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Britain needs more farmers — so why not become one?

Everyone should think about farming as a career.

About five years ago I coined the expression “Enlightened Agriculture” – loosely defined as “farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone with food of the highest quality without wrecking the rest of the world”. “Everyone” means everyone who is ever liable to be born into this world: seven billion people now and an estimated 9.5 billion by 2050. “Highest quality” means meeting the highest standards both of nutrition and of gastronomy. Nutritional excellence perhaps is best defined by the world’s leading nutritionists (if only they would make up their minds).  Gastronomic excellence is best defined by individual people and communities, according mainly to what grows locally and to tradition.

But all the hype from on high – all those government and supra-governmental reports and corporate brochures – tells us that the task of feeding people well is well-nigh impossible. At least, they agree, we need 50% more food by 2050 and this can be done only with more and mor4e high-tech (which mainly means GMOs). In truth, though, “good food for everyone forever without wrecking the rest” is eminently achievable. In fact, technically, it would almost be easy, were it not for the rising threat of global warming (which of course makes it very hard to plan anything).

For there are two huge serendipities. First, the UN demographers tell us that the world population should level out by 2050 – so 9.5 billion is as many as we’ll ever have. After 2050 numbers should start to fall – not because of war or famine but simply because, it seems, people are choosing to have fewer children. So if we can feed 9.5 billion for a few decades we’ll have cracked it – and according to Professor Hans Herren, of the World Millennium Institute in Washington DC, the world already produces enough protein and calories to feed 14 billion! The reason that one billion out of the present 7 billion are starving has almost nothing to do with production and almost everything to do with politics, justice, distribution, and the fact that governments choose to waste our money on GMOs instead of on good storage and roads to stop the crops spoiling after harvest, and to make it possible to deliver them.

The reason that one billion out of the present 7 billion are starving has almost nothing to do with production and almost everything to do with politics, justice, distribution, and the fact that governments choose to waste our money on GMOs instead of on good storage and roads to stop the crops spoiling after harvest, and to make it possible to deliver them.

Secondly, sound nutrition and great gastronomy go hand in hand. Farming that can really feed people well and go on doing so produces “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety” – and those nine words summarize the best of modern nutritional theory and they encapsulate all the world’s best cooking: Chinese, Indian, Turkish and Lebanese in all their variety; Provencale; southern Italian; and even that of Britain and northern Europe in its traditional forms – griddle cakes and meat-and-potato pies and all the rest, with only occasional roasts. So a prime task for all the world if we really care about the future is to re-learn how to cook.

But there is a conditional clause – which I and many others see as an asset, but the powers-that-be (governments, corporates, banks, and their chosen intellectual advisers) see as a major glitch. For basic biological principles and a huge amount of experience tell us that the kind of Enlightened Agriculture that really can produce good food without wrecking the world should be maximally polycultural – mixtures of different crops and animals all operating in harmony. It should also be low-input – which means as near organic as is possible. Such farms are very complex and so they need plenty of skilled labour – though I stress skilled. We don’t need slaves and coolies (there is no need to abandon tractors and general gadgetry) but we do need plenty of farmers. When farms are complex and skills-intensive there is no great advantage in scale-up and so we see that the enlightened farms that could really feed us all well should generally be small to medium sized** 

[Note added 19/10/22: There’s a parallel here with medicine. Modern hospitals are dripping with high tech, often of the most wondrous kind. But the more there is the more we seem to need technicians and doctors and nurses and care-workers of all kinds at least to ensure that the technology works and that it actually serves the best interests of the patients at any one time – and to provide the extra care that mere technology cannot supply. If only them-in-charge would realize that the same principle applies, or should apply, in agriculture the world would be a much more agreeable and a safer place] 

In short, if we really want to feed people without wrecking the rest – if we really care about famine and horrible diseases like diabetes and about the extinction of our fellow species – then we need farms that are complex, quasi-organic, and in general are small to medium-sized; and to run them we need loads and loads of farmers. Britain now has around 160,000 full time farmers and it could do with a three-fold increase to around 500,000. The food chain as a whole, including all the small bakers and micro-brewers and charcutiers and retailers to process and distribute the kind of goods that small farms produce, could easily swallow up another million. A million corresponds almost exactly to the number of young people in Britain – 16 to 25-year-olds – who are now unemployed.

