The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2013

All at this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference felt the buzz – not simply of conviviality but of paradigms shifting: of the terrible tired ideas that have been holding us all back these past few decades being shaken off; of people taking the world in hand. For we, most of the human race, have of late been sadly misled by powerful people who either do not understand the true nature of the world’s problems, or simply don’t care and are content, merely, to present a picture of reality that matches the aspirations of big business and power politics.

Thus we have been told from on high that the human race has out-run its resources and its own native skills and that we need high-capital, high-tech agriculture on the largest possible scale and controlled from a few epicentres, or we’ll all starve. We’ve been told, too, that the present mess – including global warming and the mass extinction of our fellow species – is in large part inevitable; yet the powers-that-be have matters in hand and are doing the best that can be done.

Yet none of this is true. We can feed ourselves and everyone else who is ever likely to be born into this Earth, easily, and we can do this without wrecking the rest of the world; without killing off our fellow creatures. But we won’t do this if we follow the advice from on high and strive simply to grow richer and richer, and use science and high tech simply to increase short-term wealth; or, as governments have it these days, to increase GDP.

We have been told from on high too, over and over – and this was the end-of-year message of Prime Minister David Cameron on BBC TV around Christmas time – that to survive in this vicious world we must above all compete (and Cameron for some reason singled out the Indonesians as people we now need to compete with). Competition (the mantra has it) leads to efficiency, and efficiency is ipso facto good.

Yet everyone knows and it is easy to demonstrate that cooperation achieves far more in less time than a perpetual punch-up does — and what else does “efficiency” mean? As a very considerable bonus, cooperation is also convivial, and most of us (all who are not psychopaths) prefer conviviality.

All in all it is obvious that we should not continue to accept that the people who now run the world – the complex of corporates, governments, banks, and their attendant experts and intellectuals – should be running it. Either they don’t really understand the nature of the world’s problems, in which case they are incompetent. Or they do understand the problems, but are content to talk nonsense anyway because the nonsense is convenient — which, if so, would be wicked.

In short, the prime task for people at large in 2013 is not to knuckle down and do what our betters tell us but to identify what really needs doing and get on with it despite the nonsense that rains down on us from on high, and all the obstacles that are put in the way of what should properly be called human progress. At this late hour it isn’t enough to tweak the status quo. We need a Renaissance – to start afresh from first principles; and that Renaissance must be driven by people at large who give a damn and who know what’s what.

All this was in the buzz of this year’s ORFC. Different people will tell it differently but some highlights for me were as follows:

Arable re-thought from first principles

It is taken to be self-evident these days, or at least to be established beyond reasonable doubt, that arable farming is on the right track and all we’ll need in the future is more of the same. We need to focus on gene-lines that really do deliver – primarily in yield, but also in protein content and the rest and resistance to pests and diseases. Yield is maximized in general by increasing the “harvest index”: reducing the part of the crop that we don’t want (which in cereal means the straw) and increasing the bit we do want (the grain). This approach is epitomized by the Green Revolution of the late 1960s and early ‘70s that was based on “semi-dwarf” wheats, which in their present form are hardly knee-high although their traditional ancestors even of a few decades ago were sometimes tall enough to lose a donkey. In particular, dwarf varieties don’t fall over (“lodge”) when plied with nitrogen fertilizer while the old-types grew 10 feet tall if given extra N, and then collapsed. Pests can be kept at bay with resistance genes – abetted increasingly in the future by GM! – or else sprayed. Weeds are similarly zapped. Yields are enormous (Britain now averages 8 tonnes of wheat per hectare – three times more than a century ago) with the best at 15 tonnes or more (although they have plateaued out somewhat in recent years).

Clearly, yields are compromised unless we focus only on the most responsive strains, and the millers and brewers and feed merchants who buy the grain need to know what they are getting, so the crops should above all be uniform, and grown to a very tight specification. Indeed, cereal crops should as nearly as possible be monocultures (though for all kinds of reasons – unlike potatoes – cereals are not true clones) and the inputs and operations should be measured and timed to the day. Though the underlying science is endlessly complex the husbandry in essence is simple – plant the prescribed seeds and follow the instructions – so it need not and indeed should not be labour intensive. All you need are the right seeds and the right chemistry and the right machines. Such farming should be practiced on the largest possible scale with the largest possible tractors and combines travelling in straight lines for as long as the landscape allows, which in North America and the Ukraine may mean many kilometres. Drivers are hardly necessary. Remote control will do. Arable farming, in short, as it has been conceived in some parts of the world since the 1930s (as depicted so brilliantly in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), is above all industrial. And it should be, because it makes perfect sense simply to focus on the genetic lines that can be tightly specified and demonstrably deliver the goods, and to reduce costs by cutting labour, and to spread the cost of the machines and of the industrial chemistry by economies of scale. You know it makes sense, as Ernest Marples used to say in a somewhat different context. Indeed, as his colleague Margaret Thatcher said later, though also in a somewhat different context, there is no other way.

Today, almost everyone in high places accepts the logic of this – and so alas do many farmers who extol the virtues of small holdings and mixed farming and even campaign on their behalf. They accept that arable farming has to be industrial: monocultural, high-input, practiced on the biggest possible scale; low labour and high capital. But arable farming provides humanity with most of our calories and protein – the bulk of the macronutrients. If we concede that arable must be industrialized, then we are in essence suggesting that the non-industrial approach – complex, polycultural, low-input, skills-intensive, practiced on small to medium-sized holdings – is suitable only for farming that does not seek to provide the bulk of our day-do-day food. In other words, if we accept that arable must be industrial, then we are in effect conceding that non-industrial farming is bound to remain peripheral: never the core, but an add-on. That is a very big concession indeed.

But a key theme, bubbling along these past few decades and spilling over in all four Oxford Real Farming Conferences, is that there really is an alternative. Perhaps (though only “perhaps”) big-scale industrial arable farming might have a place. Certainly it would be hard for the world to change direction overnight. But in the spirit of Renaissance we should now be doing everything possible to create and restore the alternative: genetically heterogeneous cereals – and including ancient varieties; mixed cropping; arable re-integrated into rotations; arable with agroforestry; low-input; more labour intensive and small-scale, using intermediate technologies. All this was discussed in the 2013 ORFC in particular by the pioneering John Letts, geneticist, farmer, and baker, and has been discussed in all the previous ORFCs in particular by Professor Martin Wolfe (though this year he was unable to come and Steve Newman discussed arable with agroforestry). The alternative can be developed in situ, alongside and among the industrial fields of the surrounding farms (just as is true of Martin Wolfe’s Wakelyn’s Farm in Suffolk).

Eventually, as momentum grows and the present industrial mindset is increasingly challenged, what is now the alternative should become the norm. The future should not be a simple recreation of the past, which would be both nonsensical and impossible. But we can and must learn from the past, and from traditional farmers wherever they still exist worldwide. It is hubristic in the extreme, not to say ludicrous, to suppose, as the present generation of intellectuals and politicians does suppose, that their economic dogmas and circumscribed research can or should replace 10,000 years of thought and endeavour by humanity at large. Science of course is vital. But it should be building on what is there and is obviously good. Mainstream agricultural science in its present guise, supplier of novelties to big business and power politics and show-cased by the Establishment, is a menace.

First, the matter of yield, and the component issue of harvest index. Yield is partly a matter of yield potential, constrained by the crop’s genetic makeup; and partly a matter of the extent to which that potential is realized, which depends on climate, soil, and husbandry.

Sometimes shortfalls in supplies, which sometimes have lead to famine, are caused by lack of yield potential. But only sometimes. Many good people who were on the spot in Asia in the late 1960s and early ‘70s concluded that the chronic hunger and occasional famine did indeed result in large part from the simple inability of the traditional crops, grown in traditional ways, to produce enough. In particular, the traditional, tall varieties of wheat and the long-strawed varieties of rice could not respond to inputs of N fertilizer, because they grew too tall and lodged.

