A step not far enough

Colin Tudge on a new report from Green Alliance on the future of UK farming.


The latest report from Green Alliance — Shaping UK Land Use — has much to commend it. It seeks a new balance between our need to produce more food, to take better care of the natural world, and to mitigate climate change. Above all it makes free use of the word “Agroecology”– a term that is only just creeping into the political vocabulary — and shows by means of sound statistics and convincing calculations that agroecological farming should – must – be at the heart of agricultural strategy if the world (which includes the UK, lest we forget) is to have any serious chance of surviving in a tolerable state for more than a few more decades. All in all the report may well serve to waken a few politicians from their decades-long urban slumber, and perhaps at least to acknowledge that the trend of farming  this past half century – high-tech and neoliberalism – really won’t do, and that it matters that it won’t do. We can’t just buy in what we need from elsewhere even if we could afford to, because elsewhere has problems of its own. 

However, at this stage of history, with nothing working as it should, we need in all contexts to be radical – in the proper sense: truly getting to the roots of our problems. And, I suggest, this report is not quite radical enough. 

To begin on a relatively straightforward note: the report tells us that we should eat less meat, and, accordingly, produce less of it. Indeed so. A meat-free future seems a dismal prospect both gastronomically and socially and surely is not ideal either nutritionally or ecologically. But a low-meat diet seems desirable on all fronts – and should hold no fears for those who know how to cook (and have the time to do it). 

The GA’s report agrees with this – but its recommended solution, I suggest, is not what’s needed. For, as is the convention these days, the report tells us that we must seek to develop the various ways of making ersatz meat from beans or fungi or whatever else comes to hand. Yet as the Rothamsted biologist N W (“Bill”) Pirie told me in the 1970s (50 years ago if anyone’s counting) all the great cuisines of the world from Italy to China make only sparing use of meat – as a garnish and as stock – and gorge on the serious cuts like sirloins and leg of lamb only on special days. The wholesale trade in staples like wheat and soya for animal feed is highly profligate – and quite unnecessary, nutritionally and gastronomically. 

Yet a sensible trade in highly desirable but low-volume, high-value commodities like cinnamon, ginger, cardamoms, and Brazil nuts – tasty and no doubt beneficial crops that cannot reasonably be grown in temperate climes — can be good for everybody, provided the crops are grown in agroecological settings and if the cash goes primarily to the communities that grow them. Britain could easily emulate the world’s greatest cuisines just by adding the necessary spices to whatever we can grow at home — without throwing the global ecology off balance and reducing people in poor countries to serfdom.  But then again: Britain’s own traditional cuisines based entirely on what can be grown at home  can also scale the gastronomic heights without using inordinate quantities of flesh. Lancashire’s potato pie with piccalilli is one of my all-time favourites. It does contain some meat but also, crucially, a thick suet crust – essentially a baked dumpling.   

In general, then, we don’t need ersatz meat at all. We just need to raise farm animals kindly and in wildlife-friendly ways, and only in kindly and wildlife- friendly ways, and then use the meat and offals (and feet and tripes and bones and all the rest) astutely, as people the world over have been doing for thousands of years. The idea that we need high-tech ersatz springs from the belief that most people crave a high-meat diet, or something that at least looks like a high-meat diet, and that in this modern age we should always seek high-tech solutions to all our problems – or indeed our imagined problems. 

Of course high tech and especially the science behind it has many, increasingly essential roles to play in the present and future worlds – not least in wildlife conservation as featured in recent weeks on BBC2s Winterwatch. (So for example it is a truly wonderful thing that we can gauge the extent to which American crayfish are taking over from native crayfish in Britain’s rivers by measuring the concentration of their DNA in the water). But we should not assume as people in high places so often do these days that high-tech will always provide the best solutions. It should not be our first port of call. We should always ask first what our real problems are and then ask whether existing or perhaps forgotten techniques could do the job that needs doing before we reach for something fancier. Neither should we assume as is usually assumed these days that profit must be maximized in effect at all costs and develop new techniques simply because, with suitable hype, they can be profitable. These ideas are deeply embedded in the modern psyche but are crude, pernicious, and just plain wrong. 