So why don’t the powers-that-be promote Enlightened Agriculture, and solve the world’s food problems, and much therefore of our health problems and our environmental problems, and the perennial and growing problem of unemployment, all in one go? Why do they tell us that our only hope of feeding people is to introduce high-tech farming with huge inputs of industrial chemistry and big machinery, eked out with GMOs, on monocultural prairies and factory farms that grow ever larger? Why does our elected government, and the corporates whose interests it serves, promote farming that is totally opposite to what common sense, common morality, sound biology and 10,000 years of experience suggest is necessary?

The answer is – the economy. The present economy is of the kind known as “neoliberal”: the allegedly “free” global market (though in fact dominated by corporates and big governments) in which everyone is supposed to compete with everyone else to make the greatest amount of money in the shortest time, and the Devil is invited to take the hindmost. If that sounds horribly crude, that’s because it is horribly crude.

Agriculture worldwide has been swept up in the neoliberal mania like everyone else. Farming we are told is “just a business like any other” and business, once seen as the natural pillar of a free society, has now been reconceived simply as an engine of wealth.

But farms (if such they can be called) that are intended or obliged to maximize wealth cannot meet any of the criteria of enlightenment. They must reduce labour to cut costs – so there is no chance of the complexity needed for biological stability. Instead we must have monoculture: prairie and factory farm. Output must be maximized to maximize turnover – which means bigger and bigger yields, and faster and faster growth: at least 10,000 litres per cow per year (a wild cow produces around 1200); chickens that reach oven-weight in less than six weeks (and are seriously unpleasant to eat but can be eked out with oil, herbs and onions). Skill is replaced by industrial chemistry and machines – the bigger the better; so the farms must be as big as possible. The collateral damage is enormous. Half our fellow species are in realistic danger of extinction. But the wealth increases which is all that is deemed to count – though the wealth is not spread through the population, to our general benefit. It remains in the hands of a very short shortlist of huge commercial companies and their shareholders, and especially with the banks who lend the money that makes the whole phantasmagoria possible.

Because of the perceived need to maximize wealth and centralize power, farming that can feed people without wrecking the rest isn’t even on the agenda. The million jobs that seriously need doing in food and farming remain unfilled. In arable Lincolnshire, it is common to find one labourer on 1000 hectares – enough to sustain 50 enlightened farmers and their families. Britain’s government prefers high tech, corporate rule, hype, and to wring its hands over unemployment.

Food and agriculture offer fabulous jobs – real careers. Many people really love farming just as many love medicine or teaching. Of course such jobs are not to everyone’s taste – no job is – but those who love them could not conceive of anything else. There surely are enough wannabe farmers to make enlightened agriculture work, though most of them now are doing other things: making cold-calls, driving vans; or propping up the dole queue.

But since the government isn’t on side and the money lies with the corporates, we – people at large – must take matters into our own hands. Four years ago my wife (Ruth) and I established the Campaign for Real Farming (“Real Farming” is short for Enlightened Agriculture) and then with Graham Harvey we set up the Oxford Real Farming Conference (the 4th year is in Oxford on January 3-4 2013). Recently we have been helping to set up fund to support enlightened agriculture and all that goes with it and very soon we hope to establish a College for Enlightened Agriculture to promote the necessary ideas and skills.

We hope that within a decade or less (there isn’t much time!) agriculture will be high on the list of all careers advisers – and that it will be a realistic proposition, with a career structure and an income; that, plus an eminently satisfying way of life.

Colin Tudge’s book, Good Food for Everyone Forever, is on sale from Pari Publishing or from Amazon.