The Labour Leader has shown some encouraging interest in farming of late. But, says Colin Tudge, none of the mainstream parties in the UK takes agriculture seriously enough and none has an agricultural strategy that comes close to meeting our own and the world’s real needs
It was good to see Keir Starmer interviewed in Country Life this month (September 6 2023, pp 42-44), and talking at least briefly about agriculture. He said some encouraging things, too, including “We will make sure half the food bought by the public sector is locally produced and sustainable”. It is rare to see any senior politician taking an interest in farming until they are put in charge of it – and even then, not necessarily. British governments these past few decades have seen agriculture simply as “a business like any other” — just another (not very good) source of cash and a bit of a chore, and Labour has traditionally been a predominantly urban party, as indeed all the parties are. Even the Greens.
But the mess that the world in general and agriculture specifically are now in requires radical solutions, and “radical” is not a term one associates with Starmer. Perhaps in the shadow of Corbyn he is simply afraid to appear too radical, or perhaps he just isn’t. In either case, like the Tories, albeit not quite as stridently as our erstwhile fly-by-night, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t prime minister Liz Truss (or was it all just a ghastly dream?), he stresses the need for economic growth. He does not apparently acknowledge that the economy cannot be divorced entirely from ecological reality and that indefinite material growth in a finite planet is impossible. Neither is he promising any kind of wealth tax to help close the deeply erosive gap between the rich and the ever-increasing ranks of the genuinely impoverished, even though many a learned study has shown that economic inequality does far more harm to human wellbeing than a simple lack of resources (see Coda). Poverty to a large extent is the feeling of poverty – being surrounded by others who are richer and live in an apparently more agreeable world from which those who are not rich are forever excluded. Nothing is more painful than exclusion. Neither does Starmer intend to reverse Brexit – possibly the greatest single and relatively straightforward corrective measure that any British government could take. Even so, he isn’t a Tory, and he is taking some interest in the countryside, and these are serious pluses.
Yet we need more than a passing interest and a show of concern. We need creators or strategy and policy who understand what agriculture really is and why it really matters – and why indeed it should and indeed must be central to all the world’s concerns. And that we don’t have. Not even the Green party, which is the one most closely associated with rural matters, has a convincing, coherent, deep-rooted agricultural strategy. There’s some good thinking in the background but it doesn’t seem to translate into stated policy.
So here is my own attempt to lay out a few basics, as briefly as possible, not least for the benefit of politicians who haven’t given farming a thought but may wake up one day to find themselves in charge of it.
The kind of agriculture we need and the kind we have
There are many forms of agriculture and as many variations on each as there are farms but overall in the modern world there are two main schools of thought and of practice, and the differences run very deep. One I call Enlightened Agriculture (EA), aka Real Farming (as in the ORFC, the Oxford Real Farming Conference). EA is rooted in the ideas and practices of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty. The other might accurately be called “Neoliberal-Industrial”, or NI. NI agriculture is now the mainstream, promoted and financed by a virtual oligarchy that includes the world’s most powerful governments, corporates, and financiers (who include the world’s super-rich who are free to do their own thing), with input from scientists and other intellectuals who in turn are financed by the oligarchy. But Real Farming – EA — is what the world really needs.
Many participants and observers would like to see the two schools reconciled, and of course there are overlaps. It isn’t true for example as is often implied that NI agriculture is “scientific” and therefore “modern” and “realistic” and that Real Farming is an exercise in nostalgia. Both schools partake of serious, bona fide science, rooted in meticulous observation, measurement, the testing of hypotheses, and all the rest. But science is a highly heterogeneous pursuit and the two schools tend to pursue very different lines of inquiry. In general, EA is built on the science – or rather the sciences — of ecology while NI seems focused more and more on molecular biology, the parent science of biotech, the jewels in the crown of which are genetic engineering and, now, gene editing. Neither is it true that all followers of EA are nice and well-intentioned, and that all who pursue the ways of NI are evil capitalist running dogs. Some are, but some truly believe that the future of agriculture and indeed of the world must lie with what is seen to be ultra-rational, western-style reductionist science, which takes it to be the case that all biology is ultimately chemistry and that all chemistry is ultimately physics, which is perceived to be complete and infallible. Many believe furthermore that neoliberal economics is also “rational” and exact. Putting the two ideas together they apparently believe that reductionist science and neoliberal economics together are (a) ultimately and unimpeachably rational; (b) that rationality alone can give us a complete and exact account of the world and (c) that this account will tell us exactly how we ought to behave in this world. This view of life is profoundly mistaken at all levels but it underpins the modern Zeitgeist nonetheless – and agriculture, like everything else, is caught up in the Zeitgeist.
