Brexit is potentially and very probably a disaster but it is also in theory an opportunity for Britain to install a form of farming that is actually intended to provide us all with good food — rooted in the principles of agroecology, food sovereignty, and economic democracy.
Among other things:
** We – like almost all countries in the world! – should pursue a policy of self-reliance in food – raising most if not always 100% of the kind of food that we are able to grow in our temperate climate (which we could easily do). Trade would then be confined to desirable things we can’t sensibly grow at home (which in Britain include coffee, bananas etc), and it would also be good/ necessary to keep some other trade routes open for reasons of diplomacy and insurance. All trade, of course, like all our dealings, should be conducted with justice and humanity. We really should not use our commercial and military clout to screw and cheat those least able to resist, as is the norm, and still less to make a virtue of this (for compassion and good sense are for wimps).
** Above all, whatever the party politics, we need to install a government that (a) is on the side of the British people, humanity, and the biosphere as a whole and (b) is not afraid to govern. Over the past 35 or so years, since neoliberalism (“the free market”) became the global norm, neither of these requirements has been met. Successive governments have regarded agriculture not as an essential service (the most essential of all) but as “a business like any other” with a mandate to maximize short-term wealth by whatever means. With minimal and somewhat arbitrary concession to “food standards”, corporates and the super-rich in general have been invited to fill their boots. To these ends, in all spheres, successive governments of all parties have seen themselves as extensions of the corporate boardroom. The results have been disastrous across the board and are particularly obvious in agriculture and all that goes with it.
** Farmers need to create a union or equivalent body that truly represents their interests, and which acknowledges its responsibility to society and the world at large. The current representative body, the NFU, has instead bought in to a strategy of neoliberal-industrial farming which among other things is designed to reduce the number of farmers in the name of “efficiency” (surely the opposite of what trade unions are supposed to do?) and in practice ensures that the rich grow richer (big grants to big farmers etc) while the poor grow poorer (the very opposite of social justice). At the same time the biosphere is wrecked (eg the feeling seems to be that global warming will happen only in distant countries of which we know little, and care less, at some time in the future, if it happens at all).
Particular requirements include:
** A million new farmers to farm along agroecological lines
** Housing/planning reforms so the new farmers and their families have somewhere to live
** A corresponding marketing network
** Food culture based on traditional cooking (ie reverse the trend of the past half-century).
Many excellent people around the world are working on aspects of what is necessary, and some are showing how new (which in truth often means traditional) approaches can work very well even in the present, hostile, and obviously dysfunctional economic climate. These excellent people include young and old men and women from all parts of the world, and include farmers, growers, shopkeepers, cooks, schoolteachers, thinking scientists and economists, community leaders, activists, clerics, and policy-makers. It would be a very good use of public money (perhaps a few £million) to convene a grouping of such people (I would happily nominate 20 or so to kick things off) to hammer out a strategy for Britain that really could work for the general good.
Is any of this likely to happen? Is it thump! (as they used to say in Lancashire). Our new Prime Minister has installed another standard line-up of neoliberals brought up to believe that if only we (or some people) can make enough money then everything will turn out OK, and problems that the government-corporate axis doesn’t care to think about will go away. Already our new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom, has declared ex cathedra that “The lowlands are for sheep and the uplands are for butterflies”. Well, take away the grazing and you get trees (almost all of Britain is below the tree-line) which in itself may be no bad thing; but although many butterflies do live in woods, we may reasonably assume that Ms Leadsom was thinking rather of flowery meadows – which of course, without sheep or cattle (or a multi-species Pleistocene fauna of wild cattle and horses, deer and elephants) would be no more. Ideally, probably, we should follow the Tyrolean model, and pay farmers to manage sheep and cattle to that they in turn create meadows of wondrous diversity with trees on the tops and swales on the slopes, to stop the erosion. But that would require a cross-the-board, properly thought-out strategy (whoever heard of such a thing in living memory?), not compatible with the sacred principle of the free market into which, after Brexit, we will be bound ever more inextricably.
In truth the only way ahead for farming and hence for the biosphere and the human race is to re-think agriculture from first principles, and all that goes with it: the ecology, the sociology, the morality, the economics, the governance. We cannot simply throw it to the wolves of inadequately educated technophiles and businesspeople. As a matter of urgency we need the Agrarian Renaissance and, since governments like ours which are still seen to be among the world’s leaders have in effect abdicated, morally and intellectually, we, people at large, Ordinary Joes, have to take matters into our own hands. Many individuals and organizations worldwide are on the case, trying to make things happen despite the status quo, and among them is our own College for Real Farming and Food Culture which is now attempting to do all the necessary thinking in a coherent fashion.