The world in general and agriculture in particular is run by oligarchs who don’t know what they are doing, and don’t have our best interests at heart.
By Colin Tudge
We cannot continue with the fiction that our government is on our side. We cannot continue with the fiction that it knows what it is doing. Of course the government now lacks the power truly to govern — its power to regulate the economy has now been given away, partly to the EU but overwhelmingly to the World Trade Organization, which means to the corporates and banks. But it does have the power to interfere with our lives – and this it does, at every turn, with greater and greater vigour, and calls the interference “strong government” and “making tough decisions”. It apparently believes its own rhetoric and makes a virtue of its headless chickenry, which it mistakes for decisive action.
In truth the government is in thrall to the corporates and banks – we are ruled by a corporate-government complex, analogous to what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, only more insidious. The corporate-government complex does not directly address the real problems of the real world – the physical and general wellbeing of humanity; the survival of our fellow species; the fabric of the planet. Instead it contrives, in collaboration with and led by the corporates and banks, to create a huge pile of money with which to strengthen the bureaucracy and the boardrooms, and develop super-high-technologies through which, some time in the hypothetical future, all problems will solve themselves. This golden day continues to recede and the hope of it grows fainter. But then, as all “responsible” governments are keen to point out, there are no “easy solutions”. There are no “golden bullets”, they tell us, although they devote all their efforts, and our money, to the search for one, for they have no other ideas in their collective head.
Meanwhile, as anyone who is half-way conscious is all too increasingly aware, humanity, our fellow species, and the Earth itself are on the skids. Agriculture, right at the heart of all human affairs, and the principal contact between humanity and the rest of nature, is the focus of all our ills: the prime victim of misdirected strategy; a prime source of all the world’s misery. We spend more than ever on food production, the technology becomes ever more heroic and fantastical, yet the number of hungry people continues to rise, while a billion live in urban slums because farming like everything else is required above all to be “cash-efficient” and must increase its output with fewer and fewer employees. The penny has not dropped in high places that if you cut costs by cutting labour you put people out of work, and that is what unemployment means, and unemployment is the royal road to poverty, which is the thing that governments like to tell us they are trying to do away with.
Intellectuals of all stripes, but especially scientists and economists, are key players in this disaster. Economists, and especially Milton Friedman of Chicago (who of course got a Nobel Prize for his pains) provided the first, modern, formal description of the “global free market”, which throws everyone on Earth into head-to-head, all-out, to-the-death competition with everyone else (except for the biggest players who can fix the rules). This ruthless version of capitalism is bizarrely known as “neoliberalism” and has dogged all our lives for the past 30 years. Add to that the creators of “finance capitalism”, who showed how we could build a world on virtual money — money that is merely deemed to exist – and created and nurtured the “debt economy”. This of course is the economy that has now collapsed about our ears, while the politicians who egged it on, including the present Chancellor George Osborne, wag their fingers at us and tell us we were all too greedy, although for several decades we were positively exhorted both to borrow to the hilt, and to spend more than we had, often against our better judgment, because most of us are more sensible than that.
Most culpable of all though, in some ways, are the scientists. They really should know better. But they have sold out. They queue up to provide the golden bullets and spin the rhetoric that goes with it – the fear and the false promises. They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves – but of course they are not. They are rewarded with Fellowships and Directorships and sometimes with Nobel Prizes; and if some of the rest of us are sparing with our praise, they are more than happy to praise themselves.
There is just one saving grace. Some outstanding economists over the past century have pointed out the flaws in the kind of thinking that now prevails, and continue to do so, and some of them have Nobel Prizes too. A great many scientists are just as convinced as a great many non-scientists are that high tech and big money are not the solution to the world’s problems, and indeed that high tech when misdirected is a prime cause of our present disasters – and they say so. But the scientists who say such things rarely find gainful employment. If you want to be rich and powerful in this world (and wealth and power are now seen as the prime desiderata, and indeed as the point of life) then you have to play the game. You have to accept the rule of corporates and banks, and of the governments that serve their ends.
What occasioned this rant? All or any one of the growing pile of high-sounding reports on the future of food and farming that have issued from government this past few years. That, plus the succession of amazingly well-financed conferences from Davos via Rio to Oxford that affect to discuss the world’s biggest problems – at which, to illustrate their gravitas, only senior politicians, heads of industries, and academics who have taken the corporate shilling, are invited to speak. All that, plus the knowledge that a thousand other reports and conferences, involving scientists who are truly focused not on high tech but on developing ways of growing food that truly acknowledge biological and social realities, and which also, crucially, involve farmers, who are never more than a side-show at the world’s grand conferences – are left to moulder on the shelves.
A fair sampling of such non-corporate articles and reports are on this website – enough to show that alternative suggestions have substance, and that the methods they recommend really do work, both on the small scale and the large scale, when given half a chance. We really could provide everyone in the world with good food, forever, without wrecking the rest. Technically, it wouldn’t even be difficult.
But it does mean doing things that to the powers-that-be are an anathema. It does involve giving up the fiction that power must be controlled from the top, and that the world absolutely needs the high-tech bells and whistles, GM and all the rest, that only corporate financed scientists can provide. It does involve abandoning the fiction that wealth is all, the sine qua non, and that wealth plus top-down control will somehow do what needs doing. It does involve abandoning the fiction that people in high places really do know what they are doing.
But the people who run the world live within this fiction, they are the key players, and they could not conceive of giving it up. It isn’t just that they are reluctant to relinquish power and kudos. It does not even occur to them that they should do so. Indeed they feel it is their duty to stay at the helm, and to repel all boarders. Oliver Cromwell implored the parliamentarians of Scotland – “Consider that you might be mistaken!” — but the present powers-that-be, the oligarchy of politicians, industrialists, financiers, and intellectuals, could not even begin to consider such a thing. For them, the fantasy world that they have created has become their reality. Alternative policies – even those that demonstrably work; and even though present strategies have so obviously failed – are said to be “unrealistic”.