Yet EA and NI are very different nonetheless — in their politics, economy, social structure, technologies and practices and indeed more generally in their underlying mindset; and so too therefore are the kind of societies and ways of life that they lead to; and in the end the two paradigms cannot be reconciled. At best they make very awkward bedfellows. As discussed elsewhere on this website (or will be when I get around to it), I personally like the idea of “the perennial wisdom” – seen essentially as the sum and the amalgam of all the best thoughts that human beings have ever had: a serious, concerted, scholarly but nonetheless democratically derived worldview that would serve humanity and our fellow creatures for all time; conceived not as an immutable ziggurat of acceptable ideas but as an ever-evolving living organism — like a tree, but a tree that lives for as long as humanity endures. And I suggest that EA, Real Farming, is very much in line with the perennial wisdom – a scion of it, and a contributor to it — and that NI farming is the precise opposite; a manifestation of what in a previous age might have been called the Anti-Christ. That NI thinking is now the mainstream is, I suggest, the biggest single practical contributor to the world’s multifarious and possibly terminal ills.
To shift from the mindset of NI to the mindset of EA really does require what the old Greeks called metanoia; a cerebral and spiritual transformation. For EA is designed expressly “to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality, nutritionally and gastronomically, without exploitation, without cruelty, and without wrecking the rest of the world”, in line with what I suggest are “the bedrock principles” of morality (what is it good to do) and ecology (what is it necessary and possible to do”). Enlightened Agriculture must be an exercise in sound practice of course but it is also, essentially, what Harold Wilson in a slightly different context called “a moral crusade”. In absolute contrast, NI agriculture is rooted in the offshoot of capitalism known colloquially as neoliberalism. The economy is conceived as an all-out global competition, all against all, within a “global market” — a competition to maximize the wealth of the individual players and to grab the biggest market share. Indeed, in the neoliberal mind, the goal of all human endeavour and indeed of all humankind must be to maximize personal wellbeing, which is taken to depend, largely and inescapably, on material wealth. In the neoliberal mindset enough is never enough. The logic is that the more we have the happier we will be.
The neoliberal philosophy sounds crude and vile and indeed it is. Yet many argue the case for it on moral grounds – including Margaret Thatcher, who first introduced Britain to neoliberalism, and then Ronald Reagan, and then the whole world. Similarly, the two principal founders of neoliberalism, Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) and Milton Friedman (1912-2006), truly wanted the world to be a better place and believed that material wealth was an essential prerequisite and that the ultra-competitive market was the most efficient and most effective way to achieve this. The roots of this idea are often traced back to one of the giants of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith (1723-1790) who in The Wealth of Nations (1776) famously wrote:
“Every individual [trader] neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention … By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
In other words, say the modern neolibs, leave the economy to the market, with as little interference as possible, and the “invisible hand” will ensure that everything works out OK, or at least as well as it can be. They tend to forget, however, that Smith was a moral philosopher before he was an economist and in his first ever book The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) he spoke of “Natural Sympathy”. He wrote:
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”
And in absolute contrast to Mrs Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” he said:
“The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society.”
The modern, global market is supposed to be “free” from interference by meddlesome government or – heaven forbid! – from meddlesome priests, including bishops like the late David Jenkins and archbishops like Justin Welby, who venture to point out its shortcomings. Indeed in the neoliberal mind the freedom of the market is equated with freedom in general, and in the western world we have been brought up to believe that freedom is one of humanity’s most important desiderata. Thus in the words of the second sentence of the American Declaration of Independence – also published in 1776, the same year as Smith’s Wealth of Nations:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But although the Declaration was drawn up by such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin it is a deeply flawed document, and fails to add at least in the opening pars (which are always the most likely to be read) that “Rights” must be tempered by responsibilities. If not, then “rights” merely means “carte blanche”. And this is the philosophy of the gangster – for what was Al Capone doing if not exerting his “right” to life, liberty, and happiness”? Or Donald Trump? Or Bill Gates?
Admittedly, advocates of the neoliberal market like to emphasize that whatever is done in the global market always must respect whatever laws are in place in any given country. But they never lose sight of their prime purpose, which is to maximize the personal wealth of the shareholders – and to this end they employ the smartest lawyers to test the prevailing laws to their limits. In practice too the players in the market are content to break the laws if they think they can get away with it, or if they think the gains from breaking the law out-weigh the penalties (which is almost invariably the case. Occasional fines of a few million dollars count for very little against the billion dollar profits). All’s fair in love and war, after all, or so the adage has it, and the all-out, head-to-head competition within the global market is war of a kind. In practice, then, in the name of competition, the market is ruthless. Compassion is seen as weakness. Compassion tends to impair efficiency, and efficiency, of a kind that maximizes material gain, is all. Yet compassion, as I argue elsewhere, is one of the “bedrock” moral principles, as seems to be more or less universally agreed by all human beings who are not psychopaths. Thus, by a wonderful paradox, the most zealous neoliberals make a moral virtue of not embracing the most fundamental and universally agreed moral sentiment of all.
