Why the World needs small mixed farms
– and plenty of farmers to run them

Supporters of Sir John Beddington’s The Future of Food and Farming claim that the report is all-embracing and even “holistic”, integrating all the various means by which food is produced into one grand pluralistic plan. In truth it is no such thing. Many possibilities are mentioned but mostly in footnotes, while the central narrative has…

Supporters of Sir John Beddington’s The Future of Food and Farming claim that the report is all-embracing and even “holistic”, integrating all the various means by which food is produced into one grand pluralistic plan. In truth it is no such thing. Many possibilities are mentioned but mostly in footnotes, while the central narrative has two principal themes. First, the global, “free”, neoliberal market is taken as a given – ultimately each enterprise, each country, and indeed each farmer has to produce food more cheaply than anyone else in the world.  Secondly, humanity cannot possibly hope to pull through the next few decades and centuries without heavy reliance on high technologies. Cloning is featured – even though the report stresses the need for (bio)diversity. Even nano-technology gets a look in although its only foreseeable role is to make a few rich people richer. The neoliberal market and the accompanying technophilia lead us inexorably towards industrial farming – big, monocultural estates with minimum (preferably zero) labour. The report insists, time and again, that we cannot continue with business as usual – but in the main, business as usual is what it recommends.

Most farmers worldwide, plus those scientists and economists who have truly engaged seriously with agriculture this past few decades, have in general come to the quite opposite conclusion. Most of the best-informed are advocating very mixed, complex farms that veer towards organic. Such farms are innately complex and so must be labour intensive: and if farms are mixed, integrated, complex, quasi-organic and labour-intensive there is no advantage in scale-up, so in general they should be small to medium-sized. Hans Herren, co-chair of the IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development) points out that such farms currently produce the bulk of the world’s food and, given half a chance, they could easily be far more productive than they are. They are also sustainable – given half a chance. But these, of course, are precisely the kind of farms that are now being side-lined or actively trashed.

This is a core idea of this website – that the world needs and must encourage mixed, integrated, mainly organic, labour intensive farms that are small to medium-sized. The case is not based on nostalgia, or whimsy, or elitism, or any of the other standard insults that rain from on high. It is based on basic biological principle – and on statistical assessment of the status quo. This argument for small mixed farms in truth is evidence-based: the kind of argument that the powers-that-be claim to take most seriously. Here is a nice irony: the argument that supports industrial farming, which is supposed to be “scientific” and evidence-based, in truth ignores the most striking evidence. It isn’t the advocates of small mixed farms who are the simple-minded ideologues. It is the supporters of the status quo.

But the biological principles that lead us to the small, mixed, complex, labour-intensive organic farm have to be argued carefully if they are to convince; and a very accomplished ecologist has now pointed out to me that in recent articles I have been arguing the case too simplistically. For humanity needs farms that are productive, sustainable, and resilient – able to go on producing when conditions change – and I have been arguing of late that to achieve this we merely need to emulate nature. Nature is productive – largely because it is so diverse and integrated, so that one creature’s waste is another’ provender, and all the species between them mop up all the nutrients that are going. It is certainly sustainable – it has been continuously productive for the past 3.8 billion years; and this is possible because it is so frugal – it uses only the nutrients that are on hand, and solar energy. Clearly, too, nature is resilient, for through its vast continuous span the climate and much else besides have changed dramatically, back and forth, many times.

The agricultural equivalent of natural diversity is polyculture – mixed farming: many different crops and livestock. Integrated means integrated, as in nature. Frugal means organic: no artificial stimulants or pesticides. Mixed, integrated, largely organic farms are inevitably complex. Complexity requires hands-on husbandry, so the farms must be labour-intensive. If farms are complex and labour-intensive there is no advantage in scale-up so the farms that can actually do what the world needs should in general be small to medium-sized. It’s a grand argument – but in this rhetorical form it is open to criticism. It needs to be stated more carefully.