Life is too short to analyze all the high-flown reports that illustrate the poverty of thought in high places, or for anyone to read such an analysis. Colin’s Corner already contains a critique of Sir John Beddington’s “Foresight” report on The Future of Food and Farming – and there are many others on this website, by farmers and cooks and scientists and lawyers and economists and activists, pointing out the follies and describing what really needs to be done. But several recent reports from on high, and conferences and items of news suggest that the government-corporate complex is gaining momentum – that although the world’s farming is already transformed, and is so obviously failing (once we strip away the hype), we ain’t seen nothing yet. Bigger and worse is planned. So here are just a few recent, and I would say chilling examples. They take us swiftly into the realms of what anyone with any serious grasp of the world’s problems would perceive to be madness. Yet they are, perhaps, only the first drips of what could be the deluge to come, if we don’t wise up and do something about it. Thus:
Bill Gates and the rise and rise of GM
The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have given £6.4 million to the John Innes Centre to develop nitrogen-fixing GM maize. Batteries of genes are transferred from leguminous plants of the kind that enable legumes to maintain colonies of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots, so they become self-fertilizing. Sounds good. I wrote about this very idea with some enthusiasm in the 1980s in a little-known work called Food Crops for the Future (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1988).
But I have wised up since then and seen a bit more of the world and talked to people in the frontline who are not techno-zeaolots which, alas, the people who now run the world have not; and have concluded that although GM technology is brilliant (and it is easy to be seduced by the brilliance) it is also seriously misguided. The principal objection, funnily enough, is not any of those that are most commonly raised – threats to human or animal health, and to the environment at large. The dangers are indeed real and should be taken much more seriously than they are. There is plenty of evidence that GM crops can be harmful, in many different ways – plenty of evidence too that this evidence has been covered up; and this should be the subject of a public inquiry or at least of a select committee investigation that would be of far greater long-term import than the recent grillings of the Murdochs and Bob Diamond. But still that’s not the prime objection. The main problem is the one that ought to appeal to anyone who is truly interested in “efficiency”, which is the concept that now drives the whole world. Quite simply, GM is not cost-effective.
GM, after all, has been around for 40 years. In the pharmaceutical industry, applied to bacteria, genetic engineering has produced a great deal of enormous value, including a range of new antibiotics. Excellent. The technologies and insights that spring from it, too, have been marvellous aids to research, increasing fundamental knowledge that is of use in all fields – including wildlife conservation. Excellent again. It seems foolish indeed to object to excellent science intelligently applied.
But genetic engineering (and other fancy biotech such as cloning) when applied to agriculture has proved to be a fish out of water. GM technology has been applied to crops for 30 years, at huge expense, both taxpayers’ and corporate, and has produced nothing of unequivocal value; nothing, that is, that could not have been produced by other, tried and tested means, much more simply and safely. The example so far held up as the exemplar of GM beneficence is Golden Rice, developed by Syngenta. Heroic. It has been fitted with the genes that produce carotene, which is the precursor of vitamin A; and vitamin A deficiency leads to blindness perhaps in as many as 100,000 children each year in poor countries. But every biologist knows that carotene is one of the commonest organic molecules in nature, found in all dark green leaves and in yellow seeds and tubers (as in some strains of maize and cassava, and of course in carrots) and many fruits (including papaya and mangos, which grow like weeds in the tropics if you leave them alone). The solution to dry-eye blindness is horticulture. Traditional mixed farms, of the kind that have been sidelined to make way for the industrial kind, always included horticulture. European farms, at the very least, had cottage gardens. I have visited paddy fields in China where every bit of high ground was awash with cabbages and beans and the odd papaya tree. Horticulture practiced in situ, where people need it, is by far the best solution for all kinds of reasons.
So we come to the real point of GM, and indeed of all high-tech industrial agriculture. On the spot horticulture leaves people in control of their own lives and is more or less free. But the ambition of the powers-that-be (not necessarily made explicit) is to consolidate power at the centre, to be dispensed top-down; and (as the neoliberals who dominate the world’s economic thinking make no bones about) to maximize wealth. So the aim must be to create forms of agriculture that can be controlled from the centre, and depend on the efforts of specialists in high places; and which can then be used to attract investment and so generate wealth. Syngenta, who developed golden rice, have apparently foregone their royalties, which seems a grand gesture. But it is a loss leader; the Trojan horse. The general point is that farmers who grow GM crops must buy their seed from the very few companies that produce it (and of course they cannot save the seed for reasons both biological and legal). One of the principal “success” stories is Round-up Ready rape: designed to resist the herbicide (Round-up) which can then be sprayed gung-ho. It is not intended to reduce the agro-chemical assault on the fields, but to increase it. Nitrogen-fixing maize sounds good – but fixing nitrogen takes energy, so an N-fixing maize would lose yield; and of course the traditional way to fix nitrogen in cereal fields is to undersow with legumes such as clover or alfalfa, and by rotations that include legumes. The bacteria in the roots of legumes can, with wondrous ingenuity, be induced to live in the roots of cereals but seems to be no special virtue in persuading them to do so. It is easier just to grow the cereals and legumes side by side, as has been done for centuries. But traditional farmers the world over already know how to do that – and there is no excuse for central control, and no opportunity for the extraction of wealth, if farmers are self-contained.
Of course, intercropping and rotations complicate the husbandry which means we need more farmers – but why not employ more farmers? We’re back to the point that the world’s agriculture is run not on the basis of common sense, good science, good husbandry, and for the benefit of humankind and of our fellow creatures, but to make a lot of money for people who are already rich. While the oil holds out, and remains affordable, it is cheaper to farm industrially, with agro-chemistry and big machines and no people, than it is to keep farmers in work. So that is what is done. This creates enormous problems which obviously include mass unemployment and poverty and also include child blindness and epidemics of weeds and pests and massive pollution not only of fields but of oceans too – but never fear! Here is GM technology to sort out the problems. Just in the nick of time. Phew! Fellowships and Nobel Prizes all round (and huge, huge cheques).
