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Big Government, Big Business, Big Science, and “Sustainable Intensification”

Last year Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network and Professor Charles Godfray of Oxford University published a report on “Sustainable intensification in agriculture: Navigating a course through competing food system priorities” — based on a two-day workshop with 30 “key thinkers” held in January 2012. To the great credit of all concerned, outsiders…

To be sure, the report addresses the question it sets itself with rigour: basically, what the expression “Sustainable Intensification” really implies. But the whole endeavour seems curiously out of date and out of touch; an academic exercize of a quasi-philosophical kind at a time when we (taxpayers, citizens, humanity at large) need and have a right to expect a clearly-stated strategy for food and agriculture that is deeply rooted in fundamental principles of morality and biology. Overall, the report serves primarily to reinforce the present paradigm and the status quo when it’s all too clear that we need radical thinking and radical action. It becomes increasingly obvious that we cannot afford to leave the world’s fate to present-day governments, big business, and academe. The necessary thinking and the action must be driven from the bottom up. We have to take our own affairs into our own hands. 

Of the report itself we should ask:

Did the workshop ask the right questions

This may be considered unfair. The workshop that inspired the report did what it did – addressed the issue of “Sustainable Intensification” – and (some would say) it should not be criticized for not asking questions outside its remit.

But the world really is in a desperate mess, the clock is ticking, and we need firm guidelines. We cannot afford to waste time and taxpayers’ money on exercizes that are essentially academic – and indeed to a large extent are discussions about the meaning of words. “Sustainable intensification” simply means producing more food (or other biomass) per unit of land, or producing the same amount on less land, without doing more damage, or using more non-renewable resources, than the Earth can sustain. Whether or not the world really needs more food (or other biomass), who can reasonably doubt that in principle, this should be a good thing to do? (2) 

Yet of course there are many questions still to be asked – including how much such intensification is really necessary, and where it might be particularly desirable (or indeed appropriate), and how this apparently desirable end is best achieved, and whether there is a downside; and it doesn’t seem to me that this report addresses these issues in sufficient depth.

Thus, the report tells us that earlier reports tell us that the world will need to produce between 50% and 130% more food over the next few decades. But Dr Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute estimates that we already produce enough macronutrient for 14 billion people, which is 50% more than the world population is expected to reach.  Others suggest that we are already producing enough for 10 million – again more than the maximum projected. Clearly, all such statistics must be questioned. “Sustainable intensification” achieved by benign means would surely be a good thing, even if we don’t really need more food. But if we don’t really need more food, then this certainly changes the emphasis.

More significant is, “How?” There seem to be two main ways to intensify. The first is the skills-intensive, artisinal, peasant route – to produce more food from the same space through more intricate husbandry (intercropping, rotations, individual care of plants and animals, etc); and this requires us to build up the agrarian workforce and all that goes with it. The second is the high-tech, high capital, industrial route — to produce more food from the same space by more effective fertilizers, feeds, or growth promoters and (with or without GM) by precise manipulation of the animals’ or plants’ genomes, all with as little labour as possible. Big business and big governments favour the latter approach, which they equate with progress. What we need is a critical appraisal of the two – which this report does not provide. It isn’t enough at this stage of history simply to list the options.  

This brings us to the second main line of criticism:

Was the thinking sufficiently radical? Can we really make progress without challenging the assumptions behind the status quo? Did the delegates take sufficient account of modern ideas? 

A shortlist of huge assumptions underlies conventional, current thinking in agriculture and politics and economics in general. All of these ideas are highly questionable, yet in high circles (government, business –  and modern academe) they remain largely unquestioned. They are:

That the present, neoliberal, ultra-competitive, ultra-materialist global market economy is a given, and must define all future action

The present report – and almost all reports of the kind that are allowed in to the establishment canon – take it virtually to be self-evident that the prevailing, neoliberal market economy is somehow right.  It is deemed to be rooted in the ideas of Charles Darwin and therefore to be science-based – and therefore apparently incontrovertible: the natural state of humankind. Many see the 1980s, when such thinking emerged as the global norm, to be a watershed, dividing modernity from the murky past.

