In the 2015 General Election I would vote for any party that wasn’t obviously Fascist that takes agriculture seriously. For agriculture isn’t just about food and the countryside, although that is its principal brief. It sits right at the heart of all human affairs and is the key player in the biosphere, the living world, as a whole. It occupies a third of all land including all the most fertile regions. It is still the world’s greatest employer by far. It affects everything else and is affected by everything else. If we get it right then everything else we might aspire to becomes possible, from good health for all to world peace to the conservation of wildlife. If we get it wrong then all our finer ambitions must be forever compromised and indeed, in large part, are dead in the water. Nothing is more is more important, in short, and it is hard to see how any Earthly pursuit could be more important. Yet all the major parties treat agriculture as an also ran. All seem anxious above all to show how rigorously they plan to plug it into what is now the standard, universal economic model; the neoliberal, deregulated global market.
But the past 30 years have shown how disastrously inappropriate that economic model is. In Britain and the US in particular successive governments have treated agriculture as “a business like any other” and have reconceived business not as the natural underpinning of a democratic society, as it could and should be, but as a global competition between corporate giants, albeit stage-managed, to maximize wealth in the form of money. Governments like ours have thrown farming to the commercial wolves, the more commercial the better. Best practice, based on 10,000 years of evolved craft, has been abandoned and indeed derided and actively done down, in favour of whatever technologies, however unnecessary or destructive, promise to maximize short-term wealth – and that wealth, the way things are, is concentrated in very few hands: the rich growing ever richer, and the poor poorer. Worldwide, the UN tells us, a billion people out of seven billion are chronically undernourished, while the world population of diabetics – people essentially overnourished – is now twice as big as the total population of Russia. About a billion live in urban slums – roughly one in three of all the people who live in cities — and most of them are dispossessed farmers, with their families and immediate descendants. We are told that the slums are “vibrant communities” – a leading European economist once assured me that slum dwellers have guitars, and dance a lot — and indeed they may show the human spirit at its most triumphant. But still, surely, this cannot be what the world should be aiming for. At the same time, half our fellow species are in danger of extinction and global warming may already be out of control, and today’s hyper-industrial, neoliberal agriculture, focused on short-term wealth and dominance, is a prime cause of both.
Yet the world doesn’t have to be like that. It would easily be possible to provide everyone everywhere with food of the highest quality – the seven billion who are with us now and the 9.5 to 10 billion who may be with us by the end of the century – if only we farmed as if that was our intention. Serendipitously, though not merely by chance, farming that is seriously intended to provide us all with good food is also both people-friendly and wildlife-friendly.
The powers-that-be – the dominant oligarchy of corporates, governments, and their chosen intellectual and expert advisers – tell us that the present disasters are our own fault; that we, humanity, have bred too fast; that the people who are now hungry are “backward”, or some such, and have simply failed to adopt the latest technologies. All this is the most dreadful nonsense. In truth we, and the world at large, are in serious danger of total collapse almost entirely because of ill-conceived strategy, not only in agriculture but largely so, that imposed from on high and springs not from a sense of morality and justice, or from good science, but from economic dogma and political expediency. Clearly, this strategy does not serve the best interests of humankind, or our fellow creatures, or the Earth as a whole. It does maintain and reinforce the oligarchy, making the rich ever richer and the centres of power more powerful.
The world as a whole needs a sea-change, right across the board, but particularly in agriculture. We just have to start doing things differently and to do this we have to think differently and adopt different attitudes, towards other people, other creatures, and the Earth as a whole. It isn’t enough to think good and noble thoughts. We must translate those thoughts into policy and into action.
In principle, the sea-change could come about in three ways. The first is by Reform, the way that most people intuitively favour: tweaking the status quo, step by step, edging ever closer to desired endpoints. But step-by-step reform takes too long and in any case, there is no plausible, step-by-step route from where we are to where we need to be. There have to be discontinuities along the way, including the dispossession and demise of some of the world’s most powerful commercial companies. Reform is necessary, and can be very useful, but it is not sufficient.
The second is by Revolution: wholesale obliteration of the status quo, and a new beginning. But Revolutions cause huge collateral damage to people and the fabric of the Earth, and never lead to the outcomes their initiators intended and in any case are not what most people want. In general, people rise up in anger only when disaster is already upon them and by then it’s often too late.
But there is a third route: Renaissance. We just have to re-build the alternative world we want in situ; taking what we need from the status quo (and there is a great deal) but leaving what we don’t need to wither on the vine. Surplus to requirements and positively pernicious are many of the world’s most powerful companies and most pervasive ideas. But we don’t necessarily have to attack those centres of power and their ideas. We simply have to work round them, and remove their support.
As things stand, the required Renaissance can be brought about only by people at large. The reigning oligarchs including most politicians and certainly the NFU think they are doing a good job already, or don’t mind whether they are or not, and in either case have no intention of changing direction. They talk of the need to change but always offer more of the same. So whatever is done must be done by us, all of us, despite the status quo.
If this is so, why care about the General Election at all – or any kind of election, national or local? Well, perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps elections should be boycotted.
Yet that cannot be ideal. It would be very difficult to run any society, even a local chess club, without some form of governance, which in general requires some kind of government, at whatever level. The task is to ensure that the government is on our side, and on the side of the biosphere, and adopts policies that really are designed to improve the human lot and make the world a better place.
The following outlines a strategy, a series of policies, for agriculture and the food chain in general, offered gratis to all political parties. Since agriculture affects everything else this strategy would also provide a basis for policy in general.
Agriculture: the kind we have and the kind we need
In broadest terms, there are two ways of conceiving agriculture.
The hyper-industrial neoliberal-industrial (NI) model says that “agriculture is just a business like any other” and reconceives business as the maximization of wealth. All businesses worldwide of whatever kind are required to compete with all other businesses of whatever kind (though there are many cartels) to produce the most wealth, measured in money, in the shortest time; and the devil takes the hindmost. There is an obvious parallel with natural selection: the neoliberal economy is perceived to be neodarwinian. Inevitably, as if by the laws of physics, such free-for-all systems quickly become dominated by whoever has the initial advantage, and they grow stronger and stronger at the expense of the rest; and so the unregulated global market in practice is dominated by a few giant corporates.