Pastoral in general and cattle in particular
There has of late been a rash of reports on dairy farming, and a fairly concerted attack on cattle in general – at least when they are raised outdoors on grass. In this, sadly (although it is most interesting to behold) well-meaning “environmentalists” and vegetarians, and big business neoliberals, are finding common cause.
The “environmentalists” – or those at least who are fixated on carbon, as so many have become these days – argue that cattle produce methane, and that they produce more of it when fed on grass than when they are fed on grain, and methane as all the world knows is a serious greenhouse gas, and therefore cattle should not be fed on grass. The vegetarians then propose that we should stop keeping cattle altogether, or livestock of any kind. But “environmentalists” who are not vegetarians suggest instead that cattle can and should be kept indoors, with the methane extracted by fans before it gets to the outside world. Environmentalists are wont to recommend that cattle indoors should be given green feed (which of course in principle is ancient practice. House cows have often been kept in sheds, with the grass and hay brought to them). But the diets of ultra-high yielding modern cows must be high on concentrates – Brazilian soya and US maize. I’ve been assured that Brazilian soya is OK. As a presenter from the BBC World Service (no less) solemnly informed me the other day, plantations of Amazonian soya are “the most efficient agriculture in the world”. God save us from journalists and politicians on freebies.
But there is very good reason to think that all is not so simple. I like to observe that during the Miocene and Pliocene much of the world was covered by grass grazed by billions of herbivores of all kinds. Many were non-ruminants, like horses and elephants (of many species), but the ruminants prevailed then as they do now. All over the world (apart from Australasia) here must have been bison and antelope and deer as far as the eye could see. But in all that time the world grew steadily cooler. This to be sure is circumstantial evidence – but it’s intriguing nonetheless; and as a lawyer chum pointed out to me recently, all evidence is circumstantial, in the end, when you boil it down (as David Hume more or less pointed out, but that is another story).
More to the point is the work that Graham Harvey has highlighted in The Carbon Fields – which suggests that properly grazed pasture can be and commonly is a net carbon sink. In well managed fields the carbon builds up in the soil year by year. To be sure, once the fields are saturated in carbon they won’t take any more. But the total size of the sink in all the world’s soils is huge: on a par with the total carbon content of the atmosphere itself. Many have pointed out that the research which seems to vindicate grazing is preliminary – including EBLEX, the organization for the English Beef and Sheep industry (see footnote 1). Clearly, much more needs to be done. But anyone who is truly interested in providing good food for everyone, and in looking after the environment at large, can see that this is a very serious issue indeed. If well managed grazing is indeed a net carbon sink, then everything changes. So this ought to be a prime target of government research, and of course for Bill Gates’s money. But it certainly hasn’t been, and the signs are that the official mind is made up (all talk of “public debate” is just PR). High-tech, controlled by corporates within the framework of the neoliberal market, must be the way ahead. The “free market” now has the gravitas of a law of physics. Indeed more so; because the distant promise of high tech is that one day we will control the laws of physics. But no-one in high places would seriously dare to acknowledge that the global free market itself has been a shocking mistake, and is a prime cause of all the world’s present miseries.
I digress – but not much. For the spectre of money, and the perceived neoliberal need to make as much of it as possible in the shortest time, has already transformed the dairy industry in Britain (and of course the cattle themselves) and is now threatening to eliminate dairy from Britain altogether. For if oil is cheap (or its least the price is pitched to what people are prepared to pay for it) and farmers keep asking to be paid, and land must be sold to the highest bidder so that cows must compete with riding ponies and property speculators, then recognizably traditional dairy farming has had its chips. Output per animal must be maximized, from the 1200 or so litres produced by wild cows, to the 4000 or so that farmers traditionally expected from their Shorthorns and Ayshires, to the 5000-plus that is common today, to the 10,000 already achieved by some benighted creatures with udders as big as the average dustbin (and are called “elite”), to the 20,000-plus already envisaged by some technocrats. So far, still, cows don’t produce milk unless they first have a calf, which means the flow is interrupted now and again. But already there are cows in the US that have one long lactation after their first calf, which is intended to last well over a year, after which they are blipped on the head. (Whether the cows are bred for this or plied with extraneous hormones I am not sure. But it is hideous either way).
To achieve such yields cattle must be stuffed with concentrates (such as Brazilian soya) and such grass as they eat must be steeped in whatever agro-chemicals are needed to maximize its energy and protein content (monoculture of ryegrass, which sooner or later will surely be GM, if grazing survives at all). To make it all more convenient, practically and bureaucratically, and keep costs down, and be seen to acknowledge the threat of global warming, the cattle must be kept indoors with minimum labour (preferably zero), where the methane can be extracted before it gets to the outside world. The capital cost is fantastical — all that stainless steel; all that computerized gear; and indeed all those vets, to look after all animals that are pushed, as a matter of policy, to the physiological brink – and so to achieve economies of scale these “units” (the word farm is no longer appropriate) must be as large as possible. Farmers who buy into this (and the pressure to do so is huge) then must earn what seems like a king’s ransom just to pay the interest on the capital loan – and of course can never stop, because the debts build up.
When I worked on Farmers Weekly in the early 1970s British farmers commonly made a good living, or at least a fair slice of a living on a mixed farm, out of 30 cows, kept in low-cost (low capital) conditions, and selling their milk to Milk Marketing Board, answerable to what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, aka MAFF. Now, when dairy cows routinely produce about 50% more milk than they did then, farmers with 200 cows are being told they are not in the game. Even 400 is not enough. As we all know, units of 3000-plus have been planned for Britain, as at Nocton in Leicestershire. But agricultural economists (a strange breed indeed) now tell us that the British dairy unit of the future must contain at least 30,000 animals if it is to “compete” on the world market.