Many have suggested that the net effect of the ensuing Green Revolution, based on semi-dwarf varieties, has been bad; but I watched events unfolding at the time albeit from afar and find it hard to believe that the introduction of the dwarfing genes was not in itself a good thing. The disasters that followed were caused largely, as ever, by crude politics: a failure to realize that when a few farmers dramatically increase their yields, others are likely to be put out of work, and that this matters, especially when farming is the only work available; a failure to provide the financial infrastructure needed to ensure that those who were growing the new crops could afford the inputs; and so on. But in this case the principle was surely sound. Here, it seems, we really do have an example of shortfall caused by the innate incapacity of the local crops, which in part was put right by plant breeding (albeit with subsequent collateral social and economic damage that surely could have been avoided). The breeding, incidentally, involved chromosome manipulation. This is not “conventional” breeding (in fact I reckon it is very fancy indeed) but it is not “genetic engineering” either, as has sometimes been intimated. This was not an early triumph of the biotech that is now being urged upon the world.

Far more often, though, so almost all the closest observers agree, shortfall in supplies does not result from inadequate yield potential. Commonly we find that the local crops could do the job perfectly well if only the local farmers were given a chance to get on with their work, or if only they were given the support (the kind of support that their western/northern counterparts take for granted) to do so. Thus, as ORFC aficionado Bob Orskov of the James Hutton Institute has often pointed out, Third World farmers know that tropical climates can be horribly unpredictable and often extreme and that it is far more important to farm in ways that can cope with the worst conditions, than it is to aim for the biggest possible yields in what you hope will be good years. In any case, says Professor Orskov, Third World farmers rarely have access to friendly banking and in the global market economy where prices may fluctuate by the hour, they cannot afford to invest upfront in the inputs that would produce higher yields, because if they do, say, double their yields, they may find at the end of the year that the price has halved – and that they cannot recoup the original outlay. Others have pointed out that at least a third of Third World crops is typically lost post-harvest because the silos are inadequate, and so on and so on. (See for example the latest report on waste from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, as posted on this website).

What all this, and a great deal more, implies, is that we should not assume when food supplies fall short that there must be something wrong with the crops. Of course, all crops everywhere are less than perfect so all can be improved – but this should not be the first assumption. Often the conditions are at fault and sometimes these can be corrected far more straightforwardly than the crops themselves. Where breeding is the priority, traditional approaches can almost always do all that is required to bring about improvements, and often quickly. With many crops it is remarkable how much can be achieved in a few generations just by mass selection – breeding only from the populations that do best under stress. (As Charles Darwin made clear in Origin of Species, he coined the expression “natural selection” by analogy with the artificial selection practiced by traditional breeders). In the tropics, it is often possible to grow more than one generation in a year so progress can be rapid.

Neither should we assume – and this is where John Letts comes in again – that it is always vital or even a good thing to improve harvest index. In traditional farms, which typically are small and mixed, most crops and most livestock served or serve more than one purpose. On a mixed farm, and particularly a mixed organic farm straw becomes a very valuable asset for bedding and even to some extent for feed; and on organic farms in particular it is at least a valuable component of compost (and potentially a feedstock for all kinds of fancy industrial chemistry). More than that: John Letts is also a thatcher – and traditional wheat straw, commonly five feet long or more, was a favoured thatching material. It still could be, he says. Indeed he now raises fields of mediaeval varieties which can yield a couple of tonnes of grain per hectare – and also yield a harvest of thatching straw which can be more valuable than the grain. In short: frantic reduction of height in the interests of harvest index can be counter-productive. But of course in general the grain is what really matters – and the grain from John Lett’s long-strawed varieties makes excellent bread, as a growing list of bakers is now demonstrating.

Furthermore, the very tall, old varieties do best when the soil is not too fertile. Indeed, Letts says that one of his main problems, when growing the old wheats on ground that has previously been arable, is to reduce the fertility. When over-fertilized, as noted above, they fall over. But on soil of low fertility, when they are growing well, the old wheats are very hardy. Letts says that he has been able to harvest good crops after winds and rains that have flattened modern varieties in surrounding fields – because although their straw is short it is also weak. Clearly, too, as oil prices continue to rise (and perhaps we ain’t seen nothing yet) the cost of fertilizer will become prohibitive. Even in the present economy, geared as it is to industrial farming, many organic farmers in general are finding themselves more profitable precisely because they don’t spend money on artificial N.

In all branches of agriculture too – and not least in arable – we must challenge the accelerating drift towards monoculture: more and more genetic uniformity, in fewer and fewer species and varieties. The cloning that is now much bruited in livestock farming (mentioned as a possible way forward in John Beddington’s highly influential 2011 “Foresight” report on The Future of Food and Farming) serves only to illustrate how far our intellectual leaders have drifted from reality. The dangers are all too obvious: that parasites of all kinds – viruses, bacteria, fungi, worms, mites, what you will – have a field day when confronted with thousands (in the case of modern livestock) or many millions (arable) of perfectly uniform potential victims, all offering exactly the same line of defence. Infect one, and you can infect the lot. When no two animals or plants are exactly the same, parasites have a much harder time. As Martin Wolfe pointed out in previous ORFCs, the various fungi and fungus-like organisms that can run riot through our crops are spore-machines, producing trillions of offspring in a few days. They seem able to gobble up the whole Earth. Yet in nature, where genetic uniformity is rare (by no means absent, but not the norm) these ultra-prolific parasites only just make a living.  I do know one professional ecologist who seems to argue that genetic variation in domestic plants and animals is not important. He is very much in the minority, (not to say positively eccentric) but he is in a position of political influence.

With all this in mind, John Letts deliberately plants mixtures of (mostly old) varieties. Wheat doesn’t interbreed much, but just a little: and over time, natural selection and this low-level interbreeding give rise to novel, locally-adapted “varieties” of the kind known as “landraces”.  Martin Wolfe, at Wakelyns, does the same in principle though starting with combinations of modern varieties. Results from Wakelyns and on other sites show that any one year the yield from these ever-changing landraces may be less than that of some heavily-fertilized and chemically protected monocultural varieties grown next door. But over time – over a decade say – as conditions fluctuate, the average yield from the mixtures is invariably higher than from any one standard variety. So here, truly, is promise. The only snag is that selling mixed varieties of seeds except with special dispensation is illegal. (It’s amazing how many obviously sensible and biologically sound practices are illegal. Could this have anything to do with the pressure exerted on law-makers by industrial lobbies? Surely not).

Neither need we take for granted the dogmas which tell us that cereals and other arable crops do best in wide open spaces, with nothing between them and the sky and no other plants in their vicinity. Intercropping with broadleaved plants is of course established practice even in industrial circles (undersowing with clover for example to enhance fertility) but many farmers worldwide are far more adventurous. Pasture-sowing – drilling or even scattering seed directly into grass – is attracting more and more interest. (Of course there are endless subtleties (for discussion elsewhere) but that is the general idea). Arable crops including cereals take well to agro-forestry. In past ORFCs Martin Wolfe has kept us up to date with his fields of cereals at Wakelyns – grown in alleys between rows of trees: hazel and willow; prestige timber hardwoods; and fruit trees. He has shown that they do very well. Contrary to common belief, cereals in open fields even in hazy Britain may suffer from heat stress. A little shade now and again may be no bad thing – and of course, especially since they are grown organically, the cereals benefit from all the predatory insects and spiders that invade from what in effect is woodland edge. (And there are voles, too, along the edges of rows of trees, providing nesting places for bumble-bees which fertilize the clover; and barn-owls in the evening patrolling the rows to catch the voles and adding a touch of gothic splendour). At this year’s ORFC Steve Newman described how he combines cereals with rows of walnuts – the latter a very considerable cash bonus.

