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The Key Ideas of Enlightened Agriculture (with a passing reference to Ancient China)

Colin Tudge asks why we fail to adopt the simple and established ideas that could solve all the world’s food problems – starting with the need to raise the status of farming and farmers.

Farmers ranked high in the social hierarchy of ancient China, second only to the scholars (and of course the royal family). Next in line were the other craftspeople and the artisans. Bottom of the pile were the merchants. They were rich, right enough, but their standing was low. Knowledge, skill, and usefulness were seen to matter far more than money.

The contrast with our own times is more or less absolute. Now the merchants – meaning the wealthy – are at the top, at least as powerful as the mightiest rulers and often, not least in societies like Britain, seeming to enjoy carte blanche. Scholarship still exists but scholars, including scientists, are prepared more and more to gear their learning and their intellect to the service of big-time commerce. Craft has largely been replaced by manufacture – again controlled by commerce – while farming has slipped so far down the reckoning that it’s considered a sign of modernity, not least in Britain (indeed we are the ring-leaders), to reduce it virtually to vanishing point. Inside sources tell me that the Blair government in the early 2000s seriously considered getting rid of agriculture altogether, just as Thatcher disposed of the miners. The farming that does remain is dominated by the neoliberal conceit that “agriculture is just a business like any other” and that all businesses of whatever kind must be maximally profitable.

We need more than ad hoc changes in policy to reverse all this. We need a change of mind-set. Indeed we need to go back to first principles and re-think what work itself is actually for. At present, according to the rhetoric of all the mainstream political parties, the point of working is to make ourselves rich, or richer, and thereby gain status and dominance over everybody else (for it is now taken for granted that wealth and dominance should go together). But the true purpose of work, taken all in all, should surely be – should it not? — to contribute to what should be the principal ambitions of humankind — to create convivial societies within a flourishing biosphere; that, and for each working individual to achieve personal fulfilment.

This implies, when you think it through, that at least half and probably nearer three quarters of all human activity should be in the service of other people, and/or of the biosphere. True scholars – the seekers after truth – should certainly be honoured and kept in good heart, as in ancient Chinese society. But they too, insofar as their cogitations are applicable at all, should apply their learning and their intellect in the service of humanity at large and of our fellow creatures (as Plato suggested, although we wasn’t too interested in our fellow creatures). 

But among the most highly rated too should be the caring industries: medicine, social work, teaching — and farming. Other crafts, such as building and engineering, should be respected and rewarded primarily insofar as they contribute to human wellbeing without collateral damage – good, eco-friendly houses and neighbourhoods for ordinary people to live in, should surely be valued more highly than fantastical shards and gherkins in steel and glass (jolly though they are in moderation), and gated pseudo-palaces for the super-rich.

In all this, the role of agriculture (including horticulture) is pivotal. It is the sine qua non. Obviously it is the prime source of all our food (though we still get about 20% from fishing and hunting (which thus has become a major cause of extinction). It occupies a third of all the land on Earth and by far the majority of all the most fertile land (the National Parks of which we are often rightly proud are confined mostly to marginal land – which most wild creatures find marginal too). Indeed, all in all, agriculture is the thing we absolutely have to get right, or else we will starve and will wreck the planet. If we farmed well we could all eat well for many thousands of years to come, and achieve harmony with the rest of nature. Yet as things are a billion remain undernourished – while overnourishment has produced a world population of diabetics that is twice the size of all of Russia’s. The collateral damage could prove terminal – the mass extinction of species, the destruction of rainforest, the pollution of oceans, the destruction of fertile soil, the waste of fresh water (which accounts for a mere one per cent of all the water on Earth), the burning of fossil fuels, and global warming; and still it leaves a billion people hungry.

For good measure, worldwide, agriculture is by far the biggest employer – indeed it engages about half the people on Earth. By contrast, in Britain right now, agriculture employs only about one per cent of the workforce, and most of our farmers are of retirement age. In many countries both rich and poor – from Britain and New Zealand to India — suicide is now an appreciable occupational hazard. In short: the metier that is of most direct importance to our future, and in wiser societies than ours was highly ranked, is now the most neglected, or rather is the most misdirected.

What’s the reason? Why did the Chinese get the principles right and we have got them so wrong? And what can be done to put the world back on course?

The two models of Agriculture 

Traditional agriculture worldwide is mostly under-supported, not to say abused, and hence, unsurprisingly, performs far less well than it could and should. The rest, the kind that the modern world does take seriously, falls into two main categories. The minority endeavour, as things are, I and others are calling “Enlightened Agriculture” (EA), also known as “Real Farming”,which is loosely but adequately defined as

“Farming that is designed expressly to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality, nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the rest of the biosphere”.