Thus, according to Corporate Watch, the big four supermarkets – Tesco, Asda/Wal-Mart, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s – now command 75% of UK food retail; and as discussed later, for every pound spent farmers receive only 9p. Just 10 companies now control 80% of the global agrochemical market and 31% of the global seed market, while four agribusinesses (Syngenta, Dupont, Monsanto, and Bayer) control almost 100% of GM seed (though the world would be better off without GM altogether; a technology which, contrary to the hype, is seriously anachronistic). In the US, four beef processors slaughter 81% of the cattle and four companies control 50% of broiler chicken production. The biggest beef processors in the US are also the dominant processors in Canada and Australia. Six processors (Arla/Express, Dairy Crest, Robert Wiseman, Glanbia, Associated Co-operative Creameries and Nestle) control 93% of UK dairy processing. We are saved from out-and-out monopoly only because this is not in anyone’s interests, even governments’. Instead we have next best thing – or the next worst: an oligopoly of corporates working hand in glove with governments like Britain’s, with the anomalously titled NFU cheering them on.
The overall aim of the neoliberal economy is to achieve “economic growth”: more and more wealth each year, more or less irrespective of how it is produced or who takes control of it or what it is used for. In practice this means a year-by-year increase in Gross Domestic Product, GDP. “Growth” has become the obsession of all British governments ever since neoliberalism became the official creed, circa 1980. Growth is now taken as the sine qua non. The kinds of goal that governments used to talk about – such as social justice, compassion, and moderation – have gone by the board. At least, non-material values that do get a look in have to play second fiddle to the overarching imperative of growth. Anything that does not turn a tidy short-term profit, including traditional forms of agriculture, is written off as “unrealistic”.
But there is another way to look at agriculture – the kind that I have been calling Enlightened Agriculture, sometimes known as “Real Farming”. Enlightened Agriculture is informally but adequately defined as:
“Agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, now and forever, with food of the highest standard both nutritionally and gastronomically, without cruelty, without injustice, and without wrecking the biosphere or the fabric of the Earth”.
Technically, it is eminently possible to feed everybody well, without destroying everything else, provided we really do farm as if good food and a flourishing biosphere were the point. The overall aim is to create societies that are convivial – agreeable and just – within a flourishing biosphere. The economy is treated not as a doctrine but as a functionary, a means to achieve our moral and social ends, as recommended by John Maynard Keynes. In practice and in structure Enlightened Agriculture is almost the precise opposite of the neoliberal kind – the kind that governments like Britain’s support, using taxpayers’ money.
We should look at the two approaches in more detail.
Neoliberal agriculture is expressly intended to be maximally profitable. “Efficiency” is its watchword, but efficiency is defined purely in financial terms: money invested versus money received. Social disruption, human misery, cruelty to animals and damage to the biosphere are largely or entirely left out of account. The laws are constantly tightened, at least here and there, but the misery continues. The urban slums grow bigger as people are driven off the land and although the big industrial concerns that control the modern food chain are occasionally fined for environmental pollution the punishment is far from commensurate with the social or biological damage. Fines and other brushes with the law are perceived as an acceptable commercial risk.
The trouble lies not primarily with the personal morality of corporate executives – there are good and bad in all organizations. It lies with the underlying economic imperative, which has acquired the force of a religious commandment. For all serious players in the ultra-competitive global market must seek to maximize profits. This isn’t a legal obligation – in principle companies could choose to be less profitable – but it is a fact of life. Companies that do not offer the best return to their shareholders lose out to those that do. At least they do so long as the trading remains anonymous, seen simply as a way of shuffling wealth. But there is an antidote to this, as discussed later.
The three grand rules of maximum profit
To maximize their profits, enterprises of all kinds, not just farms, must seek to do three things. They must maximize their output – the cake must be as big as possible. Then they must add value. They must also minimize costs.
All these guidelines sound eminently reasonable and, within bounds, they are. But when they are pursued single-mindedly, with no consideration apart from profit, they become foul – leading for example to the sweat-shop and to bonded labour. Applied simplistically to agriculture, these basic commercial principles become disastrous. Yet present-day politicians take these guidelines as their doctrine, justifying their policies by appeal to their appointed expert and intellectual advisers (and ignoring intellectuals who say the precise opposite, even though some of them have Nobel Prizes). But most of the apparently scholarly points raised in defence of the status quo are equivocal and largely untested, despite the constant appeal to “evidence”, and some are just plain wrong.
Thus: the case for maximizing output is justified by the idea that the world needs 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising numbers and with the ever rising “demand” for (allegedly) higher standards. This stat has induced a mild sense of panic, seeming to justify any measure that might enable us to grow two tonnes of corn where we grew one before. It is further taken to be more or less self-evident that such increase can be achieved only by high tech, such as genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology) and in particular by GMOs (“genetically modified organisms”) produced by genetic engineering. This was the message that came across loud and clear from Sir John Beddington’s highly influential report of 2011 on The Future of Food and Farming (1). All opposition to GMOs or any other hyper-modern technology is seen to be rooted in “superstition”, “ignorance”, or irrational “fear of the unknown”, all of which must be overcome by public “education”.
In truth, as outlined in the IAASTD report of 2009 (2), compiled by more than 400 scientists and other experts and co-chaired by Professor Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute, Washington DC, the world already produces enough macronutrient (protein and energy) to support 14 billion people – twice the present global population. Furthermore, since the UN tells us that human numbers should level out at 9.5 or 10 million, it seems the world already produces 30 – 50% more food than we should ever need. So the panic that seems to justify all the high tech and all that goes with it does not seem to be justified. It is based on hype – commercially convenient hype for those who seek to maximize short-term wealth.
Furthermore, says the IAASTD, if the world really does need more food (and we do need more in some places) this could best be provided by supporting local farms, which tend to operate well below their potential not because the farmers are “ignorant” or incompetent but for logistic or simple economic reasons: for example the uncertainty of prices when pricing is left to the market, so that small farmers everywhere who lack safety nets must always err on the side of caution. It is widely agreed among those who know the Third World well that with their present crops and livestock, and with reasonable logistic support and minimal upgrading of present techniques, that traditional farmers could increase their output two or three times.
