Farming is far too important to leave to governments

As we build towards yet another election Colin Tudge suggests that it’s time for a little honesty

I think I’d vote for any party in the coming election that took agriculture seriously – which unfortunately excludes all the major parties and, of course, UKIP. The Green Party has the most appropriate policies but it does not focus on farming as much as it should and must if it is truly to be green. Agriculture after all is right at the heart of all the world’s affairs, human and non-human, and if we don’t get it right then we, the world, have had our chips.

We could get it right. It would not be technically difficult (or certainly not beyond our wit) to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has good food, forever, and that the biosphere as a whole stays in good heart far into  the future  — all of which is what the much-worn term “sustainable” ought to mean. Yet in practice, Britain’s and the World’s agriculture is dire. It certainly does not provide everyone with good food and it is wrecking the world at large, possibly terminally. Furthermore, the neoliberal-industrial brand of farming that is now called “conventional” is rapidly making things worse. Governments like Britain’s and the rest of the EU spend millions (literally) of person-hours and billions of pounds and euros on agriculture and this looks serious enough, but they are not thinking along the right lines. The task they have set themselves is not to meet the real needs of human beings and our fellow creatures but to squeeze the square peg of agriculture – essentially a social and ecological exercise – into the round hole of neoliberal dogma, with as much high-tech as possible to make it look progressive (and also because high-tech is profitable). This is not what’s needed. As Barrack Obama said in a very similar context: “Guess what. It doesn’t work”. But it does keep well-paid people busy for years and years and years, and can do small wonders for GDP, which is the main thing, even if it puts millions more out of work, and makes a horrible mess.

Crucially, most of the people who have the most influence in agriculture don’t know anything about it, or about the biosphere at large (the living world), or they don’t care, or both. Britain’s governments take agriculture seriously only in times of crisis and for a few years afterwards until the memory fades – as they did briefly after the virtual siege of the Napoleonic wars and the two World Wars. Then they revert to “business as usual”, and in “normal” times agriculture in Britain is never designed primarily to provide good food for everyone or to ensure food security (which is not quite the same thing) or to look after farmers or (still less) the biosphere, but to placate whatever lobby happens to be dominant at the time. It used to be the Feudal aristocracy. Now it’s big business and international banking. On the whole the Feudal aristocracy were and are less destructive but neither they nor the corporates met or meets the real needs of humankind or of the biosphere. This was not and is not their agenda.

British governments have demonstrated their indifference to agriculture and their level of appreciation of it first by dropping the words “agriculture” or “farming” from the name of the department that runs it (the F in Defra means “food”; the A “affairs”) and from the body in charge of research (BBSRC? What’s that?); and secondly, by appointing secretaries of state who either are young Turks on the way up (David Miliband was in charge for about a year or so, just passing through) or, more usually, are a “safe pair of hands” (the code-name for “hack”). The latest incumbent, Angela Leadsom, has told spellbound audiences that we should use the lowlands for intensive farming and leave the uplands to the butterflies. Jolly bad luck on lowland butterflies (which is most of them) and indeed on upland farmers.

In passing too, in 1994 the incumbent government shut down the Agricultural and Food Research Council. AFRC had evolved over 150 years or so from John Bennet Lawes’ experiments with superphosphate at his Rothamsted estate in the 1830s, and by the late 20th century it was running about 30 publicly owned research stations all over Britain, with strong links overseas, on all aspects of farming, that truly and rightly were the envy of the world. But through the ’90s and beyond the stations were sold off or privatised. This surely was the greatest act of state-sponsored vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries, but in this urbanised society of ours, who noticed? (It’s a pity farming doesn’t have the same profile as the NHS, or even that of education. At least people at large know that these things matter.)

The fashion / dogma/ prevailing doctrine right now is that of Neoliberalism. The point is not that neoliberalism is “capitalist”. Capitalism in practice is a catch-all term for a whole range of financial mechanisms most of which can be used for good purposes – meaning socially and environmentally responsible – provided those mechanisms are guided by common sense and common morality (a feeling that compassion, justice, and the state of the biosphere actually matter). But neoliberalism as a matter of strategy! – rejects the constraints of common sense and common morality. The machinations of the “free” market – Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – are supposed to ensure that all will be well. The market is left to decide what is morally good: what people will pay for is deemed to be OK (barring child pornography. Even neolibs have kids, after all). But in truth as has been abundantly demonstrated these past 25 years the invisible hand does not work. The market in practice is not democratic and it does not and cannot deliver social justice.

Farming is now deemed to be “a business like any other” (a chill phrase that I first heard in the 1970s, even before the dead hand of neoliberalism came down on us) and “business” is now conceived not as the natural underpinning of a mixed economy in a democratic society but as an all-out, no-holds-barred competition to generate the greatest wealth (measured in money) in the shortest time. In practice of course the no-holds-barred market is not open to all but is dominated by the strongest players, who are the corporates, which are designed expressly for the fray, and are now so powerful that they can override governments (even those like Theresa May’s which promise to be “strong and stable”— meaning they can shove us around (though they can’t out-face the corporates) and will stick to their dogma come what might).

Maximally profitable farming – in the short term! – is not good farming. There is much talk of “sustainable intensification” and other such vacuous slogans from on high but so long as oil is affordable (which it always will be – just! — because the producers need to sell it) it is more profitable to replace people with machines, and good husbandry with industrial chemistry, and farm with minimum to zero labour on the largest possible scale (although sometimes gangs of serfs imported from afar are cheaper than chemistry). All this – despite GM and lightweight robots and other much-vaunted nonsenses – will at best be “sustainable” for the next 30 years or so (by which time the present crop of politicians and tycoons will be safely tucked up in their graves, or in the House of Lords).