The real task then is not to tweak the status quo and all the assumptions behind it but simply to spread the word that we could do things very differently, and just as tastily, by means that are already to hand.  As the adage has it, “It’s brains you want for fishing. Not worms”. To some extent people at large are already half way to where we need to be. Pizzas are among Britain’s favourite foods and at most should include a few slivers of pepperoni. In short, for the most part, we don’t need more and more high tech. We just need to re-learn how to cook.  I wrote about all this in Future Cook, published in 1980. Suzanne Wynn, who writes the food column in this website, thinks along the same lines – and is showing what, in practice, is entailed. 

This brings us to the broader point: that the present government, and indeed people in positions of influence in general are steeped in the ideology of neoliberalism: the extreme form of capitalism that is fixated single-mindedly on the maximization of material wealth, achieved by all-out competition, as ruthless or indeed as dishonest as necessary, within a global market. Russia and China claim to offer a serious alternative to the evil western ways — though in practice these days, despite the hype, both of them merely contrive somewhat awkwardly to combine neoliberalism with autocracy, with a fair dose of old-fashioned imperialism thrown in. Neoliberalism, and the mindset that goes with it, has grown to become the global norm ever since it was first adopted by Margaret Thatcher and then by Ronald Reagan circa 1980. Forty-years plus of experience have shown all too clearly what many critics predicted from the outset – that neoliberalism makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, with huge collateral damage to the natural world. And indeed, worldwide, we are now witnessing an exponential increase both of billionaires and their super-yachts, and of the most abject poverty, while our fellow creatures are wiped out.  

But governments like ours and captains of industry and their financiers still seem to think that a frantic scramble for wealth is just the way the world is – that the global dogfight is both “natural” and morally justified, since those who do get rich are presumed ipso facto to be of particular merit. Nadhim Zahawi is widely admired within the Tory party because he became very rich from a very low base. What else matters? What more do you want? 

In truth, the new report from Green Alliance is not overtly neoliberal. But still the taint is there, like the residual, “background” radiation from the Big Bang that pervades the entire sky. The feeling continues that whatever is done in the years and decades to come must conform in a general way to the norms of the present economy – to the idea that whatever is done must not only be profitable, but must be more profitable than the conceivable alternatives. Mrs Thatcher’s adage lingers on: “There is no alternative!” 

But there is; and the real task before us is not to devise forms of agriculture that conform to present economic norms but to acknowledge that agriculture is indeed the most significant thing that human beings do — and then devise an economy to fit the agriculture. 

Overall, indeed, we need a new mindset – which is what “radical” ought to mean. Instead of building our lives (including agriculture) around the prevailing economic structure, we should be asking what kind of world we really want to live in, and what we really need to do to keep ourselves and our fellow creatures and the planet as a whole in good fettle, and then devise an economy that is tailored to those ends. 

In practice, I suggest, if we truly want life to be convivial, or indeed possible, we need above all to structure the whole world, and our ways of life, around food and farming. And the economic model that could help us to do this is a version of Green Economic Democracy, as outlined in my book, The Great Re-Think (2021) and elsewhere in this website. Green Economic Democracy is messy – not a formally spelled out system, and still less an algorithm, but a shopping list of desiderata and possibilities. Basically it entails a mixed economy with emphasis on community ownership, built in the main around small enterprises, including small to medium-sized farms. Earl Butz’s injunction from the 1960s, “Get big or get out”, should be buried deep once and for all, along with the simplifications of neoliberalism.   

Even more broadly, in life as a whole and in the economy in particular, we need to emphasize cooperation rather than competition, with an underlying morality based not on the perceived need to get ahead of everyone else, but on compassion; and compassion must extend beyond our own family and beyond our society to embrace all humanity; and beyond humanity to include all sentient creatures. A great many people already agree with this general idea (quite a few of them come to the Oxford Real Farming Conference) and a great many more would surely agree if the point was put to them clearly enough. The endless stream of politicians urging us all to work harder to get richer is not helping. 

In short: Green Alliance’s new report is in many ways admirable and is to some extent radical. Above all it emphasises that for agriculture, if we seriously care about the future, “business as usual” is not an option; and in particular it stresses the importance of agroecology which, it seems, most of the people with the most influence in the world have not yet even heard of. But if we are serious about the future of farming, and therefore of the world, this new report is not quite radical enough.  

One response to “A step not far enough”

  1. Nick Snelgar avatar

    Love it Colin……of course you are right and we need to talk more about it and re-learn the satisfaction of selling fresh food ‘direct’ to each other. No one that I come across or listen to on tele ever ever mention the ‘sales & marketing’ aspect of farming – everyone leaves it to someone else – Do you know any other industry/occupation that does that?
    All the very Best

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *