storage costs (Weis 2013, 134–135). As Mike Davis notes:

The world icon of industrialised poultry and livestock production … Tyson Foods … which kills 2.2 billion chickens annually, has become globally synonymous with scaled-up, vertically coordinated production; exploitation of contract growers; visceral anti-unionism; rampant industrial injury; downstream environmental dumping; and political corruption. (Davis 2006, 83)

A second font of unsustainability is that commodification and intense labour exploitation are central to the reproduction of global agriculture:

[O]f the 1.3 billion people employed in agriculture … there are some 450 million waged workers, over half of whom are women. Seventy per cent of child labour globally takes place in agriculture … and agriculture produces over 170,000 work-related deaths annually. Agricultural workers are twice as likely to die at work than in any other sector. Between three to four milllion pesticide poisonings occur each year, some 40,000 of them fatal … chronically high rates of malnutrition occur among agricultual workers. (Rossman 2012, 61)

These dynamics are present thoughout the global agro-industrial system, including in its core in the USA. For example, as the US National Farm Worker Ministry puts it: ‘Annually, the average income of crop workers is between $10,000 to $12,499 for individuals and $15,000 to $17,499 for a family … . [T]he federal poverty line is $10,830 for an individual or $22,050 for a family of four (in 2009)’ (National Farm Worker Ministry 2010). It is doubtful whether contemporary capitalist agro-industry could exist without vast pools of impoverished workers.


The third way in which agro-industry is unsustainable is its dependence upon the global fossil fuel subsidy regime, which cheapens inputs (from chemical fertilisers to farming equipment), transportation, storage, packaging and ultimately the retail of its produce. Global energy subsidies

as measured by the difference between what consumers should be paying for fossil fuel energy to cover supply costs, environmental costs, and general consumption taxes, and what they actually pay – are … estimated [to be] $5.3 trillion for 2015, or 6.5% of global GDP [gross domestic product]. (Coady et al. 2017, 21)

Finally, the agro-industrial sector relies heavily upon direct public subsidies. Approximately $530 billion of the annual $700 billion of global public support is paid to farmers engaged in high-input, chemically intensive, monocrop-based farming (Food and Land Use Coalition 2019, 54).


Before the advent of capitalist agriculture, farming was predominantly small-scale, determined overwhelmingly by local ecology, and based upon internally dependent nutrient cycles. Nutrients and energy sources (e.g. animals’ manure) were recycled within and through a relatively self-reproducing system (Mazoyer and Roudart 2007). Capitalist agriculture has increasingly broken apart the previously unified process of production – as land, labour and inputs were commodified – and producers became increasingly market dependent, a process dialectically related to the rise of agricultural science (Lievens 2010, 9). Agriculture has been transformed from an internally dependent to an externally dependent system reliant ‘upon the continued purchase and application of various external inputs in order to produce commodities for sale’ (Berlan 1991; Weis 2007, 58). Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift (unearthed by Foster 1999) captures the inherent unsustainability of capitalist agriculture:

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. … Capitalist production … only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker. (Marx 1990, 638)

Agro-industry contributes to environmental breakdown, is economically unsustainable, is based upon the exploitation of workers and degradation of nature, and contributes directly to pandemics such as COVID-19. As Rob Wallace notes:

Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. Highly capitalised production of food depends on practices that endanger the entirety of humanity, in this case helping unleash a new deadly pandemic. We should demand food systems be socialised in such a way that pathogens this dangerous are kept from emerging in the first place. That will require reintegrating food production into the needs of rural communities first. That will require agro-ecological practices that protect the environment and farmers as they grow our food. Big picture, we must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win. (Wallace 2020)

Whilst globalised capitalist agriculture, in particular its agro-industrial variant, is inherently unsustainable, this article does not view former Soviet/eastern bloc agriculture as representing an alternative. Rather, following Cliff (1996), it understands these regions as variants of ‘state capitalist’ catch-up development, where agricultural (and industrial) production were subordinated to military–industrial competitive accumulation. Cliff described how Stalin’s agricultural collectivisation

resulted in the freeing of agricultural products for the needs of industrial development, the ‘freeing’ of the peasantry from its means of production, the transformation of a section of them into reserves of labour power for industry, and the transformation of the rest into part-workers, part-peasants, part-serfs in the kolkhozes. (Cliff 1996, 66; for China and Cuba see Harris 1978; Binns and Gonzalez 1980, respectively)

While the world’s agro-industrial system is viewed with increasing suspicion across much of the globe, many green solutions to climate breakdown not only eschew any critique of the capitalist system within which it exists and contributes to reproducing, but are couched in avowedly pro-capitalist terms.


4. The lure of win–win solutions – for business and environment

Arguments for green capitalism and green growth have become mainstream over the last decade and a half, at least since the Stern Review (Stern 2007), and inform much of the thinking/strategy of contemporary ‘green recovery’ plans (e.g. see Partington 2020). Such arguments are often framed in win–win/positive-sum terms (good for the environment, good for capital) and tend to offer technical solutions to climate breakdown. However, as Thomas Wanner notes, the mainstreaming of green thinking represents an attempt to re-establish the power of hegemonic social forces by adopting what was previously the language of subaltern groups: ‘Economic growth (now known as green growth) is constructed as the solution to all social, environmental and economic problems’ (Wanner 2015, 35).

Pro-capitalist advocates of green growth present it as potentially saving capitalism from itself, and saving the climate from ‘old/industrial capitalism’ through generating new profit opportunities. Portraying the climate crisis as ‘our third world war’ (in terms of resource mobilisation), Joseph Stiglitz argues that:

The war on the climate emergency … would actually be good for the economy – just as the second world war set the stage for America’s golden economic era …  . The Green New Deal would stimulate demand, ensuring that all available resources were used; and the transition to the green economy would likely usher in a new boom …  . More jobs by far will be created in renewable energy than will be lost in coal. (Stigliltz 2019)

Stiglitz does not mention how in the original New Deal the US government introduced wage and price controls and seized factories, land and services (such as the appropriation of the department store chain Montgomery Ward in 1944 to settle a labour dispute) (Bozuwa 2019, 44). Nor does he note how these moves underpinned the state’s war-time mobilisation of the economy.


