Taking on industrial agriculture

As the XR International Rebellion continues, Katie Sandwell reports on the recent Free the Soil Action Camp which strengthened ties between food sovereignty and climate justice movements

October 11, 2019 · 7 min read

Free the Soil BannerIn the early hours of the morning, a group of activists gathered in the parking lot of Sloterdijk train station in suburban Amsterdam, surrounded by glass towers and winding bike paths. We were waiting for the bus that would take us to the Free the Soil Action Camp in Germany. This camp has been more than a year in the making and planning, but its timing this week feels like serendipity: the day after our arrival is 20 September 2019, the first day of the Global Climate Strike. Around the world, millions of people are in the streets, calling for their governments to take notice of climate change, and to take action.

In the Netherlands, like in many countries, campaigns like Fossil Free Culture and Shell Must Fall are naming and shaming the fossil fuel companies driving the global climate crisis. But many other companies who lobby for, and profit from, fossil fuels are getting a free pass. Free the Soil aims to fill this gap by identifying industrial agriculture as a major driver of climate change. Although the use of synthetic fertilizers is a big part of this impact, the Norwegian fertilizer giant Yara – the largest producer of nitrogen fertilizer in the world – is virtually unknown. While Yara works hard to project a green image, its production processes depend on the heavy use of natural gas and its products are linked to rising nitrous oxide emissions. The company is a member of an industry association lobbying for fracking, and has promoted the expansion of chemical-intensive, export-driven agriculture across Africa, particularly in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Malawi, in spite of local resistance.

Taking action

By the sunny Saturday afternoon of the Action Camp, some 400 activists from around Europe had converged on the tiny, friendly village of Sankt Margarethen, just a few kilometers from Yara’s Brunsbüttel plant. People poured in by bus from Belgium, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Berlin and beyond, and by train and bike from nearby Hamburg. We pitched our tents on land rented from a local farmer, alongside his grazing cows, and settled in for four days of workshops and trainings. The camp is building momentum towards a mass civil disobedience action, when activists will try to block and temporarily shut down the plant. German activist Pearly explained the reasoning behind the action: ‘we want to mark Yara as one of the companies that profits from the industrial agriculture that is destroying the soil.’

Around the world, people are coming together to call for change, and for action on the climate crisis. In spaces like the Free the Soil camp, activists are also reaching out and searching for solutions. Small farmers and peasants have a key role to play in combating climate change. When big agribusiness tries to convert small farmers into ‘efficient’ commercial production, or to displace them to make room for it, they are undermining tried and tested solutions for feeding people and protecting the environment.

In the words of Paula Gioia, small-scale German farmer and activist with the European Coordination of Via Campesina, ‘Being in solidarity with the peasants and small farmers who are on the front lines [of the climate crisis] isn’t just about supporting them, it is about our shared future. We need to put agriculture at the centre of our conversations about climate change, and this camp is a great start.’


The climate movement is building momentum, but just calling for action on the climate is not enough. As corporations struggle to rebrand themselves as climate protectors, or plan to profit from the climate crisis; as states develop policies to protect their citizens at the expense of others and as rural communities continue to bear the brunt of both climate change and climate mitigation, there is an urgent need to deepen and broaden our thinking. We need to talk about how a capitalist system, premised on private wealth and infinite growth, stands in the way of building a just and sustainable society. We also need to think urgently about systemic alternatives.

At the Free the Soil action camp, in-depth workshops tackled topics like de-growth, global peasants’ resistance, indigenous climate justice movements, and the power of corporations in shaping our food system, as well as the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture and sustainable alternatives. Small farmers and representatives from the European food sovereignty movement, Nyéléni, discussed the struggles they face as a result of climate change, and their political experiences in fighting to maintain or rebuild sustainable, people-centered food systems in Europe.

Our food system is not the only part of our society which needs to be transformed in order to address the urgent challenges of the climate crisis. But it is a critical area, and one in which peasants and other small-scale food producers have been working for decades to articulate a positive vision of a just and sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture.

Coming together around an issue like this creates a space to begin talking about the fundamental changes that real action on climate change will require. This camp provided an opportunity for activists to learn more about closely related struggles, including the struggle for food sovereignty, and to see the critical connections between these struggles and the European climate justice movement. As the global climate movement continues to gain momentum, more and deeper discussions of this type will help us to make sure that the transition to a sustainable future is a just transition.

Katie Sandwell works on the Environmental and Agrarian Justice and Drugs and Democracy programmes of the Transnational Institute in the Netherlands.


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