The Great Re-Think Videos

Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and an appropriate Food Culture

Get food and farming right and everything else can fall into place. But we can’t get farming right unless we get the rest right too.

Session III

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Session III – Action

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Ian Rappel: So in the last session, we spoke about ecology and the biosphere. And obviously, we effectively live on planet farm now; it’s the biggest biome in the world. And it’s very obvious that farmers are part of an ecosystem. Farming isn’t something that’s done in isolation of nature. So I’d like us to talk if we can about your vision for farming and for the food system, and explain how that sits within the ideas of renaissance because it’s not – I don’t think it would be always clear to people why farming is so central to that change.  

Colin Tudge: Agriculture is the most important thing that human beings do. But it’s possible that this most important thing is the most amenable to people’s takeover. I would say agriculture as being right at the heart of the renaissance is – the renaissance has got to be across the board, taking everything into account. But it’s got to start somewhere. And the place to start, I suggest, is agriculture. And given that it’s meant to be a people-led renaissance, that makes it doubly pertinent because actually agriculture can be people-led. Now, it’s obvious that agriculture has such a big influence. I mean, if we do it well, then we can all be well-fed. If we’re all well-fed, that is, I would say nine points of the law. Certainly, if you’re not well-fed, you’re never going to be contented or fulfilled or anything of those kind. So it’s absolutely fundamental. Also true that if we fall badly, as we are doing, then we could certainly wreck the ecosphere as a whole, the biosphere as a whole. And we are doing that. And also obvious that if we did it, well, then we needn’t do that. Although that’s becoming less and less on the agenda. 

Those are components of real farming. What does real farming consist of? I would say there are two components which some people put together. I think you do as well. But I will say, on the one hand, to make enlightened agriculture work, you need what is called agroecology. And on the other hand, you need this thing called food sovereignty. Now, agroecology says, We should treat agriculture as an as an ecosystem; the whole of agriculture is treated as an ecosystem. And there’s one very good organic farmer says, Becs Hoskins says, a farm should be a closed ecosystem with leaky borders. And that’s very, very good. And food sovereignty says, basically, every society should have control of its own food supply. Now, some people as I say, like to put the two things together and say agroecology implies food sovereignty. I think it’s better to keep them separate, because I would say, the first one is fundamentally a matter of ecology – in other words, of applied science – and the second one is fundamentally a question of morality, and a question of politics and economics. And of course the two play off against each other. But I would keep them separate, conceptually, because it’s easier to think that way. 

Anyway, let me just talk about agroecology, because what it consists of – the idea is to emulate nature. Now I’ve come across terrible pedants in this context, who say yes, but nature does terrible things. I mean, it gives you tsunamis and volcanos, all sorts of things. And you don’t want to emulate that. No, of course you don’t. What you want to emulate is those aspects of nature that lead you to produce flourishing biospheres, flourishing ecosystems, which can last millions of years. They evolve, they change, but basically, they’re always up there, right in their corner. And the question is, what qualities of nature enables us to do this? What are the things that it’s got, that they will let to happen? 

The one thing, the first thing I would observe is about natural ecosystems that really work is that they’re low input. Not all ecosystems are low input, and there are some special ones like estuaries, where they pick up all the nutrients that comes down the river. And we get huge quantities of shellfish at the end and seabirds feeding on them. Or, for example, we will get large herds of ungulates congregating like new or bison or something like that. And when they’ve gone, you find the soil is very rich, because they’ve been pooing everywhere. And yet, you’ve got a few that are really – but on the whole, the fertility of wild soils is really very low. Often surprisingly low. And one of the differences between modern agriculture and a world system is that the farmer is trying, generally speaking – conventional farmer – is trying to raise the fertility, which basically means raising the nitrogen content as high as possible. Whereas in a wild ecosystem, it would normally very low. So an agroecological system ought, as far as possible, to have a low nitrogen content, and be not very fertile in fact, and low input. But it doesn’t make use of fossil fuel, this is a crucial thing. The only inputs really are the ones that come to it naturally, if it’s a wild ecosystem, and the energy from the sun, possibly some terrestrial heat. 

The second thing about a wild ecosystem is that generally speaking, it is diverse. And often it’s one might say, maximally diverse; extraordinary number of creatures in a wide ecosystem. 

The third thing is that you find if it’s a closed system, you’ve got total recycling. Everything goes round, around, around, around. And again, one important point to make is that nobody’s putting fossil fuels into it and increasing the general energy level. 

