Yet another damp squib from on high

Colin gave evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee for their report on “Sustainable Food”. But he is mortally disappointed by the report’s conclusions.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee begins the summary of its new report on “Sustainable Food” in fine style: “The government must develop a joined-up strategy to change the UK’s unhealthy and environmentally damaging food system”, it declares in its opening paragraph. Absolutely! Precisely the sentiments of the Campaign for Real Farming! And since this present writer, CT, co-convener of the Campaign, presented evidence to the Committee on June 22 2011 (pp 23-31 of Volume 1 of the report, newly published and embargoed for May 13 2012) I had high hopes that the Campaign’s sentiments would be reflected. Enlightened Agriculture and all that goes with it, based on common sense, common morality, basic biology, with proper appreciation of good farming, good retailing, and good cooking, would prevail.

I was the more deceived. The thinking that emerges from this new report is just as disjointed and generally frayed as ever. The central dogmas remain in place – that the neoliberal global “free” market is a given, like a law of nature, on a par with gravity; that science is what the best-paid scientists say it is; that people at large need “strong” government, even if the government palpably doesn’t know what it is doing; and so on and so on.

What the food chain really needs, after all, in Britain as much as anywhere (far more than in Turkey or Romania, say) is a radical re-think from top to bottom. A major committee on sustainable farming should be asking, for example: “What is agriculture really for? (feeding people, perhaps?). “How much of our own food we should be producing? (perhaps 100 per cent of the temperate crops and livestock, or its equivalent?) How many people should be working on the land? (perhaps 5-10% of the total workforce?) Do we really need to cut the GHG emissions of agriculture and if so now? (use less agrochemicals?) Who should control agriculture? (the people rather than the corporates?)” And so on.

But it raises no such questions. Instead it makes six recommendations of which the first is a plea for “stricter advertising limits [to] protect children from junk food”. OK. But there’s no suggestion here that the farming and the entire food chain should not as now be controlled by a few mega-companies which therefore have the wealth to control vast reaches of all the media. More generally, if we don’t want commercial companies to flog sugar and fat and salt and miscellaneous additives to our children, then we should not have installed an economy that more or less obliges them to do so since they are obliged to maximize profit.

The second item on the committee’s wish-list is a goodie – “Food skills, such as cooking and gardening, should be part of the curriculum of all schools”. So indeed they should and they commonly were until the political dogma of the 1970s declared that domestic science (by then known as “home economics”) was sexist (even if boys did it too) and it was dropped. At least, if it did carry on, it became an exercize in opening packets of frozen peas.  But there is no intimation here that good cooking, sound nutrition, and sustainable farming go hand in hand; or that sustainable farming needs serious food culture, because people need to know good food when they see it; or that farming itself – not just hobby gardening on the side – should be a serious career option for all schoolchildren – up there with engineering, medicine, building and teaching, and certainly well ahead of, say, advertizing and media studies. There is no intimation either that sustainable agriculture must be skills-intensive – which means there’s a bonanza of jobs is waiting to be done: or that if we did restore the agrarian economy, then society would also be improved in many other ways as well.

Thirdly, the Committee tells us, “Local Authorities should ensure communities have access to healthy food and land to grow their own produce”. Again, this may sound good. But what we really need, is to return the control of agriculture to the people at large. To this end, government could and should be finding ways to help people back to the land not as weekenders but as serious producers, and helping communities to set up various forms of Community-Supported Agriculture. At least, if active support is too much to ask for, the government should at least try a little harder to stay out of the way. All encouragement should be given too to small-scale ethical investment in farming and the general food chain (although perhaps it’s best if government stayed out of that). People growing their own veggies for a hobby is largely a way of leaving the status quo intact. It seems to be taken for granted that the serious stuff – arable and livestock – must be handled as now by the industrialists, on the largest possible scale, with the least possible labour, and with all the high tech needed to keep such a system running.

Fourth: “Government Buying Standards for food must be improved on meat and dairy and extended to cover hospitals, prisons, and schools”. This of course sounds sensible – but it depends very much on what is meant by “improved”. For example, current dogma has it that fat-free meat is always preferable, and that it doesn’t really matter how animals are fed (never mind the quality, feel the weight), and so on and so on. The question that Juvenal is generally supposed to have asked in a slightly different context surely applies: “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (But who will monitor the monitors?)

Fifth: “The Office of Fair Trading’s remit should be amended so supermarkets are not blocked from cooperating on sustainability initiatives”. Or perhaps Britain should shift the balance of control from the present the oligopoly of mega-supermarkets, towards people at large — who should be free to pursue their own initiatives.

Finally: “Government should examine the scope for simple and consistent labeling on the sustainability of food products”. But then again, of course, if there were shorter food-chains and people at large had more contact with the producers, we wouldn’t need labels at all.

The more I read of government reports (and indeed am invited to take part in shaping them) the more I realize that Renaissance really is the only way forward. We, people at large, Ordinary Joes, just have to do what needs doing ourselves despite the government and its selected entourage of experts and intellectuals. If only we had a hundredth of the resources that are at the government’s disposal (actually, a thousandth would go a long way), what might we achieve?

Colin Tudge, May 17, 2012

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One Response to Yet another damp squib from on high

  1. Hanna says:

    It must be frustrating for you to be a part of these discussions and not have your ideas represented fully in the results. I’m very grateful that you are involved though and hopefully you’ll help to bring about some positive changes. Thanks for everything that you’re doing!

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