But the biggest bonus of all, when all this lateral thinking is put together, is to remind us that arable farming need not, after all, as is now the prevailing dogma, be solely industrial. Indeed, in principle, it need not be industrial at all. When maximum yield is not the sole criterion; when grain is suited primarily to traditional bakers who know how to deal with the flour; and when the crop becomes more valuable because the straw is valued too; then it becomes reasonable, again, to contemplate growing cereals on a small or small-ish scale. The plots might be just a few hectares, integrated into the rotation of a mixed farm, as has long been traditional worldwide. The size of market gardens is commonly limited not by the land available but by the labour. But if the market garden was doubled and half of it was used for cereal in any one year, and the enterprises rotated between horticulture and arable, there could be significant gains all round. If we grow on a small scale, too, then the massive tractors and combines of modern arable farming are no longer necessary, and if the straw is saved for thatching they are no longer appropriate. So interest is again growing in technologies that industrialists assume are obsolete, including the scythe (which is low-tech – though suitable steel is not as low tech as all that); and the reaper-binder (which can be called intermediate tech). Grower Chris Smaje, at this year’s ORFC, said when he wants suitable intermediate kit he has to look on Ebay. Simon Fairlie imports scythes from Austria. Ed Hamer, Dartmoor grower, also at this year’s ORFC, has imported new but peasant-scale intermediate tech from France. The Fund for Enlightened Agriculture, featured below, is seeking good enterprises for investment. Here is a promising possibility – small businesses of social value offering good employment.

Finally, though, you might point out, present-day industrial arable really is remarkably productive, at its best. Can we really feed the world without it? Isn’t it irresponsible to shift away from it?

There are many answers to this – and this is yet another question of the kind that ought to be asked formally and exhaustively and as far as I know isn’t (and is a proper question for the College for Enlightened Agriculture as outlined below). A few observations are in order, however. First, although organic arable fields at their best yield just as heavily as non-organic, they are likely to lose out over time because organic farmers must practice rotation, and rest the cereal fields typically every few years. However, the financial loss is not absolute if the rested fields are used for something else (and there can be financial gain if the rested fields are used for horticulture) and in any case over time the fields remain far more robust (building soil structure etc). Then again, industrial farming including industrial arable currently supplies only a third of the world’s total food, so a dent in it would not make too much difference. Then again, it wasn’t so long ago that Europe suffered from surpluses – and would do again if the CAP hadn’t taken steps to limit output.

But finally, we may note that half the world’s present cereal crop is used to feed livestock while half of the USA’s huge and once important maize crop is used for biofuel. We can produce plenty of animals – certainly all that we need to support the world’s greatest cuisines – without giving them much grain, and we certainly don’t need biofuel from maize. Putting all this together is seems clear that we could certainly get by with less – provided we produced what we do produce in the right places in the right kind of ways, which at present is emphatically not the case. Instead as has become the norm we are using high tech, ever more fancy and exotic, to prop up a strategy that is so obviously flawed.

Let them eat grass – and trees!

The current assault on traditional pasture – which basically means swards of many species, derived primarily from local grasses and other plants – seems to have begun in earnest after World War II. The agrochemical industry which was led in Britain not least by ICI produced enormous quantities of artificial N, while the breeders produced new kinds of grass, and especially of ryegrass, that could keep pace with the vastly enhanced inputs. Yields of grass went up enormously, limited now in principle only by water and temperature; and so, too, did the stocking rate and the yields of meat and milk per animal. Selective breeding and the introduction of huge and muscular cattle from the continent vastly increased the growth rate of beeves, and the rise and rise of modern Friesians and then of Holsteins in particular produced enormous rises in milk yield; and both the beef and dairy animals were and are fed primarily on “improved pasture”, meaning heavily fertilized custom-bred more-or-less monocultural grass.

Heavily fertilized monocultural grass has always had drawbacks of course and has been criticized from many angles: environmental, nutritional, aesthetic. On the whole, though, it’s been widely agreed by almost all non-vegans that grass, and grass-fed livestock, are a good and necessary thing. After all, in the hilly, rain-fed British Isles (and in New Zealand and indeed in most of the world), grass and its associated wildflowers is by far the biggest crop.  In recent years, though, in Britain, grass-fed livestock in general has been attacked – at least when the animals are raised outdoors. In particular, the word has got around that the methane belched out by cattle and sheep, and the ammonia and oxides of nitrogen that may emanate from fertilized fields and animal dung, are contributing significantly to global warming. It will be better, so loud voices with significant money and some political clout behind them have been telling us, to raise animals as far as possible on grain and Brazilian soya, and keep them indoors, preferably in vast units, of many thousand animals each. This argument, combined with the creative accountancy that now dominates British agriculture and the economy in general, has put grass of any kind, quasi-natural or obviously high-tech, on the back foot. Considering that grass is of such vast and obvious importance worldwide, and historically is largely responsible for the rise and the cultural diversity of the human race, this seems truly bizarre, as if the world itself were being reinvented.

In March 2011, in the teeth of all this industrial-commercial zeal, and the alarum bells of global warming, the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, the PFLA, was born.  It is a grass-roots movement convened as a community-interest company (CIC) composed almost exclusively of farmers although with a few hangers-on (including me and the other co-founders of the Oxford Real Farming Conference) and chaired by John Meadley who isn’t himself a farmer but has worldwide experience of such social initiatives. Significant progress so far includes the growing membership – and, as is deemed necessary in these harsh commercial times, the official establishment of a brand.  Look for the PFLA label.

But the PFLA has to fight on several fronts. First it is obliged to compete commercially for which it depends as all farmers do on suitable abattoirs, butchers, and retailers and finally of course on customers who care about good food and can afford to buy it – none of which in present-day Britain, which was stripped to the bone even before it went into recession, can be taken for granted.  But then it has to re-establish what ought to be obvious – that cattle and sheep (and pigs and poultry too to a significant extent) really should be fed on grass. Finally it has to re-establish what is obvious but in truth has largely slipped off the radar, that natural (or quasi-natural) pasture has a great many advantages over the custom-bred kind that is designed to give mega-yields when heavily fertilized.

So what are the arguments in favour of pasture-fed? The main points can be made under six headings:

Agronomic

On a personal note: I was wonderfully impressed of late by Lyn Cornwallis’s farm at Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire. While much of Britain’s farming languished first under drought and then under flood, first with no water at all and then with far too much of it, his own mixed sward with its flocks of sheep came smiling through, unaffected by either. There is no substitute for deep roots. In the kind of climate we are liable to be facing, basically all over the place, properly established grassland and woods could prove a literal godsend. Open fields full of shallow-rooted annuals are likely to prove too vulnerable by half.

Ecological-environmental

Most biologists agree in general that diversity is a good thing. I know of only one who seems to deny this, and to argue that monocultures are just as desirable as polycultures. It seems intuitively obvious, however, and it is the basis of Darwin’s idea of natural selection, and there is a huge body of empirical evidence to support the idea, that when populations of plants or animals or any other living creatures are diverse, they are far less likely to be zapped, irrevocably, by any one pathogen or any one change in the conditions – a cold snap, a drought, or whatever. Intuition and a growing body of evidence suggests, too, that many species together, especially when they are abetted as established plants almost invariably are by their mycorrhyzae, can make far better use of the available nutrients than monocultures can. So although we would expect the populations of individual species to ebb and flow in a diverse ecosystem, we would expect diverse systems as a whole to fare better over time than simpler ones. With a few exceptions (monocultural sphagnum moss seems to do well in special circumstances for century after century) experience bears this out.  In short, mixed swards should in general be more robust than monocultures of custom-bred fodder grass.

