Not Necessarily, Mr Rickard

Sean Rickard is Senior Lecturer in Business Economics at the Cranfield School of Management, and is acknowledged in some circles as an expert in the economics of agriculture. In this capacity he is given to talking the most terrible nonsense on food and farming on the BBC and Channel 4 News. Indeed he’s become their go-to man, as they say in cricket. He can be relied upon to trot out the down-the-line, no-prisoners-taken, neoliberal dogma that has dominated the world over the past 30 years, of the kind that has brought British agriculture to a hitherto inconceivably parlous state and indeed is endangering all humankind and our fellow species too.  I wish Mr Rickard no personal ill, but the whole sorry, ill-conceived philosophy that he represents, has to be put a stop to.

One example makes the point: his defence of the proposed 8000-head, all-enclosed dairy unit in Lincolnshire. We need such units, he told us on Radio 4’s Today programme on August 7, 2010, because the ever-expanding human race needs more and more food. We need to produce the extra food without using more land, and with a smaller carbon footprint. So we need crops that yield more and more with lower and lower inputs. We need livestock including dairy cows that yield to their absolute limit – and cattle should be housed from conception to the abattoir so that the methane they exhale can be dealt with, before it escapes into the atmosphere, and contributes to the greenhouse effect. Above all, he assured us, we need efficiency.

A true expert was on hand in this BBC programme – Peter Stevenson, Chief Policy Adviser of Compassion in World Farming – to point out that the lives of the 10,000 litre cows that will inhabit the proposed unit in Lincs will be seriously shortened (they will be unlikely to last more than four years), and irredeemably nasty. They will have no proper social structure, no sniff of the pasture to which they are adapted, and will suffer in particular from infections of the udder, and bad feet. But, said Rickard, a group of experts including some from the RSPCA had visited America and found that cows in the enormous units that are already routine over there are better off than those in smaller units. After all, big units can afford in-house vets. QED. Sorted. Next problem.

The BBC to its shame seems to lap this stuff up and so presumably do a great many listeners who are quite understandably confused. So, too, apparently, is our government, although with far less excuse. Certainly the last five governments have made noises which, though largely incoherent on matters of farming, suggest that they thought and think along much the same lines as Rickard (and so too for that matter has the NFU, which innocents might assume is a farmers’ trade union).

Yet Rickard’s logic seems inexorable. The only counter-arguments – surely? – are those born of sentimentality; an anthropomorphic, misplaced concern for creatures that in truth are dumb and don’t really mind what’s going on around them; nostalgia for a golden, pastoral age that never was; effete; in the end, irresponsible and elitist – condemning poor people to a milk-less, meat-less diet just because the well-heeled are too squeamish to face up to life’s realities. Game, set and match to Rickard. Or that at least is how the neoliberal argument goes.

So what are the counter arguments?

First, we can take issue with Professor Rickard’s use of the word need. I am not a vegetarian and certainly don’t think that other people should be, unless that’s what they want. Nevertheless, the vegetarians – and even the completely meatless,  milkless, eggless and fishless vegans – demonstrate that human beings can live long,  enviably healthy, and productive lives on an all-plant diet; and in places like Kerala, where they have coconuts and spices and know how to cook, vegetarianism is more than acceptable even to carnivores like me.

To be sure, some people do need to consume the products of animals – meat and/or milk, often alternating the two depending on season: like the Masai and the Dinka who live in semi-desert, or the people we used to call Eskomoes, live on whatever they can find on or under the ice. In those environments there just aren’t any plants, or at least of the kind that human beings can eat. But most of us, including the north Europeans who would drink the milk from Lincolnshire, and import soya from Brazil to increase the yield, certainly don’t literally need it. For us, nutritionally speaking, meat is a luxury and — at least for adults — so too are dairy products. Luxury by definition is not need. It is mischievous to conflate the two. In fact, as argued elsewhere on this website, the healthiest diets of all worldwide, and the very finest cuisines from southern Italy to China with all places in between (like Lebanon and Turkey and Persia and India) always make sparing use of animal products, both milk and dairy (except again for people in very special environments, like the traditional Alpine Swiss). For people who know how to cook, a diet with less meat and milk would be no hardship at all.

