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Death by self-satisfaction: Why the wrong people are in charge of the world’s food supply and what we can do about it

We should be angrier than we seem to be. The world is in a horrible mess and it needn’t be. Above all, everyone who is ever likely to be born could be fed to the highest standards, and without wrecking the rest of the world. We human beings and our fellow creatures could be looking…

We should be angrier than we seem to be. The world is in a horrible mess and it needn’t be. Above all, everyone who is ever likely to be born could be fed to the highest standards, and without wrecking the rest of the world. We human beings and our fellow creatures could be looking forward to a long and glorious future. We are in a mess because the people who have most influence over the world’s agriculture aren’t focused on the job – they are not actually trying to produce good food for everyone, without wrecking the rest. For good measure, they don’t truly understand agriculture, or care enough about it. But perhaps above all, they cannot even begin to consider seriously that this might be the case – that they really have got it wrong.

But of course, just being angry isn’t going to help. If we really give a damn, we have to do something about it. As I see it, the most practical and effective thing we could do is take control ourselves. We really do need nothing less than “A people’s takeover of the world’s food supply” – which this website is intended to promote. 

All this may sound fantastical. Is it really possible, or indeed straightforward, to feed everybody well without wrecking the rest? If so, how come we fail so spectacularly to do so? Can it really be true that the people in charge of the world’s most important activity are focused on the wrong things, and don’t understand what they are about? Do all those directorships and knighthoods and well-appointed conferences and all the rest really add up to nothing? And is it really possible to wrest power from the status quo without getting into the most unholy fight that would only make things worse?

The answer to all these questions is “Yes”. It’s a cautious “yes”, and to bring about the necessary changes will require a lot of effort, including a lot of thinking. But it is certainly possible. It is also necessary. If we – humanity – don’t take over the world’s food supply – ensure as Abraham Lincoln put the matter in a slightly different context, that our agriculture is “of the people and for the people” (and for our fellow creatures too) – then, quite simply, we’ll have had our chips. So:

Is it really possible to feed everybody well and forever without wrecking the rest of the world? 

As discussed at length in Good Food for Everyone Forever and elsewhere on this website, all we really need to do to feed everybody well and forever, without wrecking the rest, is to design agriculture expressly for that purpose. Since this seems to be a fairly enlightened thing to do, this might be called Enlightened Agriculture. The trick is to begin with foundations of common morality and basic biology. The moral point is that we need to be clear that it really is our intention to provide good food for everyone without killing everything else. The biological point is that if we truly want agriculture that is productive, sustainable, and flexible (resilient) then we need to emulate nature, which means we need farming that is diverse (polycultural), tightly integrated (everything feeding into everything else) and low-input (which means that organic farming becomes the default position). Such farming is bound to be complex which means it must be skills-intensive which means there is no net advantage in scale-up which means we need a huge number of farms that are small to medium sized.

In practice, Enlightened Agriculture has much in common with traditional farming. In fact, for the most part, it is traditional farming – but put on to a secure footing: underpinned by sound science, and embedded within an economy and a food culture that are sympathetic to its needs. Traditional farmers have already demonstrated in spades that they can do what the world needs. Even in their present state, under-resourced, under-serviced, and often actively done down by the prevailing economy, governments, big industry, and the law, they still provide all the food for 70 per cent of the world’s people.

But the requirements of Enlightened Agriculture – agriculture that is designed expressly to provide good food without wrecking the rest – are absolutely at odds with the policies of the world’s most powerful governments and the corporates and banks who run the show, all of whom are supported by armies of managers, bureaucrats, intellectuals, and experts. For the agriculture that is now favoured is of the industrial kind – basically an al fresco exercize in industrial chemistry and heavy engineering, all tricked out these days with biotech, the jewel of which is GM. The prime purpose of the whole elaborate exercize is not to provide good food but to maximize profit. That might sound like the cynicism of a 15-year-old but it is quite simply the case. Anything else is said to be “unrealistic”. The logic of simple chemistry and big machinery, and the need not simply to make a profit but to make as big a profit as possible, demand that farming should be monocultural, high-input (in capital, oil, technology), with minimum labour (or certainly with minimum skill), and practiced on the largest possible scale.

In short, the people with the most power promote strategies that are precisely opposed to what humanity and the world really need. Which raises the question:

How could the people in charge have got it so wrong? 