Of course, too, competitions produce losers as well as winners – and always there are many more losers than winners. For every Olympic medallist there are tens of thousands of disappointed hopefuls. In the same way, a few do well in the relentless competition in the global market but most fall by the wayside. Eventually if left to itself the market would lead us to monopoly and although there are laws to prevent this we find in practice that all trade and indeed all of life is increasingly controlled by an ever-dwindling shortlist of mega-corporates. Small businesses are pushed aside and sometimes actively bulldozed the world over (as I saw for myself in Beijing a few years ago, and is happening right now in Modi’s India). The natural world is not on the market’s radar at all except as a “resource” – a means by which wealth may be increased. Small farms and local markets are in the frontline, engulfed and pushed aside by enterprises that are geared specifically to the maximization of material wealth; and big companies amalgamate with others or are simply swallowed up by even bigger ones. And so the modern, global food market is controlled by a handful of corporates. Global – “transnational” – corporates rely on high technologies including fast transport and IT to keep them on track, and so it is that the corporates increasingly determine the direction of technology R & D. The technologists and the scientists who make it all possible are grateful to be employed and indeed well paid in a world in which good jobs, bona fide careers, are hard to come by. Again, the CEOs of the corporates are not for the most part moral monsters and may indeed be very charming individuals, but the organizations they notionally run are so big and complex that in reality no mere human being is really in charge.
So how could Hayek and Friedman, who were not monsters, and for that matter Mrs Thatcher, defend a system that creates such injustice and trashes the natural world?
Hayak and Friedman had both seen poverty at first hand and Thatcher had seen it at least at second hand and they really did believe that increase in wealth was the sine qua non, and really did believe that the competitive market was the best way to achieve it. As far as I know they did not even consider the ecological downside. The Earth and all its treasures were just a given that would go on giving forever, if only we applied the most efficient technologies. Friedman thought Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal would in the end be counter-productive. Mrs Thatcher evidently bought into this way of thinking lock stock and barrel.
One last complication: the feedback loop. Those who are most ruthlessly focused on material wealth are the most likely to achieve it and whoever is richest in a materialist world becomes the most powerful, and so their ideas prevail, and others seek to emulate them. It follows, though, that the most influential people, who in practice set the tone of the whole world, are not generally the nicest. But niceness and kindness, together with knowledge and competence, are what the world really needs.
So how does all this bear on agriculture?
What of farming?
The neoliberal mindset – the belief in wealth and competition, and in the high-tech needed to generate wealth, and the moral righteousness that underpin these most amoral of sentiments – is plain to see in NI agriculture. The mega units of intensive livestock and the endless fields of perfectly uniform, unblemished corn, and the endless plantations of uniform oil palms, are its exemplar. The whole endeavour is geared to the maximization of profit. The whole is controlled from above – by the companies that are ahead in the ultra-competitive global market, supported by governments like ours that believe in the underlying philosophy. We’ve had a whole succession of governments who really do believe that “agriculture is just a business like any other” and that business is just a way of generating material wealth. Business doesn’t have to be seen like that. It can be seen rather as a prime source of satisfying careers with the responsibility and the means to help make the world a better place.
Accordingly, overall agricultural strategy is decided by the rules of accountancy. Profit is all – big profits attract big investment. And since profit is the difference between income and outgoings (costs) it is vital above all to maximize the former and minimize the latter.
In general — subject to the law of diminishing returns – income rises with production. The more the producers produce, the more they have to sell, and the bigger their market share. Production is key then – combined with skilled marketing, aka salesmanship. As many people as possible must be persuaded to buy as much as possible. Growth, growth, growth said Prime Minister Truss. Production, production, production, says the neoliberal agriculturalist.
Costs are minimized most obviously by identifying the most expensive inputs and replacing them with something cheaper – and in this particular phase of history the most expensive input is labour so this is what must be cut above all.
Indeed, more broadly, the desire and perceived need to maximize output and minimize costs is what has driven Britain’s industrial revolution, which properly began in the 17th century and was well underway by the end of the 18th. In this, the modern phase of industrialization and the urbanization that goes with it, Britain really was the global leader, just as our government claims these days to be the leader in just about everything else. For in the main, in practice, industrialization means replacing labour with machines – machines powered in classical and Mediaeval times by wind, water, and animals; and later increasingly by steam power, generated from the 18th century onwards by Britain’s seemingly endless supply of coal; and then, from the late 19th century onwards, increasingly by oil. Energy-wise, the 20th century was the Oil Age (why is that not a common expression?). Nowadays oil power is challenged here and there by nuclear power and increasingly by various forms of “green energy” but oil still reigns supreme and the nation states that have lots of it and have managed to keep their hands on what they have have become disproportionately powerful, all other sins forgiven.
Over the last few centuries the machines that do the work have become bigger and bigger, faster and faster – and now, in this computer age, smarter and smarter. The oil/green energy age is also becoming the Age of the Robot. At least since the 18th century the replacement of human labour by machinery has more or less been equated with “progress”. The countries that rely most heavily on machines and particularly these days on smart machines are said to be “developed”, while those that still rely on human labour are said to be “undeveloped” or “underdeveloped” or “least developed”. In practice the labels change to reflect changing attitudes but the underlying mindset is the same. The subtext is that to be developed is to be more like us because we, self-evidently, have got it right (and anyone who says otherwise will be derided, imprisoned, or otherwise swept aside).
Putting the two thoughts together – that we must all compete to maximize our material wealth, and that high-tech mechanisation means progress – industrialists and governments like ours see it as their task in life to devise and promote technologies, especially science-based “high” technologies, that will maximize profit by maximizing output while minimizing costs by replacing human labour and skill with ever-smarter machinery. Science itself is seen increasingly not simply as a way to explore the workings of life and the universe but as the means by which to produce the smart and powerful “high” technologies that will enable those who have access to it to gain ascendancy and wealth.