Mixed swards raised organically or with minimum fertilizer also demonstrably support more invertebrates than monocultures can, which in turn support more birds. Until and unless they are ploughed there should be little or no run-off of nitrogen from quasi-natural mixed fields so little or no pollution. All in all, then, mixed swards with low inputs are environmentally more friendly than high-input monocultures – and indeed are very significant ecosystems in their own right. In large part, concern for other species is enlightened self-interest, because intuition and some evidence tells us that mass-die off of other species is liable to lead to a general running down. Though other species may sometimes be inconvenient, in general a diverse world is far less precarious than one that has only humans in it (plus cows and wheat and mange-tout from Kenya). But of course there’s a moral and aesthetic dimension to this too. To destroy other creatures gratuitously is reprehensible in the extreme and a world without other creatures would be depressing indeed. The hard-headed financiers who run the world are wont to guffaw when confronted with such sentiments and politicians of a certain kind, and scientists of a certain kind, are all too liable to side with the financiers – and make a moral virtue of it: claiming that the uninhibited rise of wealth is all that can save the world. But that, as all ordinary human beings know, is nonsense and of course it raises the question of what all that putative wealth is actually for, if only to make rich people richer in a barren world. Those scientists who have uncritically signed up to the agenda driven by wealth and power should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Nutrition

There is much empirical evidence that herbivorous animals fed on polycultural, natural or quasi-natural herbage, are healthier than those on artificial diets. The evidence that I know about tends to be of the kind that scientists are wont to dismiss as “anecdotal”, including reports from farmers who feed their animals on natural pasture and report that their vet bills are close to zero. Some report that their own animals have remained free of TB even though their farms are full of badgers and that cattle on surrounding, more industrialized farms are succumbing. The charge of “anecdotal” is of course highly equivocal. If there is no “hard” evidence (the kind that is deemed to be statistically significant and therefore true) this seems mainly because the scientists who are in a position to do the necessary investigations, haven’t done them; mostly it seems because there would be no advantage to big commercial companies to show that natural pastures are indeed good, and since research these days must be funded by those companies, it’s hard to see how there ever can be “hard” evidence. So we must fall back on the human qualities of common sense and honesty.

But although the whole matter remains horribly under-investigated, there are good, basic, biological reasons for thinking that a natural diet should enhance the health of animals (and of people). Some of those reasons emerge, as it turns out, from research carried out by commercial companies for other purposes. The pertinent research is in to what those companies call “nutraceuticals” or “functional foods”. The hypothesis is that there is a whole class of organic molecules in nature that have significant effects on animal (including human) health and wellbeing, yet are not particularly obvious; what might be called “micro-micro-nutrients”, somewhere between a nutrient and a drug – indeed in the nature of a tonic. One such that has been identified are the various plant sterols, which apparently reduce blood cholesterol and are now included in some margarines. Lowering cholesterol may, in some people, reduce the chances of heart attack; but although the effect can be life-saving for some people, the health benefits would be very hard to measure in a whole population even if the people were on controlled diets, which of course people at large are not. This is in stark contrast to, say Vitamin C – lack of which leads to obvious disease in a few weeks. There’s an essay about all this in the College Website, called “Pharmacological Impoverishment”.

In general, though, the whole area of nutraceuticals remains a vast unknown, crying out for exploration. But whether and at what pace the research takes place, and what direction it takes, seems to depend as ever in this commercial world on the whims and interests of big companies, who in practice have been put in charge of science. It is in the interests of some commercial enterprises to emphasise the importance or nutraceuticals, so that we will buy special foods that contain them; but it is in the interests of other branches of commerce to play them down, in case we should run away with the idea that cattle, say, should preferably be fed on natural diets rather than GM soya. In this as in all things, we will just have to wait and see which way the market takes us. Meanwhile, as ever, it seems best to trust common sense and intuition and follow advice from people who have long first hand experience, which in this context means farmers; and a growing number of them give very convincing reasons why natural pasture is best.

It has also been claimed – and this should be eminently ripe for straightforward scientific research – that the fat of cattle fed on natural pastures contains a higher ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats, compared to industrially-fed cattle, and that the profile of the unsaturated fats is close to what nutritionists recommend us to eat. Graham Harvey discusses this in his excellent The Carbon Fields. Again more research is needed (which could and should be done urgently) but if confirmed, this is of seismic significance. It implies that all the advice these past 30 years to avoid red meat is misguided. It isn’t red meat per se that we should avoid. It’s meat from animals fed on industrialized grass or primarily on cereals and soya: the kind that huge branches of industry would now like us to shift towards (with plenty of back-up from politicians of a certain kind).

The special issue of climate change

Ruminants worldwide undoubtedly belch out a great deal of methane, and methane beyond doubt is a serious greenhouse gas. There are reports, too, that cattle fed on grass produce more methane than cattle raised on concentrates (not least because they don’t grow so quickly, so they don’t hang around so long). In addition, it’s possible if cattle are raised indoors to remove the CH4 from their exhalations, and the various nitrogenous compounds that arise from their various excrements, which also are potent greenhouse gases, so that none escapes to the outside world.  In short, so powerful lobbies have been suggesting, the case is open and shut. Cattle should not be fed on grass outside but on various forms of processed grass, and grains and soya, indoors; and raised in vast numbers to achieve economies of scale.

The anti-pasture lobby does not as far as I can see take proper account of all the nitrogen fertilizer needed to produce the grain and soya that are needed for grass-free cattle, with all the implications for greenhouse warming. But we’ll let that pass. Much more to the point is the issue that again was raised by Graham Harvey in The Carbon Fields – that when grazing cattle are properly managed, the pasture as a whole becomes a net carbon sink. In other words, properly managed grazing cattle on properly grown grass reduce greenhouse warming.

The grazing strategy required is that of mob grazing: and the grasses required must be well established (presumably short-term leys won’t do?) with deep roots with well established mycorrhizae.  Mob grazing means that the cattle are introduced to new patches of grazing en masse, and left until they have reduced it to the merest stubble. Then they are moved on to the next patch, and the patch that’s been blitzed is given plenty of time to recover. The logic is that when the blades of the grass are much reduced, they can no longer feed the roots beneath; so the roots – or much of them – die off. The mycorrhizae that still surround the dead roots prevent rapid decay, so the carbon that is incorporated within them in all that cellulose, simply stays in the ground. Fairly soon the remaining roots and the leaves up above recover, and the sward comes back to normal – and then it can be attacked again. The dead roots build the organic and hence the carbon content of the soil remarkably quickly.

Again, more research is needed to show the extent of this effect, under different circumstances and with different regimes. Again, so far as I know, the necessary work is not being done on the scale that it merits – again, one suspects, because it is not in the interests of the big commercial battalions to know the result. But there is some evidence for this sequestering effect and again, if ratified, it is game changing.

Again, too, there are general biological reasons for thinking that this story is true. One is from the deep past: that in the Miocene-Pliocene, between about 20 million and 2.5 million years ago, there were many millions of square kilometres of grassland grazed by many billions of ruminants and other herbivores of many kinds. In North America alone there were probably billions of bison – and billions of deer and pronghorns, plus horses and an array of elephants that included mammoths and mastodonts. But through all that time the world grew steadily cooler. Significantly (surely?) wild herbivores do practice mob grazing naturally: chewing particular patches of grazing almost literally to death and then moving on. Indeed, since combinations of herbivores generally clear the ground more thoroughly than any one species alone, the mixed herds probably biffed the herbage even harder than a modern farmer would allow.

To be sure, some say that if we did boost the carbon content of the soil by encouraging mob grazing (assuming it works as well as might be hoped) this still would give us only a temporary respite from global warming. Soon the soil would be saturated with C and then the rest would start to leak into the atmosphere again. But here the absolute amounts seem highly pertinent. The soil contains a great deal more carbon than the atmosphere does, and in much of the world (particularly perhaps in all those industrialized fields where organic approaches have been eschewed these past few decades) the present carbon levels are far below saturation. In fact, the figures suggest that if the soil was induced to take up all the carbon of which it is capable, we could induce another Ice Age. Again – please don’t take my word for this. But again, if this is true (and there are good reasons to think it might be) then this could be a game-changer. Carbon sequestration in the soil by natural means could be a front-line defence against global warming.

Finally, everyone agrees that carbon in the soil, in the form of organic matter, helps to retain water; and in a country and a world where drought and flood are liable to become the norm for the foreseeable future, everything that helps to control the flow of water in and out of the soil has to be taken seriously.