Very few of the people who have serious control over the world’s agriculture are agriculturalists. Of those who can make such a claim, it is hard to find anyone who has seriously practiced traditional farming. In general, strange though it may seem, the people with most power are not well informed. They simply conform to a shortlist of idees fixes of a kind that are currently fashionable and – above all – support the status quo. Yet, as tends to be the case with people in high places, they cannot even begin to consider that they might be wrong; that people who are not as rich as they are, and do not have so many letters after their name, and do not meet regularly in boardrooms and cabinet offices and senior common rooms, could possibly know more than they do about things that are actually relevant. Besides, although I do not mean to suggest that they are particularly venal, people in high places have mortgages and pension schemes like the rest of us and it is doubly hard for them to acknowledge that the status quo that is serving them so well is not what the world needs.

The thinking of those who now have most power over Britain’s and the world’s agriculture are guided by three central dogmas. To wit:

The first dogma: the absolute importance of the free market 

The first of the three dogmas was launched in its modern form in 1968 by the economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. He said that all will be well provided we leave our affairs to the free market. Producers cannot survive unless they produce what consumers want to buy, and what consumers are willing to pay for must represent their preferred choice; and if producers can survive only by satisfying the desires of people at large – well: that is true democracy. Anyone who aspires to be a producer or a trader will have to compete with all the other producers and traders for the customers’ favour. Only those who function most efficiently (with least waste) and come closest to doing what people want, can survive. What is good is defined by what people are prepared to pay for — and so the market extends its role beyond mere commerce to become the arbiter of morality: the judge of what we consider to be good.

All this seems very Darwinian and hence has a special appeal to a certain class of scientist. “Neodarwinians” in particular have rallied to support the market thesis. In Britain in the early 1980s Margaret Thatcher (with Keith Joseph and others) turned the Friedman idea of the free market into official economic policy and Ronald Reagan in the US followed hard on her heels. We have been living with Friedman-style economics ever since – the all-embracing, grand economic and moral theory now known as “neoliberalism” (the word “liberal” having changed its political connotation since, say, the days of Jo Grimond).

Friedman wasn’t the first to advocate free markets, of course. Adam Smith did so, too, in the 18th century. In truth, Smith’s overall position is somewhat puzzling.  He was a moralist before he was an economist and in his first book of 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he seemed to take a sanguine view of human nature:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

But Smith was a somewhat unsociable 18th century Scot with the Calvinist preaching of John Knox ringing in his ears and in The Wealth of Nations in 1776 he seems to take a dimmer view of human nature. In Book I, Chapter II he suggests that in practice, our selfishness is to the fore:

“Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want … and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

Yet this is no bad thing, said Smith, because if the market is working well then, as he tells us in Book IV, Chapter II, all must turn out for the best. A hypothetical “invisible hand” will take care of things for us:

“ by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, [the trader] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

Nobody to this day seems quite clear where Smith really stood on all this. Did he think that people are basically nice, or that they aren’t? Did he take it to be obvious that people in trade ought to behave like nice people as a matter of course, or did he really think – as he seems to suggest in the invisible hand quote – that it’s best if people seek only to serve their own self-interest? Whatever he really intended, he managed to give rise to a whole economic tradition in which selfishness is seen as the key to social cohesion, and indeed to moral progress. To people with a particular penchant for power and wealth, it’s a very convenient point of view. Thus by 1875 in The Way We Live Now we find Antony Trollope’s banker, Melmotte, telling his prospective investors:

“These are great times and I am proud to be an Englishman in these times! What is the engine of this world? Profit. Gentlemen it is your duty to make yourself rich!”

In Trollope’s hands this was intended as parody, and Melmotte was an obvious villain, but a hundred years later, Melmotte-style sentiments echoed through The Economist and The Daily Telegraph, and of course The Wall Street Journal,as the wisdom of the day.  Gordon Gekko (alias Michael Douglas) summarized the whole philosophy beautifully in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street in 1987:

“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that “greed” – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”

Or to invert Tom Lehrer’s comment on the old drug pedlar, you can do good by doing well. Or as Del-Boy was wont to put the matter in Only Fools and Horses, “Luvly jubbly!”  After the general economic collapse in the early 2000s the spotless and unimpeachable Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England no less, explained that no-one including himself had wanted to intervene so long as the jubbly was flowing. Such is modern governance.

The jubbly might indeed be lovely if the free market actually worked in the way that Smith and Friedman envisaged. At least, if it really is our intention to create a world in which a few people are very rich and growing richer by the minute, while most grow poorer and some starve, and the fabric of the Earth falls apart, then it is already succeeding very well indeed. Without wishing to be cynical, too, it really does seem that some people feel that their own personal wealth is all that matters (for there are really are Melmottes and Gekkos in this world and some of them, like Melmotte and Gekko, are in positions of influence).