What of Mr Rickard’s claim, or at least his strong implication, that if we want livestock at all – dairy or meat — then we have to go down the factory route? That this is “efficient”, and reduces the ecological footprint because it is efficient, and because it is possible in a closed environment to mop up CH4?

Again this is nonsensical (although in this area, once more, we find a pressing need for more, critical research). First, as Sir Kenneth Mellanby pointed out in the early 1970s in Can Britain Feed Itself – a seminal work that I never stop quoting – the biologically sound way for any country to achieve self-reliance in food is to focus on staples (mainly cereals, but also pulses and tubers); then to take care of horticulture; and then (with basic nutrition and much of the gastronomy taken care of) to plug in the livestock wherever livestock can be plugged. In general, he said, the herbivorous livestock (which in practice mainly means ruminants) should be kept on grass and browse, on hills and wetlands and semi-deserts and in woods where arable crops are difficult to grow; and the omnivorous livestock (poultry and pigs) should be fed on crop surpluses and leftovers.

In such a system the goal is not, as now, and as espoused by Rickard, to produce as much meat and milk as can be sold, but to raise as much as is biologically sensible. Agriculture that is organised along biologically sensible lines produces precisely what the nutritionists recommend and the great cooks have always worked with – plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety.  In fact, in Britain, we could produce quite a lot of cattle and sheep by following such principles, because we have plenty of rain and upland and therefore have a lot of pasture. We could raise a lot of pigs and poultry, too, because we produce a great many leftovers, because there are so many of us (although, of course, one of New Labour’s great legacies to Britain’s food security was to forbid the feeding of swill, which for the time being has knocked that on the head). In fact, traditional British farming did produce a lot of livestock, and traditional diets were not particularly low in meat except among the very poor, who were short of food in general.

So if we were being biologically sensible – which is necessary if we truly care about the future – then we would not in general, in this country, be raising cattle indoors on a diet high in concentrates, including imported Brazilian soya. We would be raising them outdoors, on pasture, with modest amounts of home-grown concentrate, including field beans and linseed.

This raises a whole new set of issues of a kind that are excellently discussed by Graham Harvey in The Carbon Fields, and have been taken up by the Pasture-fed Livestock group, who I hope will feature a great deal in this website (and see the essay on pasture-feeding in the College section of this website, under “Husbandry”).

To begin with, the average cow raised outdoors on natural pasture produces far less milk per head than one raised indoors, largely on concentrate. The pasture-fed cow uses more energy getting around and staying warm and she is taking in less protein and fewer calories. The traditional outdoor cow, too, is not bred purely for yield but for other desirable qualities – like how well she fares in the particular local conditions and on local vegetation, temperament, and the flavour of her milk, (though individual flavour is a forgotten concept when milk is bulked and homogenised).

Hence the range of traditional breeds – Ayshire, Dairy Shorthorn, Jersey, and the rest which, raised on grass, produced around 700 to 1000 gallons of milk per lactation (which means per year), which is around 3500 to 5000 litres. In stark contrast, modern factory-raised animals are black-and-white Holsteins which are expected to average around 2000 gallons per lactation (10,000 litres). Some, these days, produce far more than this, and the commercial pressure to keep increasing yields is relentless.  A wild cow, raising one calf per year (or, more probably, every other year) produces less than 300 gallons for the purpose (around 1500 litres) – so even the traditional breeds outstripped their wild ancestors about three-fold. The modern, factory-raised animals are expected to produce up to 10 times more than their natural ancestors. They pay a price for this. Their feet are bad because they are obliged to straddle an udder the size of a dustbin, and mastitis is a constant hazard. The average factory cow these days averages fewer than three lactations and is knocked on the head for pies at around age four. Traditional dairy cows commonly managed 10 lactations and were slaughtered around age 12; and wild cows commonly lived from 15 to 20 years.  Wild cows, too, prefer to live in herds of 12 to 15 and traditional herds typically contained around the same number. The 30-cow dairy herd was a good par size in Britain until the 1970s.

So what of Sean Rickard’s claim that welfare in the huge, 5000-plus- head-factory-raised farms is higher than in smaller farms? Well, he presented no serious evidence for this claim – just an anecdote based on a trip to America – while Mr Phillips reported that an EU survey of 500 scientific reports favoured smaller herds.