There is plenty of evidence to show that Enlightened Agriculture given half a chance really could ensure that everyone is well fed, and the implications of this for health and general wellbeing and for world peace and justice are obvious.

But the kind of farming that is supported big-time by governments like Britain’s at our expense, and by big-time commerce, is not designed primarily to provide good food for all, but to maximize the profits of the minority who control it, in line with the tenets of the neoliberal, market economy. This second kind can properly be called Neoliberal-Industrial, or “NI” agriculture. Supporters of NI farming insist that theirs is the only “realistic” model, yet despite extraordinary levels of investment in NI agriculture over the past 35 years the world’s nutritional status remains disastrous while the biosphere teeters on the edge of collapse.

So what does Enlightened Agriculture entail, and how does it differ from the NI kind?

The nuts and bolts of Enlightened Agriculture

In practice, EA is founded on three widely-recognized principles:


Food Sovereignty

Economic Democracy.

To take these one by one:


Whatever the system, we require agriculture as a whole to be:

Productive: our farming must supply enough food for 9.5 – 10 billion people by 2050, and to go on doing so for some time after that. But that is as much as we should ever need to provide because according to the UN the human population should level out at about 10 billion. According to the IAASTD report of 2008 (1), the world already produces enough protein and food energy (macronutrients) to support 14 billion, so the present, continuing emphasis on productivity (“50% more by 2050” has become the slogan) is not justified. The extra is purely for commercial purposes — and in fact the present surplus is either wasted or else grown for livestock, which is not necessary, since we could raise plenty of animals without growing vast quantities of food expressly for them, or else is burnt as “biofuel”; criminal waste of which governments make a virtue. We need instead to acknowledge the principle of “enough’s enough”.

Sustainable. Sustainability does not mean we should go on farming in the same ways forever and ever. It does mean we should keep the soil in good heart (and the climate!) so that we can maintain output in whatever forms are most appropriate.

Resilient. This means that our agriculture should be able to change direction as conditions change (and conditions are changing fast). The key to resilience is diversity. Whatever we do we must always keep more shots in the locker, as nature does.

NI agriculture can be extremely productive (though it does not necessarily achieve the highest possible yields!) but it is neither sustainable (most obviously, it is oil-dependent) nor (since it is based on monoculture) is it resilient. Indeed it is frighteningly vulnerable to sudden changes.

Agroecology demonstrably is productive enough. The best farms run along agroecological lines are among the most productive of all; and even in their present, neglected form, the world’s traditional farms which have the structure of agroecological farms provide half the world’s food. With support – commonly just logistic support, including better roads and more appropriate banking – the world’s traditional farms could readily double their output. By contrast, many of today’s NI farms are already hard up against physiological possibility and way beyond what is morally acceptable. “Enough’s enough” is a key principle!

In practice, agroecology seeks to emulate nature. This does not mean slavish imitation, for nature does a great deal that is highly undesirable (as time goes by in various ways it wipes out entire mountain ranges and indeed continents), but it does seek to follow the strategies that have enabled nature to remain commendably productive for the past 3.8 billion years, though global conditions have changed spectacularly throughout that time. Nature has achieved this because it is:

Maximally diverse

Integrated (all the species interacting with net synergy)

Low input (in particular, no fossil fuels!)

In agroecological farming:

Maximally diverse means mixed farming with genetic variation within each variety (of crop) and breed (of livestock).

Integrated means integrated – synergy between different enterprises on the same farm

Low input in practice largely means organic. At least; organic husbandry should be the default position; what farmers do unless they have very good reason to deviate.

In practice: diverse, integrated, organic or quasi-organic systems are complex – complex by design. So they must be skills-intensive – plenty of hands-on farmers.  With complex, skills-intensive enterprises of any kind, there is little or no advantage is scale-up. So the farming enterprises that Britain and the rest of the world really needs should in general be small to medium-sized.

In summary: the model EA farm would be maximally diverse (mixed), integrated, low-input (organic or quasi-organic), skills intensive (plenty of farmers) and each enterprise should be small to medium sized. 

Note that small, mixed, low-input farms can be and often are among the most productive all in terms of food calories and protein per hectare, while providing food of the highest gastronomic as well as the highest nutritional standards. Emphatically, Enlightened Agriculture does not require us to eat austerely. Notably, it does not require us to be vegan. We can raise plenty of livestock on grass (and browse) as is traditional, and (pigs and poultry) on surpluses and leftovers. Indeed, EA produces – 

“Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”

— and these nine words summarise all the best of nutritional theory of the past 30 years and describe the basic structure of all the world’s greatest cuisines (as in Italy, Provence, India, Turkey, China, Lebanon, and so on). In other words, far from austerity,

“The future belongs to the gourmet”. 