But those who argue that the unfettered market really can deliver what most people surely want – a comfortable life in a secure society that is rooted in justice – then it is clearly failing very badly, just as it did in the late 18th and early 19th century when Smith’s principles were first applied formally in Britain. The basic reason, I reckon, is that Smith’s model is flawed. The bottom line (just to borrow a little market-speak) is that in the end we can’t dispense with morality. We first have to decide that a nice, just, and peaceable society is what we really want, and that we care about our fellow creatures, and then work at it by all the means at our disposable.  If we simply entrust our affairs to an algorithm, whether it’s the hypothetical invisible hand or some adage of he kind ascribed to Karl Marx, we’re asking for trouble.

At least, the invisible hand would very possibly make itself felt and work for our benefit if the market was ideal: if there was an infinite number of traders and an infinite number of buyers and all the buyers had perfect information and perfect access to all the traders. But if any of those preconditions is compromised, then the market can be corrupted in all kinds of ways. If there are too few traders, then the buyers have only limited choice and individual traders can put the squeeze on in various ways – not least by occupying the only place in town that the buyers can reasonably get to. In this, the law is often on the side of injustice because only the richest can afford to deploy its powers. The buyers for their part don’t have infinite time to shop around and certainly don’t have perfect information – not least because in practice they rely on information provided by the traders. In practice, in the free market economy, the traders who at any stage gain an edge are liable henceforth to grow richer and richer and commandeer more and more of the market. There is a parallel here with the laws of complexity which explain how galaxies grew out of apparent uniformity. Hence the modern food and farming industry: dominated worldwide by a remarkably short shortlist of corporates.

The free market is further reinforced by two sets of notions that have nothing directly to do with it but nevertheless work side by side with it in almost perfect synergy. The first of these notions, emanating primarily from the western world, is the materialist belief, enshrined in “classical” economic theory, that people are made happy by possession and wealth and hence that the task for economists and governments is simply to enhance general wealth. The second supporting notion is that of finance capitalism and the debt economy. The world’s economies are dominated by money which, these days, has very little connection to the stuff that money is supposed to be able to buy. Money is an abstraction but in political circles it has become more real than real things. Since the money is indeed an abstraction, it doesn’t really matter these days if it does not actually exist in any physical form. Indeed in practice it is merely deemed to exist. Wealth becomes measured not in what people own but in what banks and other such institutions are prepared to lend them. Most of us live largely on debt – on money that it is presumed we will earn in the future, or is embedded in a house that the bank can claim when we die – and most of us spend a high proportion of our income on servicing debt. We pay interest both on our own and other people’s loans — because the people who sell us things are almost bound to be in debt themselves, and whatever price we pay for their goods must cover the cost of those debts.

Margaret Thatcher recognized that in the short term the unfettered market and finance capitalism would be bound to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few – the few who have shares in the corporates, and who run the banks that lend the money, and receive the interest on debts rather than paying it out. But never fear, she said. The wealth will “trickle down” to the people at large. Yet as Barack Obama observed in a recent speech: “Guess what. Trickle-down doesn’t work”. Actually of course it can work up to a point if the ultra-rich are also entrepreneurs with an advanced moral conscience, who use their wealth to found factories and other centres of serious employment, and to build schools and libraries and so on, in the spirit for example of Andrew Carnegie. But most rich people are not Andrew Carnegies. (Bill Gates thinks he is but there are significant differences).

A second huge snag, at least as bad, is that the means by which wealth is generated often do serious harm to the world and to people at large so the net effect in all but the shortest term is likely to be bad even if the wealth does trickle down (which on the whole it does not). Fortunes have been made by building hotels and casinos on erstwhile mangroves and although a lot of people may make a living in the new boom towns by driving taxis and cleaning hotel rooms a great many more people lose their livelihoods, but they generally go uncounted (and are written off as collateral damage in the great and sacred drive to progress).  

But the greatest examples of this – the destructiveness of mere wealth – are to be found in agriculture. Indeed, it’s the mismatch between the modern economy – the neoliberal market and finance capitalism – and the real needs of farming and farmers that is the greatest single cause of the world’s present plight. Those who advocate the kind of enlightened farming that the world really needs are written off as ideologues: greenies, reds, nostalgics, elitists, or what you will. Yet the plea for such farms is not borne of ideology. The case for such farms follows as night follows day from simple, and most ecologists would say unequivocal, principles of biology – plus observation and knowledge from the world over of what kinds of farms actually work, and of how people really live.