The fourth thing is that perforce, if you put all those things in, it’s going to be an organic system. You’re not adding much, et cetera; it’s just you’re relying on the biological systems to make it work. All that implies that you’re not going to dig it more than you need to, you don’t want disturb the soil. So we’re talking about no tillage, or minimum tillage. Then there’s very specific things you do, but only feed livestock in places basically where you can’t grow crops very easily. So you grow them on places that are too hot or too dry or too steep, or whatever, too wet, broadly speaking, or too stony. And you use as far as possible natural grazing. And one thing that comes out of that is pasture feeding, feeding the animals on, basically on not just on grass, but on the other things that a natural ecosystem, a natural meadow would continue – actually meadows are never natural, quasi natural, but what would normally would grow in that place. 

And a last thing – actually the last think I’ll mention – is the idea of integrating growing trees with various forms of agriculture. And one form takes many forms. But one form I’d like – and other people like – is the so called alley cropping. Where you grow rows of trees, and you grow crops in between the rows of trees, including arable crops and horticulture and livestock. But it’s long been realised that actually there can be a very fine synergistic relationship, symbiotic relationship, between growing trees – in other words, forestry, and or indeed wild trees – and agriculture. And you find, for example, that if you do it in the right way, that crops will benefit from the presence of the trees in various ways, and the trees can benefit from the presence of the crops. There are lots of examples of this from the world over. If you analyse what it’s worth in purely monetary terms, you very often find that the trees plus the crop is worth more than the land would be worth if it was all trees, or than it would be worth if it was all agriculture. So the two things together, the trees and the crops funnily enough benefit each other biologically, but also can give you an economic return, which is really quite a bonus.

Ian Rappel: That’s agroforestry?

Colin Tudge: Agroforestry, yes. As I say, takes many forms. One thing that people overlook is that most farm animals are basically woodland animals. Not perhaps sheep too much, but sheep like shade like anything else. Goats, of course, love eating tree leaves – they’re browsers. Cattle are basically forest animals, and poultry obviously are, pigs obviously are. And most animals – all animals, all domestic animals – benefit very significantly from shade. And in Costa Rica, where of course there’s more sun than there is here, milk yield of cattle is found to increase 30% if you kept them in woods, in shade. Looking at cowboy films, you know, we’ve got these big herds of Texan Longhorns, et cetera, out on the plain. They’re not dairy animals, but you know, they’re beef animals. But I think it’s just cruel. That’s not how animals live. And even when you get bison, which look as if they’re plains animals, they’re descended, the American bison are descended from the European bison, which is a woodland animal. And also, of course, in the good old days, when bison were roaming nice and free, the grass was four or five feet high, so they were well-shaded. And if you go to America now, and you see bison, which there’s quite a lot now, in Montana or Wyoming, they love the forest, you see them in the forest. So the idea of livestock and trees together goes very well. And of course, browse as opposed to mere grazing is very good for animals. When they go – cattle, for example – go out of their way to feed off hedgerows and things like that. 

Ian Rappel: It sounds a complex system.

Colin Tudge: It’s very complex. And it’s intentionally complex. I mean, it’s partly complex, because, you know, it’s emulating an ecosystem doing lots of different things, therefore, it’s going to be complex. But it’s also deliberately complex, because you recognise that complexity is part of what you need for sustained output really, sustain being the word. If – it has all sorts of consequences – the fact that it’s complex means that it must be skills intensive; lots of skill to make the whole thing work properly. So skills intensive. And what that means is that you need a great many farmers and a great many growers. And I would say in a country like Britain, and I’ve talked to farmers about this, we possibly need about eight times as many farmers as we have now. And I would say that’s more than a million farmers. And I would say we really need, say a million more farmers, just for starters. It ought to be seen as a prime job that people do. And at the moment, it hardly features. If careers teachers come to talk to schools, career specialists, certainly in the cities, they weren’t even mention agriculture, but we ought to be thinking about really building that up. And that’s a job not only in that it’s satisfying – in other words, fulfilment – but it’s also necessary, which is rather a good thing. And it could solve, genuinely provide careers for millions of people, as opposed to, you know, zero contract rubbish that is now passed off as full employment. 

Ian Rappel: These are green jobs effectively. So if we’re thinking of a greater transition at the societal level, towards decarbonisation, new green economy, those sorts of things. Actually, agroecology is a really important part of that. 