The attempt worldwide to maximize output at all costs and to do so by industrial means puts enormous strain on soils (degradation and loss of soils worldwide really is a cause for panic) and can impose horrendous cruelties on animals. Thus “elite” dairy cows these days are expected to produce 10,000 litres = 2000 gallons milk a year which more than twice the average output of a traditional grass-fed Jersey or Ayrshire and at least eight times the output of a wild cow. The metabolic strain is such that they commonly fail to last beyond two lactations though traditional animals commonly managed 10 or more; but still the agri-scientists, driven by neoliberal thinking, demand more.
All this has immediate implications for policy:
Policy 1: Find out what we really need
Agricultural output should be geared to the real needs of the world. We should not be seeking simply to maximize output so as to maximize short-term profit. A truly independent, dispassionate study is needed to assess in detail just what the world’s real needs actually are. Although this seems fundamental, the necessary research does not seem to have been done.
Despite the hype, too, not least from successive British governments (Blair was a great fan) there is no good evidence that after 30 years of huge public and corporate investment, genetic engineering has produced any new food crops of unequivocal value that could not have been produced in the same time by conventional means and at far less cost. There is also good theoretical reason to suppose that it never will – not least because genetic engineering deals only with single genes but most of the characters that really matter, such as rate of growth, depend on multiple genes. The opposition to GM has focused on the safety aspects but although the fears are real (though underplayed by governments like Britain’s) this is not the main objection. The main objection to GM is that it is not intended to increase the world’s food security (which it demonstrably does not do) but to transfer power from millions of small farmers and their communities to a handful of corporates that control the GM technology (which it certainly is doing). The rising wealth of the corporates is easily costed and is deemed to represent “growth” – increase in GDP. Besides, governments like ours and tidy-minded bureaucrats far prefer to deal with a few corporates and aggregations of agri-businesspeople as in the NFU than with small farmers and their communities (especially, though this may sound unduly cynical, in this age of the revolving door).
Emphatically, the point is not to be anti-science. For example, the molecular biology that has produced GMOs is wonderfully clever and instructive and is extremely useful for identifying genes in traditional varieties (landraces) and wild plants that can be incorporated into conventional breeding programmes. The trouble starts when the technology is used to produce GMOs that are planted en masse in the field at the expense of traditional crops and traditional growing methods that can be far superior, or would be if reasonably well supported; and that power inevitably passes from the many to the few. There is irony in here – and more hype. For the kind of science that has produced GMOs is seen to be ipso facto progressive but conceptually is old-fashioned –rooted in the 18th century Enlightenment conceit that we can understand nature well enough to bend it to our will and that we have a right to do so, and in the gung-ho 19th century technological zeal that brought us heavy engineering and industrial chemistry.
In this day and age and for forever more we need science that is altogether more subtle, acknowledging complexity and geared to ecological reality. That would be true modernity. Agroecology is a key example of this.
All this suggests many policy interventions. We will come to most of them later but in passing we should look at science itself. For the scientists who support GM technology and others like it and are seen faute de mieux to be the voices of authority for the most part are either employed by biotech corporates, or else work for universities that depend on soft money (ie corporate grants). The immediate policy implication is that:
Policy 2: Take science out of corporate control
Every effort must be made to liberate science and indeed all scholarship, meaning academe as a whole, from commercial control. In agriculture specifically, we should seek to reverse the policies of the past 30 years and restore the network of 30 or so government-sponsored but otherwise independent research stations that once formed the Agricultural and Food Research Council. Most of them – including such great institutions as Rothamsted, the John Innes Research Centre, the Plant Breeding Institute and Scotland’s Rowett and Roslyn – have either been privatized, entirely or in large part, or else closed down.
Agricultural science now is treated as a branch of biotech, and subsumed within the BBSRC.
The second way to maximize profit is to add value. This should be a good thing to do. In agriculture this means turning uneatable flour into excellent bread, milk into great cheeses, and bloodied corpses into delectable cuts, hugely enhancing our quality of life and providing what should be agreeable employment for many millions of people worldwide. Nowadays, though, it also means importing sugar peas and cut flowers from Kenya and Ecuador, which may bring profit to a few but usually damages the local environment and tends to put more local farmers out of work than it employs. It also, of course, reduces the autonomy of local populations – their food sovereignty. The policy implications are discussed later.
It seems sensible, too, to cut costs, and the most obvious way to do this is to reduce the workforce, because traditional farming tends to be labour intensive, and labour can be the principal cost. So people are sacked. This is called “increasing efficiency” but sacking people is what it amounts to. There are, though, enormous knock-on effects. All are bad and some are disastrous.
First, over-zealous cost-cutting is dangerous – particularly in livestock farming. Thus, Britain’s livestock has been beset by an almost uninterrupted succession of epidemics since the 1980s when BSE, “mad cow disease”, first came on the scene. That lingered for more than a decade to be succeeded by the worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) the world has ever seen. Along the way we had outbreaks of Newcastle disease (fowlpest) and swine fever; and brushes with bird ‘flu and swine ‘flu. Some of these (BSE, swine flu, and bird flu) can lead to human disease and indeed have caused deaths, and we were very lucky to get off as lightly as we seem to have done. But all of these outbreaks, or at least the scale of them, were caused largely or solely by cut-price husbandry. The industrial food chain, presided over by a series of neoliberal governments, takes tremendous risks with our health, while expressing (not least through the Food Standards Agency) pious concern for our safety.
Secondly, the work once done by people – skilled people; craftspeople –must be done instead by machinery and industrial chemistry. Of course this is not all bad. Agricultural workers have often been reduced to slaves, actual or virtual, employed only for their muscle power and appropriately-scaled and smart machinery, perhaps with at least some judicious industrial chemistry, can turn drudgery into satisfying employment. But when profit is the principal or the sole driver, as it has become, then, inevitably, things are taken too far. Neoliberal farming of the kind that is anomalously called “conventional”, has become a field exercize in heavy engineering and industrial chemistry.