Yet we ain’t seen nothing yet. On Farming Today (Radio 4) on Saturday July 14 this year Detlief Schon, Managing Partner, Farming Investments, Aquila Capital said that if he had £100 million he would invest in dairy or sheep farming in Australia or New Zealand, and in crops in Eastern Europe — Rumania, for example. But he wouldn’t invest in EU dairy although it has the same market share as New Zealand – 35%. At current rates, said Mr Schon, production costs in New Zealand are 30 – 40 % lower – and even if EU dairy farms were as efficient as they could be (high protein feed, huge units) they still could not compete. “So what’s the future for small scale dairy farming in the UK?” asked the interviewer. “None”, said Mr Schon. Small-scale family farms will not survive without public support. Of course, Mr Schon isn’t responsible for England’s farming policy – but his logic is entirely in line with the past 30 years of government thinking. We should do whatever is cheapest. The cheapest course is to buy from New Zealand. This isn’t yet the policy but it certainly could be.
Surely, though, the government do anything as daft as this? Sure they would. This is the economic theory of David Ricardo, who in the late 18th century (check) produced the theory of “comparative advantage”. This says that all countries should strive to produce whatever they are good at as cheaply as possible, and flog it to the rest of the world; then buy from them whatever they can produce more cheaply than it can be produced at home. For economists, 18th century thinkers like Ricardo and Adam Smith are the equivalent of ancient prophets, and are taken very seriously. Less than 10 years ago (but before the great implosion of 2008) I shared a debating platform in Oxford with a formal senior civil servant from Defra who told us that Britain should give up farming altogether, since the Brazilians, the Spanish, the Ukrainians, the New Zealanders, and just about everybody else could do it much more cheaply than we could (especially if we used our political clout to screw down the price). It’s only in the last few years (after the great crash of 2008) that politicians have started muttering phrases like “food security”, which hitherto had slipped their minds.
You don’t have to be a hippie or a greenie or a commie or a woolly-minded “romantic” or “elitist” to see how uncompromisingly mad this is. Anyone with anything resembling common sense or who indeed has any knowledge at all of how the world really works, or a feel for what is really important in life, morally and aesthetically, must see that this is crazy. But this is the kind of thinking that now plays an enormous part in all government thinking. Appeals to common sense or aesthetics or morality or (God save us) to spiritual values, are deemed “unrealistic”. The better part of a century ago an economist of true stature, John Maynard Keynes, declared:
“To say that a country cannot afford agriculture is to delude oneself about the meaning of the word ‘afford’. A country which cannot afford art or agriculture, invention or tradition, is a country in which one cannot afford to live.”
More broadly Keynes was wont to point out that the point of the economy is to serve humanity – not the other way around. In a well-run society we don’t notice the economy. We just get on with our lives. In similar vein the founding fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson et al, insisted that government itself should be as unobtrusive as possible – but that one of its primary roles was to control the economy, so that it did truly operate in the interests of the people. Now, these commonsensical and humane principles have been entirely reversed. Successive British governments have become more and more intrusive this past 30 years; and their prime role, as they see it, is not to control the economy for our benefit, but to control us, and all that we do – farming, building, medicine, education – so as to plug us in to the economy, threadbare though it may be in theory, destructive though it so obviously is in practice. Keynes and Jefferson and many others past and present demonstrate that there is a role in this world for intellectuals. But they must keep their feet on the ground, and approach their task humbly. When they allow themselves to be carried away by their own theorizing and dazzled by their own technical brilliance, or succumb to the lure of wealth and power and sell their services, they become dangerous. So dangerous that the present grisly liaison of government, corporate wealth, and their entourage of intellectuals, is threatening to kill us all.
Earlier this month Defra, which of course has long replaced MAFF, published a report of its collaborative Green Food Project. Jim Paice, Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, chaired the project. All the most pertinent commercial companies and professional groups were represented: the British Hospitality Association; the Country Land and Business Association; the Food and Drink Federation. Agriculture of course was well represented, by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board; the National Farmers Union; the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs. Academe was there – the Universities of Oxford, Sheffield, and Surrey. Wildlife was represented among others by the RSPB, the WWF, and Linking Environment and Farming. For global perspective we had the Global Food Security Programme. Defra itself had seven representatives. It all must have cost a great deal.
Overall, we are told (paragraph 1.7) that “The project steering group agreed to be as bold and ambitious as possible”. But alas, before they even started, the committee’s deliberations were holed below the waterline – and for the usual reasons. They began with a false premise – that the world must hugely increase the output of food — and were led in all their discussions by the very dubious dogma of the neoliberal global market. If you start with the wrong ideas, and fail to question them, you are bound to get no-where, or at least no-where useful.
Thus we are told bluntly in paragraph 1.1: “Globally, we need to produce more food”. Most official reports these days take this as their starting point. Specifically, in his “Foresight” report last year on The Future of Food and Farming the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government Sir John Beddington told us that we need to produce 50% more by 2050. Clearly, we need to act decisively and fast.
But is this really true? Professor Hans Herren of the Millenium Institute, Washington D C, points out that the world already produces enough to feed 14 billion people – twice the present population, and half as many again as the 9.5 billion that the United Nations demographers tell us is as many as we will ever have (because the population curve is leveling out). To be sure, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) seems to agree with Beddington, for it estimated in a recent report that “if current patterns of food consumption persist, 60% more food will need to be produced globally by 2050 (compared with 2005-2007)”.
But note the if in the FAO’s estimate. Most people who have any grasp of the world’s problems agree that we can’t solve our problems simply with more technology. We also need to change our way of life. As Beddington says, “we cannot continue with business as usual” — and that means (or should mean) among other things that we cannot continue to consume as usual. Indeed in agriculture as in all things we need to embrace the concept of “enough”. Of course we need to produce enough food to feed ourselves well – but we could do that easily, for we already do so, according to Professor Herren, even though we aren’t really trying in any coherent way to do so. We certainly don’t need to produce as much as possible.