In contrast, the present obsession with ever-bigger, industrial, high-tech industrial farms is pure ideology. It is born of the ideology of the free market and finance capitalism – plus an unswerving belief in the power and necessity of high tech. This is the second of the three all-pervasive and erosive dogmas.

The second dogma: the absolute importance of high technology

Ours, we have been told a million times, is the age of science. Some physicists have been wont to speak of late of “the theory of everything”. In truth this has a very specific meaning (as I understand it, it is a mathematical statement that will reconcile the classical physics of relativity with the general weirdness of quantum physics) but it seems to mean what it says: that everything will fall into place once we have this theory (which is just around the corner). More generally, many scientists in high places have told us in effect these past few decades that science is potentially omniscient: or at least, that anything that science cannot tell us is not worth knowing, or indeed is not knowledge. If we are not omniscient yet, the implication is, we soon will be.

Science and technology are not the same thing, not at all, but they do enjoy a close synergistic relationship. Modern scientific research depends on gadgetry and science in turn has given rise to a whole new category of technologies that could not have been conceived without it – everything from lasers and microchips to GM crops. These science-based technologies are called “high technology”. Just as science will lead us to omniscience, so high technology, rooted in science, will lead us virtually to omnipotence – or so the myth has it. Some scientists and politicians have spoken in recent decades of controlling or even “conquering” nature. The general notion seems to be that whatever hole we may dig ourselves into we will always be able to devise a technology (and probably a high technology) to dig ourselves out of it. It’s just a question of spending enough on research (and if we don’t have the money we can always print it). This as far as I can see was the thinking behind Nicholas Stern’s report in 2006 on global warming. We just have to spend a lot more on the technologies. Sir Nicholas seemed to take it for granted that the technologies intended to reduce greenhouse gases (and increase albedo and so on) will work. By the same token, advocates of biotech seem largely to take it for granted that GM crops really will deliver vast yields with no significant side effects just because some bodies of theory suggest that they should. As I have heard several senior scientists say of late, “We know how the world works. It’s just a question of applying the science”.

I am not alone in finding such talk terrifying. The greatest lessons of 20th century science and the philosophy of science are that the universe is innately uncertain – the principle of “non-linearity” operates in spades, right down to the core – and that our theories are always partial and provisional. The lawyers’ criterion of truth – the whole truth and nothing but the truth – is a nice idea but it’s an unrealizable ideal (like Adam Smith’s perfect market). We can never know how life and the universe really work, or predict how things will turn out, and we certainly cannot guarantee to produce technologies that will solve all our problems. We have had successes in the past, to be sure, but we have often shown our limitations too.

Some scientists, and many philosophers of science, express such reservations. But they on the whole are not the ones that get invited to advise governments. Government advisers are required to be more up-beat. Indeed they are technophiles. To be specific, there is no doubt that the British government and its scientific advisers have already decided that future agriculture must involve GM crops and livestock. The only question is – how much? But the assumption clearly is that as time passes, there will be more and more GM, until it becomes the norm. I can think of no research that shows unequivocally that this would be a good thing: that GM can ever solve the real problems of the world more easily, quickly, and safely than more conventional approaches could do. None of the research that I know of shows that GM-based farming performs better over time than conventional approaches would do if they were given the same support and resources. Scientists claim to be scientific but in agriculture at least they rarely seem to carry out proper control experiments of the kind that we expect in medicine, to show that their innovations really are better. In fact the main reasons for the present enthusiasm for GM are, first, that it suits big agro-industrial companies of the kind that plug in most easily to the neoliberal economy; secondly, that the general mind-set of the scientists who are close to the centres of power is one of technophilia. They believe deep down that the future must lie with high tech. It simply does not occur to them that traditions that are not rooted in modern science, and people who do not necessarily have PhDs, could possibly do the job as well as those who do (or indeed, in reality, a great deal better).

Which brings us to the third of the three pernicious dogmas:

The third dogma: the right people are in charge 

At 4.30 on the afternoon of Thursday March 2 2012, Lord (John) Krebs told BBC Radio 4’s Material World how the ideas of science find their way into government policy. Each department has its own – “independent”, he stressed  — scientific adviser, each of whom is a professional scientist – “physicist, chemist, biologist, mathematician”. All are answerable to the Government Chief Scientist, who at present is Sir John Beddington. Each has the right and duty to ensure that ministers are apprised of the relevant science. Each minister must then decide whether and to what extent the scientific advice should influence policy. Ministers after all, said Lord Krebs, must take many other things into consideration too: economic, social, democratic.