In truth, what we are really seeing is yet more statistical sleight of hand – or rather, yet more methodological sloppiness, of the kind that is all too prevalent in agricultural research. Thus the smaller herds with which the 5000-head factory herds were compared were not traditional herds of 30 animals raised on pasture. They were (at least I assume they were) average, present-day, so-called “conventional” herds. But the “conventional” dairy unit these days is, to a large extent, a small factory farm – typically with 100 to 400 animals, averaging around 1200 gallons (6000 litres) apiece, with some achieving far more than this. We could argue that animals at the top end of this “conventional” range are getting the worst of all worlds. The animals yield so much and are pushed so hard that their health suffers – but the medium-sized factory farm cannot afford to keep vets in house, as the very large units can do.

The real comparison is not between the mega-factory and the small factory, but between the factory-raised Holstein and the traditionally raised Ayrshire. Then the statistics very clearly favour the smaller herd. Even here we have to be careful, because there have certainly been small herds in the history of the world in which the animals were very unhealthy indeed, because the farmers were poor or just bad at the job. But if we compare the best traditional herds with the best of mega-factories, then in welfare terms the traditional herds would surely win hands down. The traditional animals, after all, typically live three times as long. That alone must surely reflect a far less stressful life.

Wouldn’t it be a grand idea to carry out research to find out what really is the most welfare-friendly system? Then we could truly design our farming along sensible and moral lines – sound biology on the one hand, excellent welfare on the other (and we would surely find that these prime requirements complement each other perfectly). Has research ever been carried out, specifically to find out what is really best for cows? Again, if anyone knows of any, please let us know. If it hasn’t, then of course the powers-that-be would argue that the country cannot “afford” such indulgence. But as John Maynard Keynes said the better part of a century ago, good agriculture is the one thing a true civilization just has to afford – and if we really wanted to, we certainly could. What we can’t afford are shot-in-the-dark commercial adventures of the Lincolnshire type, as now advocated by Mr Rickard.

There are other issues too, of nutrition and gastronomy. Graham Harvey in The Carbon Fields cites evidence to show that milk from pasture-fed cows contains more essential, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and fewer of the putatively harmful saturated fatty acids, than the milk from factory-raised animals. The research so far does not seem to be conclusive – so here is yet another area that cries out to be thoroughly investigated. It’s the difference between milk that is positively good for us, and milk that is positively bad. Such evidence as there is, clearly favours the pasture-fed cow. As for flavour – no contest. No-one who has tasted fresh milk from a Channel Island or an Ayrshire cow can ever be happy with the homogenized, bulk-tanked exudate of the supermarket.

What of carbon footprint? All animals produce methane to some extent but the output from cattle is prodigious; and methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas. It seems, too, that cattle fed on grass produce more methane per day and per lifetime than cattle fed on concentrate. So on the face of things, it ought to make sense to keep them indoors and purify the air before release, and to feed them mainly on concentrate.

But as various modern writers have been pointing out (and it is surprising and chastening how much good and necessary thinking these days comes not from our salaried policy-makers but from free-lance writers), all is not so simple. Methane, gram for gram, does indeed block far more infrared than CO2 (which leads to warming). But Simon Fairlie (who edits The Land and writes elsewhere on this website) points out that once methane is released into the atmosphere, it is very unstable. It is a highly reduced gas (CH4) and in the presence of free oxygen it is oxidized almost immediately to form CO2. So even when methane is produced by the mega-tonne, it will not build up in our oxygen-rich atmosphere – unlike CO2, which is already oxidised, and is very stable indeed. So we should not rely on laboratory chemistry to tell us what gases are really heating up our planet. We should be asking, how much effect in practice does methane from grass-fed cattle have on the global, atmospheric concentration of CH4? Perhaps there are studies to show this, but if so, I am not aware of them. Again, this is the kind of thing we really do need to know, and apparently don’t. (But perhaps this is my ignorance. If you do know of such studies, please let us know).

Again, as Graham Harvey points out in The Carbon Fields, it seems that when pasture is appropriately managed – very intensive grazing of small areas followed by a long period of rest and recovery – then it becomes a net sink of carbon, despite the added load of CH4. Apparently the reason is that when grazing is very intensive the grass-roots die, and because they are rich in mycorrhizae they are slow to rot – so there is a steady carbon build-up. Again, so far as I know, this has yet to be quantified beyond all reasonable doubt. But again it is a vital issue. Perhaps yet again it remains uninvestigated because the results could be inconvenient to the people who see a fortune to be made out of factory farms, of the kind that governments favour, and commonly reward, piously, for their services to the environment. Today, agricultural research is controlled by vested interest.