But this leads us to the second fatal flaw: the crushing force of the ruling economic dogma. For in the neoliberal global market all farmers everywhere must compete with all other farmers to produce food and other bio-commodities as profitably as possible. Otherwise, we’re told, investors will put their money elsewhere. (Small private investors might not. But the biggest investors must go where the money is). To maximize profit farmers must maximize turnover, which means they must produce as much as is cost effective. The idea of “Enough’s enough” goes out of the window. In times gone past, if farmers produced more than people could eat then this was a problem: vide the European wheat mountains and the olive oil lakes of the 1980s. But it isn’t a problem any more. Surpluses can be fed to livestock – especially when the knives are out for pasture. More simply, surpluses can be labeled “biofuel”, and burnt. Biofuels are a godsend to the farmer in the neoliberal global market. They remove the ceiling on potential sales – the ceiling imposed by the inability of human beings to eat unlimited amounts – and at the same time they make a virtue of this, for folklore has it that biofuel is carbon-neutral and therefore OK. In truth, though, humanity does not need bigger and bigger yields – and by striving to produce more and more we put intolerable strains on the farmers, on livestock, on wildlife, and on the fabric of the Earth itself.
But the neoliberal market does require bigger and bigger yields, and in the present world the market must win. The cause of profit also requires “value adding” in all its forms – packaging, out of season strawberries, and so on. But above all it requires that costs should be cut, which means that labour must be reduced, which means that people must be thrown out of work. To achieve all this we need industrial farming to achieve economies of scale – high input monocultures on the largest possible scale, preferably with zero labour. All this, of course, is absolutely at odds with what we need to do if we really want to provide good food for everyone with minimum collateral damage, and go on doing so, and reduce poverty at the same time. For farming that produces enough, and yet is truly sustainable and resilient, must be polycultural and low input (which as far as possible means organic), and so perforce is complex, and so must be skills-intensive, so there is little advantage in scale up and farms in general should be small to medium sized. Such farms, says Professor Herren, still produce half the world’s food even though they have been sidelined this past 30 years to make way for high tech industrial monocultures. These high tech industrial monocultures receive almost all the research money and are clearly favoured by governments like Britain’s although they produce only 30% of the world’s food, with enormous damage. (The remaining 20% comes from fishing, hunting, and people’s back gardens).
Hence there is a huge and irresoluble contradiction between the need to provide good food for everyone, sustainably, and the demands of the global free market. But the Defra committee does not seem to see the contradiction, for it tells us that: “Domestically a more competitive, profitable, and resilient farming and food industry is needed”. “Competitive”, “profitable”, and “resilient” just don’t match up. The Project committee tells us throughout their report that the issues are “complex” and in detail, of course, they are. Agriculture is immeasurably complex. But the issue overall is simple: do we want to produce good food for everyone in the long term, or to maximize profit in the short term? This report seems to desire the former, while insisting that the latter is a sine qua non. This isn’t really “complex”. It’s a straightforward contradiction. So long as we fail to acknowledge this, we can go on producing reports forever, and get precisely nowhere. Which is what we are doing. But it keeps civil servants in work, and some academics, even if it puts farmers out of a job.
So what’s to be done? Well, the project group agreed, we need to “capitalize on the comparative advantages we have as a result of our historic farming legacy and climatic conditions and our ability to produce and manufacture many food products competitively”.
The Conservatives’ expert on biotech, George Freeman MP, clearly agrees with this. Wholeheartedly. But, he says, in a special supplement in The New Statesman on June 18 2012, sponsored by the Crop Protection Agency, our greatest “comparative advantage” is our biotech, which in particular means our skills with GM.
Free markets and gung-ho tech
George Freeman, 44, Conservative MP for North Norfolk, is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture. Before that, he had a 15-year career in biomedical venture capital. You might guess from this cv that to him, agriculture means industrial arable as far as the eye can see; that agriculture as a whole should be seen as a branch of biotech; and that biotech, like all human activities, should be seen as a way of maximizing wealth, in all-out competition with everyone else in the world, all of whom are assumed to be doing the same thing. (After all, countries that are not apparently focused on maximizing wealth are deemed to have “failed”, and if they have oil, or underexploited land, then those who are more ambitious have a right and duty to take them over, which they have not been slow to exercize).
To judge from Mr Freeman’s New Statesman article this is precisely what he does think. Agriculture is not about producing good food for everyone. It is about seizing the “opportunity” to cash in on the world’s food problems and in particular to grab a slice of the rapidly increasing wealth of countries like India, China, and Brazil. For, he tells us, “The pace of growth in the developing economies creates major markets for UK science, technology, and innovation!”
As David Ricardo recommended, Britain’s job, like that of all countries, must be to identify what we are good at, and flog it to the rest of the world. We are good at science: the UK has a “world-class research base”. This research base, as Mr Freeman himself points out (though without any sense of irony) was put in place in the days of the old Agricultural and Food Research Council, when we really did have a world-class network of research stations that were independent of big business and day-to-day market forces. These research stations were systematically disbanded or privatized by Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government, and then by “New Labour”, so that now we have almost no independent agricultural research at all. But still the residue of this research base – the “legacy” – should “be viewed as a major asset”. In short: Britain’s agricultural strategy must be to flog biotech. Thus Mr Freeman, MP, is continuing the job he had before he became an MP.
In fact, Mr Freeman implies, it is pretty old-fashioned to think of agriculture at all, as a discrete human activity. Farming, and the research that goes with it, should be seen simply as a branch of biotech: “The emergence of new technologies from the convergence of different disciplines and technologies across the life science sector (sic) also adds weight to the argument for a more broadly defined strategy: the life science clusters of tomorrow will need a mixture of bio-medical, agri-bio and clean-tech technologies to unlock innovations and drive a new generation of bio-fuels and clean-tech products, functional foods, biomedical devices, diagnostics and drugs”.
