“The Future of Food and Farming” equals more of the same

The government Chief Scientist demands “a redesign of the whole food system” but recommends business as usual.

There is much to admire in the Chief Government Scientist Sir John Beddington’s long-awaited Foresight report: The Future of Food and Farming: challenges and choices for global sustainability. So there should be. It has, after all, as Sir John tells us, involved “Several hundred experts and stakeholders from across the world … from a wide range of disciplines across the natural and social sciences”.  It tells us, up front, and quite rightly, that we need “decision-making that is fully integrated across a diverse range of policy areas which are all too often considered in isolation, and for action to be based on sound evidence”. Indeed, “Nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore”; and to achieve this, “Policy options should not be closed off. Throughout, the Project’s Final Report has argued the importance of, within reason, excluding as few as possible different policy options on a priori grounds”. Absolutely! Just what was needed!

But somehow, the report doesn’t quite live up to its own billing.  The report offers very few specifics – and where it does, these serve almost invariably to endorse the status quo. So although we may need an across the board re-think – a “redesign” – we are in essence already on the right lines and mainly need more of the same. There are some startling omissions along the way: entire, key areas of discussion have gone missing. There are internal contradictions, of which the editors seem unaware. A great deal is taken for granted that really must not be taken for granted – including the assumed authority of governments. Overall, the “wide range of disciplines” is not wide enough. Absolutely lacking is what is properly called metaphysics: any examination of what humanity’s attitude to the world as a whole ought to be. Our fellow creatures are summed up as “biodiversity”, the role of which is to furnish new genes for possible future crops, and to provide us with “ecosystem services”.  This is a bureaucrat’s re-think.

Accurately, the report tells us that the world is in a truly disastrous state – rampant erosion, loss of fresh water (with agriculture gobbling up 70% of the world’s “blue water”), loss of oil and the quick and easy energy that it provides, dissipation of phosphorus (which the report doesn’t seem to mention), and above all, anthropogenic global warming – 30 per cent of which results from the food chain. The report rightly warns us not to expand our farming any further – in particular, we must not cut down any more rainforest – and says, therefore, that we need above all to intensify; yet we must do this without collateral damage. Overall, “Investment in research on modern technologies is essential in light of the magnitude of the challenges for food security in the coming decades.”

It all sounds perfectly sensible and indeed incontrovertible – but if we are truly being radical, and talking of “redesign”, then we need to re-think from first principles. If we do that, we can get a different picture.

What’s the problem? 

As the report rightly tells us, the world population now stands at 7 billion and on present trends it will rise to about 9.3 billion by 2050 – but then the numbers should level out. So, as the  report points out,  our food problems can at last be seen to be finite – we need to feed 9 billion, and then go on doing so for a few decades or centuries, after which numbers should fall again, not through disaster but just because that’s the way demography works. This is the best news humanity has had since Thomas Robert Malthus told us in the early 19th century that humanity was bound to breed and breed until there is the most almighty crash. No we won’t, probably. The task is definable: to provide good food for nine billion.

Then the report tells us that the world as a whole has about 4.6 billion hectares of land that can reasonably be called agricultural.

But the authors fail to put the two statistics together. For if we have 4.6 billion hectares, and nine billion to feed, then the future task is to feed around two people per hectare – and that really shouldn’t be too difficult. In Britain, for example (just to provide a simple yardstick) the average wheat yield is now around 8 tonnes per hectare. One kilogram of wheat provides around 3000 kcals of food energy, at more than 10 per cent protein – which is more than enough energy and protein to feed an adult for a day. Since there are 365 days in a year, each person requires just over a third of a tonne of wheat  per annum (or the equivalent thereof) – so one hectare, producing 8 tonnes, could provide the macronutrients, the basis of a staple diet, for about 20 people. That’s ten times as much as the average that’s needed. 