Colin Tudge: Absolutely. And it’s also the case, it follows on from what you’ve just said, that the kind of agriculture we have now, which one could call industrial agriculture, or you could it’s called conventional, but it’s basically industrial. Or, given the present economy, you could call it neoliberal industrial agriculture. It’s the exact opposite of what I’ve just been saying. Because the whole idea is to maximise wealth. And so long as you’ve got lots of fossil fuel, then the way to maximise wealth is to replace labour with machinery. So you get minimum labour. Machines on the whole don’t like complexity. They like to do one job fast and big. So you simplify the system as much as possible. And things like – I mean, you do things like GM crops, which are very fancy, so it looks as if you’re doing clever things, but actually what you’re doing conceptually is simplifying the whole system. So it’s the very opposite of what we should have. And yet that is what is now seen as progress. And the traditional farming, you find the world over – which is often very efficient, probably could do with a helping hand here or there; not usually technically, but certainly in terms of markets, for example, and access to money – is often what you really need. And that’s the kind that has been swept aside over the last few decades to make way for the industrial kind. It also follows, if you want lots and lots of farmers, and the lands not getting any bigger, the units ought to be smaller. So actually, you’re talking about small farms. And we ought to be – small farms, although they could be independent businesses, they need to be joined together in cooperatives to make them really work economically and logistically and so on. Linked to small markets. All very amenable to people’s takeover. I mean, these things, you could have community owned farms, you can certainly have community owned markets. So it’s possible. One other little thing I’d say is actually quite a big thing, is that our attitude, society’s attitude to farmers ought to change. It has to change. It’s still seen as a kind of artisanal pursuit, not quite respectable, not quite middle class. Farmers don’t usually, well, nobody wears ties these days, you know what I mean – in farming, the tie is what you’re used to hold your trousers up. I’m exaggerating, but you know what I mean? You get your hands dirty, et cetera, et cetera. But Adam Smith no less, who is sort of lauded as the father of neoliberalism, although it’s a terrible slander, he said, You know, the point about farmers is that they are the people that really have to know how the world works; they have a greater variety of skills, and they have to think about more things than anybody else. So he would rank them very, very highly in the general hierarchy of things. And that’s what we should do. No question. You should be ranked at least, well not at least, but let us say on a rank with doctors who are very highly rated on the whole, or teachers were very highly rated on whole. Well, not well treated, but highly rated. But they’re not. 

Ian Rappel: What does it say about our food system that farmers have got such low standing? What does it say about the way that we produce food, that even though it’s central to our ability to do anything in life, sustenance, that we have this contradiction that the producers of food themselves are seen as quite marginal. If you could reflect on that, what do you think is going on there? Why is it there that contradiction?

Colin Tudge: Well, just to expand on the point that, you know, it’s disregarded. For example, Kier Starmer, who’s a very decent man, talking recently about Labour’s dreams. And he mentioned everything, I think medicine and teaching and everything, but he didn’t mention farming. Farming is not on Labour’s radar as far as I can see. And when the Tories talk about farming, they talk about the expression – dreadful expression, which I first heard in the 1970s – it’s just a business like any other. And it comes back to the idea that farming, the job of farming, is to contribute to GDP, or whatever it’s called, just the same as everything else. That’s what life is about, is making GDP increase, economic growth. And farming doesn’t do that particularly well, and it’s quite difficult to get right, and farmers are a stroppy lot and all that stuff. So governments of our kind don’t take it seriously. 

The idea has been that we can always get food from abroad. And certainly when we had an empire, we said, we’d get it from wherever. Africa to large extent. The Americans are very pleased to send us stuff because they’ve got surpluses, and New Zealanders have got loads and loads of sheep and beef. So have the Australians. So they’re all very happy to sell to us. And so long as we have lots of money, why should we waste time trying to produce it at home under much more difficult conditions with all those stroppy farmers? And indeed, I’m told on good authority by a serious civil servant that under Blair, let alone the Tories, but under Blair, there were serious discussions about whether we needed agriculture at all in this country. And the logic was, you know, we’d got rid of coal. We dumped that on the Poles and the Chinese. Why can’t we do the same with agriculture? And there are people like – well, it’s slightly different point that he’s making – but George Monbiot, if I might mention his name, in his latest books, Regenesis, was basically saying, we don’t need agriculture, we just should produce all our food, in factories from bacteria, or fungi and might rewild the rest, just put it back through some version of nature. Well, frankly, that’s, I think I find that repellent. I also find it absurd, actually. And, of course, people will go with very oil dependent and it’s very hostile socially, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But that’s the kind of thinking even coming from two different ends, because we wouldn’t write off George Monbiot, as I have said, as a nasty old neoliberal. But they both arrive at the same kind of conclusion that British agriculture is not necessary at all. 