But the idea that the present economy is Darwinian and therefore “right” is bad science and bad moral philosophy, while the experience of most of humanity, and the plight of our fellow creatures, tell us that the market is not working for the general good, and common sense tells us that it never can. A vast and growing literature (some of it by Nobel Prize-winning economists) attests to this – and also describes alternative approaches.

In short: a report that is seriously pointing the way ahead, must question whether it is sensible to try to ram the square peg of agriculture into the round hole of neoliberalism. Yet that is what most “official” reports, including this one, take to be their remit. All economic and political alternatives are seen to be “unrealistic” and/or are taken to represent some political extreme. Yet the kind of economy that could serve our needs is tried and tested, and not at all frightening. Social democracy and the mixed economy will do – the kind that prevailed in Britain and the US through most of the 20th century.  Neoliberalism is a modern aberration (though it has often raised its head in previous ages).  (3)

That science can provide the answers the world needs

People in positions of authority are wont to tell us that our policies must be “science led” – implying that science and scientists are the ultimate source of wisdom. At least, people in authority tell us this when it suits them – especially when particular strands of science suggest ways of making money. But again, for a whole host of reasons (on which again there is a vast literature) we should be asking whether the ideas of science should be “privileged” in this way (albeit selectively). For example scientists have shown that elite livestock can be cloned (by various means) and that this can produce more profit in some circumstances in the short term. But is this wise or even humane?

That morality is entirely relative 

This perhaps is the most damaging conceit of our age: that morality is what individuals, or societies, or political parties, or the market, say it is; that values are purely a matter of tradition and personal choice. So reports such as this one have no convincing moral base – and indeed no ability to ask questions of a moral kind. They do not ask why or whether for example it is right that the world should be led by the western powers; whether the west is doing the right things, and whether it has the right to impose its will on the rest. 

That the right people are in charge 

The assumption behind this report is that the workshop delegates were and are the right people for the job because they are academics, or represent industry and various other branches of the establishment. The ideas that emerge from such gatherings invariably and inevitably reinforce this conclusion: that the responsibility rests with such elites to sort out the world’s problems, and that they are uniquely equipped to solve them, and that they therefore have a right to take control and impose their ideas.

But this leads us to the next big question:

Did the workshop include the right people

Notably absent from the workshop were:

Radical activists, of a kind who suggest quite different approaches to the world’s problems

Moral philosophers, including clerics, who could question critically the moral and political assumptions behind the discussions.

Farmers !!!! Isn’t it astonishing that agricultural policy makers almost never discuss what needs to be done with practicing farmers (except those who are best classed as “agribusiness people”, who are content simply to plug themselves in to the economic norms of the day)? My own experience from talking to hundreds of farmers worldwide is that their view of what needs to be done, and of their problems, is often vastly different from that of most establishment thinkers. No-one even in this authoritarian age would dream of framing medical strategy without talking to doctors, or meddle with education without consulting teachers, or plan new cities without consulting builders and engineers. But in framing the strategies of agriculture, practicing on-the-ground farmers are routinely sidelined (4).

People at large. Strategies are being discussed in such reports as this that affect the lives of billions of people worldwide, and especially those in poor countries who always take the brunt. But none were invited to the workshop.

Overall we should ask:

Can we – taxpayers, citizens, humanity – afford to leave our affairs and indeed our lives in the hands of academics, corporates, and politicians?