To begin with (my ecological adviser points out) — nature at least in the short term is not always very productive. Total production of biomass in a given year (or a decade or a century) may be far less than in well-run farms. Of course, too, the point of farming is to produce good food, while most of the biomass from most wild ecosystems is not edible and certainly not palatable. Wild biomass is often non-nutritious (like wood) or frankly toxic (like the leaves of many plants, and perhaps most).

Less obviously but very much to the point, formal studies of wild ecosystems do not show a simple relationship between species diversity and long term “stability” – a concept that is hard to define but clearly embraces the concepts of sustainability and resilience. Many highly diverse ecosystems are extremely fragile, such as the fynbos of the South African uplands, which includes 500 species of the Ericaceae alone. Yet others that seem very poor in species – even “monocultural” – may persist for many thousands of years. Thus the boreal forests of Canada, which are practically the size of Europe, contain only nine species of tree, including six conifers and a couple of aspens, yet they have been there since the end of the last Ice Age.

Apparently, then, we cannot simplyassert that species diversity per se solves our problems. Besides, industrial, high-input monocultural estates that are now economically de rigueur can produce more good food per hectare than small mixed farms often do. After all, the average yield of wheat in Britain is now 8 tonnes per hectare, with some of the fields of East Anglia far exceeding this; while a small mixed farmer in Africa is commonly content with a quarter of this (or its equivalent in other crops), or even less. It seems obvious, then, at least to the industrialists and their political supporters who now dominate the world, that the future lies with industrial farming (although they may sometimes concede these days that the small mixed farms may serve a stop-gap role, until the big guns can be mobilized).

But this industrial argument is highly simplistic too. Indeed it opens several horrendous cans of worms – a plethora of questions which (to the shame of the people in positions of influence) are for the most part not recognized as problems and so are not even addressed, let alone answered. Here are just a few.

First, stable but apparently simple ecosystems such as the boreal forest may seem to contain few species, yet most wild ecosystems are orders of magnitude more diverse than the monocultures of modern industrial farming. Although some of the forest trees are clonal up to a point (they spread by suckers, as the aspen does) the intra-specific genetic diversity is surely immense. An enormous range of species – insects, mites, fungi, vertebrates – live within the forest. Most species and genetic diversity are found in the soil. Notably, the boreal trees depend very heavily on mycorrhyzae, which include several hundred species of fungi – and there is often a huge variety on any one tree. By contrast, industrial monocultures, whether clonal or not, have an extremely narrow genetic base; and the soil, after years of ploughing and other cultivations plus tonnes of artificial fertilizer and many kilos of pesticide, often within irrigation, are often virtually free of any biota. Industrial agriculture, in short, is commonly a field-scale exercize in hydroponics.

In short: the boreal forest is species-poor compared to tropical forest – but it is highly diverse by agricultural standards, and obviously is diverse enough to put up with the conditions it finds itself in. It may be simplistic to argue in general terms that diverse systems in the wild are necessarily more resilient than simpler ones. But it is simplistic in spades to suggest that agricultural monocultures are just as likely to be sustainable as complex ones, just because some wild ecosystems also seem relatively simple. Wild ecosystems are almost never as simple as agro-industrial monocultures – not by orders of magnitude. (I said “almost never” in the previous sentence because I wonder about bogs of sphagnum moss. How uniform are they? Does anyone know?).

On the other hand, a great deal of hard ecological data (or as “hard” as ecology can get) shows specific advantages in diversity. Thus no-one seriously doubts – do they? – that populations that are genetically uniform, or nearly so, are more vulnerable to epidemic. Pathogens will attack diverse populations right enough but they can rarely take more than a small proportion because each new individual host presents them with a new genetic challenge. No conservationist seriously doubts that many of the wild carnivores of Africa – cheetahs, wild dogs, many large populations of lions – are extremely vulnerable precisely because they lack genetic diversity (because they have all been through “genetic bottlenecks” in the past – sometimes several times). The late Bill Hamilton, one of the outstanding evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, argued that the need for short-term genetic diversity is the primary driver of sex. As a route to multiplication, sexual reproduction is extremely inefficient – but asexual reproduction leads to genetic uniformity, which leaves the descendants open to disease. There can be no doubt, either, not least from many classical examples, that domestic crops that are too uniform are always liable to fall to some parasite.