In short, he tells us, the UK can develop “an ‘integrated healthcare economy’, supporting research investment to help tackle some of the most pressing global disease challenges”. But “to achieve maximum impact, the definition of life sciences needs to be extended to include clean-tech and agri-science alongside biomedicine. This would enable a more comprehensive bio-economy to be developed that includes genetics, computing and biological sciences” (like the one they are now discussing in the US).
Well, many people have been saying for many decades that agriculture and healthcare ought to be more closely linked. The extent to which human misery is caused by substandard food, in rich countries as well as poor, can only be guessed: but it’s a fair bet that if everyone in the world was well fed, then the total toll of disease worldwide would at least be halved. There is no doubt either (and in this, common sense and common experience have been reinforced by a great deal of scientific research) that a healthy countryside – cows and trees and skylarks and so on – enormously enhances mood, which is vital to good health. So the idea of an “integrated healthcare economy” is not all bad. There are hints in this of the “joined up thinking” that Tony Blair used to talk about.
But things like the “functional foods” that Mr Freeman mentions (a range of mostly unknown agents such as plant sterols that cannot reasonably be classed as “vitamins” but nonetheless seem to do us good) are best supplied by mixed diets, of the kind that are supported by small-scale mixed farming. But small-scale mixed farming is the precise opposite of the kind of agriculture that Mr Freeman envisages; and the precise opposite of what we need to do if we are to “compete in the global market”. Farming and healthcare do indeed go hand in hand – but absolutely not in the way that Mr Freeman envisages. For what he perceives, as his article makes very clear, is that both should be seen as subsets of an all-embracing biotech industry; and the prime purpose of that industry (for all the talk of tackling “the most pressing global disease challenges) is to increase Britain’s GDP: to restore “economic growth”. This is precisely the mentality that got us into our present mess.
In this grand vision, says Mr Freeman, “GM is absolutely central”. Worldwide, it is catching on apace. In China in 2011 7 million farmers grew “a record” 3.9 million hectares of Bt cotton. (No-one ever seems to point out that cotton is not a food crop, unless you happen to be a boll weevil – but what the hell! Biomass is biomass, and a commodity is a commodity.). Altogether 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries grew 160 million hectares of GM plants in 2011. GM crops are in the EU too: Germany, Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic grew 800 000 ha last year. Most of these crops are herbicide or pesticide resistant rape, maize, cotton, and soybean. The biggest worldwide is soya – 74.5 m ha of GM soya in 2011; 60% of the whole. GM maize comes next – 51 m hectare. China approved GM rice in 2009 which will yield US$4 billion a year. However, as outlined in Footnote 2, some at least of these figures have been seriously criticized.
I confess I thought golden rice had died a death – but alas, not so. Mr Freeman tells us that Syngenta’s most famous protégé is now “nearing completion of its regulatory requirements in Bangladesh and the Philippines”. The Philippines expects to release it in a couple of years. (What Bangladesh really needs, some say, is civil engineering of the kind that has enabled Holland these past few centuries to protect itself from the sea. But golden rice will have to do instead.)
But the UK is missing out, says Mr Freeman. In part this is because, since the 1980s, successive UK governments have been “de-intensifying agriculture”. This in turn is partly because they are still harbouring memories of the erstwhile CAP surpluses – whereas they should have been “developing demand for new technologies and innovations to tackle global food security”.
So far, though, there is little appetite for GM foods in the UK. For, says Mr Freeman, “Although the UK livestock herd is dependent on GM feed, and GM soya is on sale in supermarkets … no retailer feels it can go further off its own bat”. Indeed there is outright opposition, including that of the “Take Flour Back” demonstrations at Rothamsted in May 2012. Such demonstrations show “the scale of the challenge, and will only serve to further undermine confidence in the EU and UK as a future centre of research”. Already, BASF has opted “to relocate its global R & D HQ from Europe to the USA”. Goodness me. It hardly bears thinking about. Despite all this, “our UK government gives fantastic support to agricultural innovation” – and indeed it does. But, says Mr Freeman darkly, “the main problem lies in Europe”.
For why should anyone object? Above all, “It needs to be made clear that there is not a shred of evidence from around the world that GM represents any risk to health or the environment, and we need a lot more balanced debate based on evidence, research and choice for well-informed consumers”.
Yet there are a few organizations around Britain, including GM Freeze, GeneWatch, Isis, and others, and a lot more worldwide, plus a number of independent scientists and farmers, who have collated a great many research papers which suggest that there is indeed some “risk”. Perhaps, conceivably, these counter-examples are not decisive; but it certainly seems a little bold to claim that they don’t add up even to “a shred”. Some might even detect some economy of truth, though heaven forfend. I am all for “a lot more balanced debate based on evidence, research and choice for well-informed consumers”. But the debate must include scientists who are not directly beholden to the agro-chemical biotech industry. It must include people who are not card-carrying members of the Conservative Party (or the Lib-Dems or whatever Labour calls itself these days). It must include activists who truly are aware of the world’s problems – who have worked with the people who are suffering, and give a damn.
But above all – now here’s a truly novel thought! – the debate, if it is halfway serious, if it isn’t just another PR stunt, should include a very fair sprinkling of farmers. Not the agri-business lobby of the NFU, or the Country Land and Business Association, but the kind of farmers who for example attend the Oxford Real Farming Conference and raise cattle on grass and are developing agroforestry and other quaint pursuits – and some of those that I have met on platforms over the years from Africa, India, Sri Lanka, South America, and Eastern Europe. These farmers between them, men and women, have extraordinary expertise. They know their own problems and they demonstrate, triumphantly, how to overcome them – when given half a chance. They know as the moguls of Whitehall do not that every field is different and (as a farmer said to me the other day) that “the devil lies with the detail”. They know (as Whitehall with its zeal for high tech refuses to acknowledge) that their main problems are not technical, but logistic and political. They also know and care about their own communities. The idea that western politicians and venture capitalists and lab-bound scientists working from computer screens should presume to tell them what needs to be done, and shove them aside (to swell the urban slums) beggars belief. But that’s the way the world is run.