The World Bank and other international institutions propose that climate-smart agriculture (CSA) represents not just a win–win, but a triple-win scenario: ‘Climate Smart Agriculture sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces/removes greenhouse gases (GHGs) (mitigation), while enhancing the achievement of national food security and development goals’.

Some positive evidence provided by CSA proponents is the reduction of chemical application and reduced ploughing (and hence lower levels of soil loss) through no-till agriculture. Technically, there are merits to such methods (Montgomery 2017). However, as Taylor (2018) shows, the CSA agenda is being rolled out in the service of expanding agro-industry (such as animal feed-orientated soy production) which contributes directly to climate breakdown. By bracketing out questions of power, hierarchy and exploitation (of humans and nature), CSA serves, like arguments for green growth more generally, to legitimate continued capitalist expansion.

The IPCC’s Climate Change and Land report (IPCC 2019) complements the above approaches to combatting climate breakdown. Whilst it includes potentially useful technical solutions to climate breakdown, which could be incorporated into a transformative socialist strategy, it eschews anti-capitalist sentiments. It defines sustainable land management as: ‘the stewardship and use of land resources, including soils, water, animals and plants, to meet changing human needs, while simultaneously ensuring the long-term productive potential of these resources and the maintenance of their environmental functions’ (IPCC 2019, 24, fn 33).

Examples of potentially useful sustainable land management include ‘agroecology (including agroforestry), conservation agriculture and forestry practices, crop and forest species diversity, appropriate crop and forest rotations, organic farming, integrated pest management, the conservation of pollinators, rain water harvesting, range and pasture management, and precision agriculture systems’ (IPCC 2019). The report does not mention land reform. It does advocate enhancing local and community collective action, the promotion of indigenous rights and women’s empowerment, albeit entailing ‘improved access to markets for inputs, outputs and financial services … ’ (IPCC 2019, 32).

Win–win/pro-capitalist conceptions of green transformations obscure how capitalism is hierarchical, exploitative and based upon endless commodification of nature and labour. They therefore preclude, rhetorically and in practice, the kinds of measures required to make inroads into capitalist power. Such inroads would entail the nationalisation and effective closing down of the $4.65 trillion fossil fuel industry (the 1500 oil and gas firms listed on stock exchanges) (Cassella 2018). As Seymour (2019) notes, making the GND work will require ‘a shattering blow to current circulations of value and profit’. The states, firms and international organisations that support these (and other environmentally destructive) industries, could, in future, be tried for ecocide (Higgins 2012). If found culpable, their assets could be expropriated and used to address the ecocidal impacts of their prior investments.

There is another problem with win–win perspectives. They promise to deepen even further the existing relations that underpin climate breakdown. While the Stern Review (2007) was concerned about how the costs of global warming may dampen economic growth, this is not so across the board. Capitalism’s inherent unevenness means that far from representing a barrier to capitalist expansion in toto, environmental disasters and risk can be made profitable. Carbon markets, pollution permits, climate derivatives and catastrophe bonds all generate new profit opportunities for financial investors (Keucheyan 2017; Klein 2007). Moreover, without the transformation of social relations (entailing different forms of production, consumption, and divisions of labour and wealth) technological solutions to climate change, such as a large-scale shift to renewable energy, promise new rounds of renewable extractivism (Zehner 2012).

Win–win perspectives also occlude historical causes of ecological ruination, and ideologically shield actors who promoted such actions. The World Bank promoted the green revolution and structural adjustment programmes, heralding the former as boosting crop yields and the latter as boosting allocative efficiency through exposure to heightened competition. Yet both programmes contributed to environmental degradation through increased monocropping and capitalisation of agriculture (Patel 2013). Win–win perspectives, from CSA to the IPCC’s proposed solutions to environmental breakdown, are predicated upon still-deeper commodification (through market integration) of land and labour.

The rationale for conceiving of a socialist GND for agriculture is that capitalist commodification and exploitation are fundamental drivers of climate breakdown. For example, the average carbon footprint of the top 1 percent of the world’s population is around 175 times that of the poorest 10 percent (Gore 2015). Kenner (2019) identifies how a ‘polluter elite’ of 88 billionaires (in 2015) invested in and profited from fossil fuel industries. Moreover, the poorest segments of the world’s population are the most vulnerable to, and least able to cope with, the effects of climate breakdown, ‘with women facing greater risks than men, rural communities often more exposed than urban ones and groups marginalized because of race, ethnicity or other factors likely to be disproportionately affected’ (Gore 2015, 5).

Green growth/green capitalism-type arguments range, however, from those that do not aim to alter capitalism’s hierarchical social relations in any meaningful way (as above) to those that espouse (sometimes radical) social democratic/democratic socialist principles. The popularity of these approaches is impacting upon more conservative green solutions to the extent that the latter are adopting many of the former’s symbols and language. An emblematic case of the former is the UK Labour Party’s L4GND; an example of the latter is the European Union’s Green Deal. The following sections interrogate the similarities and differences between these two plans, and compare them to what this article considers to be essential in a socialist GND for agriculture.