NI agriculture reflects all of this. The perceived need to maximize output and minimize costs has led industrial farmers, like industrialists of all kinds, to replace human labour – and skills! – with machines. In addition, in agriculture more than any other pursuit apart from pharmacy, NI agriculture has relied more and more these past two centuries on industrial chemistry – which began in earnest in the early 19th century when John Bennett Lawes (1814-1900) in England (Rothamsted, Hertfordshire) and Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) in Germany started to produce artificial fertilizers with emphasis on nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). Nitrogen fertilizers came on apace after World War I when Fritz Haber (1858-1934) in Germany showed how to combine nitrogen from the air with hydrogen to produce ammonia, the parent material of nitrogen fertilizers, and Carl Bosch (1874-1940) helped to devise the technology needed for industrial scale-up. Industrial agrochemistry came truly of age and began to take over the whole show in 1939 when the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller (1899-1965) first showed that DDT has insecticidal properties and so launched the age of organochlorine pesticides. (DDT itself was first synthesised in 1874 by an Austrian chemist, Othmar Zeidler).
The most important form of agriculture worldwide is arable which produces the principal staple crops (mainly cereals, pulses, and potatoes) on the field scale. At least since the early 20th century arable has relied more and more on industrial chemistry. We might indeed suggest that modern, industrial arable is, in effect, industrial chemistry al fresco. In its own terms industrial arable has been a runaway success. Indeed, worldwide, industrial arable farming has produced massive surpluses – surplus that is to human nutritional requirements. According to Professor Hans Herren, President of the Millennium Institute in Washington DC, the world already produces almost twice as much food as the world population really needs (world’s cereal output alone gives us all the calories and protein we need – and cereal accounts for only half of the total).
For the farmer, however, the only thing worse than surplus is total crop failure. The farmer goes to great lengths and expense to raise wonderfully impressive crops and then finds that he or she can’t sell them. Of late we have seen the same problem in other crops all over the world – including the plantations of coffee I saw in Brazil a few years ago, withering in the fields because the cost of harvesting was greater than what was then the market price. There’s a “market ceiling” on all commodities, whether its coffee or wheat or nail bars.
And the role of modern, intensive livestock is not to “feed the world” as is so piously claimed, or even to meet our allegedly clamorous demands, but to mop up arable surpluses and remove the market ceiling. For with suitable marketing the human appetite for meat, milk, and eggs has been more or less insatiable. It’s not so much a matter of need or even of taste as of fashion and kudos. In poor societies at least, or those newly emerging from poverty, meat-eating is a sign of wealth and hence of success. Meat, too, is the ultimate fast food. Traditional cooking of the kind we really need needs skill and time, but anyone can throw a pre-packed burger on the hot plate and serve it up in seconds. Worldwide, traditional cuisines are losing out to burgers and fried chicken. More or less intensively raised livestock now consume at least 50% of the world’s cereal output and more than 90% of the soya – and there is plenty of scope for more. Industrial livestock is an offshoot of industrial arable which in turn is industrial chemistry al fresco; and industrial chemistry in effect has been an offshoot of the oil industry.
In general, machines don’t handle complexity too well unless they are very smart indeed – but smart means expensive. Indeed, farm machines generally work best in monocultures, performing the same task over and over again, and if necessary for 24 hours a day. Big machines on the whole are more efficient than small ones so they have tended to get bigger and bigger, with combines as big as small houses; and big machines need big spaces to operate in. As with everything else too it is cheaper per kilo to buy fertilizers and pesticides and all the other cides in bulk to achieve economies of scale. So as the crude and racist but highly influential erstwhile US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (1909-2008) advised in the mid- 20th century, “Get big or get out!” His advice still resonates.
In short, the ideal industrialized farm is a high-input, high-tech monoculture with minimum to zero labour on the largest possible scale. The produce – produced in vast quantities in vast specialized units – is not designed for local consumption but is sent as far as necessary to commensurately vast wholesalers to be sold on to processors or more directly to supermarkets who specify to the nth degree the size, colour, shape and perceived attractiveness of the tomatoes or hams or whatever that they will buy — and they buy from all over the world from whoever is cheapest and make a virtue of their thrift. The farmers are duly grateful. “The man from Del Monte, he say Yes!”, said the ad of a few years’ ago. We weren’t told what happened to the farmers and their families when the man from Del Monte he say No. Crops and livestock are seen not as foods but as commodities, raw materials for the processors or, more generally, for the global money-making machine. The farmer gets only a small proportion of the final retail price – typically less than a tenth. Inevitably, the whole caboodle is handled by just a few, vast companies, the “transnational corporates”, each one richer than many a nation-state.
Overall the modern global food-chain is technically amazing and for some at least it has been immensely profitable. Industrialists, financiers, and politicians of a certain stamp, love it. Successive Secretaries of State and others too in positions of influence have seen it to be their task in life to plug agriculture into the great agro-industrial machine, as seamlessly as possible. Those who doubt the wisdom of this are written off as irresponsible “romantics” and hippies, anti-progress and anti-science, trouble-makers, and potential or even actual terrorists.