“The Establishment” has become more homogenous, and more entrenched and powerful, than it was when Anthony Sampson wrote his Anatomy of Britain in 1962. Then, governments, including Conservative governments, took it to be self-evident that they should at least to some extent control the economy for the benefit of the citizenry, and academe was mostly financed by taxpayers, again for the benefit of society as a whole. Now it is hard to see where government ends and industry begins, for there is free movement between the two, while academe does their collective bidding. Agriculture is of course caught up in this. Taxpayers find themselves underwriting agricultural research that is geared almost exclusively to the needs of industrial farming (now anomalously called “conventional” farming). The profits and the power lie with the corporates, while governments call those profits GDP and claim to have achieved “economic growth”. But the state of farming and farmers worldwide is dire and the world’s food supply is sadly defective, while food security is precarious even in the richest countries and the vital concept of food sovereignty – people having control over their own food supply – has gone missing altogether.

Accordingly, more and more groups worldwide both local and international, in matters of food and farming and in other essential endeavours, are beginning to take power into their own hands; and this, in truth, is one of the few signs of hope in the present world.

What has this got to do with the present report? Only that we (taxpayers, citizens, humanity) should now be questioning whether reports of this kind –  academics and commerce talking to each other on matters that in truth are peripheral — are really pertinent to the present age.


P 6:

“The global population is growing, globalising and urbanising; people on average are becoming richer and their lifestyles and expectations are changing.”

All this is true up to a point.  But in a serious report, seriously trying to sketch a better future, it all needs to be questioned. If it is not questioned, then future strategies tend simply to reinforce the past.

Thus: the world is indeed “urbanizing” – but should we take this to be inevitable, or should we try to call a halt – not by closing the cities but by reinforcing the agrarian economy? After all, the UN tells us that 1 billion people now live in urban slums – almost a third of all city dwellers.  People “on average”  are indeed “becoming richer” – but the stats of the past 30 years show that while the rich have grown richer beyond the dreams of Croesus the poor have grown steadily poorer. This is true both in absolute terms – many people are demonstrably worse off than they were in the 1970s – and in relative terms: the wealth gap is widening both between countries and within countries, including the rich ones. And what exactly are these “expectations”? Where do they come from? Do people really want Kentucky Fried every day, or a new suite of furniture every spring, or are they simply responding to commercial pressure – or, we might say, adapting to the status quo?

It might be argued that it is not the job of reports such as this to question these basics. But if they do not, they are condemned simply to paint a future that is a continuation of the past. Is this useful?

P 6

“It is feared that as populations grow, recent progress to reduce hunger will not be sustained and more people will go hungry”.

This may indeed be feared. But again, such statements must be questioned. The report itself points out that the world already produces enough for all, and it could and should have pointed out (as does Hans Herren) that the world already produces enough macronutrient for 14 million people – 50 % more than the maximum population projected by the UN. The idea that the world’s food problems spring primarily from an excess of people is deeply pernicious (and is echoed in Ebenezer Scrooge’s comment in the age of Malthus that famine merely lowers “the surplus population”). Far better to emphasize that population per se is not the principal problem.

P 6

“whether people can and should be persuaded to behave differently from how they do today.”

Reports like this one invariably take it for granted that people are behaving the way they really want to behave, and that reformers must persuade them to do things differently.  The alternative hypothesis is that people adapt to the status quo – and in an economy geared to consumption they consume. My impression from meetings and discussions worldwide is that a huge proportion of people hate what is going on now, and would dearly like to live differently if only the opportunity was there. In short, if we seriously want to transform the world, the point is not to persuade, but to identify the people who already yearn for transformation. If only there was some coherence between those people, we would already have the critical mass needed to change the world around.

P 25

“… reliance on market mechanisms is only likely to work in countries with relatively mature agricultural markets. In low income regions of the world poor financial and physical infrastructure, as well as an insufficient institutional capacity and skills base, may require more interventionist approaches to help increase productivity sustainably”.