5. Of green (new) deals: for, within or against capitalism?

Calls for a green recovery and/or GND to address and the interlinked threat of climate breakdown and pandemic have become amplified since the onset of COVID-19. An emblematic example of explicitly pro-capitalist green thinking, with a range of reforms designed for the food and agricultural system, is the European Union’s Green Deal, unveiled in 2019 and signifying Ursula von der Leyen’s ascent to the EU presidency (European Commission 2020a). Its core objective is establishing a ‘climate-neutral’ Europe through net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. The establishment of a circular (recycling-based) economy will contribute to achieving half of its carbon reduction target. Buildings are to be upgraded, and air and soil pollution levels are to be cut through regulation and through product innovations in the auto and soil-science sectors. The Green Deal has tailor-made plans for the food and agriculture system, including extending the protection of existing forest and natural resources, reforesting, cutting chemical use in farming and facilitating more healthy food provision for the EU’s population (and see below). The EU’s Green Deal investment plan aims to mobilise €1 trillion between 2021 and 2030 from the EU commission, the European investment bank, member states and private capital.

These objectives are couched, explicitly, in terms of competitive capital accumulation and economic growth: ‘Europe needs a new growth strategy that transforms the Union into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where … there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 [and] where economic growth is decoupled from resource use’ (European Commission 2020c).

Left/democratic-socialist conceptions of a GND strike a different note. The original call for a left-wing GND was made in the UK in 2008, following the world financial and economic crises, by the Green New Deal Group and New Economics Foundation, but it gained little public traction then (Green New Deal Group 2020). More recently, however, it has gained popularity as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and Caroline Lucas in the UK have advanced radical conceptions of a green transformation.

An emblematic example of this type of thinking is the UK Labour Party’s L4GND platform. L4GND is radically different and more ambitious than the EU’s Green Deal. Rather than aiming for net zero emissions by 2050, it advocates zero carbon emissions by 2030 through a ‘green industrial revolution’ (Labour for a Green New Deal 2019a). It calls for the repeal of anti-trade union laws implemented by successive Tory governments, for trade unions to occupy a ‘partnership’ role in formulating and implementing the GND’s ‘just transition’ (where polluting jobs are replaced with ‘green’ jobs), and for wide-ranging social change (such as significantly higher living wages, and partial decommodification of basic services and some food provision) (L4GND 2019a2019b2020a2020b).

It deploys the concept of carbon budgets to advocate a strategy of contraction and convergence

wherein rich countries radically reduce their emissions down to a fair share, allowing less wealthy countries the space to temporarily increase their emissions in service of these goals, before eventually reaching a global convergence at a more equal, lower level of emissions. (L4GND 2019a)

L4GND proposes that a National Investment Bank would oversee its GND. It would be funded by a combination of borrowing on the international (green) bond market, where interest rates are historically low, and National Investment Bank-coordinated private sector investment. The latter would be crowded in by the attractiveness of new profit opportunities in the green economy.


L4GND has tailor-made plans for the food and agricultural system. Its plan for a national food service include the objective that all people in the UK should have the right to healthy, low-environmental-impact food, based on better farming, and reduced waste and international justice (and see below).

An important difference between the EU’s Green Deal and L4GND are their alternative conceptions of labour’s role in the green transition. While the former promotes workers’ rights within existing private-capital-dominated social relations, the latter conceives of ‘new models’ of industrial and agrarian ownership, with workers occupying newfound powers over resource allocation decisions.

Whilst L4GND diverges from the EU’s Green Deal in many respects, there are also some overlaps. Drawing on Mazzucato’s (2015) conception of an entrepreneurial green state, L4GND posits that its 2030 decarbonisation target would ‘provide an unambiguous signal to private finance to invest in the industrial revolution needed to drive innovation and production for rapid decarbonisation, while also providing a clear strategy for massive public investment’ (L4GND 2019, 8; and see below).

Whilst radical (compared to the EU’s Green Deal and compared to many other green transition recoveries), L4GND does not speak of workers’ ownership of the means of producing social wealth or of transcending capitalism and its economic growth imperative. In these respects, L4GND stands between the EU’s avowedly pro-private sector/pro-capitalist/pro-growth Green Deal, and an anti-capitalist, socialist GND (Tables 1 and 2).


Table 1. Dynamics of a green transition – for, within and against capitalism: some pointers.


Table 2. The political economy of a green new deal (GND).


The question of economic growth is central to any green transformation. The EU’s Green Deal is explicitly pro-growth (based on the assumption that it is possible to decouple growth from resource use through constructing a circular economy, but see Hickel and Kallis 2020). L4GND espouses a (potentially oxymoronic) green ‘industrial revolution’. However, for huge investments in green technology not to generate crowding-in multiplier effects that in turn accelerate wider economic growth, they would have to be coordinated with very significant de-growth elsewhere in the economy: as green industries are established, polluting industries and investments would have to be shut down at a significantly faster rate. Such a mass reorganisation of the economy would require direct and forceful state actions (nationalisations and wealth appropriations) that L4GND is not yet proposing.

A socialist GND would require nationalisation under a worker-led/pro-worker government of central and private banks, and of large-scale polluting and energy industries. This would include large-scale agro industries – from farming to upstream input suppliers, to downstream food processors and retailers. It would also include the construction sector, utilities and leading private-sector monopolies (the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy). Such control would prevent capital flight and facilitate the large-scale investments across sectors necessary for widespread and coordinated decarbonisation of the economy.

A socialist GND would also require a vision of socialist de-growth (Dale 2012; Selwyn 2020b). As noted above, some economic growth will be required to establish renewable energy sources and decarbonise the economy. To avoid such investments acting as a growth engine, significant de-growth elsewhere in the economy would be necessary. This then raises the question of where improvements to labouring class living standards would come from. For such measures, of limited targeted growth and extensive de-growth, to complement the objectives of decommodification of social life, transformation of class relations, and the healing of the metabolic rift, very large-scale wealth redistribution (of housing stock, wealth and land to facilitate the GND) in core capitalist economies will be required (and see Kallis 2019).