Then again, as many have pointed out, the total carbon imprint of the grain and soya that is shipped in to feed the factory cattle is huge; and so too is that of the retail chain which then must take the milk from the factory to where it’s needed (with refrigeration and all the rest). Again, there are studies to show that local food production is not as carbon-neutral as it might seem, as many small vehicles serving many small shops and houses are less efficient (by some measures) than bulk tankers fanning out from a central depot. But in all such studies we seem to see huge bias. The greatest bias is that present-day transport systems and the present economy are geared to big units and mega-transport, and favour them. With a level playing field – appropriate marketing infrastructure – the common sense notion that local production is bound to be more environmentally friendly would surely be vindicated several times over.

So now the final kind of argument we hear from defenders of the Lincolnshire project. It will become, we’re told, a good local employer. It will provide jobs for 80 or so workers – doubtless including a phalanx of drivers, accountants, and of course vets. Not just jobs, but modern jobs.

But consider. As Graham Harvey has again pointed out (in The Guardian in February 16 2010), the 80 people employed by the new unit is roughly equal to the number of present-day dairy farmers who are likely to go to the wall as the new mega-unit takes their place. If we did as good biology and common morality suggest we should – revert to pasture-fed animals averaging less than 1000 gallons each, in herds of around 30 — then we would need at least 400 farmers, plus their helpers, to do the job that would be done by the Lincolnshire factory farm. So traditional farms that would do the same job as the Lincs factory, only better, would employ at least five times as many workers – and each of the independent farmers would have autonomy, which is commonly considered in enlightened circles to be the key desideratum in social development. Overall, Britain now has only 16,000 dairy farmers left where once we had many tens of thousands – and the number grows smaller by the month, as the brave souls remaining are driven out by cripplingly low prices on which only the mega-farms, with their economies of scale and their enormous EU (or USDA) subsidies, can survive.

Successive governments, at least since Margaret Thatcher, have taken it to be self-evident that it’s a good thing to reduce the number of farmers. A few years back I shared a platform with a government adviser who argued that the best strategy for British agriculture was to get rid of it – to send it the way of our coal-mining. This view was not widely bruited but it was, I’m told, widely held in the Treasury. To be sure, over the past few months successive governments — first Gordon Brown’s and now the  Coalition — have been talking of “food security”, which includes the idea that meaning that we should produce more food at home after all, just as common sense suggested all along. But still the government is wedded at least in theory to the neoliberal global market with its accent on competition, and is careful to add that whatever we do in the name of food security must be done as cheaply as possible. In farming, as in most things, that inevitably means less labour.

Yet the watch-word these days is “sustainable”. Whatever we set out to do, we must be able to go on doing it, or we’ll just make more trouble for our children. Demonstrably, as argued elsewhere on this website, agriculture that is truly sustainable must emulate nature, which means above all that it must be diverse – or “polycultural”, or mixed and integrated. This means it must be complex. Husbandry that’s complex needs a lot of expert people to manage it – so truly sustainable agriculture must be labour intensive. Britain’s farm labour force has been stripped to the bone this past 40 years and then stripped some more, and the remaining farmers on average are aged around 60. So we need a new generation of farmers, and we almost certainly need at least 10 times as many. In fact we need at least a million new farmers and we need them fast (as again is argued elsewhere on this website).

Latest figures show that almost 2.5 million people in Britain are currently unemployed. Young people – 16 to 24 – are three times more likely to be unemployed than older people, prompting talk of “a lost generation”. Overall, in Britain, employment has increased over the past few months – but only because so many people now are working part-time. Overall, with government cuts, the prospects look grim.

So Britain now needs a million new farmers, while 2.5 million people in the country as a whole are unemployed – including a high proportion of the youngsters who could be the next generation’s farmers. So why is it supposed to be such a good thing to cut the farm labour force even more? Yet the main point of factory farming is to cut costs, and this above all means cutting labour because in agriculture, typically, labour is the most expensive input. This is true even in societies that rely on slaves, because slaves are expensive to buy and to feed. So the claim that Lincs and places like them are important employers is a very sick joke. We could say that the whole point of them is to reduce jobs.