Of course, the cosseted, supplemented wheat fields of Britain are far more productive than much of the world. Cattle and sheep, grazing and browsing in semi-desert, hardly produce a hundredth of this. But many systems worldwide are far more productive than Britain’s arable – including the traditional small mixed units of South-East Asia, where rice and horticulture are tightly integrated with fish, ducks, and pigs, and everything grows all year round. Even the arable farmers of the Sahel, who hope to produce about one tonne of sorghum per hectare, are producing enough. Overall, then, we ought to be able to say – “No panic!” The prime task, surely, is simply to encourage good farmers to farm, usually in the way that they do traditionally (albeit sometimes with a little help from well-directed science) and to make it possible for them to do so.  The secondary task is to find ways to enable farmers worldwide to do what they do with minimum collateral damage – but then if you look closely at traditional systems you find that many are wonderfully conservative and wildlife-friendly (as in the traditional mixed farms of South-East Asia); far more so than western high-tech systems. Traditional farming, in short, in all its extraordinary variety, is a good starting point; and where it fails, this is generally for extraneous reasons.

As we will see, the report does acknowledge the role of traditional farmers – whose status needs to be raised to where it once was: “In the African context, [farming] is often seen as old-fashioned, and the preoccupation of previous generations”. Yet the emphasis of the report is the perceived need for what is perceived to be modernity, which special reference to high tech. In fact the report is nothing like so open-minded and even-handed as it professes to be. Most of the time it is vague on specifics – leaving the powers-that-be very wide scope for doing more of what they do already under the broad heading of innovation – but in some areas, it is very specific. In particular it stresses the absolute importance, virtually the sanctity, of the present global economy: finance capitalism (money is all) within the context of the neoliberal free-but-rigged global market.

Neoliberalism rules, OK! 

The report professes to dismiss no idea a priori – except the idea that the neoliberal, global market, may not be serving the world’s people and our fellow creatures and the fabric of the Earth itself quite as well as it might. The editors stress the virtues of the market over and over. It is their principal leitmotiv. Thus we are told:

“Food security is best served by fair and fully functioning markets and not by policies to promote self-sufficiency”.

Then we are told (twice), 

“This Report rejects food self-sufficiency as a viable option for nations to contribute to global food security … it is important to avoid the introduction of export bans at time of food stress, something that almost certainly exacerbated the 2007 – 2008 food price spike.”

If anyone should step out of line, 

“Greater powers need to be given to international institutions to prevent trade restrictions at times of crisis.”

To be sure, 

“Concerns have been raised regarding the exercise of this concentration of corporate power, for example in retail markets and purchase contracts with suppliers (particularly smaller farmers) … However, there does not seem to be an argument for intervention to influence the number of companies in each area or how they operate – provided that the current numbers of major companies in each area and region of the food system were not to contract to a level where competition was threatened, and provided that all organizations adhere to high international standards of corporate governance.” 

How foolish to suppose that Tesco, and Cargill, and Monsanto might be gaining too much power!

But I don’t know anyone who has ever talked seriously about “self-sufficiency” in the context of national food security: except perhaps Mao Zedong who felt (very reasonably) that China was beleaguered and felt the need to cut off the economy all together; and, possibly, these days, Cuba – which has also become isolated although not, it seems, through choice. What people do talk about is self-reliance – a quite different concept. Self-sufficiency means that a country elects to produce absolutely everything its people need from within its own borders, eschewing all trade – and this is indeed a precarious and counter-productive strategy except in times of siege, military or economic, when the country has no alternative.

Self-reliance means simply that a country should elect to produce enough food to provide its own people with a basic diet, growing the staple crops that it is able to grow best. Of course all countries, ideally, should trade in food – both selling and importing. But none should be absolutely dependent on that trade to keep their people alive. Countries should not, as now, be obliged to buy staples from foreign powers to feed themselves – especially when the foreign supply fluctuates so violently in price, and the exporting country does not necessarily have the best interests of the importing country at heart. The literature drips with accounts of people worldwide brought to the point of starvation, and certainly of despair, because they can no longer produce or have access to their own food: because their own staple agriculture has been run down to make way for commodity crops to be sold abroad for money which never gets back to the communities who have been robbed and would do them very little good if it did because the imported food is too dear. We might point out (a little historical evidence) that at the time of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s which halved the population (through starvation and emigration), the barns of Ireland were stuffed with oats. But the oats were contracted for English horses. Just as the present report recommends, the English government of the time, via its Anglo-Irish overlords, was careful not “to prevent trade restrictions at times of crisis.” There is nothing new under the Sun, not even free trade, and the horrors of it have been revealed time and time again. Somehow, however, when the free market is at stake, the demand for “sound evidence” is put on hold. Never let the facts spoil a good dogma.