Whilst proponents of a socialist GND could support L4GND as a political step towards a more radical transformation, they would have to exert continual pressure upon any government attempting to implement such a GND. The latter would be opposed vigorously by what Patel and Goodman (2020, 432) call the dominant historic bloc – including fossil fuel firms, landed property and large-scale agro-industry.

6. GNDs for agriculture: convergences and divergences

Both the EU’s Green Deal and L4GND have tailor-made policies for their respective food and agricultural systems. While the former is explicitly capitalist and growth orientated, there is some overlap between L4GND and a socialist GND (see Table 3), which generates potential issues for political alliance building (Tienhaara 2014).


Table 3. Green new deals (GND) for agriculture – for, within and against capitalism.


The EU’s Green Deal has two key planks related to agriculture – a biodiversity strategy and a farm-to-fork strategy. Its biodiversity strategy commits, by 2030, to establishing 30 percent of land and sea across the union as protected areas, planting three billion trees, reducing pesticide use, increasing the area under organic farming to 25 percent of the EUs total farmed area and restoring at least 25,000 km of EU rivers to a free-flowing state. Notably, the EU’s Green Deal eschews any discussion of land reform, even though the latter is now a commonplace policy objective across the political spectrum (see next section).

Its farm-to-fork strategy aims to establish sustainable food production across the European Union. In terms of enhancing animal welfare, it aims to use the already-established, ‘five freedoms’ for stricter regulating of the livestock sector (freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress). In tandem with its biodiversity strategy, it aims to facilitate registration of organic seed varieties to improve market access for traditional and locally adapted plant varieties. Its integrated pest management dimension aims to facilitate the use of alternative control techniques to chemicals, including crop rotation, and – following CSA objectives – the use of precise fertilisation techniques. Livestock methane emissions are to be reduced by dietary manipulation, substituting new for old forms of animal feed (e.g. seaweed derived).

Downstream from farming, the Green Deal aims to re-regulate food processing, wholesale and retail sectors through nutrient profiles to limit the promotion of foods high in sugar, salt and fat. It also proposes a shift towards multi- as opposed to single-use packaging, the use of tax incentives to promote the production and sale of organic produce, and legally binding targets to reduce food waste (European Commission 2020c).

Workers in farming and the food sector more broadly are to be protected by the European Pillar of social rights. Whilst these provide a basic set of rights to workers, couched around equal opportunities, labour market access, contracted working conditions, mandating minimum pay and maximum working hours, and a degree of social protection, they also commit to facilitating employer ‘flexibility’ in hiring and firing (European Commission 2019).

The farm-to-fork and biodiversity strategies are couched in win–win terms. The former argues that ‘Strengthening the sustainability of our food systems can help further build the reputation of businesses and products, create shareholder value, improve working conditions, attract employees and investors, and confer competitive advantage, productivity gains and reduced costs for companies’ (European Commission 2020b, 11).

The biodiversity strategy represents a prime example of the attempt to save nature by commodifying it (Rappel 2018), through its advocacy of natural capital: ‘Natural capital investment, including restoration of carbon-rich habitats and climate-friendly agriculture, is recognised to be among the five most important fiscal recovery policies, which offer high economic multipliers and positive climate impact’ (European Commission 2020a, 1).

L4GND also has tailor-made plans for agriculture. These are outlined in its ‘Land use’ (L4GND 2020a) (drawing on Monbiot et al. 2019Land for the Many) and ‘National food service’ (L4GND 2020b) documents. Land for the Many proposes policies to achieve a ‘more balanced use of land’ that is accomplished by the expansion of the commons. It conceives of the commons as systems ‘managed not for the accumulation of capital or profit, but for the steady production of prosperity or wellbeing’ and that the expansion of the commons leads to ‘strengthening community and providing greater opportunities for community groups to co-produce housing, amenities and shared spaces’ (Monbiot et al. 2019, 13).

Land for the Many and L4GND’s ‘Land use’ documents advocate establishing a land commission to oversee sustainable land use via the protection of land currently in existing public ownership (in opposition to Tory party-led land privatisation). It also advocates the expansion of county farm schemes (which have declined since the 1980s as a consequence of land privatisation), providing funds to local authorities to acquire land, facilitating urban agriculture and establishing community ‘right-to-buy’ schemes to support ecological land use.

Its ‘National food service’ proposal aims to facilitate a dietary transition (towards healthier, increasingly plant-based products) based upon the EAT-Lancet proposals for a global shift away from meat and towards plant-based food production and consumption (Eat Lancet commission 2019). L4GND would support these objectives through state funding for food businesses that produce and provide healthy food, and new public procurement rules that facilitate EAT-Lancet’s proposed shift. Furthermore, it would provide free fruit and vegetable vouchers for every household.

New forms of land-use and ownership combined with a state-facilitated dietary shift towards plant-based production and consumption would require transformations in farming. These would entail the implementation of a ‘just transition’ and re-orientated subsidies to reduce pasture-based farming whilst increasing green jobs, the provision of financial incentives to keep and use land for woodland and peatland restoration, a phase-out of domestic animal feed and energy crops (and increased import tariffs on such crops), tax incentives and subsidies to increase agroecological plant-based food production, and the incorporation of small-scale farmers into the national food service (L4GND 2020a).

A socialist GND for agriculture – aiming to decommodify social life and shift the balance of class power towards labour – overlaps in some respects with L4GND. The latter’s emphasis on making land more accessible to working-class communities, providing a degree of decommodification of food (through a national food service), and expanding workers’ rights, pay and conditions within and beyond agriculture are areas where political alliance building between anti-capitalist socialist and left social democrats is eminently possible.