But then, this is what present-day, market economists like Sean Rickard mean by “efficiency”. Efficiency in general means output divided by input. Farming should be conceived as an exercise in applied biology, and inputs and outputs should be measured in biological terms: fuel energy in versus food energy out; protein in versus protein out; and so on. Alas, we find the key concept of “efficiency” is horribly confused in the agricultural literature (as I hope Simon Fairlie will shortly be arguing on this website), with different studies defining “efficiency” in different ways (and often failing to make clear what is actually meant by it).

Yet to the modern market economists “efficiency” means only one thing: money produced, divided by money invested. The modern economy is that of “finance capitalism”. It is a game of money played by bankers. Money has become rarified, an abstraction, with no obvious connection (and often no connection at all) to the realities of the real, physical world. Things that are of no use at all may be extremely expensive, and things that are vital may be deemed to have no monetary value, and are disregarded. Oil sits in the middle. On the one hand it has indeed become vital to the present world, but on the other its price is determined by a host of extraneous factors that have almost nothing to do with real need. Today’s agriculture (I hesitate to call it “modern” agriculture) depends absolutely on oil, and since oil prices bob up and down like fairground ducks, so too do agricultural prices.  Since it is considered “realistic” these days to gear all human activity to the money market (and “unrealistic” to do anything else) this means that agricultural policy – what we grow, and where, and who we employ to grow it – depends on the market like everything else which means in the end that our food strategy has very little to do with need, or ecological reality, or justice, but is pushed this way and that by chance and whim. Traditionally – and still — it was very hard to predict the output of agricultural produce because it depended on weather, which cannot be controlled. Now the harvest depends on weather as much as it ever did – but also by the speculations of bankers and on foreign wars and the passing moods of presidents at the distant corners of the Earth. But the status quo is held to be “efficient”, nonetheless, and all who question it are deemed to be dreamers. Hmm.

The real question, of course, is the one put rather neatly by the literary critic F R Leavis about half a century ago: By what do we stand? What do we really take seriously? If we take our own lives seriously, and the lives of our children, and of other species, and the fabric of the Earth as a whole, then we need farming that is truly designed to feed people, and to do so without wrecking the rest of the world, which is what “sustainable” really means. To achieve this we need to be serious; to define true areas of need, and of shortfall; to carry out research in areas that really matter, and at present are left unaddressed. We need an economic system that is a great deal more subtle than the neoliberal, “free” global market, which in truth is a global dogfight, with all against all – and is not free at all but is controlled by the strongest players, with the rich growing steadily richer. We need to acknowledge that human beings, in the end, are a biological species, living in a biological world. The idea that we can cocoon ourselves from life’s realities with ever more technology, and that we can have all the technology we desire just by spending money on it, and that high tech per se represents “progress”, and that progress thus defined is necessarily good, is ludicrous. The kinds of ideas that Mr Rickard regales us with, and the BBC and Channel 4 are so keen to project upon us, are threatening to kill us all.

But since these are the views of the powers-that-be, and the powers-that-be are doing well from the status quo and have no will to change, those of us who give a damn must take matters into our hands. Renaissance driven by the people, guided mainly by common sense and common morality, abetted by excellent, independent science, really is the name of the game.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, August 13 2010

3 thoughts on “Not Necessarily, Mr Rickard

  1. Sean Rickard equates efficiency with large scale production. This usually involves the input of fossil fuels for energy, sprays and fertilisers and the purchase of large expensive and complex machinery. The only saving is the replacement of people by machinery. While fossil fuels are available at reasonable cost, this system will appeal to a lot of people. However, when fossil fuels become more expensive, as they inevitably must since they are a finite recource, the economics of this type of production will change.
    100 years ago most energy required for the farm was produced on the farm; horses were bred on the farm and fed farm produce and a much larger labour force was supported. We will never return to this level of self-sufficiency, but higher energy prices will probably encourage more intensive and varied farming that will require a larger labour force. In most cases this will result in higher productivity per acre which will go some way to feed the higher world population which many claim can only be fed using GM technology, factory farming etc.

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