One result is that husbandry has been horribly simplified, because machines and industrial chemistry are not good at complexity. The result is monoculture and the factory farm – the bigger the better, to achieve economies of scale. So on 1000 hectares of present-day East Anglia you are likely to see nothing but wheat or barley overseen by just one full-time worker – though the mixed farms that occupied the space even half a century ago might have supported 50 family farms or more. In the Ukraine there are monocultural wheat-fields of 300,000 hectares, bigger than Kent. There are multi-story factories in the US with a million pigs, and these are spreading to Europe – the pigs fed on cereal from the monocultural prairies and from soya grown in part in Brazil at the expense of rainforest and the dry forest the Cerrado. Yet as we will see, the kind of agriculture that really could provide us all with good food and go on doing so must be complex – “polycultural”. The perceived imperative to cut farm labour is horribly eroding our long-term security. We are told that cutting labour to cut costs reduces the price of food – but even this is largely spurious, as we will see.
More immediately, cutting farm labour comes with a huge social cost. For agriculture and all that goes with it is by far the world’s biggest employer. In Third World countries, which include most of the world’s population, an average of 60% of people work on the land. In Britain and the US it’s around one percent. In India, 600 million people (60% of the whole) are on the land. If the Indians farmed the way we do then most of them – more than the total population of the expanded EU – would be out of work. Britain and some other rich countries vigorously promote industrial agriculture in the name of progress; and in Britain’s case, because the high tech that goes with it is a profitable export. Industrialization of other people’s agriculture also provides an excuse for land-grabbing as the small farms are amalgamated into great estates in the name of progress. In truth, by creating unemployment on an unprecedented scale this version of “progress” is the greatest single cause of the global poverty on which, just a few years ago, before their own economies collapsed, the western countries piously declared war.
All these problems are avoided once we go down the road of Enlightened Agriculture.
Enlightened Agriculture, “expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, now and forever, with food of the highest standard both nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the rest”, is rooted in three grand ideas: Agroecology; Food Sovereignty; and Economic Democracy, embracing the keyt concept of Social Enterprise. Each of them suggests a whole phalanx of desirable policies. So:
Like all big ideas Agroecology has been variously defined and, as always, has sometimes been hi-jacked by vested interests to mean the precise opposite of what was intended. Even GM technology has been defended on the grounds that it reduces the amount of pesticide needed and so protects the environment. But this is true (if at all) only if crops are grown as industrial monocultures and so rely entirely on specific resistance genes to keep parasites at bay. Generations of organic farmers and growers have shown that if crops are judiciously mixed then parasites pose far less of a problem in the first place, and often too little to worry about. With proper surveillance, pesticides can be applied (if at all) only when infection/ infestation is evident and not, as is common industrial practice, as a prophylactic.
But as I see agroecology, it should mean that
“Individual farms are conceived as ecosystems, and agriculture as a whole is seen as a key player and contributor within the global biosphere”.
The rationale is as follows.
We, humanity, need farming that is productive, sustainable, and resilient.
Productive means just that: the human population is big and will get bigger and we need enough. But enough should simply mean enough. “Enough’s enough” must be the watchword. So how much is “enough”? Well, we need to cater for 7 billion people now and perhaps for 10 billion by the end of the century. But then, according to the UN demographers, who are the most credible around, human numbers should level out. They are on course to do so. For the percentage rate of rise has been going down for the past 30 years and by 2050 the percentage rise should be close zero – meaning little further increase. After that, perhaps within a few decades or centuries, numbers will start to go down — and could in principle go as low as we think is desirable. The way to achieve this is not through wars or famines or epidemics for besides being unspeakable such events are also ineffective. Numbers bounce back after disaster. What matters, and seems to be happening, is that people are choosing to have fewer children. The factors that contribute to this change of heart are all benign: better education and career opportunities for women so they are not obliged simply to raise families; lower infant mortality, so people expect all the babies they do have to survive; more security in old age, so people don’t need children to support them.
As we have seen, the world already produces enough macronutrient for 14 billion. The continuing emphasis on more and more output is little more than commercial hype. For those who seek only to maximize profit there can never be too much. Already there are massive surpluses which are disguised – by feeding half the world’s grain to livestock and by burning it: that is, using cereal, especially maize, for “biofuel”, and piously making a virtue of this.
Here is another obvious implication for policy. We should:
Policy 3: Focus on quality and provenance
By all possible means encourage farmers to raise the quality of their produce and to improve the methods of production: to farm in ways that are friendly to wildlife, are kind to livestock, and establish a close and benign relationship with their local communities.
This of course is just a general statement of intent. The means to achieve this depend on a host of details that must be worked out. What’s important is the shift of emphasis away from short-term commerce to long-term value.
Sustainable – another fashionable word that has been hi-jacked for various nefarious purposes! – should mean, in essence, that we should keep the biosphere in general and the soil in particular in good heart. The point is not that we should go on doing the same things forever and ever, because conditions (including climate) will change. It does mean that we retain the ability to farm well whatever the conditions.
Resilient may seem to mean the same thing as sustainable and there is certainly overlap but it should imply the ability to change direction quickly – because conditions (notably climate) can change rapidly.
So how do we achieve the productivity we need (but enough’s enough), sustainably and with resilience?
The general answer is to learn from nature. We should not of course follow nature slavishly, for nature can be horribly destructive. But nature has also been tolerably productive for the past 3.8 billion years even though the climate has swung spectacularly throughout that time and the continents have broken up and re-convened and so on and so on; and it is reasonable to ask how all this has been achieved. The general answer is that nature seems to employ three main tricks.
First, nature as a whole and almost all individual ecosystems are astonishingly diverse. Even when there seem to be few species, as in boreal forest, there are many thousands more in the soil beneath. Inter alia, diversity demonstrably is a prime protection against epidemic because no one parasite can get a foothold on the whole population if all the potential hosts are different.
Secondly, and again demonstrably, established diverse ecosystems are tightly integrated. The component species develop synergies, and make far better use of the available nutrients than any monoculture can do.