In truth, those who do question the wisdom and efficacy of the neoliberal market are liable to be written of as subversives or commies or greenies or hippies. But this in large part is straightforward nonsense. The present global economy, a frenetically and ultra-competitive trade in money, with everything real conceived as a commodity, is an aberration; a perversion of what capitalism ought to be; and is hated by many a traditional businessperson, or indeed by many a traditional Tory and Republican, as vehemently as by any leftie. Quite rightly, those traditionalists see the present economy as a betrayal of what ought to have been a good idea – for capitalism within a framework of common sense and common morality could probably serve the world very well. What we have now, obviously does not. But all this, the report leaves unquestioned.  In truth, it does not dismiss the alternatives a priori. It never even considers them at all.

This brings us to the crux. Agriculture at present is pulled two ways – by the need to produce good food for all, without wrecking the rest of the world; and by the perceived need to preserve the economic and political status quo. The need to produce good food is real. The need to preserve the economic and political status quo is an invention, a dogma, conceived and defended to the death by people who are doing well out of it. If we are really to be radical, and to redesign, we have to explore this conflict head-on.

Biological necessity versus economic dogma 

It should indeed be possible to provide good food for two people per hectare over all the world’s agricultural land, and to do so sustainably – without wrecking the rest; and resiliently – able to change direction when conditions change. Indeed this should be straightforward. But we have to treat the task as an exercize in applied biology, or indeed in ecology, and operate within the basic principles of biology. This, we are emphatically not doing – indeed the demands of the present economy pull us in the opposite direction. The thrust of present-day science-based (“high”) technology is not to enable us to work within the limits set by biology, but to override biology, up to and including the creation of quite new organisms. This may be profitable, or at least potentially so, but it is innately foolish. The objections do not spring from woolly-mindedness, or the irrational fears of “the public”, as the high technologists like to suggest. The best modern science – the kind that truly acknowledges how the world really works – shows how ridiculous it is. It also suggests a whole suite of alternatives. But these alternatives are routinely ignored or (as with the report’s conflation of self-reliance and self-sufficiency) are misrepresented.

For, to cut a long story short, there is plenty of reason – plenty of evidence – to suggest that the goals of productivity, sustainability, and resilience, are best served by systems – wild or agricultural – that are very diverse and very integrated, with all the different species in synergy one with another. To minimize collateral damage and reduce the strain on the rest of the world (key components of sustainability) the systems should be minimum-input. As much of the necessary inputs as possible should originate within the system itself, with maximum re-cycling.

These are the broad biological principles that emerge from wild ecosystems – but they apply just as well to farms; for a farm is an artifice, but this too should be conceived as an ecosystem, if it is truly to combine productivity with sustainability. The diversity of nature translates into polyculture – mixed farming. The synergy of nature translates into integration – the traditional balance of crops and livestock, adult cattle and calves and sheep, with pigs and chickens to clear up, and so on. The arch-exponents of minimum-input farming are the organic farmers; and, contrary to the most widely bruited opinion, yields from organic holdings can be just as high as those of the industrialized kind, which rely on industrial chemistry (and hence on oil). In truth, we don’t have to advocate 100 per cent organic systems, with adherence to all the official rules. But it is sensible – sound biology – worldwide to see organic agriculture as the default position; what is normally done unless there is extremely good reason to do otherwise.

Maximally polycultural, integrated, quasi-organic farms are complex. Therefore they are labour-intensive – and the labour they require is skilled. In such systems there is no great advantage in scale-up, and many disadvantages. So sound, basic biology tells us that if we are really serious about the future – if we really want to feed 9 billion people well without wrecking the rest – then above all we need small mixed, quasi-organic farms. In structure, indeed, they should be traditional. In reality, traditional farms can often work badly, for all kinds of reasons, among which under-investment and lack of markets are outstanding. But they are still the norm worldwide, in a thousand different forms, and if they are properly supported – with ingenious technologies to reduce the back-break; with part-time  employment (of huge importance for many reasons); and with appropriate infrastructure – they really could feed the world. Even as things are, with the cards seriously stacked against them, such small farms still provide around 70 per cent of the world’s food. The much vaunted food industry, which attracts almost all the research funds and occupies so much government time, and gobbles up so much resource, and causes so much of the collateral damage, accounts for a mere 30 per cent of the whole output. But it’s the bit with the most powerful lobbies and the most wealth – precisely because it is expressly intended to make money – and so it’s the bit that the world takes notice of.