Thus, we can and must defend the need for genetic (and phenotypic) diversity in crops and livestock not in an arm-waving rhetorical way but specifically to protect against pests and pathogens. Monocultures have to be protected by industrial chemistry – as indeed is now “conventional”, using the technology developed primarily in World War II to create agents of chemical warfare.  Biotechnology, culminating in “genetic engineering”, is supposed to reduce the need for industrial chemistry but it partakes of the same mentality: seeking to protect monocultural crops with single genes that are the genetic equivalent of the chemical magic bullet.

Still, though, defenders of the status quo argue that a monoculture, protected by pesticide, is more productive than a diversity of crops, or of single crops that are genetically diverse; and further argue that this extra (hypothetical) yield is necessary to feed us all; and that the problems created by high tech industrialization (including the total reliance on oil) can in the future be overcome with more high technology. This is one of the cans of worms that needs to be explored exhaustively yet so far as I know has never been properly addressed (to the shame of those in charge of research, who do not seem to recognize the priorities). Suffice to say here that very uniform high-input crops may sometimes be more productive than more diverse crops – but, in general, only in the short term and in special conditions; and, for example, a recent study in Nature (April 7, 2011: vol 472 pp 86-89) showed that genetically diverse assemblages of algae grew faster in natural conditions than uniform populations – because nutrients are unevenly distributed in natural conditions and the variety of species between them were able to hoover them all up more efficiently.

On the farming front, long-term studies typically show that diversity wins out. The very highest recorded yields might perhaps be achieved by monocultural high-input farming (provided the conditions are absolutely right) but this really is not the point. The world does not actually need greater yield (another convenient myth perpetrated in high places for political-commercial reasons). Adequate yields with long-term resilience are far more important – and this, emphatically, is not achieved by high-input monocultures, for reasons of disease alone (not to mention dwindling oil and all the rest).

But there is, in this whole discussion, a serious lack of data. Some individuals have tried to find the necessary data but critical studies seem to be lacking. What data exist are mostly epidemiological – just looking at what is on the ground, with all the confounding variables that this entails. Since this is a key area, the lack of critical studies is a disgrace. Humanity as a whole really should be very angry, that such important questions are neglected while taxpayers’ money is spent on high-tech “solutions” whose efficacy in large part is simply taken for granted, because it is politically convenient to do so.

It has also been argued that if we do need diversity, we can keep it “in the bottle”. That is, we can grow our monocultural, high-yielding crops for as long as they last, and then if the climate changes (as indeed is already the case) we can take another variety off the shelf, and Bob’s your uncle. This approach has been seriously mooted from people in positions of influence and seems to describe present industrial practice. But to argue thus is to ignore the realities of farming, and indeed of the physical world.

Thus, for every tonne of wheat (say) that is harvested, about one eighth of a tonne (what in the old days was called a hundredweight) of seed needs to be planted. The weather can change dramatically from year to year – and in times of overall climate change, as now, the short-term fluctuations will surely be more severe (as we are already seeing). The entire scenario could change in a decade or less: areas that were suitable for wheat suddenly becoming fit only for maize; or traditional maize fields are suddenly able only to support sorghum – or indeed semi-arid grassland; and so on. So we may find that we need to change the crop very quickly, but over millions of hectares. That means millions of tonnes of seed. So what use are these serried ranks of carefully labeled bottles? We would need warehouses full of each (and where are these warehouses?) It would take several decades to produce the quantities of seed-corn we need if we start with a few kilos.

Furthermore, the idea that we can guess what variety we will need in the season to come, and therefore select the right variety off the shelf is obvious nonsense. All sorts of assumptions are embedded in here, none of which are justified.