But it is essential in a country like Britain that has lost so much of its heritage not simply to restore agriculture, but to restore food culture.

The implications of EA farming

To replace NI farming with EA, Britain would need about eight times as many farmers as it now has – about a million more. Furthermore, since many of our farmers are now at or approaching retirement age, it needs them fast.

Clearly, if we truly acknowledged that farming as the sine qua non and designed it accordingly, it would again become a major employer – providing at least enough jobs to provide all the Britons aged 25 or less who now are unemployed or seriously underemployed with satisfying careers (as opposed to the nonsensical zero-hour contracts that now pass as “jobs” and contribute to the horrible statistic which says that the main cause of death among young British men is suicide).

Small-scale farming needs a commensurate, appropriate market structure; and appropriately scaled processors – bakers, butchers, brewers, etc. So the million re-employed in farming should ideally be matched with at least an equivalent number in the ancillary industries; and again, we are talking about good, satisfying careers – not filling supermarket shelves on less than subsistence wages.

Overall, the economic emphasis must be on small businesses.

NI agriculture flies in the face of all of the above. It does not recognize the principle of enough’s enough. To maximize the potential for profit it seeks to maximize output at all cost – nowadays burning the surpluses and calling it biofuel. It is steered only by short-term accountancy and by the ambitions of the most powerful people and right now – since the price of oil is carefully adjusted to what the market will stand and the cost of collateral damage is discounted (including the cost of mass unemployment) — it is cheaper to farm by industrial chemistry and heavy machinery than to employ skilled farmers. So NI agriculture is high-input and aspires to employ as few people as possible – which is deemed to be “efficient”.  Zero labour – farming by robots – is seen to be the ideal, and is already with us.

Farming of this kind must be as simple as possible – which means goodbye to diversity, though diversity is the key to resilience. Farms are reduced to monocultures and single-species livestock factories, with the crops and animals genetically homogeneous (often indeed reduced to clones). When enterprises are capital-intensive and simplified it is most profitable to make them as large as possible; so the small-to-medium sized enterprises that can truly be efficient in biological terms, and are skills-intensive and form the basis of convivial societies, are systematically squeezed out while NI agriculture is boosted at vast public expense. In Europe, NI agriculture soaks up 80% of the subsidies and 90% of the research budget.

Hence the kind of agriculture that is now supported by corporates, banks, and governments like Britain’s, supported by chosen intellectuals with specious argument of which they should be ashamed, and by massive public subsidies, is high input, ultra-simplified, low to zero labour, and practiced on the largest possible scale. It is the precise opposite of the kind required by sound biology, common sense, common humanity, 10,000 years of experience, and a mountain pile of evidence including simple statistics that illustrate beyond doubt the failure of the status quo.

Food Sovereignty 

The concept of “food sovereignty” was coined by the global peasants’ movement, Via Campesina, in the mid-1990s. Several groups in Britain have allied themselves to it including the Scottish Crofting Federation and the Land Workers’ Alliance. It means what its name implies: that people should have control of their own food supply – a common-sense and moral principle that could not be more distant from the status quo in Britain, or from the government’s own position (despite its rhetoric).

Economic Democracy 

All the mainstream political parties now take the neoliberal de-regulated market to be the norm, the “given”, “the end of history”. But if we continue to gear our lives to it then, frankly, we are heading for Armageddon (as many a sober-sided intellectual from archbishops to leading scientists to former US presidential candidates have been telling us of late). In particular, it is entirely unsuited to Enlightened Agriculture and indeed, as we have seen, results in farming that is precisely the opposite of what the world really needs.

So why have so many people – including the leading political parties – bought into it? One obvious reason is that neoliberalism does benefit some people – notably the corporates – and in societies like ours, as opposed to dynastic China, the richest people call the shots. Governments like Britain’s support the corporates as the easy, short-term route to wealth (increase in GDP; “economic growth”) and the two, in effect, form a coalition. Indeed, governments like ours have become extensions of the corporate boardroom. They are in turn supported by intellectuals and experts who either believe in the neoliberal model or else are prepared to sacrifice their scholastic purity in return for material reward. Those who protest find it hard to make a living. Thus the three power-groups – corporates, government, and their chosen intellectuals – form an oligarchy. They have the power to determine who does what and also – crucially – they largely control the principal means of communication and of formal education.