So what’s to be done? We have to face squarely the fact that our acknowledged leaders – politicians, industrialists, and their chosen intellectuals and experts – have lost the plot. If we truly give a damn then we, Ordinary Joes, people at large, have to do what needs doing ourselves. We need to re-build something very different – farming that is truly designed to provide good food for everyone, without wrecking the rest of the world: what has been called “Enlightened Agriculture”, aka “Real Farming”. The details need developing and we need many more farmers than we have now and for all this we need a College for Enlightened Agriculture. A lot of enterprises already do the kinds of things that need doing – not just farms but also butchers and bakers and cheese-makers and brewers and cooks and retailers – and some of them could do with more investment. To this end the Campaign for Real Farming is now working with various ethical investment companies to establish a Fund for Enlightened Agriculture.
Add all this together – knowledgeable people who give a damn, doing their own thing; the College to provide the necessary background; and the Fund to provide immediate support – and we have the ingredients of a Renaissance. That’s what we need: Agrarian Renaissance, driven, as Abraham Lincoln put the matter, by the people and for the people (and also for all our fellow species). This is necessary, if we truly want to survive in all but the shortest term, and keep the world in a tolerable state. But regrettably but inescapably, the Renaissance has to be made to happen despite the people who are now perceived to be our leaders. They are living in their own world.
Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, July 18 2012
The following is taken from the EBLEX report, “Down to Earth: The beef and sheep roadmap phase 3, 2012”, with additional notes by Bill Grayson (to whom many thanks).
EBLEX is a non departmental government body funded from a statutory levy payable on all lambs and cattle exported from or slaughtered in England.
They’ve been working with Defra to produce a roadmap to show farmers the best ways to reduce GHG emissions in line with the EU aim to reduce GHG emissions by 20% by 2020.
Phases 1 and 2 of the roadmap’s “recommendations for English beef and sheep farmers . . . are all based on improving productive performance and maximizing output efficiency”: i.e. mitigating direct emissions
Phase 3 was published this January. For the first time, they’re talking about carbon sequestration, saying that (p.19) “storage of carbon in pastures and other grassland areas effectively managed by grazing beef cattle or sheep has often been cited as a mitigating factor. It is well documented that ruminants expel GHGs but there is less concrete analysis of the benefits they bring in managing areas of grassland that act as a carbon sink, . . . . This could be a significant mitigating factor for livestock farming” . . . . . it is important to recognise that the carbon footprinting methodology [used to date by us] does not. . . take account of soil carbon sequestration [our italics].. . .
“Currently, more extensive production systems, often based on unimproved permanent pasture, have high carbon footprints, yet the farmland often has high stocks of soil carbon. . . . The importance of soil structure and nutrient levels has long been recognized in relation to the productivity of agricultural land, . . . But it is soil carbon storage — or sequestration — that needs greater exploration.
“Within the agriculture category, only nitrous oxide and methane emissions from soils, livestock and livestock manures are counted”.
I: In The Guardian on February 8 2012 John Vidal wrote:
“Pro- and anti-GM organisations clashed on Tuesday over the accuracy of industry figures that suggested a rise internationally of 8% in the acreage of GM crops in 2011, a 16th straight rise since they were first sold in 1996.
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotic Applications (ISAAA), an industry body funded by GM companies including Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and CropLife International, claimed in its annual report that biotech crops grew by 12m hectares, to 160 million hectares, in 2011. “A record 16.7 million farmers, up 1.3 million or 8% from 2010, grew biotech crops – notably, over 90%, or 15 million, were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries. Seven million small farmers in China and another 7 million in India, collectively planted a record 14.5 million hectares of biotech crops,” said the report.
ISAAA said that developing countries were expected to grow more GM crops than rich countries in 2012 for the first time. “Unprecedented adoption rates are testimony to overwhelming trust and confidence in biotech crops by millions of farmers worldwide,” said Clive James, author of the annual ISAAA report.
The food crops, which are mostly herbicide-resistant varieties of maize, soya and oilseed rape, are grown now in 29 countries but over 40% by acreage is grown in the US. Much of the rest is grown in Brazil and Argentina, with Bt cotton grown mostly in China and India.
Wenonah Hauter, director of the NGO Food and Water Europe, accused the ISAAA of inflating the statistics by including “trait acres”, a figure derived by multiplying the surface area grown by the number of genetic traits engineered in GM crops. Using this system, said Hauter, ISAAA could argue that a field of GM crops that had three genetically engineered traits became three “trait fields”, thereby tripling the acreage.
“Our analysis … reveals they derive their figures from reliance on biased data sources, overstating the benefits of GM for farmers and ignoring figures that don’t support their pro-GM position. They have a vested interest in the success of GM technology, and their figures simply can’t be trusted,” said Hauter.
The ISAAA, which is based in the Philippines, could not be contacted last night.
Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace both claimed that the industry had in effect given up trying to persuade Europe to accept the crops, due to opposition from the majority of consumers, farmers and politicians.
Greenpeace said in a statement: “Last month BASF, the world’s biggest chemical company, said it was abandoning plans to develop and commercialise GM food in Europe. The total acreage grown in Europe is now 0.1% of the cultivable land available and only Spain marginally increased its acreage grown in 2011.”
Mute Schimpf, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “The public’s rejection of genetically modified crops has ensured that they are confined to small pockets of the European Union. In comparison, organic farming accounted for 3.7%.”,
II: The Yorkshire-based GM Freeze has also criticized the ISAAA figures. Thus:
1: Very few farmers grow GM crops.