The way Lord Krebs described the system, it seems hard to improve upon. Dispassionate experts, top specialists in their fields, talk directly and as equals to democratically elected sages, chosen for their sagacity to represent people at large. We are blessed indeed.

Yet alarm bells ring. In agriculture at least, which is so vital, and in which I have taken some interest, it doesn’t seem to work like that. No government chief scientist that I have known over the past decade or so has had any deep knowledge of agriculture. Certainly none has been a farmer. So far as I can see no departmental scientific adviser can properly be called an agriculturalist. The notion that scientific advisers should be “independent” is admirable – but where, in Britain, these days, are truly independent agricultural scientists to be found? In truth they do exist, here and there. But it is hard to identify a major research programme within a university that is not supported by some agrochemical or engineering or biotech company. These companies, we are constantly told, do not interfere with the research. But it’s also clear that they do not knowingly support research that might put them in a bad light, or show that their commercial products are not as vital as they are billed to be.

It is even more clear that the very biggest questions of all are never formally addressed in ways that could conceivably give a convincing answer. Thus, at least to my knowledge, no-one ever has conducted the kind of large-scale controlled study that would show us definitively (or as nearly definitively as   is possible) whether industrial farming or low-input polyculture of the kind described above gives better results over prolonged periods, when each approach is properly supported, financially and politically. This is possibly the most important material question that humanity could be asking right now, and it is perfectly answerable. It’s the kind of question that science should be able to sort out. But the answer is blowing in the wind. Such answers as there are, are mostly presented in the form of NGO rhetoric and company PR.

But I digress. The point is that it is hard in practice, going on impossible, to find any scientist close to government who has any first-hand experience of agriculture in all but the narrowest contexts – who can properly be called “expert”; and who can truly be said to be independent. The once fiercely independent Rothamsted Research Institute in Hertfordshire, the oldest dedicated agricultural research station in the world and once the jewel in the crown of the old government-owned Agricultural and Food Research Council, is now focused on GM, as if the virtue and the value of it were self-evident. On any committee convened to decide policy you would be surprised to find no representatives of agro-industry, or indeed fewer than three. The NFU, representing industrial farmers, would be there too. But you would be very surprised indeed to find anyone representing small farmers, even though they produce the food for most of the world’s people, despite the odds stacked against them.

Neither is it obvious that science ought to be represented in government only by professional career scientists. For a key question of our age, or indeed of any age, is whether and to what extent science really can tell us how the world works. To what extent is nature really understood? To what extent is it understandable? To what extent, in the absence of perfect knowledge, should we presume that we can take living systems by the scruff and make them do what we want them to? The question should be asked as allegedly posed by the Roman poet Juvenal when he was told that the common people were to be represented by their own special guardians: “… sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” But who will guard those guardians? Where among the government’s scientists are the philosophers of science, who can question the limits of scientific wisdom, or what we have a right to do?

All of this leaves us asking:

What’s to be done? 

Even to come up with a formal agenda of all the things that need to be re-thought and acted upon would be a huge undertaking requiring a lot of input from a lot of people – but it needs to be done if we are truly to dig ourselves out of the holes in which we have allowed ourselves to be dug. The following is not the required agenda. It is just a shortlist of items, big and small, that seem particularly pressing, to give a flavour of what’s needed.

Economics: the importance of low key capitalism 

The enemy isn’t capitalism. The enemy is the very peculiar, extreme form of capitalism with which we have allowed ourselves to be lumbered – the unfettered global market which, in effect, makes its own rules. In truth, capitalism re-conceived from first principles could serve us all very well. Thus, it’s hard in practice to avoid the need for at least some private ownership – and this is a key ingredient of capitalism. Free enterprise – another key ingredient — really can work to everyone’s advantage. Trade is obviously desirable. Money is a useful device and good accountancy is necessary. Business should primarily be collaborative with competition confined to friendly rivalry. As friendly rivalry, competition is a useful spur to endeavour – but it becomes horribly destructive, as it is now, when it is to-the-death, with each player apparently intent on taking over the world (as in present-day hostile takeovers). It is obvious, too — as emphasized not least by John Maynard Keynes – that the point of the economy is to serve the needs of individual people, and humanity and the world as a whole. The economy is a practical device only. It is not an end in itself, and should not be seen as an ideology and still less (as now) as a substitute for moral philosophy.