Among other things, over the past 35 years, people have been persuaded that the only alternative to the deregulated market is some kind of centralized – essentially Stalinist – economy; and that seems a worse option than we have now. So they follow the advice of Hillaire Belloc who told his young friend Jim (who nonetheless was eventually eaten by a lion”: 

“ … always keep ahold of nurse
for fear of finding something worse’.

Right-wing commentators such as Matt (Viscount) Ridley, chairman of Northern Rock in the build-up to its collapse but now increasingly influential (for disasters need not interrupt careers) is wont to imply that socialism and Stalinism are the same. In fact, of course (as Ridley well knows) the prevailing political/ economic model in Britain (and the US) until 1980, espoused by both the major parties (Tory and Labour) was that of social democracy. This is underpinned by the mixed economy: some public ownership (big-scale, primary industries controlled by the state; local swimming baths and a great deal of “social housing”, controlled by councils). Most of the economy, though, in social democracies, is in private ownership. The difference between traditional Tory and traditional Labour was only one of degree, the former emphasizing private ownership, the latter putting more store by public ownership. Harold Macmillan, the archetypal, modern Tory Prime Minister (an upper middle class Scots publisher) would never have dreamt of privatizing the National Health Service, and oversaw a huge programme of social housing. Nye Bevan, archetypal left-wing Labour, was a great supporter of small businesses. Bevan was indeed a socialist but he was further from the centralist Stalin than he was from Macmillan or his predecessors, Churchill and Eden; and Macmillan was further from the neoliberal Thatcher than he was from Bevan. Both Bevan and Macmillan were political moderates by modern standards. Ed Miliband, in practice (as opposed to rhetoric) is to the right of Macmillan. Yet the Daily Mail calls Miliband “Red Ed”. So the propaganda continues.

To return to the point: all we need to support Enlightened Agriculture is social democracy – or, rather, a variation of social democracy which I call “the tripartite mixed economy” (although Martin Large, who introduced me to the idea, calls it “tripartite common wealth”).

This says thatownership of industry and property should be split between three sectors: public ownership and private ownership (as in traditional social democracy) – but also community ownership. Community ownership – where communities may be defined by district (village, neighbourhood, city) or by shared interest (football fans, teachers, bricklayers – or indeed supporters of Enlightened Agriculture).

Public ownership should reflect the EU principle of subsidiarity: ie, governance should always be conducted at the lowest practicable level – regional rather than state (if possible); district in preference to regional (if districts can manage the task in hand).

Private ownership should be focused on small businesses – qualitatively different from the corporates and far more socially accountable. The traditional Tory Party (like traditional Labour) supported small businesses while now it has emerged as the champion and partner of the corporates (as did “New Labour” under Blair and Brown).

The various enterprises of the private sector should all be conceived as social enterprises: required to pay their way, of course, but are required primarily to further the wellbeing of society and/or of the biosphere. They are not intended, like the modern corporates, simply to maximize returns to their own shareholders, without serious regard for the wellbeing of society as a whole or of the biosphere – shuffling off the collateral damage as externalities, to be paid for by somebody else.

Finally, a principal method of finance for these private enterprises, or indeed for community enterprises, should be that of ethical investment: ordinary people buying shares but only in enterprises they feel are fulfilling some necessary social or environmental purpose, or are otherwise socially desirable.

In summary: the key ingredients of Economic Democracy as I see it are: 

The tripartite mixed economy with 

Special emphasis on community ownership and small businesses and 

All businesses conceived as social enterprises 

Ethical investment 

One final, potential sticking point:

The price of food

Despite the obvious drawbacks and enormities, the neoliberals seek to claim the moral high ground by arguing that NI farming produces cheap food. They argue both that people “demand” cheap food, and that if food was not as cheap as possible, many more people would suffer. Thus, according to the Trussell Trust’s Network Foodbank,  nearly a million people in the UK (913,138 to be precise) resorted to food banks in 2013-2014. Unless food prices are brought even lower, the argument has it, this number can never come down.

But, like most of the arguments in favour of NI farming, this one is almost entirely specious.  We should be asking, why is it that in a country like Britain – the 4th largest economy in the world – so many people cannot apparently afford food? The prime reason lies surely in Britain’s innate and growing inequality: so while the richest tenth have 31% of the country’s wealth the poorest tenth have 1.3%; and 13 million Britons are below the poverty line.  The income of the richest tenth is more than the income of the poorest 50%. Clearly, with fairer distribution, everyone could afford food.

We should ask, too, what people spend their money on. Nowadays Brits spend a mere 11% on food – but, thanks to the way the market is organized (which really means rigged), and with council housing scrapped, many are obliged to spend 50% on housing. So food in practice is very cheap – ridiculously so – but the real cost, relative to disposable income, is twice what it seems.