In the longer term, there is yet another, obvious and commonsensical argument in favour of diversity: it leaves us with more options. If conditions change (as they will) then diverse populations are more likely to contain individuals that can cope with the changes, than populations that are more uniform. That is a simple point of logic, which seems to need no argument. But of course, even more fundamentally than Bill Hamilton, Charles Darwin argued that variation is the key ingredient of evolutionary change over time. Take away the genetic diversity, and we halt evolution in its tracks. That is a very dangerous thing to do at the best of times. In times of rapid change, as now, it is suicidal.

For all kinds of reasons, the best way to maintain diversity is to keep it in the field. Crops – particularly cereal crops – need to be reasonably uniform or they cannot readily be harvested, and we don’t know what we’re getting when we plant them. But within that reasonable uniformity we can have enormous genetic diversity. In Suffolk, Professor Martin Wolfe who is both a plant geneticist and an (organic) arable farmer, has of late been out-yielding his neighbouring (conventional) farm by growing mixtures of wheat varieties. He re-plants the mixtures each year – and thus, in effect, is imitating the strategy of traditional farmers, who develop local “landrace” varieties in situ, by planting mixtures of seed and re-planting, and allowing them to interbreed in the field. This, demonstrably, is good farming rooted in sound biology. It is the kind of approach that needs serious research and support. But, as is almost invariably the case these days, matters that cry out to be studied because of their potential value to humankind are left to individuals to work on, while the bulk of the world’s money, including taxpayers’ money, is spent on industrial approaches that are assumed, as a matter of dogma, to be superior (or at least lend themselves more readily to top-down control and the centralization of power).

In truth, then — as common sense and simple biology do indeed tell us – diversity in farming is vital: a diversity of crops and livestock, with genetic variation within each. The present fashion for cloning is yet another high-tech nine-day wonder, advocated by people who may be good at what they do but seem to have no broad understanding at all. The diversity of genetically diverse animals and plants must be integrated so that each benefits from the others and nothing is wasted – in absolute contrast to the modern industrial factory farms where, for example, manure becomes a burden: the prime source of fertility reduced to a pollutant. Organic farming should not, as now, be seen as a “niche”, but as the default position: what farmers do unless there is some very good reason for doing something else. The dogma from on high which says that organic farming cannot feed the world again seems simply to be untrue – but again, although the issue is crucial, ot is not being critically examined. Diverse, integrated, organic systems do need high standards of husbandry, so we do need plenty of farmers. Overall, simple logic rooted in basic biology leads us inexorably to the small to medium sized, mixed farm – the kind which, as Hans Herren suggests, still provides most of the world’s food. But the industrial forces are gathering fast, with Africa now seen, in effect by the world at large, to be up for grabs.

As a very considerable bonus we might point out that agriculture is still the world’s biggest employer by far. Half the world’s population (around 3.5 billion people) still live in the countryside and most of them rely on farming for a living. The idea that the city provides a viable alternative is another grotesque piece of dogma. At present, an estimated one billion live in urban slums – getting on for a third of those that live in cities; and no country in the world, not even the richest, seems able to get on top of this. The problem is out of control, and this really should be acknowledged. By contrast, agrarian living when properly supported can be highly agreeable. The fashionable and convenient notion that agrarian life is always dour, and that city life is bound to be better, and represents “progress”, is yet another convenient myth perpetrated by those who benefit from the industrialization of farming, and from what is euphemistically called “urban development”.

We cannot afford to run the world on convenient myths. Reality says that industrial farming with all that it connotes is of very limited use, and that the future lies with farms that are small to medium-sized, mixed, labour-intensive, and more or less organic. This is where we should put our weight and our effort. Those who advocate high tech industrialization believe that they are “modern”, and that those who argue otherwise are victims of wishful thinking. The truth is the other way around. What now passes as “modern” agriculture and the neoliberal economy that supports it must be seen as aberrations. They have very definitely had their day and unless we wake up soon to this all too obvious fact, the world will be beyond rescue.