However, other aspects of L4GND are more problematic from a socialist perspective. These include: its identification of fossil fuel use rather than competitive capitalist accumulation as the core driver of climate breakdown; its commitment to continued/renewed economic growth powered by a green transition; its commitment to boosting profit-orientated private sector stakeholdership in a green ‘industrial revolution’, and its refusal to sanction state appropriation of ecocidal industries. These represent weaknesses, and more likely contradictions, that will undermine its transformatory potential for economic decarbonisation and enhanced social equality.

Further limitations of L4GND include the question of who will ultimately pay for the transition. At present, L4GND advocates borrowing through ‘green’ bond markets and progressive taxation. However, rising government debt combined with an increasingly resentful capitalist class will generate powerful counter-moves against L4GND. Without a commitment to nationalise banks and to take direct control of the bank of England by workers’ organisations or at the very least a pro-workers’ state, the prospect of capital flight, heightened tax avoidance by capital and the subsequent derailing of the GND looms large.

A socialist GND for agriculture would advocate much more extensive land reform, decommodification of food and transformations in property relations. Rather than purchasing land at market rates, land would be placed under collective ownership through combinations of compulsory purchase, land taxation, and/or direct appropriation and distribution to labouring-class communities as a genuinely public (non-vendible) good. Such a move is necessary both to establish labouring-class farming communities and to enable the widespread reforestation necessary to expand natural carbon sinks. Food would become increasingly decommodified, through its free and cheap provision via community restaurants (see below, and Selwyn 2020a).

A socialist GND for agriculture would aim to re-orient the circuit of production-consumption away from competitive capital accumulation and towards working class consumption. Meeting the needs of labouring-class communities would be sought through redistributive human development. Under such circumstances, a commitment to economic growth would be eroded and replaced with one of redistribution and social investment to meet human needs. This is not to say that a socialist GND for agriculture would not contain inner tensions. An initial period of green socialist growth may be necessary to establish the renewable industrial base for an environmentally sustainable economy. But as noted, above, such an apparent contradiction can be squared with socialist GND objectives based upon extensive de-growth and redistribution elsewhere in the economy.

7. Agendas for academic research and political conversations

Leading members of the Intergovernmental Science–Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services recently wrote that:

As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost … . Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.

They conclude that ‘we need transformative change … fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values, promoting social and environmental responsibilities across all sectors' (Settele et al. 2020).


A GND/green recovery could just represent the system-wide reorganisation required to begin to address the double threat of climate breakdown and the onset of a pandemic epoch. The key question, however, is: What kind of reorganisation will such an approach facilitate? One that entrenches capitalist social relations and profit-driven economic growth? Or one that encroaches upon, with the aim of transcending, these social relations and replacing them with new relations between humans and nature? These end goals will determine every aspect of a green, system-wide reorganisation. On the agricultural front they will confront, transform and build upon several key areas. The following section introduces eight of these, as a way of generating further academic research and political conversations around potential green transformations.

7.1. Subsidies

In liberal mythology markets do, or at least can (in theory), exist free of state interference. But as Karl Polanyi (2001, 146–147) noted:

The road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organised and controlled interventionism … the introduction of free markets, far from doing away with the need for control, regulation and intervention, enormously increased their range.

What will be the role be of centrally provided funds in any green transformation? At present the global agro-food sector is supported by multiple subsidies, whether indirect (to the fossil fuel industry, as noted above) or direct (through PL480 in the USA and the Common Agricultural Policy [CAP] in the EU). In the EU, for example, in 2013 the ‘twin pillars’ of the CAP budget (direct subsidies to farmers and payments to support rural development) amounted to 57.5 billion Euros (BBC 2013).


The above-noted subsidies are ‘market making’ – designed to increase investment and output for profit realised through product markets. An alternative would be to conceive of subsidies as ‘market reducing’. Here, agricultural subsidies could be used to support food produced for labouring classes to reduce workers’ market dependence by lessening markets’ role in resource allocation (see below). Complementary objectives would include facilitating more equal land-ownership and ecologically sustainable use through agrarian reform, encouraging nutritious food production by supporting agricultural-sector incomes.

7.2. Workers’ rights

Under the contemporary corporate food regime, labour across myriad agricultural sub-sectors is characterised by informality, and disproportionally high rates of poverty compared to other economic sectors (Akram-Lodhi 2015; McMichael 2013; Scoones 2015). Globally, alongside constructing and mining, agriculture is one of the three most dangerous occupational areas. Historically, many national agricultural sectors have often been excluded from progressive extension of workers’ rights (such as minimum wages, collective bargaining or access to social services) (Hurst, Termine, and Karl 2007).

Pro-capitalist green approaches (such as the EU’s Green Deal) view the extension of workers’ rights as complementing the establishment of legally binding property rights and better functioning labour markets. Whilst most progressives would welcome the establishment of basic rights where they did not previously exist, the extension of workers’ rights can also be conceived in anti-market ways. First, progressives could argue for the establishment of more extensive rights than just the minimum. Some International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions provide the basis for establishing ‘social democratic’ relations in agriculture.

ILO Convention 141 on agricultural worker’s organisations obliges governments to support the ‘establishment and growth of strong and independent rural workers’ organisations’ (ILO 1975). Convention 184 and 192 on health and safety in agriculture commit governments to extending to agricultural workers the same rights and protections enjoyed by workers in other sectors (e.g. ILO 2001).

Convention 99 on a minimum wage (for individual workers) could serve as the basis for formulating and implementing a living wage (for workers’ families) across the sector. It should

ensure that all members of the family have permanent access to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food, that is in conformity with the cultural traditions of the family concerned, without having to sacrifice other basic human rights, such as the right to education or to housing. (De Schutter 2009, 7)

The roll-out of basic social-democratic rights could begin undermining one of the corporate food system’s principal foundations – of cheap and expendable labour – and constitute a significant encroachment onto the terrain of capital in the food system. Another way of putting this is that the costs of food production would have to be internalised and/or socialised by the agricultural system to a significantly greater extent than at present. However, such social democratic rights would be insufficient to properly encroach upon/take over capital’s power in agriculture without addressing questions of land ownership.