But agriculture that is designed primarily to maximize wealth and concentrate power must pursue a quite different logic. Output must be maximized – raise the turnover – and this is done by piling on the inputs, constrained only by their cost (for as the report points out, the collateral damage is commonly externalized). Costs must be reduced – which means that labour must be cut and cut again for labour is the most expensive input; and such labour as there is should be as cheap as possible – not skilled workers but day-labourers (and preferably immigrants or the dispossessed, who have no rights and/or are too desperate to protest).  Without skilled labour the husbandry must be as simple as possible – so bang goes the complex, integrated systems. Instead we have monocultures as far as the eye can see – wheat, maize, palm oil, rapeseed, pigs in million-strong units (fed on soya grown in monocultures in the erstwhile rainforest of Brazil that we are not supposed to be felling) and even dairy cattle, in units of several thousand. The muck from these animals, which once was a vital asset (the main reason for keeping pigs, indeed) now becomes an embarrassment. It may be processed to provide energy and fertilizer in anaerobic digesters but in practice is generally a pollutant — and a million-strong pig unit produces as much ordure as London. Biologically this whole arrangement is grotesque. Socially it is foul. But it is profitable; and in a world where money is all, it is considered “efficient”, and therefore “realistic”, and is where big industry puts its money; and governments that measure their success in GDP, see all this as the way of the future, and smooth the way.

At a common sense and anecdotal level the biological advantages of small mixed farms over vast monocultures is now too obvious to be worth further discussion. But this is the key issue, and discussion is vital. If we go down the polycultural, quasi-organic route we could beyond reasonable doubt feed everybody well. If we continue down the industrialized route we would well be signing our own death warrant, and the rest of the world’s too. So it really matters. Here, truly, we need the data, the evidence, to show which kind of approach could serve us best.

But there is no such discussion in this report. To be fair, the report does mention small farmers: 

“Smallholder farming has been long neglected. It is not a single solution, but an important component of both hunger and poverty reduction.” 

But this comment is only in passing: the implication is that of course the future lies with the industrial approach, within the global market.  There is no recognition that small farmers are still (despite everything) the world’s chief providers. More to the point, there is no exploration at all of the key issue – polyculture versus monoculture. It isn’t even suggested (as far as I can see) that further elucidation should be a research priority.

There is a brief passage specifically on organic farming, in a box, which states the case for it very well: that it isn’t just about rules – it’s about farming in accord with sound ecological principles. So, the report concludes, “the wider application of specific practices will make a significant contribution to integrated and sustainable approaches to food production”. That’s not quite saying that organic farming should be the norm – what farmers should do unless there is very good reason for doing something else – but at least it is far from dismissive. The report also says that “The challenges as outlined here are so great that a flexible response involving all possible options based on the rigorous use of evidence is essential” – and that too seems eminently reasonable. It is the case, however, that although organic research has received some government support this past half century, the vast majority has gone to agro-industry, which nowadays is focused on biotech; and it seems most unlikely that we can expect any change of direction any time soon.

In similar vein the report tells us that the food chain as a whole produces around 30 per cent of all the anthropogenic greenhouse gases, with agriculture accounting for a little more than half that, and 

“The single most important contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions is through the production and application of nitrogen fertilizers”. 

So it makes sense, does it not, to explore the kind of farming that doesn’t use nitrogen fertilizers? But this is not recommended. Furthermore – a very surprising figure! – 

“There is nearly as much carbon in the organic compounds contained in the top 30 cm of soil as there is in the entire atmosphere and a vast amount of carbon is tied up in land used for food production … [Indeed] were the organic carbon pools in the world’s soils to be increased by 10% in the 21st century, it would be the equivalent of reducing atmospheric CO2 by 100 parts per million”. 