But industrial agriculture is not sustainable, as everybody knows who cares to take an interest in these matters and is not blinded by the glitz and hype of the status quo. Industrial farming uses too much water. It is a prime contributor to global warming, mainly because of the enormous oil-based inputs and because so much forest has been felled to make way for it. It is immensely polluting, not least because the pesticides escape and they and the herbicides kill things that are not intended to kill and the fertilizers and slurry run off and over-nourish the world’s aquatic ecosystems, from English streams to tropical reefs. As resident and visitor knows, England’s formerly wondrous Wye Valley is now over-loaded with poo from intensive chicken units. For all these reasons modern industrial farming is a prime cause of the mass extinction that is now so obviously upon us. In passing industrialization throws many millions – potentially billions – off their land with no-where to go except the slum and the shanty, although in these times of flood and fire and cosmetic slum clearance, even the shanty may not be an option. For good measure these technological and commercial wonders fail to deliver what most of us thought farming is supposed be for, which is to provide everyone with good food. Stats from the UN and elsewhere show that almost a billion still go hungry and many more are malnourished, while another billion or so are overnourished.
Enlightened Agriculture, aka Real Farming, offers a truly viable alternative. If we seriously want the future world to be agreeable, or indeed habitable, we need to embrace it with all possible energy and urgency.
The absolute importance of Enlightened Agriculture.
Some have suggested in the interests of sweetness and light that those who espouse EA, or Real Farming, should strive to find accommodation with the Neoliberal agricultural industrialists. Pragmatically speaking, after all, EA may be right, morally and socially and ecologically, but NI is the dominant form, the one with the wealth and the backing of powerful governments, and it would be easier to make significant change if the world’s most influential people were on side. There must be a middle way, mustn’t there? And the middle way is always best, is it not?
But in the most important respects EA is the antithesis of NI. Indeed, both in theory and in practice it is almost the diametric opposite: in mindset, in intent, in technique, in the kind of science and economy and mode of governance that are needed to achieve the required ends, and in the underlying fundamentals such as who should own what and how much and what ownership ought to mean and whether the concept of land ownership, or ownership of sentient creatures, is appropriate at all. So we need not suggest that everyone on the EA side is a good and desirable human being and everyone on the NI side is bad, partly because that is untrue and partly because that would be counterproductive. Polarisation never helps. But we need to acknowledge nonetheless that the differences are real and cannot be airbrushed away. EA is necessary; and to achieve EA we need to re-think everything we do and take for granted from first principles, including what we feel is morally good, and what we think science is, and how it should be deployed, and what kind of economy and governance would be most likely to achieve the desired ends. If we are really serious, we cannot escape the need for Renaissance. And since the world’s most powerful people and institutions are pursuing a different agenda, the Renaissance we need must be led by us, people at large. It must be a people’s movement.
Thus the advocates of NI farming and indeed the neoliberals in general take it to be obvious that material wealth is not only necessary but is intrinsically desirable. They further believe – or act as if they believe – that the more wealth we have the greater our wellbeing, so we should all strive for more and more. As Jacob Rees-Mogg is wont to suggest, the collateral damage can always be put to rights with more technology — provided we make ourselves rich enough to afford the necessary R & D. And as Mrs Thatcher in theological vein once told a bemused television interviewer, the Good Samaritan who Jesus described in Chapter 10 of the Gospel according to St Luke would not have been able to help the wounded traveller if he hadn’t been rich. Ergo it’s good to be rich – and the richer you are the more good you can do. On this kind of basis the NI enthusiast argues that all human endeavour should be geared to the maximization of material wealth. As described above, the wealth is supposed to be maximized most efficiently by competition – everyone striving to out-do everyone else. Such competition also tends to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands for there are bound to be far more losers than winners. But that’s OK. The winners by definition must be the best, and it’s right that the best should be the most rewarded. That’s what’s meant by meritocracy. And the successful players in a market succeed only by producing what people will pay for, which must be what they want, so the system is democratic too. So the free market system is the best, even if it doesn’t always look that way.
Supporters of EA, in absolute contrast, put far less store by material wealth, and by shows of wealth. Of course everyone needs enoughfor the basics of life, and the fact that so many people cannot afford good food or a tolerable place to live, even in the world’s richest countries which still include Britain, is a huge indictment of our mode of governance, our economy, and of the underlying moral mindset (although Rishi Sunak assured the House of Commons yesterday (September 13 2023) that the mega-rich aren’t as rich as all that and that thanks to his government’s foresight and wisdom there are fewer poor people now than, er, in the past. So it’s all in hand).
But proponents of EA argue instead that enough’s enough. We are not made happier by ever-increasing wealth and even if we were we must still acknowledge the physical limits of the planet. To be sure, we can in theory grow richer without wrecking the fabric of the Earth and destroying our fellow creatures, and to some extent we do. We can increase the circulation of money (GDP) by spending more or service industries, like hairdressing or banking. But in the end we cannot meet endless material demands without encroaching on the fabric of the Earth and the lives of our fellow creatures. We can reduce the strain by insisting that the materials we use are re-cycled and renewable but this can never be 100 per cent. In the end, in practice, increase in material wealth within the growth economy and with a still-increasing global population requires more and more mining, if not for coal then for lithium; and the kind of agriculture that’s required to maximize production so as to maximize financial returns inevitably depletes the Earth. Scientists of a certain caste like to tell us that in the future we may forage the minerals we need by mining on other planets and some governments and venture capitalists believe them, or at least know a good commercial bubble when they see one. So they join the space race and call it progress. But in reality that’s just fantasy. Hype. Distraction. Postponement. A bandwagon.