As Snoopy would say, Eeeaaagh!

So what’s to be done? At the coming election I don’t know. Regrettably, the result does make a difference. Governments rarely do lasting good (women’s suffrage and the great health and education reforms after World War II are rare one-offs) but they can and often do wreck lives in the short term and do a great deal of lasting harm. But, as is generally the case these days, in England at least, the most attractive party or parties are the least likely to win.  The nasty ones are better organised.

In the longer term, though, if we really care about the future – if indeed we want to enjoy a long-term future at all – then we have to start again from first principles.

To begin with, we must, as a nation and a world, start again to take agriculture seriously. We can’t just throw it to the wolves of the global money market – or seek to curb the worst excesses of the market with one-size-fits-all subsidies. Our lives depend on agriculture and agriculture more than anything else determines whether other creatures can live at all. The mechanisms and pressures of the “free” market are far too crude to attend to all its subtleties, and the goals of the market, its raison d’etre, are quite distinct from what should be the true goals of agriculture. In absolute contrast to what is now perceived as the norm we need “Enlightened Agriculture”, sometimes abbreviated to “Real Farming” – farming that is designed expressly to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest of the world, and without injustice or cruelty. This ought to be eminently possible. The three essential principles of Enlightened Agriculture are Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Economic Democracy, all of which have been well demonstrated and shown to work. Enlightened Agriculture with all that it entails needs to become the global norm. Agriculture needs to be transformed – metamorphosis. We need nothing less than an Agrarian Renaissance: “re-birth”.

But we cannot bring about the Agrarian Renaissance ad hoc. Agriculture affects everything else that we do, and is affected by everything else, and to bring about the necessary transformation we need to re-think everything from first principles. We need an economy that is not simply intended to maximise short-term wealth, and to transfer wealth and power from the many to the few, but to serve all humanity (it can be done). We need to re-think politics, so that we don’t simply elect short-termists, promising endless material growth and rattling sabres at the world at large. We need perhaps above all to make democracy work (it’s the worse form of government, said Winston Churchill, “apart from all the others”). We need to re-think science – who controls it, and for whose benefit; and, much more than that, we need to ask seriously what science really is, and what it can do and what it can’t – the much neglected discipline of the philosophy of science. Science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and ought to be among our greatest assets but as things are it is, in some of its manifestations, among our greatest threats. We need to re-think our moral principles – what do we really think is good, and why? And finally, we need to acknowledge, as has not to my knowledge been acknowledged for some centuries, that all the most interesting ideas, including or especially those of science and morality, are rooted in unknowns and unknowables, which can be sensibly discussed only in the context of metaphysics. Metaphysics needs to be disinterred, dusted down, and placed centre-stage. The point of The College for Real Farming and Food Culture is to do the necessary re-thinking, or at least to set the balls rolling.

But at the same time as the great re-think we need to start doing: setting up the kinds of farms and markets and other enterprises of the kind we really do want, which really could help to bring about the Agrarian Renaissance. Many such initiatives are already in train, though the cards are stacked against them. Our own Funding Enlightened Agriculture initiative (FEA) is helping things along, and so too are various excellent groups at home and abroad.

Above all, since the present government does not take agriculture seriously, and no government of any party has taken it seriously since post-war years, if we seriously want farming that does the job that’s needed then we, people at large, need to take matters into our own hands. In the immediate term, farmers and their surrounding communities need to work together to push things in the right direction. In the longer term – though as quickly as possible – we need to rescue agriculture from government. It needs its own agency, run by people who understand it and care about it, and care about humanity and the biosphere at large, and are also answerable to people at large; an organisation with power that is also democratic and, perhaps above all, competent. The BBC was run like this in its early days – not perfect, but admirable nonetheless. I am told the Dutch dikes also have their own agency, with the power to do what needs doing, because if they did not they would drown. Some things are just too important to leave to governments and farming, beyond doubt, is one of them.

Addendum

I coined the term “Enlightened Agriculture” in 2003 in a book called So Shall We Reap. At a meeting in 2008 with friends and my wife, Ruth (West) we decided that “Real Farming” would be catchier and so (with a generous grant from one of the assembled company) we set up “The Campaign for Real Farming”, including this website. At about that time too Graham Harvey suggested that the world needed an antidote to the establishment’s Oxford Farming Conference and so he, Ruth and I set up the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2010 (which is still going from strength to strength). Then Ruth and I felt we should establish a fund to help new enterprises of an enlightened kind, and so we started Funding Enlightened Agriculture, FEA. Then we gathered all these threads – the Campaign, ORFC, and FEA – together under the umbrella of a new charity, the Real Farming Trust, which has built up a truly outstanding board of trustees. Finally, out of all this came our College for Real Farming and Food Culture, designed formally to access and to carry out all the necessary thinking that governments and the NFU, the BBSRC, and most of academe are singularly failing to do. The College website is still building but it is well in train. The College is also building a programme of seminars – the next of which are in September and October of this year (more news to follow). In the fullness of time the College may have its own premises with an experimental farm attached. We’re working on it. Thus the Agrarian Renaissance might come about through a kind of co-evolution: the necessary thinking and the new enlightened enterprises developing in synergy.

Colin Tudge April 30 2017

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