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Enlightened Agriculture — or Agrochemistry al fresco?

Colin Tudge argues that the latest row surrounding neonicotinoids merely shows how wide of the mark agricultural strategies really are.

A farmer on BBC4’s PM programme on Thursday September 24 said that the European Commission’s two-year partial ban on three of the neonicotinoid insecticides would cost him a third of his crop this year – 6000 acres of rape in Cambridgeshire. Flea-beetles were already wreaking havoc. Furthermore, said the PM presenter, rape is Britain’s third largest crop. Nobody said “Damn those pesky environmentalists!” but the message was clear. 

On the other hand, the presenter acknowledged, honey bees are having a rough time, and neonics could be implicated and the government must take these things seriously (though of course, we are assured, “There is no firm evidence of harm, and there are many confounding variables … etc etc”). But although rape is hugely lucrative it is far from essential and the fact that we grow so much of it mainly shows that in Britain as in more and more of the world there is little or no relationship between what is grown most profitably and what is actually of benefit to humanity or the biosphere. The idea that present day farming is seriously intended to “feed the world”, as the pious expression has it, is so much cant. If it was, it could and would, and it clearly doesn’t. On a significant point of detail, no-one who was seriously interested in “feeding the world” or in what is peremptorily called “the environment” would think that 6000 acres of monocultural rape or anything like it was half-way sensible, or even sane. That the government, the EC, and the NFU encourage farmers to do such things shows how far they have drifted from reality. 

Also exposed is the true role of neonicotinoids, so zealously supported these past few years by British politicians and the scientists of whom they take notice (as opposed to the many who are ignored, who say that neonics are a disaster). Present agricultural policies do not support good farming. They support farming of a kind that is designed only to be profitable within the neoliberal global market, and is made possible only by huge injections of industrial chemistry – fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that include the neonics – which are hugely profitable for the shareholders in the short term but are biologically and socially absurd. Agriculture is now seen as a branch of the agro-chemical industry – or, for rhetorical purposes, of the agro-chemical-biotech industry. The idea behind this — that we can take nature by the scruff and manipulate it any way we want – is taken to represent modernity, where in truth it dates from the 18th century and in more thoughtful circles has long since been superseded. The ghastliness of early 19th century industrialization as seen in particular in England is now being repeated in the countryside the world over. 

We, humanity, suffer greatly from commercial and political short-termism and there is much worse to come. Already a billion are hungry worldwide; the world population of diabetics is twice the total population of Russia; Britain is apparently committed to cheap food yet 900 thousand Brits are now resorting to food banks; and half our fellow species (including many species of bee) are in imminent danger of extinction which is obviously bad for them and in the long run is bad for us. Yet, through our taxes, and in the supermarkets, we are paying for all this. The industrial food chain contributes hugely to GDP, which is called “economic growth” and has been the main obsession of the last five British governments from all the main parties, including a walk-on part by the Lib-Dems. This raises another kind of question, “Whose side do modern governments think they are on?” So what can be done? What, first of all, should we be growing? 

Fashionable economic theory – again seen to be modern though dating from the early 19th century musing of David Ricardo — says that farmers the world over should grow whatever can be grown most cheaply and sold for the highest price. Such as rape. That’s it. Any other proposal is said to be “unrealistic”. Yet common sense and the principles of food security and food sovereignty (it’s good to have control over our own food supply) tell us almost the precise opposite: that we should first and foremost seek self-reliance. Self-reliance doesn’t mean total self-sufficiency — producing absolutely everything we need. It just means growing enough of the essentials to get by in times of difficulty (such as the blockade of the 2nd world war, or a possible energy strike). So we Brits should be growing wheat (the main staple) and vegetables (they fill in the nutritional gaps and make life interesting) and raising beef and lamb on all our grassy hills (five sixths of Britain’s farmland!) and raising pigs and poultry on leftovers and surpluses. With such a strategy Britain could easily be self-reliant – and so could most of the countries in the world, if they weren’t obliged to produce commodity crops for export and to soak up US surpluses in exchange. But we should buy our coffee and bananas from the people who grow them best, at a fair price. But they too should focus on self-reliance before they start growing for us. A combination of self-reliance and fair trade worldwide would do most of what’s needed. 