Ian Rappel: It seems to me that one of the things that they neglect in both those positions is the cultural impact of agriculture. So the part of the world that I’m from, Wales, has very strong links between agriculture and the rural communities that it supports, and the Welsh language in both of its strongholds, the north and in the west. So there you have a more than, if you’d like, kind of nuanced debate, even about the role of the farmer; that there is a recognition that farming has a cultural function. It isn’t just producing food, even though that’s its objective duty. But it’s also got lots of other layers of elements. And that ranges from everything from biodiversity to culture to everything else. So is agroecology picking that up, strengthening it and then taking it forward? It certainly seems to in that way.

Colin Tudge: I think you could say that agroecology is seen as purely as a ecological pursuit. Nevertheless, it’s picking up on that. It’s the practical arm of what you’re saying. If you really want to take the agriculture seriously as a cultural input, than this is the way it should be done, treating it as an ecosystem, carrying on there. It’s a lovely serendipity that it all fits together and that so nicely.

Ian Rappel: And we see it most sharply I think in the Global South, so agroecology and its links and its promotion by La Via Campesina and others. It’s not just a means of producing food, it’s a way of life. It’s a way of livelihood. It’s got very strong cultural elements, and also strong social justice and food justice almost as well. I mean, as much as you separate agroecology out from food sovereignty at the beginning, you know, to sort of understand those things, you get the idea, certainly from the Global South, where perhaps the debate is sharper, that there’s less division around those things.

Colin Tudge: Well, you’ve got to put them together again. 

Ian Rappel: Yeah. Colin, you also mentioned the idea of a new food culture, if you want to expand on that for us?

Colin Tudge: Well, let me start with a comment by Professor Tim Spector, who’s at one of the London universities. And he is a nutritionist who I respect a great deal, because I think he gets it all right, basically. And he pointed out in his latest book that there was something like 30,000 I think deep, qualitatively different recommendations for what human being should eat. 

Ian Rappel: How many? 

Colin Tudge: He said 30,000 unless I misunderstood, but it’s a huge, huge number of qualitatively different recommendations. In all things, like ‘eat grapefruit exclusively’, down to ‘no, don’t eat any meat’, or ‘eat nothing but meat’ and ‘don’t eat meat together with carbohydrates’, all that stuff. And these have been around, these sort of formally, forever. When I was first looking at agriculture seriously in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the vogue was avoid fat, avoid cholesterol, which is a form of fat in particular, and you know, well, you could eat meat, but you have to cut all the fat off. If you eat eggs, get rid of the yolk. I mean, an egg without yolk is not terribly interesting. So it was basically very kind of austere, et cetera, et cetera. 

What strikes me is that if you ask the question – well put together, ask, first of all, which of the modern recommendations about food actually makes sense? And what are the main ones? Well, one thing that’s happened over the last 60 years – I’ve been following it for a long time, around 60 years; I was still at school, but I was following it – one thing, the whole attitude of protein has changed. People used to say, in my day, you needed loads and loads and loads of protein. And it has to be animal protein. So you know, we were recommended that we should eat basically as much meat as we could get down our throats and lots of eggs. The Americans took this very seriously. And for example, in Texas, there were lots of ads for things like 32 ounce steaks – that’s two pound steaks – with all the eggs you can eat. And you got your, you know, got your 40 stone rotary drivers or truck drivers, who were struck very well unsurprisingly with heart attacks and so on. And so and so. But that was the sort of mania. And we were told that plant protein – it was conceded that there are proteins in plants – wasn’t really much used, because it was sort of second class and et cetera. In the ‘70s, pushed forward, not least by Indian nutritionists, people realised, actually, we don’t really need all that much meat, protein. A modest intake of protein is enough. And it was also realised that plant protein, given that we didn’t need a huge amount, could be perfectly adequate. And it was also realized, which is much more eaten, that cereal, the average cereal, the average wheat, the average rice, contains enough protein to keep adult human beings in a reasonable state. Also, it was noted that if you put pulse protein – most bean protein, pea protein – together with cereal protein, that they balance each other beautifully, because what you’re trying to get is a proper balance of amino acids. And in particular, cereal protein was deficient in lysine. But pulse protein, bean protein, was quite rich in lysine. So put the two together, and you’ve got right off rather a nice balance. And it was pointed out I remember talking to a nutritionist at the time, that the combination of pulses and cereals occurs in all the great cuisines as a central theme. So that for example, in China, you get soy plus rice. For example, in Central America, Latin America, it’s – what do you call those things? – tortillas made out of maize, and beans for our brains, that kind of thing. In Britain, beans on toast, or some other traditional sort of thing, and so on. That theme occurs in India say, dahl with rice. Dahl being made out of lentils or mung beans or ankara and so on. So if that theme occurs through all traditional food cultures, that’s protein. Shift from the idea that you need lots, and it’s going to be animal, to the idea you don’t really need that much and plant protein of the right kind will do it for you, including potato, actually. 