Inescapably, if we are serious about the future, we need a different kind of economy. But first we need to re-think the whole discipline of economics. For a huge mistake of economists these past 200 years or so has been to suppose that economics is or can be a science and – a further mistake – to suppose that science deals in certainties and can produce once-for-all sure-fire formulae that will solve all our problems for evermore. In reality, economics cannot be a bona fide science for reasons discussed elsewhere in this website. Besides – a very big “besides” – science does not deal in certainties but in probabilities. The Marxist pseudo-scientific formula says that all would be well if only the workers controlled the means of production, which for various obvious reasons is highly questionable. But then, Marx himself denied being a Marxist. The prevailing, neoliberal formula is, “Let the (free) market decide”. Neither the Marxist nor the neoliberal formula has so far worked. The supporters of all such grand wheezes claim that they have generally fallen short because they have not been applied rigorously enough, or because of outside interference. If markets fail it’s because governments and do-gooding archbishops throw ideological spanners in the market machinery. But actually all economic formulae fail because the search for sure-fire, one-size-fits-all economic formulae is forlorn and foredoomed. The version of Green Economic Democracy as outlined elsewhere on this website does not offer a formula but is simply a list of desiderata – what should we be trying to achieve, and why? – with some suggested guidelines. The prime task for economists, I suggest, is to refine the guidelines. As such economic luminaries as J M Keynes and J K Galbraith have emphasised, economics must be an exercize in pragmatism, not in physics. The law recognizes the distinction. As a judge once pointed out to me, the laws themselves are only 10 per cent of the law. The rest is case-law – the legal principles applied to real life. Economists should make the same distinction.
To get back to the main point: although the advocates of EA of course acknowledge the importance of material wealth they do not suppose that more and more material wealth is essential or desirable, or indeed possible – and indeed, enough’s enough. Thus, in contrast NI approach, EA is not geared simply or primarily to the creation of wealth. Instead is it expressly designed to provide good food for everyone, everywhere, forever, while striving to establish a harmonious relationship with the rest of life on Earth. EA is rooted in the twin principles of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty. Agroecology strives to tell us how to farm if we really want to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest, and the principle of food sovereignty says that every society should have control of its own food supply. Overall, EA is guided not by accountancy but by the bedrock principles of morality (what is it right to do?) and ecology (what is it possible and necessary to do?)
So how does all this work out in practice?
Real Farming in practice
Agroecology as indeed the term implies treats each farm as an ecosystem – or as the pioneer agroecologist Rebecca Hosking has put the matter, as “a closed ecosystem with leaky borders”. Actually, in scientific-poetic vein, we might argue that each and every individual organism including our own selves is, in effect, a closed ecosystem with leaky borders. After all, we may feel that we are autonomous beings but in truth we carry huge populations of microbes around with us, not as mere lodgers but as symbionts – we are indeed walking ecosystems; and our bodies and minds are in constant and essential dialogue with the world around us. The general idea of agroecology is to emulate nature – not slavishly, because nature does things that in the short term at least seem most unfortunate – as with volcanoes or tsunamis. But the buzzword these days is “sustainability” – whatever we do now we should still be able to do in a hundred years, or a million; if not exactly the same then something equivalent. Nature — life on Earth — has been continuously surviving and evolving for almost four billion years, or so the evidence suggests, and that is as sustainable as it gets. So it seems reasonable to ask how nature has achieved this wondrous feat, and strive to emulate what seem to be its most constructive features (though always bearing in mind that our knowledge is always incomplete and our judgments may always be at fault).
We should acknowledge, though, that “sustainable” does not necessarily mean “stable”. Some wild ecosystems including some in the deepest oceans may indeed endure more or less unchanged for 100s of millions of years. But even the greatest ecosystems that are with us now including the forests of Amazonia and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef date at most from the last Ice Age, a mere 10,000 years ago — a long time in human terms but a twinkling in the long history of the Earth. At least as important as stability is the concept of resilience – the ability to bounce back, albeit in a new form, after a setback such as a volcano, an asteroid, or an Ice Age; or indeed in the modern “Anthropocene” world, after some human depredation.