Grass and trees: agroforestry

Here, too, as always, agroforestry is highly pertinent. Grass can grow very well around trees. All domestic livestock except perhaps sheep and possibly goats are descended from woodland animals – pigs and chickens obviously so, but also domestic cattle; and even sheep like shade. All domestic animals may suffer from heat stress when shade is lacking. Studies in Costa Rica show that milk yield can increase by 30% when the animals can seek the shade of woods. All herbivorous livestock including cattle love the variety offered by browse and surely benefit nutritionally. Cattle and sheep have been reported to sprint towards leaves and branches that is suddenly made available on the far side of their field. In the wild and in domestication more and more animals are known to self-dose when they are feeling under the weather – and typically select herbs that are known to be suited to their particular ills. Coppicing and pollarding were and are key sources of provender for herbivores worldwide. Martin Wolfe has said in previous ORFCs that all farming should at least in principle be conceived as an exercize in agroforestry; and this surely is doubly true of pastoral farming. Again there’s a whole world out there to be explored.

Meanwhile, delegates to the other conference over the road were being told that Yorkshire beef is being exported to China and that this is the future of British farming and a worthwhile contribution to the world’s food problems. Hmm.

Soil and the Age of Biology

The Soil Association was established in 1946 inspired by Eve Balfour’s belief that if we take care of the soil, then the crops will take care of themselves. But in the post-war zeal for industrial farming, this principle has to a large extent been abandoned. Industrial farming in essence has become a field exercize in industrial chemistry: industrial chemistry al fresco. On the most extreme arable farms the soil organic content has largely been lost, although it’s the organic content that makes the difference between bona fide soil, with its ideally crumb like texture and virtually infinite surface area with endless possibilities for adsorption, and ground rock. Industrial arable farming at its worst is an exercize in hydroponics, but without the control that is possible in hydroponic greenhouses. There’s a very great deal at stake, as outlined above: the way that organic rich soils retain and so regulate the flow of water; carbon sequestration; the influence of organic soils on the health of plants and livestock – and hence of human consumers: an influence that may be very difficult to measure and as yet is almost unknown yet seems beyond doubt.

So why do so many industrial enthusiasts disdain such ideas? Partly it seems for the crude commercial reason that there is more to be gained in the short term from industrial chemistry and heavy engineering, with the extra yields (at least in the short term) and the possibilities for shedding labour than there is for investment in long term security and quality of life.

But there is also, I suggest, a more cryptic but in the end more profound reason for the industrial zeal. It is perceived to be more scientific, and therefore more rational, and therefore to represent progress; rationality taking over from the vague superstitions and unquantifiable preconceptions of earlier ages. Behind this perception lies the belief that life and the universe really can be understood, exhaustively, and that science can tell us all there is to know. Then there’s the belief that science is not science unless everything can be quantified. From all this flows the idea that observations that can be easily quantified must take precedence over those that are less easy to put numbers to. So the undeniable statistic which shows that more fertilizer means more yield (until the yields start to level out, as they have been these past few years) is given more weight than is the observation that, say, crops or livestock raised on less fertile soil with a diverse microbiota may be healthier and nutritionally superior, which is harder to demonstrate.

But this view of science – that it leads us to complete and certain truth; that all knowledge that is reliable and worth having must be quantifiable and amenable to statistical analysis – is too simplistic by half. Ironically, too, although its advocates obviously believe that they are modern and therefore progressive, this simplistic view of science and of life is curiously old-fashioned – indeed it belongs to the 18th century. For the philosophy that emerged in the 20th century showed us that science does not and cannot deal in certainties, and cannot offer complete knowledge; and that cause and effect in nature are non-linear; and that much of what happens in nature is intrinsically unquantifiable (because there are too many factors to be taken into account, not all of which can be known); and that if we truly seek to understand nature as it is, then we have to engage all our senses and sensibilities, and make judgments based largely on informed intuition. This is what real farmers do. Of course science is useful, and might even be said to be vital. But its job is to supplement judgement based on first-hand knowledge and experience, and the crafts that emerge from such knowledge. Once it is used to replace experience, good sense and craft, with dogmas and algorithms, it becomes dangerous. But that is precisely how science is now being deployed on the grand scale – not to abet the craft of farming but to replace it; and the whole sorry endeavour is driven by big business, supplemented with taxpayers’ money.

But there is new emphasis on soil, and particularly on its organic content, as manifest at this year’s ORFC. Some see this primarily as a commercial opportunity, or as a market niche for would-be organic farming – but it is much more than that. Truly the renewed interest in soil structure and particularly in its organic content should be seen as a paradigm shift: away from the 18th and early 19th century mindset which said that all biology can and should be reduced to chemistry, and that chemistry is an exact science, and that farming therefore should be seen as a branch of industrial chemistry and mechanical engineering. Instead we should embrace the age of biology, in which we truly acknowledge that nature must be diverse, and the diversity cannot be analyzed exhaustively, and that relationships in nature are non-linear, and that because of these inescapable facts, much of what happens in nature cannot be quantified, or not at least with maths that is simple enough to be of use. The attempt to pin everything down to the nth degree – or the decision to deal only with what can be easily quantified – is seriously retrograde, though it is seen to be ultra-modern. GM, incidentally, does not belong to the emerging age of biology. It is really just industrial chemistry with bells and whistles: the last gasp of the age we need to grow out of.

GM did not feature at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. But it was given star billing at the other conference, and despite denials from on high it clearly dominates establishment thinking; the jewel in the crown of the high-tech agriculture that is supposed to save the world. So a word or two is in order:

GM and the corruption of science

In the meeting over the road, at the Establishment’s Oxford Farming Conference, there was wild enthusiasm for GM. Journalist Mark Lynas led the charge. “The GM debate is over”, he declared. “It is finished. We no longer need to discuss whether or not it is safe – over a decade and a half with three million GM meals eaten there has never been a single substantiated case of harm”. He also demonstrated to his own satisfaction that GM is necessary, which one might reasonably feel is the sine qua non.  Sounding slightly more cautious, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, told us that we must reach “a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits”. But, he added, “… we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation” – which might lead the unguarded reader to conclude that his own mind is already made up.

When he was younger, Lynas began by telling us, he helped to scupper GM trials. But late in life he discovered Science and realised the error of his former ways. Now he has the zeal of the convert. On the broad front, he implies in his latest book that human beings are now on the point both of omniscience and omnipotence, and life in general need hold no fears for us. We have the power to put things right. Indeed he has called his latest book The God Species.

My own awakening has been the other way around. I came to science and particularly to biology at school in the 1950s and started “reading” zoology at an old, damp, and exceedingly cold university in 1962. Those were intellectually exciting times indeed. In 1959 (when I was in the sixth form) the world celebrated the centenary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. What Julian Huxley called “the modern synthesis” – the blending of Darwin’s ideas on evolution with Gregor Mendel’s insights on heredity – was still fresh; an intellectual triumph to rank alongside Einstein’s relativity and quantum physics. More than that: it was known by the 1950s that genes are made of DNA (not protein, as had seemed more likely) and in the early ‘50s Francis Crick and James Watson provided their famous 3D model of DNA structure; and, for good measure, they tossed in a key insight on how it all might work. Suddenly, it seemed, the Darwinian-Mendelian synthesis could be explained in molecular terms. By the mid 60s Bill Hamilton and others had shown how Darwinian natural selection might (and he felt should) be conceived not primarily as the selection of individuals or of species, but of genes; the idea that Richard Dawkins expanded most elegantly in the 1970s in The Selfish Gene. I was steeped in all this. Heady stuff it was too, and still is.

In the early 1970s I first became seriously interested in agriculture — and went to work for Farmers Weekly. In those days FW clung fiercely, as did science itself, to its independence from government or commercial interference. I remember the deputy editor Frank Butcher, a proper, old-style  journo — writer, thinker and moralist — berating the lay-out team for allowing an advert for tractors to fall opposite an article on arable. That could be mistaken for sponsorship, he raged. Nowadays editors actively seek advertisements to run alongside articles – for what is supposed to be the problem?

