The sight and sound of parliament jumping on the grave of Rupert Murdoch, if such it proves to be, is instructive, but not edifying. For more than a decade politicians of both major parties have done, in effect, what Murdoch told them. People at large have often protested – why should anyone, let alone a man who won’t even pay his taxes, have such influence? – but the politicians thought only, it seems, of what would get them into power; and very little indeed, it seems, about what they should be using their power for. Now that the Murdoch empire has imploded, for reasons that seem to have almost nothing to do with any direct pressure from politicians, they are claiming victory. Some, to be sure, are “holding up their hands”, as cricketers say when they fail to score runs or take wickets, and acknowledging that they might, perhaps, at some distant time in the past, have mistaken the nature of the Murdoch beast, and perhaps (although understandably under the circumstances) have taken the wrong course. But there is very little true contrition, and much covering of tracks.
So what has all this got to do with agriculture? Everything, is the answer. Agriculture, whether considered on the small (-ish) scale of Britain, or of the world as a whole, can never do the job that we require of it – providing good food for all without wrecking the rest – so long as it is run by corporates and banks within the framework of the neoliberal global market. The point is not that the corporates are intrinsically evil (there is definitely something wrong with them, but it is too simplistic to suggest that they are wicked) or that capitalism per se is at fault. We might even concede, as the defenders of the status quo insist, that “There is nothing wrong with money — or indeed with profit”.
But although money is handy stuff it should not be the object of human enterprise; it is simply a way of keeping score. And the present economy does not simply demand profit. It is intended to be maximally competitive (at least when this suits the biggest players!) and so it is compelled by its own logic to be maximally profitable. In the global market, each farmer is obliged in theory to make more money at less cost than every other farmer, and agriculture as a whole is obliged to be at least as profitable as any other human enterprise, whether its weapons or hairdressing or casinos, or else the corporate investors will shift their cash elsewhere. Furthermore, the logic of the system demands that the money produced should be concentrated into as few hands as possible, firstly to maximize the wealth of the few who call the shots, and secondly to attract more investors to the central honey-pot.
All this requires farmers to maximize output, to add as much “value” as possible, and to cut costs as ruthlessly as possible. This in turn – the frantic urge to maximize output at minimum cost – accounts for the excesses of today’s industrial agriculture. It drives the massive over-production, which makes it necessary to feed good grain to livestock or indeed to turn it into “biofuel” – in effect, just to get rid of it. It justifies (or at least provides the reasoning behind) the oil-hungry technologies that replace human labour, in the cause of reducing costs. And it is the prime cause of the poverty that besets most of the world, as farmers and their families are thrown off the land in their millions.
Governments could do something about all this. They could limit the powers of the corporates by law, as Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues effectively did in the early 19th century, when the United States was new. The US was capitalist from the outset – but it was not, initially, corporate driven. Clearly, as argued elsewhere on this website and in several recent major reports, the world would best be served by small to medium-sized, labour-intensive mixed farms – which means that countries like Britain need to break up the vast industrial monocultures, and must also, as a matter of urgency, increase the number of farmers by at least ten-fold. Even without seizing land from the big landowners, governments could tweak the law to help this happen. In many different ways government could encourage communities to re-construct a retail chain of the kind that’s we will need to serve the new generation of farms and farmers; and they could set up convincing schemes to train the new generation of farmers. They could certainly re-claim agricultural science so that it again operates on behalf of humanity as a whole, and does not serve simply, as now, to swell the corporate coffers.
But government does none of these things, for precisely the same reason as successive governments did nothing to curb the excesses of Murdoch. The task seems too difficult. Politicians do not properly understand the issues and cannot apparently spare the time to engage. In the short term it is far easier to take the corporate shilling than to do the job for which they were elected, which was and is to serve the best interests of the people at large, and of the world as a whole.
The subtitle of The Campaign for Real Farming is, “A people’s takeover of the world’s food supply”. Until and unless politicians seriously raise their game, nothing less will do.
Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, July 19 2011