The above paragraph summarizes much of what I feel is wrong with the report. That is, it seems to be sensible and balanced and indeed expresses a good thought – that market mechanisms alone cannot produce the kind of agriculture  we want and need (or the kind of world we want and need). But just beneath the surface lies the erroneous assumption that “market mechanisms” do indeed work in “mature” countries (like ours),  while poor countries might perhaps need sorting out – “more interventionist approaches” until they can get their act together, and so become more like us.  But the state of the “mature” countries of the west is not enviable (or sustainable); the neoliberal economy is not good for us any more than for anybody else; we are not a good model; and the implied dichotomy between countries that are “developed” and those that are “developing” (whatever the current euphemism is) is seriously out-moded and deeply pernicious.

Pp 39 et seq

This whole section on nutrition again seems to encapsulate the principal defects of the report. It seems to be sensible and balanced, but in truth is timid – tending to assure the reader that everything is in hand, and that all is for the best in this, the best of possible worlds.  Thus the report tells us that agriculture produces other things besides food – including biofuel. It also tells us that:

“Different stakeholders prioritise these differently; for example farmers and the agricultural industry may place greatest emphasis on profits; consumers are generally most interested in their individual welfare (including not only nutrition but also the provision of non-food ‘goods’ such as tobacco, coffee or alcohol) while governments seek to balance these many competing interests. Biofuel production is fast becoming a major desired output from the system for many stakeholders”.

But again, the report merely reports the conventional wisdom, without comment or criticism; and again we should ask, at this stage of history, whether a simple rehearsal of the received wisdom is enough. We surely should be asking: Is it good that biofuel has become a “major desired output” (now gobbling up about half the US maize crop)? Isn’t this a prime example of the market economy out of control – in which any enterprise that can make a lot of money quickly by whatever means and with whatever consequences is fast-tracked? Is it really true that “governments seek to balance these competing interests”? Is this true of the USDA in its unswerving support for big business and in particular for biofuel? Is it true of the Britain’s present government, or the previous four, or of Defra? Do governments in fact have a proper sense of balance? Do they not in fact these days invariably favour the highest bidder – and make a virtue of this? Do they not in fact tip the political balance in favour of the highest bidders? Is it a good idea in 2012 to take governments at their own valuation, or should we be asking (a) what their powers really are and (b) what they should be and (c) whether, even in ostensible democracies, they in fact discharge their duties truly in the public interest?

Very commendably, on page 40, the report cites the FAO which

“explicitly links nutritional diversity with crop biodiversity, and considers diversity not just in terms of the range of foods produced and consumed (maize, beans, carrots) but the diversity within type.

“In principle, these measures, if effectively implemented, are likely to lead to improvements in people’s diets; individuals consuming a wide variety of foods are more likely to be able to obtain all the nutrients that they require, including those that are likely to be needed in the diet but whose role is not fully understood and that are therefore not the focus of current fortification programmes”.

Good. This point is valid not just because the FAO made it but because this is what all human history seems to be telling us: that people with access to truly various diets do not suffer from specific nutritional deficiencies, or from the current ills of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. So a report that truly advances the debate should be urging us to encourage diversity across the board with all possible speed. Notably and obviously people in positions of influence should be encouraging horticulture and smallholdings (which until very recent times were the norm worldwide, including within cities); encouraging genetic diversity within all crops and livestock; and encouraging traditional cuisines, which are based on diverse, local produce. Instead, the general thrust of government and commerce (assisted by academe) has been to produce a narrower and narrower range of crops and livestock (a trend exacerbated by the current trend for GM and the patents that go with it); to encourage monocultures, which of course reduces diversity; to reduce agricultural labour (a trend that goes with monoculture) which means that more and more people  are removed from the source of food (and means that more and more are condemned to urban or rural poverty); to encourage centralization of food supply which in turn requires more processing (increasing price and reducing nutritional diversity); and to discourage traditional cooking in favour of processed meals (which are more profitable and are seen to increase GDP).

But the report makes none of these points. Instead it tells us that:

“A more immediate response to the problem of malnutrition is to enhance, through fortification, the nutritional content of the foods that people are most likely to eat. Fortification and biofortification programmes have a particular value in addressing the dietary problems of those too poor to have access to more diversified, healthy diets, and who generally subsist on small amounts of cereal staples.”

