The Key Ideas of Enlightened Agriculture (with a passing reference to Ancient China)

financial stress support for these private enterprises, or indeed for community enterprises, should be that of ethical investment: ordinary people buying shares but only in enterprises they feel are fulfilling some necessary social or environmental purpose, or are otherwise socially desirable.

In summary: the key ingredients of Economic Democracy as I see it are:

The tripartite mixed economy with

Special emphasis on community ownership and small businesses and

All businesses conceived as social enterprises

Ethical investment

One final, potential sticking point:

The price of food

Despite the obvious drawbacks and enormities, the neoliberals seek to claim the moral high ground by arguing that NI farming produces cheap food. They argue both that people “demand” cheap food, and that if food was not as cheap as possible, many more people would suffer. Thus, according to the Trussell Trust’s Network Foodbank,  nearly a million people in the UK (913,138 to be precise) resorted to food banks in 2013-2014. Unless food prices are brought even lower, the argument has it, this number can never come down.

But, like most of the arguments in favour of NI farming, this one is almost entirely specious.  We should be asking, why is it that in a country like Britain – the 4th largest economy in the world – so many people cannot apparently afford food? The prime reason lies surely in Britain’s innate and growing inequality: so while the richest tenth have 31% of the country’s wealth the poorest tenth have 1.3%; and 13 million Britons are below the poverty line.  The income of the richest tenth is more than the income of the poorest 50%. Clearly, with fairer distribution, everyone could afford food.

We should ask, too, what people spend their money on. Nowadays Brits spend a mere 11% on food – but, thanks to the way the market is organized (which really means rigged), and with council housing scrapped, many are obliged to spend 50% on housing. So food in practice is very cheap – ridiculously so – but the real cost, relative to disposable income, is twice what it seems.

Clearly, then, the best way to make food affordable is not to reduce the price of it still further – in many cases it is already too cheap, which leads to injustice, cruelty, and collateral damage – but to re-think the economy. An economy that is designed to be maximally competitive and to make the rich richer is bound to leave a great many in poverty, however rich the country may become on paper.

But although food is already so cheap, we should also ask why it is as dear as it is. Governments piously pretending to bring food prices down attack the farmers – urging them to cut even closer to the bone. Yet of the money spent on food in a supermarket, only 20% at most goes to the farmer. Governments and commerce are forever urging farmers to cut labour so reduce costs – though the labour is replaced by high-capital high tech. Yet it’s doubtful if the cost of farm labour now accounts for more than 10% of the total food cost.

In stark contrast, 80% of the cost of food goes to support the food chain itself, including the supermarket itself and the transport and the vast superstructure of management, and the shareholders. Yet most of this is unnecessary. The real task, then, is to shorten the food chains, and so to ensure that the farmers who actually do the work get a far higher proportion of the retail price. If farmers sell through the standard retail chain of small shops they commonly get at least a third of the retail price and if they sell through farmers’ markets they can expect at least two thirds. Farmers’ markets per se are not the answer – they require too much work – but the nature of the task is clear: to create a retail chain that really can support the kind of enlightened farms that we need without raising the cost. One very promising answer – there are more and more – is the community owned supermarket. It would be a great step forward if communities nationwide were to buy the Tesco stores that are now being closed. Governments that truly cared about the state of the people would encourage this (as they have the power to do).

We might note too that the low price of food in supermarkets is more apparent than real. Notably, milk and bread, the essentials, are sold as loss leaders but overall aim is to take as much money off the customer as possible. The emphasis is on processed food in which the unit cost of food energy and protein, or of micronutrients, commonly is several times higher than in fresh food.

Finally, in this vein, it would not be unreasonable for governments to subsidize food essentials, like bread and milk (but only if the bread and milk reached required nutritional standards). Doubtless there are trade laws that forbid this – but the supermarket loss leader is itself a form of subsidy, and why should it be legal for commercial companies to do what governments cannot?

There are many other ways to make food affordable – with community enterprise, cooperatives of producers and consumers high on the list. Pious defence of the status quo – gross inequality, destructive farming, and injustice – is certainly not among them.  What emphatically is not needed are the gung-ho high tech instant cure-alls of the kind now favoured by governments and their chosen advisers – of which GMOs are a prime example.

The politics of Enlightened Agriculture

Many people for all kind of reasons seem afraid of the ideas of Enlightened Agriculture. They seem to fear – or, for rhetorical purposes, they pretend to fear – that to reject GMOs, say, is to reject all science. Or to question the zeal of the neolibs, the ruthless pursuit of short-term wealth, is to throw out all capitalism, in all its manifestations; and that to throw out capitalism is to open the door to soviet-style Communism, the centralist politics of Stalin.

We need to show the lie of all this – and/or, more importantly, to make the positive points. Which are that:

Agriculture that can feed everybody well, however homely it may look to the casual observer, is progress. For the progress that really counts is not the theoretical accumulation of material wealth, or the rise of flash technologies, but the kind that enhances human wellbeing — peace, justice, personal fulfilment – and the wellbeing of the biosphere as a whole.

The science that can underpin such agriculture – “enlightened agriculture”—is of the subtlest kind, and it truly modern. The gung-ho commercial kind that is bringing us GMOs belongs conceptually to an altogether earlier and less sophisticated age. Absolutely not are we required to “turn back the clock” – except to rediscover the social, moral, and spiritual values that of late have been swept aside by the perceived need to compete for material wealth.