Thirdly, although there are hotspots in nature, such as estuaries and reefs that cause up-currents, wild ecosystems are low input. In particular, they make no use of fossil fuels.
How do these features translate into agriculture?
Well, diversity means diversity. Agroecological farms, the kind that emulate nature, should be maximally mixed – polycultural: many different crops and classes of livestock raised together. Within each population of crop plants and animals too there should be as much genetic diversity as is compatible with reasonable predictability. Some crops such as potatoes and Cox’s Orange are bound to be clones, but otherwise cloning should be avoided. Cloning of animals, already tried commercially, is a biological no-no.
Polycultural farms are not just collections, however, like menageries or botanic gardens. The different plants and animals must interact, synergistically. Integration is the key, achieved by a host of techniques including intercropping and, above all, by rotations.
With judicious mixtures, too, properly integrated, farmers increase the “land equivalent ratio” and so achieve “yield advantage”, which means that the mixture is more productive than any of the individual crops would be if grown on the same area as a monoculture. Here is productivity for free.
“Low input” in general means organic, or as near to organic as may sensibly be achieved. About a third of the oil for industrial agriculture is used to make nitrogen fertilizer. Clearly, the more we can move away from artificial fertilizers the more world-friendly and climate-friendly farming will be.
Farms that are maximally diverse, integrated, and organic perforce are complex. Therefore they must be skills intensive – lots of farmers. Vast-scale industrial chemistry just cannot do what’s needed. Modern technology takes out much of the drudgery; what’s left is the craft.
When farms, or any enterprises, are complex and skills-intensive there is usually no advantage in scale-up, and a lot of disadvantages. Therefore the kinds of agroecological farms that the world really needs should in general be small to medium sized: the SME – “small to medium-sized enterprise” – becomes the norm. There is plenty of scope, though, for cooperation between different SMEs. Economies that work best are always primarily cooperative. The competitiveness that is now seen to be crucial is reduced to friendly rivalry.
Thus we seem to have reinvented the traditional small, mixed farm of the kind that is still common in rural communities worldwide (Eastern Europe and SE Asia contain some of the finest examples) and were once the norm in Britain. Up to a point, that is so. But this is not in pursuit of some nostalgic, elitist dream as defenders of the status quo like to suggest. The idea of the small mixed farm is founded in sound biology and in a true desire to achieve the outputs we need sustainably and resiliently. It’s the industrial high-tech monoculture that’s driven by ideology – though it is the crudest possible ideology; purely materialistic; purely commercial; conceptually anachronistic and yet called “progress”.
On a considerable point of detail, too, the small mixed farms in their modern form may be very high tech, very different from their predecessors. One of the most appropriate technologies for present purposes is polythene, for polytunnels and for tubing for micro-irrigation. The poorest Third World farmers make tremendous use of their mobile phones. Molecular biology does us no favours when used simply to produce GM crops but is of great value in refining conventional breeding programmes. We could always do with better vaccines. And so on. The trick is not to be afraid of high tech, but not to be in thrall to it either. It is merely a toolkit, helping us to create the kind of society we want. We have though, alas, allowed it to be hi-jacked by the majority who simply want to be on top.
Finally, defenders of the status quo argue that small mixed, low-input farms can never “feed the world”. For this we need high-tech, high-input, mega-estates. In fact, because of the tender loving care they achieve and the yield advantage conferred by diversity, small mixed holdings when well run can be far more productive per unit area than large, simplified monocultures. Furthermore, the IAASTD report of 2009 pointed out that small farms, though for the most part horribly under-supported if not actively done down, currently produce half the world’s food. Another 20% comes from hunting, fishing, and people’s back gardens, so the industrial agriculture that soaks up 80% of the subsidies and 90% of the research budget, supplies only 30%. Furthermore, while the small farms that are underfinanced could generally double their output, often quite easily, many industrial farms are already hard up against biological possibility and sometimes, like the “elite” dairy cows, are well beyond what is morally acceptable. A further 10% increase would be heroic. Yet the world’s governments and corporates would rather invest in the 30% that is already over-stretched than in the 50% that has so much spare capacity. Yet they claim to be “feeding the world”.
All this has enormous policy implications.
It’s obvious, first of all, that Britain and other countries with highly industrialized farming need many more farmers than we have now. Britain’s own farming workforce would sensibly be increased ten-fold. It would be reasonable to aim for a million new farmers – and the same number, roughly, to run the markets that must serve those farmers (see below). Furthermore, since the average British farmer is now approaching retirement age, we need a whole new generation and we need them fast. So:
Policy 4: A million new farmers
By whatever means, Britain should seek to re-establish the network of agricultural colleges that have been shut down over the past few decades, and generally smooth the path for all the existing ones including or especially those that are not within the mainstream. New curricula are needed too – towards the ideas of agroecology and all that goes with it, and away from the “conventional” narrow focus on industrialized farming and high technologies designed primarily to maximize short-term profit.
The educational effort must begin with schools. All endeavours to introduce teaching of gardening and farming into schools at all levels must be encouraged. Michael Gove’s recent edict that the BTEC in horticulture and agriculture should no longer be recognized as a GCSE illustrates the level of government misunderstanding of what farming is and what it entails. This particular nonsense should be reversed immediately.
Policy 5: Land reform
It’s clear, too, that today’s big industrial estates should be re-configured as groups of small farms or as multi-enterprise co-operatives or quasi-cooperatives. Government should explore the many initiatives in Britain and abroad that are designed to achieve this, and put its weight behind them.
Policy 6: Planning and rural housing
Many people, particularly young people, coming into farming are prevented by lack of housing. It is always advantageous for farmers to live on the premises, but existing houses if any are too expensive and planning laws commonly prevent new builds, even of the most eco-friendly temporary nature. Again there are many initiatives afoot in the community at large to reverse this anomaly and government should first explore the possibilities that they present, and then, again, puts its weight behind them.
Policy 7: Farms and gardens in communities
Government should also encourage the many initiatives nationwide to establish community farms and gardens, urban and otherwise. These bring huge social benefits and are a nursery for the next generation of farmers. Institutions of all kinds, especially hospitals and prisons, should be encouraged and helped to create their own gardens and farms.