So how do wild ecosystems manage to achieve some measure of stability and to be so resilient? What special qualities do they have, and how in practice can they be emulated? I suggest there are three main requirements:
First, wild nature is diverse, at all levels. Within all ecosystems there is a diversity of species. Again, is doesn’t always seem like that. Peat bogs for example are emphatically dominated by one or a few species of sphagnum moss but usually as time passes other creatures encroach and we finish up with woods, which are far more various. Ecosystems close to the Equator generally contain far more species than those of high latitudes and so the neotropics from Mexico down to Chile and Argentina are estimated to contain 30,000 or so different species of tree (with many many thousands and perhaps millions of other species living in and among them) while the vast boreal forests of North America are dominated by less than a dozen species of conifer and just one broadleaf, the apparently fragile but remarkably resilient quaking aspen. Each population of each species is likely to be highly heterogeneous genetically (though by no means always); and if it were not so the population would be unable to evolve and adapt in the way that Darwin described. No variation, no natural selection. Then again, especially in a landscape like Britain’s many different habitats harbouring many different ecosystems co-exist side-by-side, and many species flit from habitat to habitat at different times of day or in different seasons or at different phases of their life-cycles.
Beyond any doubt, diversity contributes to resilience, if not always to overall stability. The lifestyles of different species overlap, so if one goes extinct for any reason others with similar habits take its place. In industry, if more than one person or department is working on the same task then one or several of the overlapping personnel is said to be redundant, and is duly packed off. But in wild ecosystems redundancy is of key importance. Wild ecosystems are resilient precisely because there are species waiting in the wings to fill any niches that may be vacated. However, in any one habitat we are likely to find “keystone” species or little cartels thereof who set the tone of the whole ecosystem, and if they disappear then the whole ecosystem enters a new phase. In particular, the diversity of wild ecosystems makes them more resistant to disease or to takeover by particular pests. If the potential hosts are of many different species or genotypes then would-be parasites find it very hard to get a hold. Diversity is indeed nature’s chief protection against pathogens and pests. Finally, studies both in the wild and in the laboratory have shown that a variety of species living harmoniously together can exploit the available nutrients far more efficiently than one operating alone. In various ways, then, diversity is good.
Secondly: wild ecosystems are interactive. The host of different species and genotypes do not simply sit side by side like the potted plants an old-fashioned botanic garden or the birds and beasts an old-style zoo. Each one feeds upon or is otherwise dependent on all the others. It has been fashionable these past few hundred years to suggest that wild ecosystems are ultra-competitive — like the neoliberal global market. “Nature red in tooth and claw” wrote Lord Tennyson in 1850, and in 1859 in Origin of Species Charles Darwin stressed the role of competition between members of the same species and between different species, in driving evolution by natural selection. Indeed, the full title of his seminal work is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. But Darwin was one of history’s greatest naturalists and he also stressed that nature is also cooperative. Later studies have confirmed this time and again — so much so that we may reasonably suggest that while competition is a fact of life, and often a very conspicuous fact, the essence of life is cooperativeness. (More of this elsewhere on this website).
Mixed farming captures at least some of the diversity and interactiveness of wild ecosystems. Every participant in a well-managed, mixed farm in some way contributes to the whole. In particular, I suggest, there is no system of arable or horticulture that would not benefit to some measure by the judicious inclusion of animals, or at least of their excrements. Often the diversity and interactiveness can usefully be extended by agroforestry: raising arable or horticultural crops or pasture with attendant livestock symbiotically with trees. In reality, for reasons both commercial and ecological, the farmer is obliged to specialize one way or another – but it is desirable nonetheless to be as diverse as possible. Thus although some crops perforce are cloned because there is no other practical way to reproduce them (like potatoes, apple trees. and bananas), and elite animals seem bound to be inbred to a greater or lesser extent, it is still desirable to ensure as much genetic variety as possible within each population. On the grander scale, any one region should ideally include many different kinds of farm doing different things. In general, as far as is conceivably possible, monoculture and extensive genetic uniformity should be avoided. In a word, farms rooted in the principles of agroecology should be polycultures. NI agriculture by contrast is geared to monoculture, as extensive as can be managed.
Thirdly, wild nature is low input. In truth, all ecosystems in practice borrow from other ecosystems. Thus terrestrial ecosystems benefit from oxygen generated by photosynthesizing diatoms out at sea, and the rich diversity of life in estuaries is fed by whatever washes off the land. But, very obviously, wild ecosystems in their pristine state do not make use of artificial fertilizers. All natural ecosystems must make do with whatever the natural environment puts their way. All ecosystems benefit from the natural sources of nitrogen fixation – atmospheric nitrogen gas reduced and oxidised to give rise to ammonia and oxides of nitrogen that autotrophic or partially autotrophic organisms can incorporate into amino acids; and nitrogen fixation is brought about in nature by N-fixing microbes, some of which are free living in soil and in the oceans and some of which live in nodules in the roots of leguminous plants and of various non-legumes including alders. All benefit too from nitrogen fixation brought about by lightning. All natural ecosystems too are master-classes in re-cycling. Nature in short is wonderfully economical. One organism’s waste (including oxygen, a by-product of photosynthesis) is another’s life-blood. Such systems can endure forever – and, in effect, have done so. This is what sustainability really means. In starkest contrast, as noted above, industrial agriculture in various ways is wrecking the natural ecosystems that make it possible for ecosystems to continue. We need agriculture that does as nature does – relying for support solely or at least as far as possible on natural processes. This, of course, is the essence of organic farming with all its variants.
In short, if we are to feed ourselves well without wrecking the fabric of the Earth – which we must if we’re to have a long-term future at all – then we need farming that is diverse, integrated, and organic. This has huge economic, political, and social implications.