The economics of enlightened agriculture is “economic democracy” — very similar to the social democracy that until 1980 was the norm for both Tory and Labour – based on the mixed economy, with the private sector based primarily on small businesses. There are just a few tweaks: the new emphasis on social enterprise and on community ownership; the rise of ethical investment; and the overall realization that the economy must be “green” – always seeking to work within the limits of the biosphere and of our fellow creatures, and including the ideas of the circular economy.

In short, to establish Enlightened Agriculture as the norm, we need to re-think across the board: what we want to achieve and why; the details of enlightened agriculture itself; the underlying economic system that can support it, and the system of government that will provide such an economy; the moral principles on which the whole endeavour is based; the kind of science we need; and the metaphysical assumptions that underpin all our ideas. To this end I want to establish the College of Enlightened Agriculture. But that’s another story.

Colin Tudge, February 2 2015

3 thoughts on “The Key Ideas of Enlightened Agriculture (with a passing reference to Ancient China)

  1. Well said Colin.

    We have heard a great deal about wealth inequalities over the past few weeks with even an Archbishop having his say. He made a point that I think is crucial if we are to find a practical way forward to bringing about the kind of economic and societal changes that will be necessary to allow the agriculture that you envisage to develop. He talked about the need for tax reform and I for one think this could be the key to opening the floodgates.

    Our current tax system is bizarrely complicated and seems designed to achieve the opposite of its stated objectives. Certainly a large majority when questioned want a fair and progressive tax system where the burden falls most on those who can best bear it. The British system with it’s multiple tax bands and exceptions and exemptions and special rules for this that and the other works in favour of the one per cent is in need of root and branch reform.

    The burden falls most heavily on the poorest through VAT, NI, Council tax and a whole raft of regressive taxes and yet there seems to be little debate about this issue. The absence of any realistic property or wealth taxes apart from stamp duty and inheritance tax is hardly remarked on outside of a circle of hard core nerds such as myself.

    Yet I think a campaign to reform taxation could be a real vote winner. Removing tax bands and replacing them with a formula based system (and abolishing NI altogether) would be a first step. Progressively removing tax concessions and using this to fund a lowering of rates all round. Abolition of stamp duty and inheritance tax (Hurrah say the Tories) which generate large tax bills occasionally and replacing them with a regular but smaller property and wealth tax. Reducing the rate of VAT and removing all of the exempt items would be another step towards a saner system.

    We should bring in a strong anti-avoidance law with necessary changes to company taxation law that ensure that companies trading in the UK pay their taxes here. It will be necessary to harmonise personal and company tax rates to eliminate many of the loopholes that exist.

    None of the major political parties would sign up to a program like this so I propose that we form a Coalition for Democratic Reform, that will fight on such a platform. Other major planks of the platform would be constitutional and voting reform, reform of company law to allow your ideas of Enlightened Agriculture to be implemented as well as allowing reform of financial, media, health, education and other sectors of the economy.

    Colin – are you ready to sign up to this? Who else is there who will provide the leadership that is desperately needed?

    1. Dear Joe Edwards
      I like very much the idea of a Coalition for Democratic Reform. More and more I reckon that nothing is more important that democracy. One reason is moral – that we, people at large, really ought to have far more control over our own lives than has generally been the case these past few thousand years. But the advantages are practical, too. As outlined in my latest book, Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice, I reckon that most people, when not under stress, are both compassionate and sensible – and, given a chance, would make far better decisions collectively than governments and their intellectual advisers are wont to do.
      Most people in Britain did not want to go to war with Iraq, for example – and most people were surely right. Many and probably most people feel uneasy with GMOs – and our uneasiness again is surely justified. The protests against the present economic inequality grow louder and louder – and quite rightly. The Iraq war, like most wars, was caused by the political ambitions of a very small minority. GMOs are unnecessary and in truth are a commercial scam – but the intellectuals that government relies on for advice don’t have a broad grasp of the issues and take it to be self-evident that high-tech must mean progress. This is the trouble with intellectuals: they tend to be far too protective of their own narrow fields of expertise. In general, as George Orwell was keen to point out, they should be treated with extreme caution. The present economic and social inequalities were surely not what successive governments set out to achieve. They are, though, an unintended consequence of an economic dogma (that of neoliberalism) which a great many people from the outset (circa 1980) were extremely wary of. Neoliberalism (like GMOs) is yet another flight of fantasy perpetrated by intellectuals and seized upon by sharp commercial cookies with an eye for the main chance. People at large would surely not have made any of these ghastly mistakes — and we could list a great many more. We would have been guided by our intuitions and our fundamental sense of kindness and fairness.
      My only caveat is the implication that the proposed coalition should be one of politicians. It surely should not. Politicians are surely necessary but, as Churchill said of scientists, they should be on tap but not on top: people whose job it is to get things done, but not to decide for the rest of us what needs doing. Democracy must mean democracy: a network of control in which politicians are seen as functionaries; worthy of respect, of course, but not with the power to determine the course of our lives.

      1. Hi Ruth,
        I’m slightly disturbed and also saddened by your portrait of intellectuals and scientists. Scientists that are working in the fields you are interested in I would say have a good grasp of the broader issues. Maybe the slightly eerie thing is their passion for their subject and their pig-headedness re. diving into it deeply. I certainly wouldn’t label my spouse, friends, and colleagues as dangerous and manipulative of the political agenda (would be great if we could for the reasons you and Colin outline). I do, however, think the bigger problem is that our political and media set up likes to cherry pick those ‘messages’ that suit their agenda and that more and more often we as a society are happy to be bombarded with meaningless strap lines at the expenses of in-depth info . The topics of climate research and public health (food related) are good example.

        Anyway, happy to be proven wrong.


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