The expression “food sovereignty” was coined in the 1990s by the world-wide peasant movement, Via Campesina, who define it according to a shortlist of very specific criteria. It is often used less formally, however – as I am using it here – simply to mean that communities everywhere should have control over their own food supply.
Food sovereignty is not to be confused with food security. For example, a society or an individual may have all the control that’s possible over their own food supply and yet be insecure – if for example, they live on the slopes of an active volcano (as some do). Or it may be as secure as anyone can be and yet have no control at all – like a baby with well-heeled, loving parents.
Yet the two concepts do overlap: in general a society’s security increases as its control increases. So in the interests of food security as well as for the sake of food sovereignty it pays all countries to be as self-reliant as possible. Self-reliance does not mean self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency means that a country should contrive to produce all the food it needs within its own boundaries which only a few could do unless they were satisfied with an austere diet. Those that could grow everything for themselves and yet enjoy the finest gastronomy might include Australia, the US, China, and India, each with an enormous range of native climates. Most of us, though, have to make do with self-reliance: growing everything that we need to stay alive, but importing the luxuries.
Britain could easily be self-reliant, raising all the cereal, pulses, vegetables, fruit, meat, milk, and eggs we need to keep everyone healthy – without being too austere. We could grow coffee and bananas in greenhouses but that would be profligate in the extreme. It is better by far to buy such exotics from the people who grow them best. This is not, however, an endorsement of the status quo. All countries everywhere should strive for self-reliance in food, and most of them could achieve this fairly comfortably, if that was the concerted policy, including many of most of the poor countries of Africa who feature on Channel 4 News in times of famine. Some countries might find it very hard to achieve self-reliance in food (Singapore, Monaco) and a very few might be better advised to focus on commodity crops, as Israel does. But most countries should not be growing food for export until and unless they have already achieved self-reliance. Ex-President Clinton said just this when he visited Haiti after the earthquake of 2010 and saw people starving in the countryside only because the crops they grew were of no use for home consumption. Obviously, too, importing countries should always pay a fair price – and not, as now, simply go for the knock-down prices offered by the most desperate. As some importers are already demonstrating, too, importers should be doing deals with individual farmers and cooperatives overseas, by-passing the modern trade agreements that often ride roughshod over small producers. In short:
Policy 8: Self-reliance and fair trade
Britain should seek to be as self-reliant in food as possible. Here as in all countries, this must take precedence over commodity crops for export (which for Britain includes prime beef). Insofar as Britain has influence in the world at large, it should encourage others to pursue a similar policy.
Economic Democracy and Social Enterprise
Since the doctrine of neoliberalism lies at the root of so many of the world’s problems, at least in their modern form, a government that truly had the best interests of humanity and the world at heart would be seeking by all possible means to create an economic alternative. This would not mean some form of Stalinism, as defenders of the status quo are wont to argue. It simply means some version of social democracy – or, more specifically, the modern version of it known as economic democracy. The great serendipity is that there is nothing frightening about this. It simply applies a judicious mix of private ownership and government ownership – plus (a refinement emphasized in particular by Martin Large) community ownership, for example in the form of trusts. In fact Martin Large envisages a tripartite economy, like a clover-leaf: private, government, community.
Social Enterprise implies that business should seek to “wash its face” commercially – that is, pay its way – but is not required primarily to maximize profits. Its prime aim is to benefit society and/or the biosphere. We can assume that enterprises owned by government or by communities would be run in that spirit; and so, too, as far as possible, should private enterprise.
Private enterprise should in general mean the small business. The terms “bourgeois” and “petit-bourgeois” have commonly been bandied as insults these past few decades but, as with “Desert Rat” or “Suffragette”, these insults might re-emerge as badges of honour. The kind of capitalism favoured by many old-style Tories and US Republicans from Edward Heath to Abraham Lincoln. They would despise neoliberalism as vehemently as any socialist (as Heath made clear). In short, economic democracy isn’t conceptually difficult.
Three obvious policy implications are:
Policy 9: The tripartite mixed economy
The kind of governments that Britain and the world really need would explicitly espouse the tripartite mixed economy. Above all it would favour small businesses (and relish the fact that they are small! Not seek simply to make them bigger, which is present government policy!); and would encourage the many movements nationwide that are seeking to establish community ownership.
We might reasonably hope that any party that embraced such an economic policy would find many allies in Europe, and not a few in the rest of the world including the US. The neolibs are tremendously powerful but not well liked.
Policy 10: Small businesses
In Britain as in the world over small businesses are the mainstay of the economy. Yet, as small businesspeople complain, big business receives far more support one way and another, and governments preferentially consult corporates when framing policy. All parties pay lip service to small businesses but insofar as they lend support it is generally to help them to “grow” – that is, to become large businesses. We need governments that acknowledge that small businesses are often the most effective and appropriate and help them to stay as they are but with more security.
Policy 11: Encourage benign forms of finance
Government does not need to reinvent the wheel. Many private groups the world over, including Britain, are developing means of helping small businesses and particularly small farms and the local markets that are appropriate to them. These groups explore all manner of benign approaches to funding (see Appendix). For farming and related enterprises FEA – “Funding Enlightened Agriculture” – is proving particularly effective. Government should identify who is doing what and again, put its weight behind them.
The political, legal, and financial implications of Enlightened Agricutlture and some of the current initiatives that a political party could put its weight behind are discussed in Appendix 1.
The price of food
Defenders of the status quo claim that industrial agriculture produces cheap food and that this is necessary. The perceived need to keep prices down is one of the main excuses for sacking labour.
However, little of what people spend on food actually goes to producing it. According to Defra and to Corporate Watch, of every pound spent on food in the supermarket only 9p goes to the farmer.
Clearly, a government that seriously wanted to bring prices down, or at least to contain them, would not be putting even more pressure on farmers and their workers, or their suffering livestock, which account for only a fifth of the total cost. They would be seeking to reduce the 90% that goes to various kinds of middle-men. They don’t, of course, as things are, because it’s the trading and general manipulation that are seen to contribute most to GDP. Tesco is highly favoured while small farmers decidedly are not.