Many feel that the only antidote to the rampant neoliberal ideology that now passes as capitalism is to abandon capitalism altogether and adopt the centralized (typically Marxist) form of economy. But Marxist economies among other things have built-in inefficiencies (too many committees) and as Mikhail Gorbachev commented as he presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union, they make too many demands on the citizens. Most people like more freedom than Marxist economies generally allow. What really could serve our purposes is low-key capitalism – the kind that is sometimes disparagingly called “petit-bourgeois”: nations of small farmers (as Thomas Jefferson envisaged) and small shopkeepers (as Adam Smith put the matter). Taxes collected by non-corrupt governments that were truly dedicated to the public weal would take care of essential public works and services. Such as system is all very traditional and a great many historical precedents suggest that it can work very well (though of course it needs to be protected against the various forms of excess, including the desire of some people to acquire unlimited wealth). There is nothing in this that should frighten too many horses.

Ethical investment and the rest 

The broad capitalist umbrella as it already exists includes a great many mechanisms that would allow the petit bourgeois, essentially democratic economy to flourish. These include Trusts (like the National Trust) and mutuals (as the building societies used to be) and co-operatives and community interest companies and community-supported agriculture and so on.

The overall notion that I feel is most promising is that of Ethical Investment: people putting their money into enterprises that seem to be doing the right things, morally and practically, and are not simply intended to maximize returns in the short term. In fact, ethical investment targeted specifically at enterprises that are intended to build an alternative food chain, independent of big industry, corporates, and big banks, could in principle achieve almost all that needs doing. Through ethical investment, the British between us could afford a people’s buy-out of the entire food chain. By such means we could bring about the most significant social revolution that could be envisaged without ever firing a shot in anger or even raising our voices – just using the tools that are already out there. So why not?

Independent science

Good science is vital – but it must be geared to real problems. Making low-input farming work is a real problem of immense complexity. It is an exercize in applied ecology, which is orders of magnitude more intricate than the brute, early 19th century industrial chemistry on which our present agriculture is based. Unfortunately, over the past 30 years, successive governments have systematically closed down or sold off Britain’s network of publically-owned agricultural research stations, experimental husbandry farms, and colleges and departments of agriculture and forestry that once were the envy of the world. Ideology prevailed, as it so often does in government, over common sense and the lessons of history.

We need to reinstate that scientific and educational network, independent of the big industries that are now considered to be so necessary. It will not of course be easy but the first requirement is to state the problem and the second is to ask what really needs to be done and then to cost it all – and so on and so on. Certainly, we have to make a start.


It is absurd (also deeply reprehensible, morally and politically, but above all absurd) that agriculture worldwide should mostly be managed by people who have no direct involvement with it, are often profoundly ignorant of it, and have no real interest in it or respect for it. These influential people include investors who simply want to make money from other people’s efforts; young politicians on their way up (as David Milliband was); old politicians on their way down (as Margaret Beckett was); and miscellaneous land-owners both ancient and nouveaux with very mixed agendas which range (to be fair) from true philanthropy to horses and helicopters (as well as the traditional huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’). Rarely in the history of agriculture does it seem to have occurred to people in positions of influence that they ought to consult the people who farm for a living. George Ewart Evans in the 1940s wrote a book called Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay – and the title seemed very striking, and still does, because that seemed, and seems, such an eccentric thing to do.

Many people worldwide are fighting back. In 2009 the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) published Agriculture at a Crossroads which pointed out that the future security of agriculture and therefore of the whole world depends very much on small-to-medium sized, mixed farms, which therefore have to be taken notice of. The British government approved the IAASTD but has produced nothing in word or deed to suggest that it has taken it seriously, and a great deal to suggest that the IAADTD report has been put on the shelf to gather dust, along with every other report that does not support the status quo. 

Two recent reports from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) now argue that practicing farmers in general and small farmers in particular must be involved in framing agricultural strategy. (See Participatory Research and On-Farm Management of Agricultural Diversity in Europe by Michel Pimbert; and Democratising Agricultural Research for Food Sovereignty in West Africa by Michel Pimbert, Boukary Barry, Anne Berson, and Khanh Tran-Thanh).

Overall, there is no shortage of ideas that we know could work, because they clearly do work when given a chance to do so, and have often worked in various historical contexts. The main task is to make it possible for people who actually know something about farming and all that goes with it, and who give a damn, to exert influence. This could start to happen if people at large (all of us: ordinary Joes) used the means already at hand (as roughly sketched out above) to start building an alternative food chain. This is, or would be, a very large part of the much-needed Renaissance.