But steeped though I was in molecular genetics I was just as startled as everyone else by the first announcement in the early 1970s of “recombinant” DNA, soon to be dubbed “genetic engineering”. Paul Berg, in California, transferred a piece of DNA from one bacterium to another and showed that it was functional. From the outset, it was clear that there could be dangers. Indeed Berg himself urged caution in what became known as “the Berg letter”; a letter later interpreted (though Berg said it wasn’t intended as such) as a call for a moratorium. Berg was interested mainly in medicine and warned in particular about the dangers of transferring potentially dangerous genes to E coli, which of course is ubiquitous and is also a favourite laboratory microbe. But the potential dangers are more general. Novel genes parachuted in to novel recipients could have untoward effects that may not become apparent for generations. Genes that escape into other species in wild ecosystems could have knock-on effects of many kinds that are innately unpredictable. And so on. The point is not to say that we should never take risks, but common sense says at the very least that any risk we do take should be very clearly outweighed by the potential advantages.

With due caution the research continued and by the 1980s, genes were being transferred between plants. In the late 1980s I wrote a series of scientific reports for the old (and sadly missed) Agricultural and Food Research Council and reported for BBC Radio 3 on agricultural research from various centres around the world; and in about 1990 I wrote a book (a little-known work but rather good, I think) called Food Crops for the Future. By then some of the early fears had died down and “genetically modified” (GM) crops were well on the agenda. I wrote with particular enthusiasm about a plan proposed at ICRISAT (the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad to introduce genes from ground-nuts into sorghum. Ground-nuts are ridiculously drought-resistant legumes, while sorghum is a staple cereal which, though also wonderfully drought-resistant, is not quite so tough as the humble pea-nut. It all looked very promising.

But a lot has changed in the 20 or so years since the innocent visions of the early 1990s: in world politics and economics; in the relationship of science to government and commerce – and indeed in the perception of what science really is, what it can do, and what it is for. Crucially, views have changed on the ways that genes actually work. To anticipate: for reasons of science – not for reasons of anti-science, or Luddism, or any of the other canards that are hurled at all who question the rise and rise of biotech in general and GM in particular – the zeal of 20 years ago now seems misplaced. But the commercial and political die had been cast before the science and the philosophy of science had caught up. The bandwagon was already rolling, with governments, corporates, and scientists from even the greatest universities firmly on board. Just as children run behind the circus, so politicians and business people and the occasional journalist, open-mouthed and whooping, have been swept along: Tony Blair, Dick Taverne, Caroline Spelman, Owen Paterson — and indeed Mark Lynas.

Some of the political shift this past 20 years has been in the right direction. Thus the relationship between the rich countries, which presumptuously call themselves “developed”, and the poor countries, tendentiously called “developing” or sometimes “the Third World”, has traditionally been essentially imperialist: de haut en bas. Often, to be sure, it has been well-intentioned — but the assumption has been nonetheless that “we know and they don’t”. The dogma had it that crops fail in poor countries because the farmers are “ignorant” and are slow to adopt western methods. The truth has dawned only slowly and in some circles has still to dawn — that actually, crops sometimes fail in poor countries largely because those countries tend to be tropical and tropical countries can be difficult to farm, beset as they commonly are by drought and flood and over-powerful sunshine; and the sensible strategy in unpredictable and often extreme climates is not to seek to maximize output but to guard against the worst; and that zebus and the rest may be less milky than Holsteins but they do actually survive; and in general that small farmers in poor tropical countries tend typically to know exactly what they are doing and in some ways conceptually are well ahead of their northern counterparts and that anyone who truly wants to help should ask the locals what they really need and help them (but only if invited) to build on what they already have.

Such principles were spelled out in 2009 by IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) in Agriculture at a Crossroads. Other on-the-spot thinkers such as Michel Pimbert, recently appointed as Director of the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Coventry University, and Professor Bob Orskov of the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, urge in particular that farmers in general, worldwide, know what’s good for their land and what is likely to work, and all who would help must work in partnership with them.

But there has been another, most unfortunate counter-trend: the growth, from about 1980, of the neoliberal, free, ultra-competitive global market, which in practice is a global race to maximize measurable wealth and in practice is dominated, as was always inevitable, by the transnational corporates, for whom the maximization of wealth is their raison d’etre. Governments like Britain’s over the past 30 years, whatever the ruling parties may have called themselves, have been transfixed by neoliberal thinking and vied with each other to attract and support the corporates. Agriculture has been re-conceived as “a business like any other” and business as a whole has been re-conceived as a machine for making money – no longer the natural pillar of a free and democratic society, as many businesses including some of the biggest once aspired to be (and some still do insofar as this is possible).

In the face of all this, the idea that we in the west should help poor countries only if invited and should start (if invited) by seeking to understand what they do and ask how they think we could be of help, has at best been marginalized. Successive British political leaders (Gordon Brown was particularly enthusiastic) have urged transnational companies to “invest” in Africa while urging Africans to seize the western shilling: essentially treating all the tropics as virgin territory where big companies can practice high-tech agribusiness in extenso. In essence, this is another imperialist takeover without the bother, expense, and danger of military occupation, achieved by the mere infiltration of money and propaganda. In this, biotech, and particularly GM, has become a key player. The patents that accrue with GM ensure that the power can remain with the big biotech companies that provide the GM. Governments that are focused above all on the creation of wealth naturally support these companies. All this may seem cynical in the extreme but it is vindicated, at least in the minds of the perpetrators, by the rhetoric which says that GM crops are essential, and the bigger the scale on which they are grown, the better. The rhetoric is in turn reinforced by appeal to science. Biotech is high tech and high tech by definition is rooted in science. If GM is scientific it must be “rational” and therefore good and all who say otherwise are clearly irrational (meaning crazy) and bad (elitist, etc).

Several large and very well-informed groups, including GM Freeze led by Pete Riley, have spelled out the many detailed objections to the GM rhetoric. Peter Melchett, organic arable farmer and Policy Director of the Soil Association has summarized much of what needs saying in an excellent essay “The pro-GM lobby’s seven sins against science”, while Brian John has done a superb point-by-point dissection of the Lynas essay (and there are liks to both on this website). My own summary of the shortcomings (written before I knew about Peter’s and Brian’s essays) is in Colin’s Corner (“Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers”). The following points are particularly relevant to the present burst of GM euphoria, as trumpeted by Lynas:

1: When “genetic engineering” first swam on to the radar in the early 1970s scientists were much more confident than they are now that they knew how genes work. Such confidence is characteristic of all new sciences: physicists of the 17th and 18th centuries were sure that they would soon understand all there was to know and A A Michelson in the late 19th century, just before Einstein described relativity and Max Planck launched quantum theory, declared that physics was more or less sewn up apart from the dotting of Is and the crossing of Ts. In particular, in the early 1970s it was still widely assumed (broadly speaking) that one gene means one protein – which to a large extent meant one gene one character; so that genes could be dropped into genomes with predictable effects just as new cogs can be dropped into clocks. It was already well known, though, that most characters involve more than one gene (Mendel himself pointed this out in the 1860s, although he didn’t use the word “gene”) and that most genes affect more than one character. Now it’s clear that there are very few genes compared to the number of proteins (and even fewer compared to the number of discrete characters) and that most of the genome is concerned not with coding proteins but with controlling and generally modifying those that do. In other words the relationship between the genes and the phenotype (the visible, physical and behavioural features) is not Newtonian (simple cause and effect) and digital but is decidedly “non-linear”. The genome as a whole is not like a piece of clockwork that an engineer can fiddle with in perfect confidence. It is more like human language that we aspire to edit. But it is not a language of our invention and it can never be understood exhaustively. We edit the genome at our peril, with fingers crossed.