One obvious way to increase farmers’ income without increasing the price of food is to re-instate traditional markets. A farmer who sells through conventional small shops should receive at least 30% of the retail price – a three-fold increase immediately. If he or she sells through farmers’ markets they get at least 65% of the retail price. A traditional food chain of small shops and processors demonstrably employs many more people than a corporate chain – give that corporates are keen to cut labour in the name of “efficiency”. Common humanity, common sense, and simple arithmetic all proclaim that this is the way to go. Instead, ostensibly to keep the prices down, more and more workers are sacked. Yet they probably account for only 5% or less of the total cost of food, if indeed it is the case that farmers receive only 9p of every pound spent.
** We should also ask how much of the farmers’ share of the retail price – and of the distributors’ share — goes to bankers, to pay off the loans that most of them must take out in order to stay in an industry that has become capital intensive.
** We should ask, too, why and how it is that Britons now spend only about 11-14% of their income on food but typically spend 50% on a mortgage – which again goes to the bankers.
** We should also ask why it is that in a rich economy like Britain’s, 900,000 people now resort to food banks. Fifty years ago, when we were far less rich, it wasn’t so.
** Finally, we should ask whether a mere 11-14% on food is sensible. The countries that in recent centuries have been considered the most civilized, including France and Italy, habitually spent 30% or more. But they didn’t spend 50% on a house.
Policy 12: The real price of food
Government should initiate in-depth studies to ask why food costs as much or as little as it does; why so many people in Britain apparently can’t afford it; what proportion of income should be spent on food; and what can be done to ensure that everyone can afford good food – which shouldn’t mean more industrial chemistry, biotech, and unemployment.
Enlightened Agriculture and all that goes with it would be far easier to introduce in a society that still took a serious interest in food as a whole – as in traditional Italy or France, or indeed India, China, or Turkey. People who really know and care about food and know how to cook are simply not content with the kind that now prevails in supermarkets. Here there is enormous serendipity, for Enlightened Agriculture, based on small mixed farms and focused first on arable and horticulture, with animals filling in the gaps, inevitably produces “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”. These nine words (plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety) summarize the mainstream nutritional advice of the past 40 years and also describe the basic structure of all the world’s finest cuisines, from India and China through Turkey and Persia to Provence and Tuscany (and indeed traditional Britain, though with our rain and hills we are particularly suited to livestock). In short, enlightened farming, sound nutrition, and the finest gastronomy go hand in hand; and with a sensible and humane economy, all are perfectly affordable.
This suggests a final policy:
Policy 13: Encourage food culture
Food studies, notably cooking and gardening, should be given a prime spot in all schools, from the infants’ upwards. The teaching should be eclectic, and community-based. We should be making maximum use and drawing on the traditional skills of all the many peoples who have come to Britain over the past few decades for we have much to learn from all of them: West Indian, West African, Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, Chinese, East European, and all the rest.
In short, nothing is more important for the future than to encourage food culture. It shows us that to live well we do not need to don our hair shirts – that is another piece of misguided propaganda; it encourages food security and food sovereignty; and it has the potential, more than any other human pursuit, to bring people together and create social harmony.
Although this essay is far longer than I intended, it cannot do more than sketch in the main headings. It’s clear, though, that governments of all stripes must take food and agriculture far more seriously than they generally do, and that this means re-thinking from first principles. Certainly, it cannot be enough simply to abandon agriculture to the market, as has been the norm.
Agriculture is where concern for humanity and concern for the biosphere come together. For any party that truly aspires to be green, as all parties these days claim to be, agriculture must be the central strut of policy.
Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, October 5 2014
Addendum: New kinds of farms, and Capitalism with an acceptable face
The principles of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty lead us to what seems to be the traditional farm structure – polycultural, low-input, therefore complex, therefore skills intensive, and therefore generally small to medium sized.
This isn’t necessarily the last word, however. For the traditional model is based on the idea of the single owner or tenant – the yeoman or peasant farmer – and this may not be ideal, especially in today’s world. The lone farmer (albeit archetypally with family) on a complex farm must have many different areas of expertise and must work extremely hard to keep all the balls in the air and yet, as history shows all too clearly, such farmers are extremely vulnerable economically and politically. While retaining the principles of polyculture and low input, the structure must be made robust.
The way to do this is to involve more people, working in concert: sharing liability and risk; supplying complementary skills; probably operating quasi-independently day-by-day but sharing and cooperating whenever this is appropriate; a network or an ecosystem of interlocking enterprises. Socially such a farm can usefully be re-conceived as a hamlet, a community with common interests and a common goal. The overall holding, with several or many people on board, may no longer be small. But each enterprise within it remains small, human-sized, with plenty of tender-loving care.
The necessary components that can create the required, co-operative structures can be considered under four headings, and the overall outcome is a permutation of elements from all four. The possible complexities are therefore endless and there are thousands of existing examples worldwide. But here are the main headings with a few salients:
Present land ownership in Britain is extremely skewed with not much than half of one per cent of the population owning 60% of all the land – reflecting out Feudal past and the eagerness of recent governments to sell off land to the highest bidder, which means to whoever is richest. This cannot be morally right or sensible, and historical precedent suggests that we cannot restore some semblance of justice without major upheaval. Yet, far short of bloody uprising, there is a great deal useful that can be done.
First, farmland in Britain now commonly sells at around £10,000 an acre or £25,000 per hectare which seems to put it beyond the reach of all but the richest — yet significant public buy-out is still possible if people cooperate. Thus a market garden or smallholding of five acres can make a significant difference to the diet and social life of a small village, and the villagers between could easily raise the £50,000 needed to acquire the land, and so acquire their own village farm. There are various precedents.
On the grand scale – a people’s buy-out of all Britain’s farmland would be perfectly affordable, without violence and on generous terms. Thus, Britain now has 18 million hectares of farmland, which is about a quarter of a hectare per head of population (easily enough to ensure self-reliance) – which at £25K per hectare is around £7000 per head. Not everyone can produce £7000 just like that but if borrowed from the banks (that’s what banks are for) and paid back over a lifetime like a mortgage, £7000 becomes almost trivial (and would be compensated several times over by the stabilising of food prices and the opportunities for employment). Compulsory purchase is possible; but if that is considered too Draconian, then a law to demand that local communities should be informed of land coming on to the market, and must be entitled to bid for it, would at least be a shift in the right direction. With present turnover (about 1% per year) there should be a significant transfer of ownership within a few decades and almost total buy-out within a century.