Clearly, then, the best way to make food affordable is not to reduce the price of it still further – in many cases it is already too cheap, which leads to injustice, cruelty, and collateral damage – but to re-think the economy. An economy that is designed to be maximally competitive and to make the rich richer is bound to leave a great many in poverty, however rich the country may become on paper.

But although food is already so cheap, we should also ask why it is as dear as it is. Governments piously pretending to bring food prices down attack the farmers – urging them to cut even closer to the bone. Yet of the money spent on food in a supermarket, only 20% at most goes to the farmer. Governments and commerce are forever urging farmers to cut labour so reduce costs – though the labour is replaced by high-capital high tech. Yet it’s doubtful if the cost of farm labour now accounts for more than 10% of the total food cost.

In stark contrast, 80% of the cost of food goes to support the food chain itself, including the supermarket itself and the transport and the vast superstructure of management, and the shareholders. Yet most of this is unnecessary. The real task, then, is to shorten the food chains, and so to ensure that the farmers who actually do the work get a far higher proportion of the retail price. If farmers sell through the standard retail chain of small shops they commonly get at least a third of the retail price and if they sell through farmers’ markets they can expect at least two thirds. Farmers’ markets per se are not the answer – they require too much work – but the nature of the task is clear: to create a retail chain that really can support the kind of enlightened farms that we need without raising the cost. One very promising answer – there are more and more – is the community owned supermarket. It would be a great step forward if communities nationwide were to buy the Tesco stores that are now being closed. Governments that truly cared about the state of the people would encourage this (as they have the power to do).

We might note too that the low price of food in supermarkets is more apparent than real. Notably, milk and bread, the essentials, are sold as loss leaders but overall aim is to take as much money off the customer as possible. The emphasis is on processed food in which the unit cost of food energy and protein, or of micronutrients, commonly is several times higher than in fresh food.

Finally, in this vein, it would not be unreasonable for governments to subsidize food essentials, like bread and milk (but only if the bread and milk reached required nutritional standards). Doubtless there are trade laws that forbid this – but the supermarket loss leader is itself a form of subsidy, and why should it be legal for commercial companies to do what governments cannot?

There are many other ways to make food affordable – with community enterprise, cooperatives of producers and consumers high on the list. Pious defence of the status quo – gross inequality, destructive farming, and injustice – is certainly not among them.  What emphatically is not needed are the gung-ho high tech instant cure-alls of the kind now favoured by governments and their chosen advisers – of which GMOs are a prime example.

The politics of Enlightened Agriculture

Many people for all kind of reasons seem afraid of the ideas of Enlightened Agriculture. They seem to fear – or, for rhetorical purposes, they pretend to fear – that to reject GMOs, say, is to reject all science. Or to question the zeal of the neolibs, the ruthless pursuit of short-term wealth, is to throw out all capitalism, in all its manifestations; and that to throw out capitalism is to open the door to soviet-style Communism, the centralist politics of Stalin.

We need to show the lie of all this – and/or, more importantly, to make the positive points. Which are that:

Agriculture that can feed everybody well, however homely it may look to the casual observer, is progress. For the progress that really counts is not the theoretical accumulation of material wealth, or the rise of flash technologies, but the kind that enhances human wellbeing — peace, justice, personal fulfilment – and the wellbeing of the biosphere as a whole.

The science that can underpin such agriculture – “enlightened agriculture”—is of the subtlest kind, and it truly modern. The gung-ho commercial kind that is bringing us GMOs belongs conceptually to an altogether earlier and less sophisticated age. Absolutely not are we required to “turn back the clock” – except to rediscover the social, moral, and spiritual values that of late have been swept aside by the perceived need to compete for material wealth.

The economics of enlightened agriculture is “economic democracy” — very similar to the social democracy that until 1980 was the norm for both Tory and Labour – based on the mixed economy, with the private sector based primarily on small businesses. There are just a few tweaks: the new emphasis on social enterprise and on community ownership; the rise of ethical investment; and the overall realization that the economy must be “green” – always seeking to work within the limits of the biosphere and of our fellow creatures, and including the ideas of the circular economy.

In short, to establish Enlightened Agriculture as the norm, we need to re-think across the board: what we want to achieve and why; the details of enlightened agriculture itself; the underlying economic system that can support it, and the system of government that will provide such an economy; the moral principles on which the whole endeavour is based; the kind of science we need; and the metaphysical assumptions that underpin all our ideas. To this end I want to establish the College of Enlightened Agriculture. But that’s another story.