Article

Feeding people is easy

I am struck, every hour of every day, by the contrast between what could be in this world, and what is. In particular, everyone who is ever liable to be born could be well fed, forever, not simply on basic provender but to the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy. That is not all that matters of course but if we get the food right then everything else that we need and want in life—good health, fine landscapes, the company of other species, peace, amity, personal fulfillment—can start to fall into place. The title of my new book—Feeding People Is Easy—is a slight exaggeration, but only slight. The necessary techniques and wisdom, and the good will, are all out there. So why aren’t we doing the things that are so obvious? Why is the world in such a mess and getting worse? And what must we do to put things right?

Most obviously, if we, humanity, seriously want to feed ourselves well, then we need to farm expressly for that purpose—create what I portentously call “Enlightened Agriculture”. The bedrock is sound biology and common sense. Focus first on the staple crops—cereals, pulses, nuts, tubers—that provide the bulk of our energy and protein. Devote the best land to horticulture—fruit and vegetables. But then—for we don’t need to be vegan, and crops grow better if there are animals around—fit in the livestock as and when. Cattle and sheep should graze and—especially in the tropics —browse on the leaves of trees, up on the hills and in the damp meadows and woods where cereal is hard to grow, and pigs and poultry should be fed as they always used to be on surpluses and leftovers. In general, farms should be mixed and must therefore be labour intensive—because well-balanced farms are complex and need very high standards of husbandry.

Now comes a series of wondrous serendipities. Farms that are rooted in common sense and sound biology produce plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety. And here in nine words—plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety—is a summary of all the worthwhile nutritional advice that has flowed in a million articles and best-sellers and TV programmes from all the world’s most learned committees this past 30 years. Yet there is more. For here too is the basic structure of all the world’s great traditional cuisines—Provence, Tuscany, Turkey, North Africa, China, India. All their finest recipes are variations on this simple theme: lots of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety.

In other words, the produce from farms that are designed along lines of sound biology to supply the maximum amount of food, kindly and sustainably, also accords precisely with the recommendations of the world’s leading nutritionists and—most wondrously of all—with all the world’s greatest cuisine. To feed ourselves well we don’t even have to be austere. We simply have to indulge in the world’s greatest cooking. The future belongs not to the ascetic, but to the gourmet.

But the food chain we have now is not designed to feed people. In line with the modern cure-all—the allegedly free global market—it is designed to produce the maximum amount of cash in the shortest time. Stated thus, our approach to our most important material endeavour seems unbelievably crass—but that is how things are nonetheless. The global free market might be good for some things (perhaps we get better computers and warships that way) but for farming, and hence for humanity as a whole, it is disastrous. The simplistic business rules that may (or may not) apply to other enterprises are fatal to Enlightened Agriculture and so, since we depend on agriculture absolutely, they are proving fatal for us.

When cash rules, sound biology goes to the wall and common sense and humanity are for wimps. The goal must be to maximize whatever is most expensive—which means livestock. So now we feed well over half the staples that could be feeding us, to cattle, pigs, and poultry. So instead of helping us to feed ourselves, our animals compete with us. By 2050, on present trends, the world’s livestock will consume enough to feed four billion people—equal to the total population of the early 1970s, when the United Nations held its first international conference to discuss the world’s food crisis. That livestock will mostly be consumed by people already weighed down with too much saturated fat—for the moment mostly in the west, but increasingly in India and China. The poor will remain poor. So will most farmers. The traders and their shareholders will grow rich. For this, forests are felled and the last of the world’s fresh water is squandered—for example on the soya of Brazil, grown to feed the cattle of Europe and now their biggest agricultural earner.

Cash-based farming is not mixed, because that is complicated and labour must be cut and cut again to save costs. So we have cereals from horizon to horizon, cocooned in pesticide, while piggeries in the United States (and soon in Europe, with American backing and European taxpayers’ cash) sometimes harbour a million beasts apiece—unbelievably foul and each producing in passing as much ordure as Manchester. Such farming is dangerous. To save money, corners must be cut. Britain’s epidemics of foot and mouth disease and BSE were not acts of God. They were brought about by cut-price husbandry. The same government that lectures us on health and safety came close, with BSE, to killing us all off.

Worst of all, though—at least in the immediate term—cut-price monocultural farming puts people out of work. That is what it is designed to do. Countries with the fewest farmers are deemed to be the most “advanced”. Britain and the US are the world’s brand leaders, with about one per cent of their workforce full time on the land. Both eke out their rural workforce with immigrant labour of conveniently dubious legal status who can be seriously underpaid—but we don’t talk about that, and in any case that’s the market, and the market must rule. In the US, there are more people in jail than fulltime on the land. In both countries, prisons are a major growth industry.

In the Third World, 60 per cent of people live on the land. If poor countries industrialize their farming as Britain and the US have done, and as they are increasingly pressured to do, then this would put two billion out of work. Unemployment is the royal road to destitution: what a dreadful joke the “war on poverty” really is. Alternative industries are promised, but there are none on the horizon and cannot be—for no “alternative” can employ the numbers that farming does. There aren’t enough resources for all the world to be as industrial as Britain is. Now, one billion people are living in urban slums. There seems to be a vague feeling in high places that this is a temporary state of affairs—but in truth, slums too are a growth industry, or would be if their inhabitants could pay taxes.

In reality, then, our food problems are of two kinds. The first is to grow food well, get it to people, and then cook it properly. That should be fairly straightforward. Far, far harder is to circumvent the corporates and their attendant governments. New Labour has applied the same general strategy to food as to all things: to sell off the assets to the highest bidders and to hand the reins and profits to the corporates, which in this case means Tesco, Monsanto, and the makers of agrochemicals. The aim is not to grow good food, but to maximize cash. That, in all ways, is immensely destructive. In short, the greatest threat to humanity comes from our own leaders. Now that really is a problem.

Solution cannot be found through patient reform—for the powers-that-be cannot change to the extent that is needed without sawing off the branch they sit on. Direct confrontation—all out revolution—is pointless because the world’s leading governments grant themselves new powers with each passing week.

But there is a third option: Renaissance. People who actually give a damn must just start doing the things that obviously need doing, and ignore the powers-that-be: let Tesco and the rest whither on the vine. Gandhi would surely have approved. In my new book I float the idea of “The Worldwide Food Club”: a cooperative of farmers and preparers (cooks, brewers, bakers, charcutiers) on the one hand, who want above all to provide good food by the best possible means; and of consumers on the other, who are happy to pay a proper price for food properly produced. To be sure, the movement must begin with the relatively affluent. But cheap food is not really cheap and in any case we should ask why countries like Britain and the US which claim to have such successful economies should have so many poor people. Certainly the answer to poverty does not lie with an economy that is designed to make the rich richer.

The Club must work because it is what most people want—or if not most, then at least a critical mass. Only a monster could be satisfied with the world as it is. Only the most hopeless optimist could suppose that with present strategies, things can get better. Most of what is needed is already out there—The Soil Association and the growing ranks of organic farmers, and other farmers dedicated to “kind” food; excellent bakers and cooks who know exactly what is needed, and care; fair trade movements; the Slow Food Movement, which emphasises the unbreakable link between sound farming and great cooking; that minority of scientists and technologists who are not employed simply to strengthen the corporate hand but ARE truly TUNED to the needs of humanity. It is just a question of bringing it all together into one coherent cause. That cause, in one phrase, I suggest is “Enlightened Agriculture”—and that, the bit that really counts, really should be easy.