But ownership is not the be-all and end-all. Indeed it has disadvantages. Of at least equal importance are the principles of usufruct and security of tenure. Usufruct simply means that people may have a legal right to use land for their own purposes and/ or that they have a right to the fruits (fructus) of the land even if, on paper, somebody else owns it. Similarly, if occupiers have guaranteed security of tenure they can be just as secure as a legal owner (who could after all be displaced by compulsory purchase).
Neither should we assume – it would be a huge mistake — that all present landowners want to use their land for frivolous purposes or are interested only in profit. Many already manage their land as well as anyone could, and many too would be very happy to let it out to would-be farmers who would farm it well, and some indeed are trying actively to do so. But present-day laws often make this difficult. Present tax-laws can penalize farmers who allow others to farm their land, and planning laws commonly make it impossible for newcomers to live on the land they farm although some of them at least (especially the horticulturalists and keepers of livestock) need to be constantly on hand. The laws that now are holding back progress can be changed. Contracts between sympathetic landowners and keen tenants can and should be bespoke — tailored individually to the needs of each. Tom Curtis of Oxford is working on this.
It is sometimes said that farmers who were merely tenants or members of cooperatives would not have the incentive to farm to the best of their abilities because they all want to build up the cash value of their farms and pass it on to their children. This may be true of some but on the whole this is nonsense. Good farmers simply want the opportunity to farm well and several of the best that I know are farm managers. By the same token, doctors and teachers are not the less dedicated because they do not own the hospital or the school.
2: The structure and management of the farm
So the land managers – the farmers – need not be the same people as the owners. Who should they be?
As we have seen, the farmers could be individuals, either owner-occupiers or tenants, or – which increasingly seems more realistic, and is in many ways desirable – they could be various kinds of group. Sometimes groups of friends acquire land and farm it between them – as Sam and Lucy Henderson and friends are doing at Whippletree Farm in Devon.
Of particular promise too is the approach of farmers like Joel Salatin in Virginia, USA, and James Odger, in Somerset whose farms host several or many different enterprises run by farmers who operate quasi-independently but cooperate in various ways to their common advantage – so the farm operates in much the same way as a traditional well-run hamlet. James Odger regards his own farm as a launching pad. He encourages the guest farmers to move on after two years – when their own income level enables them to do so – and set up on their own. The financial arrangements on the two farms differ in detail but both ensure that both the host farmer and his guests have a good deal.
Overall a virtual infinity of possible arrangements can be envisaged, and many of them already exist. All of them demonstrate the power of community and of cooperation. What any one person working alone would find difficult or impossible, a few or many together may manage with ease. Those who seek to rule entire societies do so largely by keeping the rest of us divided. But the strength of societies and indeed of all humanity lies in cooperation.
The kinds of enterprises that the world really needs are helped increasingly by “Community Supported Agriculture” or CSA – a term applied both to the general principle and to individual holdings (known as “CSAs”). There are perhaps about 120 CSAs in Britain and more than 6000 in the US, where the movement began (or so it’s estimated). CSAs in general are groups of people who support (usually) local farmers and growers by undertaking to share the financial risk. Commonly they do this by agreeing to take a regular order from the farmer and pay up-front for a year’s supply. The produce often takes the form of a veg-box, but some farmers also offer eggs and various cuts of milk. Some by no means all CSAs demand that all the members should supply some labour. CSAs are free to make their own rules and overall, the arrangements vary enormously in detail. A very good example of a CSA is Ed Hamer’s market garden at Chagford on Dartmoor, whose clients pay up-front for a year’s worth of weekly veg-boxes.
3: Legal structures
Every business should have a formally recognized business structure – and for those seeking to set up enterprises of the kind that can contribute to the grand cause of Enlightened Agriculture and all that goes with it, there are three that seem most appropriate: the Trust; the Community Benefit Society (CBS); and the Community Interest Company (or CIC; pronounced CIC). The details here are all freely available elsewhere. What’s important is that these mechanisms exist, and are designed to provide the framework for the kinds of enterprise that are needed; so governments that are truly on the side of humanity should do whatever is appropriate to encourage them.
There are four standard ways by which new businesses, or businesses that seek to change direction, can raise the necessary finance: through donations; grants; loans; and investment. All of them have been extended in recent years to become especially friendly to small businesses in general and social enterprises in particular.
Notably, donations and loans and even investments are commonly attracted these days through crowd funding, hosted by “crowd funding platforms” including Buzzbnk, which is dedicated to social enterprises. Recent years too have seen a significant rise in “ethical investment” which now has been extended conceptually to become “positive investment”. Ethical investment after all has had a negative connotation: not putting money into, say, the arms trade. But positive investment means that investors are invited to put their money only into named enterprises that they feel are particularly worthwhile – which of course can include the kind of social enterprises that can practice Enlightened Agriculture and all that goes with it. FEA (“Funding Enlightened Agriculture”) was recent established specifically to direct new farms and markets and even research projects towards appropriate finance, and to provide appropriate business advice. FEA is a project of the Real Farming Trust, a registered charity.
Taken together all these mechanisms, movements, and trends add up to what might be called – to invert a famous quote from Edward Heath – “The acceptable face of capitalism”. Capitalism should be not be “smashed” as the extreme Left suggests, for this would certainly be difficult and probably counter-productive. But it does need to be rescued from reductionist, amoral pit into which it has been allowed to sink.
Clearly, there are many specific ways in which a political party could help to smooth the path for all of the above endeavours – though in the present manifesto a general statement of intent will suffice.
1: The Future of Food and Farming. A Foresight report chaired by Sir John Beddington. Government Office for Science, January 2011.
2: Agriculture at a Crossroads. Report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Co-chaired by Professor Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute, Washington, and Judi Wakhungu of the African Centre for Technology Studies. 2009.