At least, those who do not proceed with fingers crossed clearly do not understand the nature of the problem. What’s so terrifying about the gung-ho genetic engineers in agriculture is not so much what they actually do, although that can often be dubious enough, but their self-confidence; a confidence magnified in those celebrants who came to science late, like Lynas and Dick Taverne. All scientists nowadays in all fields (or at least, all who take an interest in the philosophy of science and are not simply trying to provide their employers with something new to sell) understand the principle of non-linearity, and recognize that in the end the world cannot be known exhaustively, and omniscience and omnipotence if there are such things really do belong to God, and God is what we certainly are not.

2: Then there is the practical point: that although, in early days, scientists spoke excitedly of super-drought-resistant crops and all the rest to help the poorest people and in general to “feed the world”, that’s not how the technology has been used at all. We have GM maize for no particular purpose except that it is GM and carries a patent and therefore pays a premium to the company that supplies it – and half of the maize grown in the US is used not for food or even for feed but for biofuel. We have GM soya – grown not least in the Brazilian Amazon and the Cerrado (the dry forest), to feed European livestock. We are assured from on high that pigs, poultry, and cattle cannot be raised without soya which these days just has to be GM yet all were raised for thousands of years in Europe until about 20 years ago, without it; so here is another obvious falsehood. Then there is Roundup Ready GM rapeseed which can be sprayed with herbicide (ie, Roundup) which kills the weeds but not the crop. Sounds good, up to a point. But again, rapeseed is not one of the world’s vital crops – it just looks that way because it is lucrative. Then again, so it’s widely reported, the herbicide-resistant genes have spread to weeds, which now are harder to control than ever.  Use of herbicide may even increase. (See http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2012/10/new-study-shows-that-gm-drives-up-pesticide-use/)

Neither is it true, as we are assured, that GM crops yield more heavily – at least not consistently under field conditions, which is what matters. In fact, although many millions have been spent on R & D these past 30 years, it is still hard to find any examples of GM food crops that are unequivocally worthwhile, that could not have been produced just as quickly and in general more safely by conventional means. I have challenged people in high places to provide such examples and none so far has given a convincing answer. On the other hand, we can find plenty of collateral damage – not the least of which is the loss of genetic diversity, as traditional crops and wild plants are shoved aside to make way for the new GM monocultures. Yet, so all but a few eccentrics agree, if the world is to flourish in the future then diversity is what we need above all else. It is our insurance against change.

3: Taken all in all, it is very hard indeed to defend the idea that GM really is helping to “feed the world”, or indeed that it is seriously intended to do so, whatever may have been the intent at the outset. The technology has been tried and tested and is falling short. Of course, some good things have come from it. The techniques that enable genetic engineers to provide novel crops can also be used to identify particular genes that would speed the endeavours of conventional breeders – and that can certainly be worthwhile. There is always room for precise knowledge, even if we choose not to act upon it. More generally, objection to the misapplication of GM in agriculture does not imply objection in all contexts – the technologies are proving very useful in medicine. More generally still, objection to misapplied technologies does not imply a fear of science in general. Some of the greatest scientists have been among the most cautious (not the least of whom is Paul Berg). What the world doesn’t need is hype, and the felt imperative to translate knowledge into instant wealth.

4: In general, one of the great tragedies of the past 30 years has been the compromise of science itself. The AFRC for whom I once did some work controlled about 30 research stations that carried out fundamental and also applied research into all forms of agriculture in all British conditions (and a few overseas), and they in turn were supported by a network of Experimental Husbandry Farms. The government provided the money and the institutes themselves decided how to use it and fed their results directly to farmers. Nowadays most of those AFRC institutes have been closed or privatized – perhaps the most blatant example of government-sponsored vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries, and similarly supported by misleading propaganda. Now, agricultural research in this country depends overwhelmingly on commercial sponsorship while taxpayers’ money is used to prime the commercial pumps. The scientists who receive the sponsorship insist that they retain their intellectual freedom but research that does not support their sponsors’ aims tends quickly to draw to a close. Vast subjects that cry out for research are more or less neglected unless some mega-company can see an opportunity for profit. The AFRC’s Letcombe Laboratory, devoted to soil research, was closed in 1985 and the whole topic since has been sidelined although it may well prove to be the most important of all.

Overall, I know no-one who is truly versed in the realities of agriculture, and in the nature of the world’s food problems, and who also understands science, who thinks that GM technology is essential. I know very few who are appropriately knowledgeable who think that it is even a good thing. I know very few indeed who are properly informed who feel that the present emphasis on GM is half-way justified. But governments, corporates, financiers, and indeed the scientific Establishment itself, in the world’s most prestigious universities and in the Royal Society and other such academies, have already invested far too much, including their own careers and a very great deal of tax-payers’ money, to change course; and there are journalists on hand, alas, who are happy to supply the hype. All who are party to this nonsense, up to and including the scientific Establishment, should, as they say in Yorkshire, think on.

Meanwhile, those who give a damn must as ever sidestep the pressures from above and get on and do something better.  (Feeding pigs and poultry without GM or indeed without soya would be one way to start).

The seeds of Renaissance: a people’s takeover

The people with the most money and influence, consciously or unconsciously, have for the most part signed up to an ultra-materialist, neodarwinian, neoliberal model of the world and take it to be obvious that all aspects of life must be plugged into it. The ultra-materialist, neodarwinian, neoliberal model has produced a form of agriculture that seeks primarily to maximize money and is therefore geared to production, value-adding, and the cutting of costs (which means primarily the cutting of jobs). This in turn has caused enormous damage including mass unemployment worldwide and has led inevitably to a huge concentration of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands. But since the people in whose hands the power and wealth have come to rest are also those who make the rules, and since there are plenty of intellectuals and experts who are happy to follow where wealth and power lead, it seems that we are stuck with the status quo, and that the destruction is bound to continue, until finally, perhaps within a few decades, we hit the buffers.

Unless, that is, people who can see what’s going on and give a damn, do something about it. A big part of what’s needed is and are the plethora of new initiatives all over the world, some of which (generally the ones that are based in easy distance) we try to bring to the Oxford Real Farming Conference. Key, too, is the growing network of contacts between the different initiatives – farmers with farmers, farmers with retailers, farmers and retailers with and within communities at large; a network that the ORFC is designed to foster. Vital too is finance for all those initiatives and networks. Put all three elements together – the new, individual initiatives; the growing synergy between those initiatives; and the financial underpinning – and we have the seeds of radical change without the need for bloody revolution. The new ways of doing things (centred on Real Farming, aka Enlightened Agriculture) working together and properly financed can bring about the change that the world now desperately needs, in situ. We can start again and transform the world not exactly without frightening a few horses but certainly without looking for fights. This is the principle of Renaissance.

A political-philosophical aside seems in order. First, those who defend the neoliberal status quo are wont to think that neoliberalism is capitalism. After all, capitalism can be defined in ways that make it seem as if this is so. Since neoliberalism has prevailed worldwide since the 1980s (seized upon with particular eagerness not least by Britain’s “New Labour” governments) no-one aged under 40 can remember when capitalism was anything else. The idea that capitalism is neoliberalism leads some to argue that anyone who opposes neoliberalism must be anti-capitalist. Since Britain and the US are capitalist, and also call themselves democracies, some are wont to argue that anyone who is anti-capitalist (or indeed is simply anti-neoliberal) must also be anti-democratic. The alternative to the neoliberal status quo, so some clearly believe, is the centralized economy and the accompanying brutality of Stalin. Indeed, those who protest too loudly against the present political-financial nexus tend to be written off as subversives – although the financial debacles of the past five years has at last led mainstream critics to question the antics of the more outrageous bankers. Even the BBC has protested, although I don’t remember it doing so when the grab-all economy seemed for a brief time to be working.