7.3. Agrarian reform

The global concentration of land is a product of capitalist-market imperatives and state support for land-based capital and imperialism (Akram-Lodhi 2015). Throughout the twentieth century, state-led agrarian reform used to be a key demand of the international left. From the 1990s onwards, market-led agrarian reform gained prominence amongst liberal circles (including the World Bank) as a means of better allocating resources and lessening market distortions in land (Lahiff, Borras, and Kay 2007). More recently it has become a demand of some ‘authoritarian populist’ regimes (as in South Africa and Zimbabwe) (Scoones et al. 2018), while others such as Bolsonaro are avowedly anti agrarian reform.

How would a left/socialist movement differentiate its agenda for agrarian reform from statist, liberal and authoritarian populist variants? The above-noted liberal approaches to land reform regarded it as a process potentially leading to the better operation of rural markets. Statist and some variants of authoritarian populism perceive it as a tool for shoring up stronger state control over national resources. The essence of a socialist agrarian reform would be to engender (1) the democratisation of public wealth by encroaching upon the power of capital, and (2) the decommodification of social life (especially food) in ways that sustain and enhance labouring-class power. Such a programme would be supported by the combination of re-directed subsidies and enhanced workers’ rights noted above. As Borras (2020), inspired by Bernstein (2010, chapter 8) and Shivji (2017) argues, part of such an agenda would be for the left to reclaim from the right the concept of community, which requires a nuanced and non-essentialist conception of class. For example, Bernstein’s (2010, chapter 8) notion of classes of labour illuminates how workers depend directly, and indirectly (i.e. through a whole host survival strategies), upon the sale of their labour power for their daily reproduction.

Other areas that a socialist programme of agrarian reform would have to address would be the preservation and protection of indigenous lands, the transformation of large landed property into worker and community-managed and publicly owned enterprises, the establishment of community-run farms in rural and peri-urban areas, and the transformation of unused urban spaces into community-run urban gardens and agricultural units.

7.4. Decommodifying food

Even on the political right there is a dawning recognition that states must play a role in ensuring that their populations have access to sufficient and healthy food.2 At present, however, the commodification of food (i.e. people’s dependence upon incomes to buy it) discriminates against labouring classes by reducing their ability to purchase sufficient volumes of nutritious food (Guthman 2011). A programme to decommodify food, perhaps through state-supported community restaurants (Selwyn 2020a), could respond to such negative pressures, whilst maintaining a popular support base for a socialist administration.

A coping strategy for those afflicted by austerity and poverty is ‘substituting less costly items, cutting out more expensive items and replacing them with filling foods, sacrificing safety, taste and familiarity for volume and price’ (Scott-Villiers et al. 2016, 7). Such dynamics are associated with the rise of ‘empty calories’ and the forced under-consumption of labouring classes across the globe (Dixon 2009, 326; and see Mintz 1986 for a longer historical analysis). Domestic food preparation is one of the realms through which unequal gender relations are reproduced (see Jabs and Devine 2006).

The current COVID-19 pandemic has seen ostensibly liberal governments engaging in decidedly non-liberal actions such as ensuring workers receive pay even while not working. Witness the UK government’s ‘eat out to help out’ subsidy scheme during August 2020 (Rayner 2020). Under these circumstances a programme of state subsidies to establish community restaurants serving free and cheap food does not seem so far-fetched. How would a socialist GND differentiate itself from avowedly anti-socialist policies that, on the surface, appear to represent attempts at decommodifying social life? Part of the answer is that socialist decommodification would aim to reduce, continually, workers’ market dependence, leading to a situation where the latter no longer function as central resource allocators in society.

4.5. Agroecology

Virtually all green visions wax lyrical about (or at least pay lip service to) the benefits of a more ‘natural’ approach to agriculture, where chemical inputs are replaced by more ‘organic’ techniques. Agroecological principles include the reliance upon biodiversity to regulate and reproduce ecosystems; multifunctional (diverse) agricultural systems such as polycultures to safeguard the human-natural metabolic interaction, and provide diverse food sources; and use of traditional knowledge (including farmer innovations and technologies) (Rosset and Altieri 2017). Aspects of agroecology include agroforestry; facilitating, building and conserving soil fertility; using biological controls for diseases, insects and weeds; intercropping; seed saving and selection; smaller-scale multiple harvesting cycles; and the integration of small-scale pasturing and grazing (Weis 2010, 334).

As Rosset and Altieri (2017) note, however, agroecology is now a buzzword within international institutions, where practices such as CSA are promoted as embodying agroecological principles. They also note that agroecology is more than a set of techniques, and that it entails shifts in scale (smaller-sized farms), scope (more varied cropping systems), provenance of inputs (respect for, and greater reliance upon, local/historical knowledge), all of which generate greater equity in land ownership and power throughout the food system.

Can agroecology feed the world? The Ten Years for Agroecology (Poux and Aubert 2018) research exercise has modelled how a future EU could increase food production and reduce food imports through the adoption of agroecological methods, to the extent that it would be able to feed Europe’s projected population of c. 530 million people. It recognises that yields would fall as a consequence of the phase-out of chemical inputs, but shows how this would be more than compensated for by reallocation of land away from feed crops and livestock towards food crops (Food, Farming and Countryside Commission 2019). Similarly, for the USA, the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial found that agroecological methods can reduce direct use of fossil fuel inputs in agricultural production, enable organic agricultural to play a role in carbon sequestration, and maintain high crop yields (Lasalle and Hepperly 2008, 5).

