Further thoughts on Sir John Beddington’s Foresight Report

Plenty of expert input but far short of the “paradigm shift” the world needs!

The most likely fate for John Beddington’s The Future of Food and Farming is to gather dust. But it exists; it was clearly expensive; it ostensibly involved experts from around the world; so it seems bound to be referred to, here and there, as “evidence” to support some future expediency. Yet the more I think about his report, the more depressing it seems. For in agriculture, if we seriously care about the future, it is vital to bring about what Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s called “a paradigm shift” — a new way of thinking. Specifically, we need to bring the morality, the science/ technology/ husbandry, and the economic theory and structure, into line. Beddington spectacularly fails to do this, or even to attempt it. The vagueness of his report is not what’s most worrying – he can simply argue (and does) that it is necessary to keep the options open. What really matters is the overall incoherence.

Morally, as we might have expected, the report has nothing to say, beyond observing that there is a lot wrong with the world (“perfect storm”) and we had better do something about it. But there is no suggestion that there might be something wrong with the world order; no mention that I could see of justice; and none at all of our fellow creatures (except as “biodiversity” which in this context seems simply to mean “resource”). Still, acknowledging that something has to be done is at least a start: a slight improvement on the prevailing philosophy of the past 30 years which has insisted that we are on the right lines and simply need more of the same (ie the free market, and more high tech, and – paradoxically, for this is not what the free market is supposed to be about – more top-down control).

On the technical front the report is a mish-mash. It touches base with everything, in the manner of an A-level essay: “List the number of ways in which it might be possible to increase yield and/ or sustainability”. So it has pars about grazing, and a par or two about small farms, and a box on organic farming, and mentions agroforestry and aquaculture. But all of these are presented as concessions, virtually in parentheses, to show that Beddington has indeed consulted 400 experts, who say different things: a bit of this and a bit of that. (Revealingly, although Beddington does mention waste – indeed he says how important it is – he does not mention swill, and the extreme wastefulness of the ban on feeding swill to pigs and poultry. But then, the general notion that waste is bad is non-controversial – and we can build lucrative industries around waste reduction.  The idea that we might reverse the ruling on swill would be politically inconvenient and indeed would reveal the extreme poverty of thought behind the past few decades of government thinking – and we don’t want to go there, do we?)

But the worst aspect is the complete mismatch between the proposed technologies (insofar as any are clearly proposed) and the underlying economy. Because the most consistent feature of Beddington’s report is its advocacy of the free market and removal of all controls, including tariffs and all the rest. (Beddington was of course an economist of a conventional kind, before he was a scientist). The free, finance-based, ultra-competitive market demands maximization of yield, added value, and reduction of cost – all measured entirely in money. Loss of wildlife, injustice, etc, are written out of the act (although various learning bodies worldwide go to great lengths to “put a price” on aspects of life that in a sane society should simply be seen to be sacrosanct).

But market forces will not lead us to a biologically sound world of small, mixed, integrated, low input, labour intensive farms with emphasis on grazing, horticulture, agroforestry, and aquaculture, and with emphasis (though of course not exclusive emphasis) on local markets. As oil goes up in price (virtually the only restraint on commerce that the global free market recognizes) then as much land as possible will be used for biofuel, with Miscanthus as the leading candidate to take over the world’s grazing land (for Miscanthus is trouble free: just harvest once per year; one worker per 5000 hectares; ready market; nice work if you can get it). This of course is already happening worldwide, because SUVs are worth more in cash terms than human beings (of the kind who have no money), or other species. In general, the world’s most powerful governments, together with the corporates, and the intellectuals who are prepared to work for them, will continue to advocate high-tech (inc GM) industrial farming, and impose it, and they will succeed unless they are challenged on a very broad front.

If we are serious about the future we have to re-think from first principles, and Beddington shows no signs whatever of doing this. Neither, I am sure, would it occur to him or to anyone else who was likely to find themselves in positions of power, that this is necessary. Excellent people were indeed consulted for his report but all who are not on message were sidelined; and in future, unless people at large become very angry about it, all alternatives to the maximize yield/ add value/ cut costs paradigm must be sidelined too.