In other words, as ever, the powers-that-be have the matter well in hand – and, as ever, the solution lies largely with high tech. We can also question whether fortification does indeed provide “a more immediate response”. For example, the experience of Cuba in recent years has shown that significant horticulture can be introduced in a very short time if the will is there – and artisinal horticulture, properly various, will do almost all of what needs doing.

The report goes on to tell us that:

“Beyond this, fortification may be seen as politically and culturally simpler to implement than more diverse systems of production and consumption. It also has the advantage of reaching net food purchasers in urban and rural areas who cannot afford to buy micronutrient rich food such as vegetables, fruit, pulses and animal products.”

To express such an idea in a report that purports to provide an objective overview is unacceptable. One nutritional activist I showed this to said that this is a “disgrace”. “Politically and culturally simpler” in practice means that various large corporates are waiting to fill their boots. A principal target is deficiency of vitamin A – to be made good by various fortified foods which conceptually at least include Syngenta’s GM “golden rice”. But vitamin A is ingested in the form of carotene which, next to cellulose and chlorophyll, is one of nature’s commonest molecules: present in all dark green leaves and rich in yellow fruits and roots such as papaya, carrot, and the orange varieties of cassava, all of which are standard crops in gardens and smallholdings. Overall, worldwide, the choice for people suffering from deficiency of micronutrients is between self-reliance and food sovereignty, which for most is easily achievable, technically, if only the obstacles were removed; or further reliance on the good offices of big commercial companies, usually foreign-based.

Neither does the report ask the fundamental question: why it is that in this world that is allegedly so rich so many people cannot apparently afford good food – even in countries like Britain which are near the top of the economic heap. In truth there are several reasons – but they all trace back to the kind of economy we have, and the way we allow ourselves to be governed from the top by the complex of governments and corporates that are not, fundamentally, on the side of the people. Academics who fail to question the wisdom of this top-down governance, and instead lend their weight to it, have seriously mistaken their role in life.

So alas, despite the undoubted excellence of many of the contributors, we must see this as a missed opportunity; another report to add to the pile of those that seem to stress the need to change direction, and urge radical thinking, but in reality serve primarily to reinforce the status quo. Overall it reinforces the powers-that-be in their smugness, when they should be questioning themselves – whether they are doing the right things, whether they are talking to the right people, what their motives are.

As things are, hope lies primarily and perhaps entirely with the many grassroots movements that are now springing up worldwide.




2: At least part of the idea of “sustainable intensification” is expressed by Jonathan Swift in “Voyage to Brobdingnag” in Gulliver’s Travels (1726): 

“And he gave it for his opinion . . . that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.” 

Swift does not, however, say that we should strive to minimize environmental damage. The question did not seem to arise in his day as acutely as it does now.

3: The “mixed economy” as traditionally conceived, for example by Aneurin Bevan in his personal manifesto In Place of Fear, published 1952, conceives a straight division of property between private and public. However, “public” ownership in practice tends to mean “state” ownership, and many people for various reasons are suspicious of state ownership. But – as Martin Large excellently describes in Common Wealth, (Hawthorn Press, Stroud, 2010) we should add a third class of ownership – by communities. A community may be defined geographically – a village, a town, a neighbourhood – or by common interest. The resulting grouping may be legally registered as a Trust, or a club, or a Public Interest Company, or whatever works best. Whatever the details, I reckon this is a very strong idea – striking the right balance between personal interest and the needs of society as a whole. Indeed we might usefully re-define the mixed economy as a tripartite division of wealth and power between private, state, and community. This would surely serve the practical needs of democracy very well. (And if we add in a “green” – non-anthropocentric – dimension then we have more or less defined what the world needs).

4: See in particular the work of Michel Pimbert, formerly of IIED, as in Participatory Research and On-Farm Management of Agricultural Biodiversity in Europe (IEED 2011).)