However, these scenarios are dependent upon a different system of land use, where the industrial grain and livestock complex (Weis 2007) shrinks and yields hectarage to agroecological production. This means that green recovery plans, such as the EU’s Green Deal, which do not aim to confront the mega-power of the industrial food system, cannot easily claim to support an extensive roll-out of agroecological production.

Beyond the power of industrial agriculture, there lies the issue of the divisions of labour that agroecological farming would engender. There is a tendency on the left to suggest that an eco-socialist agricultural system would increase labour intensity and the numbers working in agriculture.3 For example, Naomi Klein (2011) argues that sustainable agriculture ‘is much more labor intensive than industrial agriculture, which means that farming can once again be a substantial source of employment’. And Weis (2010, 334) holds that ‘[a]gricultural systems must be vastly more labour-intensive and biodiverse … There is no substitute for skilful and dense human labour, decentralized agricultural knowledge and careful, passionate stewardship’.

So, would a socialist GND for agriculture (or any agroecological GND, for that matter) entail an increase in labour intensity in farming? In a socio-economic system where workers’ wages are necessary for the purchase of subsistence goods, it may be that greater labour intensity in farming represents a path to full employment. This may be especially so under COVID-19 conditions and looming mass unemployment. However, a programme for a socialist transformation, based upon decommodification of social life, equalisation of class relations, and social production for workers’ need could propose wide-ranging substitution of labour by technology, designed to reduce the working day to the minimum (across all economic sectors), thereby increasing time for democratic participation and leisure (Bastani 2019; Huber 2019a; Selwyn 2018).

7.6. Technology

Under capitalism, new technologies, even when they have the potential to reduce or eliminate human drudgery, are often applied in ways that increase labour exploitation (Braverman 1998). So where would technology fit into a vision of socialist transformation? Certainly, the technological determinism of some strands of Marxism (in particular Stalinism) represent more the stagism of modernisation theory than any conception of human emancipation through changed social relations. More pressingly, technology-based solutions, if not married to a strategy of reduced economic growth, risk exacerbating climate breakdown (Paterson 2007). Jevons’ paradox illuminates how efficiency gains and reduced costs of use (e.g. of coal in his day, but potentially of green technology in ours) increase the rate of use of a given technology.

But there are technologies that could be deployed, under changed (and contributing to further changing) social relations that could meet the socialist criteria of providing healthy food for labouring classes, reducing the work effort required for their production, and simultaneously healing the metabolic rift.

A potentially world-changing solution is being developed by a small company, Solar Foods, funded by the European Space Agency’s business incubation programme (Monbiot 2018; Solein 2018). The company produces a wheat flour-like compound called Solein, with a 50–60 percent protein, 5–10 percent fat and 20–25 percent carbohydrate content. It is made using electricity from solar panels to electrolyse water (splitting water cells) in a bioreactor (similar to a fermentation tank for beer) to create hydrogen. The hydrogen is then combined with carbon dioxide and other nutrients (phosphorus, sodium and potassium) and soil-derived microbes. Producing Solein, it is claimed, requires 20,000 times less land than to produce the same amount of soya-based food. It can substitute for protein in processed foods, could replace animal fodder, and could produce palm oil substitutes. Solein has the potential to vastly reduce humanity’s reliance upon land-based grain-crop farming, thereby freeing up land for other activities (see below).

Automation of food production through hydroponics (growing plants without soil) in vertical farms is another potential transformative boon. Vertical farms could be established in unused or newly constructed high-rise urban buildings, or built in rural areas (Despommier 2009). Such techniques have reportedly enabled the production of greens (lettuce and herbs) using up to 90 percent less water whilst yielding 30 times more crops per acre of land than some forms of land-based farming (Smith 2018). In other cases, hydroponics have led to four- to five-fold yield increases of tomatoes and cucumbers compared to soil cultures (Resh 2012, 8). Technological advances combined with strategically directed finance could enable such investments to be paired with solar-generating energy (either directly through photovoltaic panels built onto the vertical farms and/or through a solar-powered national grid).

Computerisation and robotisation can potentially raise the productivity of land-based farming whilst reducing the labour burden. Agro-robots are capable of identifying and using lasers to destroy 800 different types of weeds, hugely reducing the need for chemical fertilisers. Soon they could map the land, plant seeds, weed and harvest crops (Harris 2020).

Whether or not such technologies are put to good use – for labouring classes and the planet, or for a new phase of ‘green’ corporate agriculture – is a political question. Whilst some advocates of agroecology do not engage with the human development potential of high tech (Altieri and Nicholls 2020), this seems to be an obvious area for research and politics for advocates of a socialist transition.

7.7. Rewilding

Agrarian reform, replacing the industrial grain and livestock complex with increasingly plant-based agriculture, and new technologies have the potential to liberate vast tracts of land for reforestation/rewilding to sequester atmospheric carbon. Most GNDs/green recovery programmes advocate a degree of nature preservation, and the debate is not over whether but how much and how to preserve natural environments.

Even in the relatively population-dense UK, there is land available for such projects. For example, 1.3 million hectares in England, Scotland and Wales are covered by grouse moor estates, and 1.8 million hectares in Scotland comprise deer stalking estates (Rewilding Britain 2019, 11). With a shift away from livestock and feed-crop production, still more land would become available. In the UK, ‘supporting native woodland re-establishment on rough grassland, and restoration and protection of peatbogs and heaths over 6 million ha … could sequester 47 million tonnes of CO2 per year, more than a tenth of current UK greenhouse gas emissions' (Rewilding Britain 2019, 4). The cost of such an endeavour would be approximately £1.9 billion (compared to the current £3 billion of the UK’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidies) (Rewilding Britain 2019).