This is astounding. If it means what it seems to mean then this – increasing soil carbon – would surely make the greatest of all possible contributions to reducing global warming. In this context too, organic farming could and surely be the key player. But the report is silent on this point. Instead it recommends that we look urgently at biotech and nanotechnology, and take pains to ensure that “the public” understands why these are so necessary. But I will come to that.

More on carbon, first of all. For, the report tells us, “the second most significant is from livestock production through enteric fermentation and manure”; and “ruminants produce significant amounts of methane when compared with monogastrics”. Ruminants also produce more GHGs when grazing than they do when fed on grain. So, we are told. GHGs from livestock might be reduced by 

“… breeding for reduced GHG emissions in beef and dairy cattle and via genetic improvements in their fodder, and the provision of high starch concentrates to reduce the production of methane in ruminants”. 

That is: feed wheat to cattle rather than grass – and more high tech.

There are various problems here. First, the report itself points out that change of land-use – which largely means ploughing – is a major source of GHGs; so the less we plough, the better. But arable, above all, requires ploughing, every year, while permanent pasture does not. Furthermore, the extra fertilizer needed to feed wheat to feed to cattle instead of grass is, is as the report itself tells us, the prime agricultural source of GHGs because oil is needed to produce artificial N. In short: a life-time analysis might well show that cattle fed on permanent grass produce far less GHG than those raised on wheat. There is also evidence – it needs fleshing but the roots of it are there – that well-managed grassland sequesters more carbon than it emits, despite the best efforts of belching cattle. The report stresses solutions to the world’s food problems “will require decision-making that is fully integrated across a diverse range of policy areas which are all too often considered in isolation”. Yet the report itself is far from free of internal contradictions.

But although the report seems to have far too little to tell us about the possible biological solutions to the world’s food problems, it does have a great deal to say about the new technologies.

High tech? 

We can all agree in principle that 

“New technologies (such as the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology) should not be excluded a priori …” 

Indeed, nothing should be dismissed a priori. We might, however, object to the way that sentence finishes – 

“ … excluded a priori on ethical or moral grounds”. 

Actually, to dismiss a particular technology “on moral grounds” is not to dismiss it a priori. It is to dismiss it on moral grounds. Moral grounds can be a very good reason – and indeed may be the best reason – for rejecting particular courses of action. This is why civilized societies reject torture as a way of exacting information. The report seems to be suggesting that moral grounds simply should not be allowed to get in the way of what the editors apparently regard as serious science – which, one might reasonably feel, is a somewhat chilling suggestion. But, the report tells us, 

“ … there is a need to disrespect the views of people who take a contrary view”. 

No doubt those who do object to the new technologies, on whatever grounds, can be catered for by a niche market.

But the need for “the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology” is, apparently, accepted a priori, because 

“Investment in research on modern technologies is essential in light of the magnitude of the challenges for food security in the coming decades”. 

No discussion. Fact. In truth, as many people including many excellent scientists and agriculturalists have been pointing out for the past several decades, GM crops have so far solved no problems that really need solving – or where they have, they in no case offer the best solution. The one possible exception that I know about is virus-resistant papaya. But virus resistant papaya, important though it is in context – it could be a prime source of vitamin A, making nonsense of Syngenta’s much-vaunted GM golden rice – does not justify the all-embracing hype around GM, any more than the non-stick frying pan justified NASA’s space programme, as NASA used to like to tell us. In truth, GM crops are introduced at the expense of the traditional agriculture which produces most of the world’s food and almost certainly could, with a helping hand, solve our problems. Again, evidence seems to have gone missing. As for nanotechnology – where did that come from? As for cloning – there seems to be some clash here with the report’s own concern for 

“The preservation of multiple varieties, land races, rare breeds and closely related wild relatives of domesticated species. This is very important in maintaining a genetic bank of variation that can be used in the selection of novel traits”. 

Cloning obviously implies the complete opposite. (Indeed, the idea of GM bananas has been promoted as a way of increasing their genetic diversity, precisely because cultivated bananas are sterile and so have to be cloned by cuttings. Hmm).

Where do we go from here ? 

One good thing has come out of this report. It confirms the need for Great Re-Think – and for a people-led Renaissance. We really do need  “A people’s takeover of the world’s food supply”. We cannot rely on the powers-that-be to deliver. The world’s experts and intellectuals, or at least the present assemblage, are simply  not addressing the right questions.