How, though, do we cope with the flea beetle and its pestilential ilk if we banish neonics? Nature shows the way: diversity. Don’t grow 6000 uninterrupted acres of rape. Grow rape (if you really must grow it all) alongside crops of a dozen other species, all of them genetically various, and mix crops and livestock – and add trees, to create agroforestry, one of the few encouraging trends in modern agriculture. Faced with such a mixture, pests and diseases find it hard to get a foothold. No agronomist doubts that judicious mixtures produce the healthiest crops and animals – and are the most productive per unit area. 

But governments like ours do not support mixed farming because it is complex and so requires lots of skilled farmers on lots of small farms. Governance of the oligarchic kind, like Britain’s triad of corporates, government, and the compliant sections of academe, find it more straightforward to deal with big units, each with a huge pile of concentrated wealth. In the EU, about 80% of subsidies and 90% of research funding goes to support industrial agriculture – big monocultural units – of the kind that are now anomalously called “conventional”. All but the biggest farmers are pushed out in the name of “efficiency”. The message from on high is that small, mixed farms could not feed the world — yet they still supply half the world’s food even though they are being systematically done down and squeezed out. Since 20% of our food comes from fishing, hunting, and people’s back gardens, this means that the big industrial units that we are told are vital supply only 30% of the word’s food, at high cost and with huge collateral damage. We are told too that if we had more farmers the price of food would go up, yet 80% of what we spend on food in supermarkets goes to the middle men, and a fair chunk of the 20% that goes to the farmers goes to the banks, because most farmers like most people in the modern world are in debt. If governments really wanted to reduce the price of food as opposed to maintaining the status quo they would take steps to shorten the food chain, for example by encouraging local markets, and by encouraging farming of the non-industrial kind that requires less capital outlay and less debt. 

This is just a cursory recce of the status quo – but it’s enough to show that the official agricultural strategies as enacted by Britain’s present government and the previous five, at huge expense, are almost the precise opposite of what really should be done. Nothing is more important to humankind and the world as a whole than farming, and by promoting precisely what we don’t need governments like Britain’s can reasonably be seen as the prime enemies of humankind, far more dangerous it the long term than any terrorists. 

For my part, I would vote in the upcoming 2015 government election for any party that is not obviously Fascist that took agriculture seriously. But that’s not enough. We must not put our faith in governments – and certainly not in their present form. To put things right we need nothing less than an Agrarian Renaissance: not to attack the status quo head on, which is revolution, or simply to tweak it step by step, which is reform, but to start again from scratch, build the alternative in situ despite the status quo, working within the principles of agroecology and social justice. Furthermore we ourselves need to make the Agrarian Renaissance happen – all of us; farmers and people at large working together – because the oligarchs who now call the shots think they are doing a good job despite all evidence and will not change in any way that really matters. 

The good news is that worldwide, many millions of people are already on the case, coming up with new ideas and enacted ways of farming, marketing, and cooking that are tried and tested and known to work. There are easily enough people to form a critical mass and enough good ideas to turn the world around (although we can always do with more). What’s really lacking is coherence – social and conceptual; a political/moral/metaphysical framework that everyone who sees the need for the Renaissance can feel comfortable with. (And that, of course, is what I’m hoping this present website will help to provide and promulgate. Note added 18.10.22

Footnote: After this piece was posted Defra approved two neonicotinoid sprays that were not covered by the EC ban. They were previously allowed only to be used in spring but are now to be allowed this autumn on some flowering crops including rape. As you can see from the Farmers Guardian of September 25 2014, some greeted this news with joy while others point out that Defra and the NFU may now in effect be reasonably regarded as just outposts of the agrochemical industry: “Agrochemistry al fresco”.