E.O. Wilson’s (2016) ‘Half Earth’ proposal – where 50 percent of the planet’s surface area would be dedicated to nature – is an influential iteration of this theme, which highlights strengths and weaknesses of rewilding under existing capitalist social relations. Wilson’s arguments do not address how humanity would exist in half-Earth urban environments. Nor do they identify capitalism’s dynamics of endless accumulation and economic growth as the prime cause of climate breakdown. Further, they risk generating mass social displacement of people to make way for ‘nature’ (Napoletano 2018). Surprisingly perhaps, Wilson’s ideas have been taken up by some on the left, who propose that compulsory veganism (leading to the elimination of the industrial grain and livestock complex) would free up the necessary land (Vettese 2018). Such solutions highlight the authoritarian risks associated with rewilding programmes.

From a socialist perspective, rewilding could occur through agrarian reform and incorporating private land into public democratic spheres, in conjunction with, for example, agroecological food systems such as agro-forestry. The metabolic rift entails the privatisation of the land and its subjection to the demands of competitive capitalist accumulation. Rewilding could contribute to overcoming this rift, through common ownership of the land and its use for public leisure and environmental education.

7.8. Urban greening and agriculture

Healing the metabolic rift requires, in part, overcoming the damage done to labouring classes and to the environment by the urban–rural divide. Urban greening – the establishment of ‘public landscaping and urban forestry projects that create mutually beneficial relationships between city dwellers and their environments’ – represents a potential first step (Capital Roots 2020).

Urban agriculture also has some potential to contribute to a socialist GND for agriculture. However, there are potential dangers here too. Prince Charles is an advocate of increased food self-provision, although hardly a socialist! Cuba’s experience – where urban agriculture restored national calorie intake to the levels prior to Russia’s collapse – is admirable. However, assuming that its successes can be replicated in any socialist transition is unduly risky. Rather, given the technological potential for new forms of farming noted above, urban agriculture could perform an altogether different role in a socialist transition (Altieri et al. 1999; Ewing 2008).

In a context of reducing working hours brought about by redistributive de-growth, the establishment of urban agricultural centres could generate novel social opportunities. Urban agricultural extension services can offer training and assistance to those who want to participate in urban gardening. Such services can be coordinated with public health bodies and community restaurants to produce seasonal and healthy foods. Education services (for all ages) can be partially re-orientated to include training in healthy food production.

More generally, changes to urban land use would make urban living more pleasant, and could, for example, generate dynamic new opportunities for environmental education for children and adults alike. Unused buildings can be transformed into greenhouses, flat roofs can be used as new growing spaces, unnecessary roads can be transformed into fields, allotments and parks, and home and public gardening could be encouraged and facilitated through provision of inputs, technologies and permaculture education (and see Trainer 1996, 139).

8. Conclusions

The barbarism of environmental collapse, climate breakdown and pandemic is now afflicting ever greater numbers of the world’s population, and will increase if capitalism is not limited in its expansionary drive and ultimately transcended. The longer the current trajectory continues, the more radical will any response have to be if it is to have any chance of succeeding.

In response to these menaces, a raft of green thinking has emerged. This article shows that behind a common façade, a world of difference divides pro-market, radical social democratic and socialist programmes. Pro-market variants, like the EU’s Green Deal, are designed explicitly as competitive growth-enhancing strategies. Social democratic variants, such as L4GND, aim to radically transform the functioning and structure of the economy through decarbonisation and greater social equity, driven forward by a green industrial revolution. Neither pro-market nor radical social democratic variants, however, consider ending capitalism’s competitive, accumulation-driven growth dynamic. And yet it is capitalist economic growth, rooted in the commodification of social life and labour exploitation, that is the root cause of environmental collapse.

This article has also shown that capitalist agro-industry is a major contributor to climate breakdown. Contrary to free-market mythology, global agro-industry is reliant upon a four-fold subsidy regime – the externalisation of environmental use and degradation, cheap fossil fuel inputs, massive direct subsidies and a higher degree of labour exploitation than in other economic sectors. The case for a socialist GND for agriculture is that while these subsidies can be reversed, and new relations (between humans, and between humans and nature) can be established through innovative state policies, doing so will require a shattering blow to the political economic infrastructure upon which capitalist agro-industry depends.

The agricultural component of a GND will be key to any socialist transformation because food represents one of the most fundamental human requirements and, under capitalism, one of the most basic wage goods. To transform this wage good from a commodity produced for profit to a decommodified social right is to transform social life more generally.

This article focussed upon green transformations in the heart of the world economy (the EU and UK) and has not considered how such dynamics would expand across and affect the rest of the globe. Such considerations will have to be addressed in the future in academic and political circles.

The core argument advanced in this article is that transcending the metabolic rift – the damaging set of relations between humans and nature derived from capitalism’s core dynamics of competition and exploitation – requires a socialist GND. The latter simultaneously aims to forestall climate breakdown through a profound transformation of social relations. Such a transformation must be one based upon redistributive – rather than growth-based – human development, the decommodification of social life and the equalisation of class relations.


I would like to thank Peter Newell and two anonymous reviewers for their considered comments and suggestions. All errors are my own.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Benjamin Selwyn

Benjamin Selwyn teaches about international development in the Department of International Relations, University of Sussex, UK. His main areas of research are global value chains, food, labour and development. His publications include The Struggle for Development (2017), Class Dynamics of Development (co-edited, 2017) and The Global Development Crisis (2014).


1 While Labour lost the 2019 general election and its former leader Jeremy Corbyn has been replaced by the more centrist Kier Starmer, the latter committed himself to the GND during his leadership campaign, and L4GND continues to exist as a section within the party, and to produce policy suggestions for progressing a GND. Any attempt by Starmer to shift the GND towards an explicitly pro-capitalist variant may be hotly debated within and beyond the Labour party.

2 Witness the UK Conservative government’s belated attempts to tackle rising levels of obesity (Boseley 2020).

3 The remainder of this paragraph draws on Huber (2019b).