To cut a very long story short, the idea has got around that anyone who would do things differently, including those who would devise systems of agriculture that are not intended simply to produce huge piles of money (in cut-throat competition with everybody else) must be some kind of loony lefty, or has been seduced by those who are. Loony lefties may at times be patronized, given a little stage to strut their stuff for public relations purposes in the spirit of greenwash, but they must not be given too much rope because, in the end, they are soft-centred and muddle-headed. The ever-growing demands of an ever-increasing human mass can be met only by high-tech, mega-scale industrial farming backed by a hard-headed, ultra-competitive economy; and don’t you forget it.

But, as so often seems to be the case, none of what is widely taken to be right-thinking is actually true. At least, some people who oppose the status quo are anti-capitalist; and a great many more emerge as anti-capitalists if capitalism is defined, as it sometimes is, simply to mean the mindless accumulation of wealth. But capitalism more broadly defined is rooted in a few very basic principles which in themselves seem eminently sensible. Private or at least community ownership is perfectly reasonable  — provided it is constrained by principles of justice so that no one person or group can own so much and use what they own so carelessly that they damage the rest of humanity and the rest of the world. Private initiative is necessary too for without it there is no creativity – but again it is at least highly desirable that the fruits of individual creativity are used for the public good (as, for example, in open-source software). Trade is fundamental – evidently what all humans have always done and (if you define trade broadly) what all intelligent animals do too, one way or another. In practice these broad principles are made manifest through the medium of money, the token of ownership and of obligation. If you put all the elements together – ownership that is not exclusively state ownership; individual enterprise; trade; and mediation by money – then we have (don’t we?) the rudiments of capitalism. Clearly, this need not amount to neoliberalism; but clearly, too, it is a million miles from Stalin.

The financial mechanisms that have evolved in the essentially capitalist world to regulate the flow of money can be and traditionally often were used to ensure that the fundamental principles of ownership, private initiative, and trade, are indeed used primarily for the public good and the wellbeing of the world. All of this might, to misquote Edward Heath, be seen as the acceptable face of capitalism. The acceptable face of capitalism, contained within an agreed moral framework, can properly be called social democracy. As far as I am concerned, then, the political-philosophical thinking behind the Campaign for Real Farming and the ORFC (as I see the ORFC) is basically that of social democracy. I personally can see plenty of scope within that broad church for various forms of socialism, of the kind that have often worked extremely well. On the other hand, although paid-up neoliberals may sometimes be nice people (forgive them for they know not what they do), their philosophy is seriously misguided and has no place.

Anyway, to me, one of the key initiatives of 2012 is the Fund for Enlightened Agriculture, sometimes perhaps more accurately called “Funding Enlightened Agriculture”, but in either case shortened to the FEA. The FEA was officially launched last January at the 3rd ORFC and held its first public meeting (as opposed to the several closed meetings held in 2012) at this year’s ORFC,

The idea is very simple. Loads of people of many different kinds around Britain (though we need not in principle confine ourselves to Britain!) have launched enterprises, or are seriously planning enterprises, that contribute to the general cause of enlightened agriculture. More: these enterprises could if they cohered form the network that could bring about Renaissance — a tipping point of an encouraging kind, unto the sunlit uplands, as opposed to the plunge into disaster that is now so obviously on the cards. Some of the new initiatives are small farms, smallholdings, or market gardens. Others are shops and distribution hubs. Others are bakeries or breweries. Others are educational programmes, for all ages from infants upwards, in growing and cooking. A huge range of enterprises can be grist to the mill.  Some of these initiatives are set up for community ownership. Others may remain essentially in private hands, and yet in various ways geared to the public weal; they are not intended simply to increase the wealth of the entrepreneur, and can be contractually bound to prevent this happening.

Many kinds of income stream can be brought to bear – gifts to ethical investment; and the money can be attracted in various ways, including crowd funding. For me, ethical investment – people investing in enterprises they really believe in, as opposed to those that will give them 8 % return with no questions asked – is the most promising practical mechanism by which the world may be changed. Ethical investors do expect some return – at the very least they don’t expect to lose their money, so the enterprises they invest in must be sound. But they are not expecting simply to get rich without doing anything, or taking an interest in what their money is used for, as is the standard model. Often the rewards for ethical investment take a non-monetary form, at least in part: the right, for example, to spend time on the farm that you have helped to support, or receive dividends from the market. The various enterprises may remain essentially in private hands or they may be community owned (as in community-supported agriculture; CSA). Some may develop into formal Trusts, which of course may sometimes be huge, sometimes with significant caches of money and property that are owned by no individual and yet are carefully managed and dedicated in perpetuity to a particular cause – the conservation of landscapes, the conservation of birds or woodland, or in the present case, to farming that is truly intended to provide good food. In all cases, conventional income streams generated by standard capitalist mechanisms are diverted for the general good.

The point of the FEA is to identify enterprises that really could do good and really would benefit from injections of money, whether gifted or invested; to help those enterprises to refine their business plans – or at least point them at people who can help them to do this; to find suitable investors; and to bring the entrepreneurs and the investors together. The present panel of the FEA includes representatives of Triodos Bank, Buzzbnk, Ethex (based in Oxford), Gaeia (based in Manchester) and Rathbones (based in Bristol). In the first year FEA has have identified three enterprises that we are already helping, or expect to be able to help: a people’s supermarket in Brighton; new lines of blight-resistant potatoes produced by conventional breeding (GM is not necessary!); and a strip of land north of Bristol that ought to be brought into community ownership and used for local food. In 2013 we hope to expand the list to at least eight – and after that we should have lift-off: exponential growth.

The FEA is not the only fish in the pond, and does not aspire to be. Tom Curtis of LandShare spoke at the ORFC on “Land Partnerships: Unlocking the Land for Innovation”; while Martin Large introduced “A National Farm Trust for the UK”. I wouldn’t want to summarize these initiatives here but I hope that Tom and Martin can both be persuaded to write about them at length for this website in the near future. They are of key importance.

As I see it, all these initiatives are showing that the mechanisms that have emerged from several centuries of capitalism can be used for the general good of humanity and of the world as a whole, and can be controlled in ways that really are democratic. Here we have a radical shift of revolutionary proportions – yet one that need shed no blood and is anything but subversive. Who should object?

The College for Enlightened Agriculture

It’s obvious, though, that if we are to bring about Renaissance, to move from where we are to something altogether more subtle and secure, then we need to a huge amount of thinking, and we need a new generation of people who think and act in different ways – indeed we need a new era of thought and action. The thinking must be on all fronts – the husbandry, the science, the strategy, the politics and economics, and indeed the moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical base: what the whole endeavour is really for. As a focus for the necessary thinking, and as a launch-pad for the new generation of thinkers and doers, plans are afoot for a College for Enlightened Agriculture, with accompanying model farms. Please watch this space!

Please, too, sign up for next year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference. It has become very much part of the overall drive to change the way we farm and distribute food – who does what and why, and who controls it; and very much part of the drive, therefore, even at this late hour, to make the world a better place.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, January 11 2013


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6 Responses to The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2013

  1. michael wale says:

    Absolutely brilliant treatise. Not being an academic, but a mere scribe, I’m in awe. But it is wonderful to read.

  2. david schiliro says:

    Great piece. Would be very beneficial to have the influence of people like Martin Crawford and Sepp Holzer representing Permaculture at these conferences.

  3. Robert Simpson says:

    Beautifully crafted article, demanding stuff but persuasive and enjoyable to read. Thank you: its given me a sound sense of direction and wonderfully consolidates the inspiration of ORFC 2013.

  4. Teresa Seed says:

    I love the article and will go back to reading it after this comment …

    Just a slight quibble about mob grazing; you say “Mob grazing means that the cattle are introduced to new patches of grazing en masse, and left until they have reduced it to the merest stubble.” Well you can do mob grazing like that of course, but most proponents now seem to think that leaving a lot, I mean 50% or even more, of the grass to be trampled is the best way to feed the soil animals and build topsoil. See ‘Grazing Tall’, an article by Joel Salatin.

  5. Or subversion of tyranny, depending on the perspective.

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