The Age of Biology

We should give credit where it’s due. The Defra Food Policy Unit has launched a campaign to discuss “The Future of Our Food System”, intended to improve our diet and our ways of producing food, and this is a great deal more than Defra would have done two years ago. To this end the unit has sent an online circular to all “stakeholders” (that’s us!) to ask our opinion.

But, as we might have feared, the introductory blurb makes it clear that Defra and the British government in general will never solve the world’s food problems — because they don’t really put food, and human beings, and the fabric of the Earth itself, at the top of their agenda. For governments, the economic dogma comes first.

Thus Defra states its basic ambition clearly and unexceptionably enough — to provide “reliable access to affordable healthy and safe food”. (They could have added “food that is actually good to eat”, but you can’t have everything.) In truth, this should be fairly straightforward. It is well within our scope to provide everybody who is ever liable to be born on to this Earth with food of the highest standards, both nutritionally and gastronomically. There is still enough good land left, and we have the necessary techniques — ideally an amalgam of ancient and modern.

But the condition that Defra imposes — that “companies [must be] internationally competitive and develop strong and diverse trade links with EU and global partners” — immediately puts the solutions out of reach. It is easy to farm well, in just about any country where people actually live. But farming in ways that routinely undercut other farmers in other countries working in quite different conditions against a quite different historical and economic background is, as the world has been proving this past 30 years, more or less impossible. If you add the further condition — that whatever we do in Britain must be in line with what we agreed with the French and German governments some time ago for whatever reasons we had at the time — then we can be sure that in a decade’s time, if we are here at all, governments will still be wringing their hands and telling us that farmers are going bust because they are not “competitive” and people are hungry because they are too greedy, and “demanded” too many Kentucky Frieds.

The present, prevailing economy — the neoliberal, allegedly “free” global market — is particularly pernicious. It turns all world trade into a global dogfight, in which the rich are bound to get richer and the poor are bound to get poorer, which indeed is what happens. Yet even that is not the point. The point is that we — humanity — can never solve our real problems so long as we allow ourselves to be led by economic dogma, whether the dogma is that of neoliberalism or Marxism or any other ism. What must come first is biological reality; and equal first, although taking its lead from biological reality, comes “common morality” — the bedrock principles of compassion and justice that are shared by all religions and cultures (though not always by religious leaders and governments). The principles of biology tell us what it is possible to do; and the agreed principles of morality tell us what we ought to do: what it is right to do.

The economy, whatever form it may take, then becomes a purely pragmatic device that enables us to translate what is possible into what we want to do. It should not (as in the neoliberal western world or the Russia of Stalin) be allowed to determine what is actually good and worth doing. Neither (as in the neoliberal west with Monsanto, and Stalin’s Russia with Lysenko) should the science be twisted to fit the ideology.

In short, the world now needs a truly radical shift: not from New Labour to Conservative (goodness me!); nor from capitalism to some form of socialism; but away from a mind-set that puts economic dogma first, and then expects human beings and the Earth itself to adjust accordingly. That is the most grotesque nonsense. That, more than anything else, is what is killing us all. One of the greatest of all economists, John Maynard Keynes, said much the same thing. Above all, Keynes was a pragmatist.

So we need new economic thinking — and that, to a large extent, is happening.

More broadly that that, however, I suggest that we need to move into what might be called “The Age of Biology”; an age in which we recognise (as many other cultures in the history of the world have done) that we are a biological species, and the taks of feeding ourselves is a problem of biology (including physiology and ecology), and then plan accordingly. We also need to recognise that all human beings matter equally, and other species matter too. No government that I know of anywhere in the world, comes close to any of this.

That is why we, humanity, — or at least, people who give a damn — have to take matters into our own hands; why we need a “people’s takeover of the world’s food supply”. This is what the Campaign for Real Farming is all about.

The implications of “The Age of Biology” are huge. The grand concept of Enlightened Agriculture, which lies behind the Campaign for Real Farming, is one example of it in action (perhaps the main example). We will return to the whole idea as this blog unfolds.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, August 28 2009.


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