First and most obviously, organic, integrated polycultures are complex, and the complexity is necessary to achieve biological efficiency (as opposed to financial efficiency) and is the chief protection against pathogens and pests. But complexity needs human skill and knowledge. Machines don’t do complexity. So the enlightened farms we really need must be skills-intensive. This doesn’t mean armies of serfs doing the work of tractors. It does mean plenty of skilled farmers and growers – probably about ten times as many in Britain as we have now. The continuing drive to reduce farm labour in the interests of commercial “efficiency” must be reversed.
But when enterprises of any kind are complex and skills-intensive there is little or no advantage in scale-up. So the enlightened farms we really need should generally be small to medium-sized.
Small to medium-sized and often mixed farms do not provide the vast quantities of precisely uniform produce demanded by the processors and supermarkets. For the most part they are best served by local markets selling as directly as possible to local communities. Small farms and local markets are best run by local people. Hence, farms run on ecological lines also conform to the principles of Food Sovereignty.
Overall, systems of farming and distribution that are run as here described should make nation-states more self-reliant. Successive British governments over the past 200 years have been happy to leave farming to others and to buy in what we need – until stopped short by events abroad which they could not control, including the blockade of the two world wars; and, now, by the realization that other countries may not be able to supply all our needs, not least because of climate change or, in present times, Russia’s war in Ukraine. Besides, other countries, now richer than we are, may be willing and able to pay more than we can in the world markets. Self-reliance does not mean total self-sufficiency however. It would not make sense for Britain to grow its own bananas or its own coffee, but neither is it necessary to give them up. We should simply ensure that we pay a fair price for what others can produce more easily than we can and that we do not encourage the exporters to grow luxuries for us at the expense of their own people or of their own wild ecosystems. Self-reliance means that we should produce as much as possible of the crops we really need – enough to get by on even in times of siege. It makes no sense as now to import vast quantities of cereal and soya to feed to livestock that we do not really need. We do not need to be vegans. But we do need to develop low-meat cuisine of the kind that is traditional.
In short, NI agriculture and EA are more or less precise opposites. NI favours high-input monocultures with minimum to zero labour on the largest possible scale, feeding into a global market and controlled from on high by ever-larger transnational corporates and required above all to maximize profits of the share-holders. The whole is led by economic doctrine – specifically that of neoliberalism. With a largely denuded countryside the society as a whole is overwhelmingly urban.
In absolute contrast, EA leads us to favour low-input (organic) polycultures that perforce are skills-intensive (lots of farmers and growers), mostly in small to medium-sized units, and mostly controlled locally, and designed expressly to provide good food for everyone and keep the natural world in good heart. The economic theory that’s needed is not doctrinaire but is pragmatic – geared (as Keynes recommended) to the real needs and demands of people at large (as we should add these days, to the needs and demands of our fellow creatures). In the societies that result, urban and rural societies are in balance, each aware of and benefitting from the other. The Zeitgeist is shaped not by some arbitrary economic system but by the bedrock principles of morality and ecology.
So this is what we need from Starmer, or indeed from political leaders in general. All the rest, as the cliché has it, is the clatter of deck chairs being rearranged on the decks of a sinking ship. In reality, of course, today’s politics and politicians are a million miles from what’s needed. A few people in high places, perhaps including Keir Starmer, seem to recognize that this is the case. But none has truly grasped the nettle or shown any real intent to do so; and unless the nettle is grasped we really will have had our chips. To be sure, as James Lovelock the father of Gaia has pointed out, the human race is not likely to wipe itself out completely as some have warned. But at best we seem to be creating a world that is in permanent trauma.
Truly we need the Renaissance and only we, people at large, can bring it about. That implies cross the board transformation – of the practicalities of life and of the underlying mindset. To this end we need exemplars – people doing the right kinds of things despite the status quo, and thus creating “islands of sanity”. And we need at least a loose global network — threads of ideas and moral sentiments shared by people everywhere. There is reason to believe that there are already enough forward-looking people to form a critical mass that could to turn things round, who just need a little more coherence and coordination. At least in outline the network already exists too. I hope this website may contribute to it.
According to The World Inequality Report for 2022, the richest 10 per cent pick up 52 per cent of the world’s total income while the poorest half receive just 8.5 per cent. The UK is still the sixth largest economy in the world (one behind India one ahead of France) yet according to the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, 20 per cent of Brits were living in poverty in 2020/21. That’s 13.4 million people of whom 3.9 million are children. However, on September 13 2023 in Prime Minister’s Questions Rishi Sunak told the Commons that inequality in Britain is getting less so everything is in hand (though he didn’t say that the inequality was temporarily reduced during and after the covid pandemic in 2020-21 because incomes as a whole went down). The number of billionaires in the UK has fallen slightly too – we’re down to 171. It occurs to me that if £100 billion of the billionaires’ collective wealth was dedicated to the general weal they would still be multi-millionaires and we could at least solve the immediate problems of the NHS and ensure that all the UK’s children are well fed. But that of course is “unrealistic”. Though I’m not entirely sure why it should be. After all, nobody ever came by a billion pounds just by working for it.