ISAAA says: “Number of biotech crop farmers increased by 1.3 million in 2008, reaching 13.3 million globally in 25 countries – notably 90%, or 12.3 million were small and resource-poor farmers in developing countries.” (page xiv executive summary)
Even assuming that the ISAAA numbers are reliable, the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development estimates that there are 450 million small and medium sized farmers in the world (www.twnside.org.sg/title2/susagri/susagri068.htm).
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has estimated the number of farm workers to be 1.3 billion worldwide.  The 13.3 million farmers that the ISAAA claims are growing GM crops would therefore only account for about 1%.
So GM crops are grown by a tiny 2.7% of small or medium scale farmers worldwide, at the most, and less than 1% of farmers globally.
2. 2008: Few countries, little land
ISAAA says: “Number of countries planting biotech crops soars to 25 – a historical milestone.” (page IX executive summary)
In 2008, two new countries grew GM crops compared to 2007. The 2.4% of global agricultural land under GM crop cultivation in 2007 has risen 0.2% to 2.6%. Calling this an “historical milestone” is a little overstated to say the least.
In paragraph 3.1 ISAAA says: “All seven EU countries increased their Bt maize hectarage in 2008, resulting in an overall increase of 21% to reach over 100,000 hectares.” (page xvii, executive summary)
The ISAAA has inflated the figures by almost a quarter and has claimed that GM crop cultivation in the EU in 2008 showed “a 21% increase over 2007” when in fact there has been a 2% DECREASE. The group erased the latest country to have banned growing GM crops – France – from its calculations. By doing this, it could mask the real figures and claim an increase for 2008.
3.2 ISAAA says: “Global hectarage of biotech crops continued its strong growth in 2008 for the thirteenth consecutive year – a 9.4%, or 10.7 million hectare increase, reaching 125 million hectares, or more precisely, 166 million ‘trait hectares’, equivalent to a 15% growth or a 22 million ‘trait hectare’ increase.” (page v and xi executive summary)
In order to make the area under GM crop cultivation sound better than it is, the ISAAA is reporting a 33% greater increase than is actually the case. The industry-sponsored group does this by multiplying the actual surface area by the number of GM traits in the crops. So, for a field of one hectare growing a GM crop which is tolerant to two herbicides and secretes insecticide toxin (three traits) suddenly becomes three fields, and ISAAA therefore triples its figures for the area under GM crop cultivation.
This is a rather desperate and nonsensical approach to try and make the industry appear more successful.
Three countries that the ISAAA are likely to emphasize are India, China and South Africa as these represent developing countries where GM crops are grown. The table below calculates the percentage of agricultural land in each country that GM crops actually represent:
3: GM does not increase yield potential – and may decrease it
GM crops are often claimed to give higher yields than naturally bred varieties. But the data do not support this claim. At best, GM crops have performed no better than their non- GM counterparts, with GM soybeans giving consistently lower yields.
Controlled field trials comparing GM and non-GM soy production suggested that 50% of the drop in yield is due to the disruption in genes caused by the GM transformation process. Similarly, field tests of Bt maize hybrids showed that they took longer to reach maturity and produced up to 12% lower yields than their non- GM counterparts.
A US Department of Agriculture report confirmed the poor yield performance of GM crops, saying, “GE [genetically engineered] crops available for commercial use do not increase the yield potential of a variety. In fact, yield may even decrease…. Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative.”
The definitive study to date on GM crops and yield is Failure to Yield by Dr Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and former biotech adviser to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The study, which is based on peer-reviewed research and official US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, was the first to tease out the contribution of genetic engineering to yield performance from the gains made through conventional breeding. It is important to bear in mind when evaluating the yield performance of GM crops that biotech companies insert their proprietary GM genes into the best-performing conventionally bred varieties.
The study also differentiated between intrinsic and operational yield. Intrinsic or potential yield, the highest that can be achieved, is obtained when crops are grown under ideal conditions. In contrast, operational yield is obtained under field conditions, when environmental factors such as pests and stress result in yields that are considerably less than ideal. Genes that improve operational yield reduce losses from such factors.
The study found that GM technology has not raised the intrinsic yield of any crop. The intrinsic yields of corn and soybeans did rise during the twentieth century, but this was not as a result of GM traits, but due to improvements brought about through traditional breeding.
The study found that GM soybeans did not increase operational yields, either. GM maize increased operational yields only slightly, mostly in cases of heavy infestation with European corn borer. Bt maize offered little or no advantage when infestation with European corn borer was low to moderate, even when compared with conventional maize that was not treated with insecticides.
The study concluded, “Commercial GE crops have made no inroads so far into raising the intrinsic or potential yield of any crop. By contrast, traditional breeding has been spectacularly successful in this regard; it can be solely credited with the intrinsic yield increases in the United States and other parts of the world that characterized the agriculture of the twentieth century.”
In 2009, in an apparent attempt to counter criticisms of low yields from its GM soy, GM seed producer Monsanto released its new generation of supposedly high-yielding GM soybeans, RR2 Yield. But a study carried out in five US states involving 20 farm managers who planted RR2 soybeans in 2009 concluded that the new varieties “didn’t meet their [yield] expectations”.7 In June 2010 the state of West Virginia launched an investigation of Monsanto for false advertising claims that RR2 soybeans gave higher yields.
“Commercial GE crops have made no inroads so far into raising the intrinsic or potential yield of any crop. By contrast, traditional breeding has been spectacularly successful in this regard; it can be solely credited with the intrinsic yield increases in the United States and other parts of the world that characterized the agriculture of the twentieth century.”
If GM cannot increase yields even in the United States, where high-input, irrigated, heavily subsidised commodity farming is the norm, it is irresponsible to assume that it would improve yields in the Global South, where farmers may literally bet their farms and livelihoods on a crop.
We agree with the conclusion of Failure to Yield that the funding and research that are currently poured into trying to produce high-yield GM crops should be redirected toward approaches that are proven effective in improving crop yields, including conventional plant breeding as well as use of agroecological practices. These are by far the most efficient, affordable, and widely practised methods of improving yield.