The next thing that happened was people started realising the full value of dietary fibre. It’s actually very active chemically. It absorbs certain things in the in the food, and it transports them, or they are transported from there into the gut itself, in through the colon, in through the body; that becomes a big, physiological player. So fibre suddenly became important. Suddenly, then people began to say, well actually, we don’t really need this low carbohydrate diet that people have been talking about. We need a high carbohydrate diet with lots of fibre, but it has to be a high, unrefined carbohydrate diet straight out of the plant. And then people began to realise that you needed lots and lots of, well basically, not just minerals and vitamins, which we knew about ordinary micronutrients, but other sorts of fancy things that you could hardly even analyse at all, like plant sterols, which apparently have some effect lowering blood cholesterol, so on. But there are probably 1000s, literally 1000s of these little strange, esoteric things that you could hardly analyse. So people, people like me actually began to say what you really need is a huge variety, maximum variety of food in order to ensure that you get these what I call crypto nutrients. And if you put the whole thing together, the nutritional theory tells you that what you need is plenty of plants, which provide the fibre and the energy and all the protein you really need. Not much meat. But you know, meat actually is good to sort of reinforce the protein and also contains micronutrients in one kind or another, like zinc, and calcium, which are quite difficult to get from plants. And you need maximum variety. So that became, in my book, the sort of central dogma for want of a better word of modern nutritional theory: plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety. 

Now if you look at the recommendations of what emerges from agroecology, you find yes, of course, you’re producing plenty of plants, because you focus first of all on arable and horticulture. You’re not producing many animals, because you only put them where the plants or crops won’t grow. And you are producing maximum variety, because you have a maximumly diverse system. And you actually make use of wild plants, which are you have more all because it’s an agroecological system. So what one notices is that there is a perfect one to one correspondence between the recommendations of modern nutritionists and the products of agroecology. That’s rather nice. The third thing one notices is that if you look at all the world’s greatest cuisines and just ask them what is the basic structure of those cuisines? They all are rich in plants. They’re all basically cereals, pulses, lots and lots of vegetables, et cetera. They all use meat modestly. But it’s either in Italian cooking, you know, or Indian cooking, it’s either a garnish, small quantities, but very nicely flavoured, or stock. And I like to say if you give an Italian cook a good stock, that’s game over, because something amazing will emerge from it. But occasionally you have a meaty feast, Like if your daughter gets engaged or something, but you know, it’s a feasty thing, like for Sunday roast joint I suppose. So meat is always eaten sparingly. So what one concludes is that the world’s greatest cuisines, all: lots of plants, not much meat, maximum variety. They’re all perfectly in line with what agroecology produces. They’re all perfectly in line with what modern nutritional theory is demanding. Perfect one-to-one correspondence across the board. So forget all this sort of fancy diets and stuff. Just pursue the traditional cuisine of your area and it’ll work out. It’ll be fine. 

Ian Rappel: So it’s interesting to me, I listen to that, and reflecting on it and other discussions that go on out there in the movements, you talk about a new food culture. Is that then a problem of the West, in effect? Because what everything you’ve said – plenty of plants not much meat, maximum variety – you’re now dovetailing with agroecology, suggest it’s more a case of rediscovery of the West of the basic means by which we can produce food that is biodiversity nutrient rich and linked to livelihoods. 

Colin Tudge: So if you could think of a better way of saying it, I agree with you. I shouldn’t have said a new food culture. It’s a return to return to one’s roots, which runs largely forgotten. 

Ian Rappel: I think if there’s anything new to add to it, it’s that the greater crisis that we’re in, and the planetary one, the climate crisis and everything else, means that if we what we want is a resilient food system, you know, as well as the rediscovery of the basic truth behind food systems, what are all of these things that we’ve been talking about, then actually it’s a forward facing thing. That agroecology is not just, you know, an objective defence of the peasant mode of production or all the way that food is produced by the small farm, but because of its benefits of biodiversity, because of its decarbonized reality, I suppose. Actually, it’s a forward facing and very optimistic movement that could shape the Anthropocene in really good ways instead of the horrible kind of version we got a moment. I just, I think that’s really exciting prospect you know.

Colin Tudge: I agree with you. 

Ian Rappel: So it’s rediscovering, being humble enough to know that everybody else already had the answers in many ways. And then bringing all of the science and the traditions together to face that. 

Colin Tudge: I should have said that but I’ll let you say it.

Ian Rappel: Well, we’re saying it together.