If we seriously care about the plight and the future of the human race and the biosphere then we have to re-think food and farming policies from first principles.
Colin Tudge suggests how Britain might lead the way.
I: GENERAL BACKGROUND
Food and farming strategy in Britain, insofar as there is such a thing, is based on a series of misconceptions and untruths. These include the idea that:
I.1: The world (including Britain) needs to produce more and more food to keep pace with rising numbers. A British government report of 2011 said we need 50% more by 2050.
Not true. It is easy to demonstrate that the world currently produces enough food for 14 billion people: twice the present population and 40% more than we should ever need. Re population: the UN tells us that the percentage rate of population growth is falling and should fall to zero in the 2nd half of this century (i.e. no more growth) when total numbers are around 10 billion.
The world as a whole including Britain should switch the focus from production, production, production to food quality and to farming that is kinder to livestock and other species; and seek to re-build rural economies and communities.
I.2: The world needs more food because people are “demanding” more and especially are “demanding” more meat.
Not true. At least, the evidence is very shaky (and those scientists who put their weight behind this idea should be thoroughly ashamed). The evidence shows only that people adapt (happily enough, given time!) to what is around. They eat more meat when it is available and it is now widely available because the world invests so much in its production – not because of genuine “demand” but because it is possible to sell it with in-your-face marketing and livestock is therefore profitable.
I.3: Livestock production is so profligate that we cannot “feed the world” unless everyone becomes vegetarian.
Not true. Industrial livestock is profligate (we give 50% of grain and 90% of soya to animals). But all the world’s great cuisines use meat sparingly (as garnish, stock, or occasional feasts) and we could produce enough meat to support them by raising cattle and sheep on grass and browse where it is difficult to grow crops, and pigs and poultry on leftovers and surpluses i.e.: we cannot produce all the meat that people could be persuaded to buy but we could produce enough fairly comfortably to underpin the world’s great cuisines. That is, we cannot all be gluttons but we could all be gourmets. What more do we want?
1: We need a massive programme of re-education – teach farming and all that goes with it as a core subject. Note, though, that the people most in need of such education are the people who are in charge of agriculture!
2: Cooking too should be a core subject. If the world at large truly appreciated good food – knew quality when they saw it, were good cooks, and truly “demanded” what is good — then there need be no food problems. In truth, “the future belongs to the gourmet”
1.3: Large, high-input, monocultural industrial estates are more “efficient” and they alone can produce all the food we need. We need to cut farm labour to cut costs.
Not true. Most (~ 70%) of the world’s food comes from small mixed low-input farms which for the most part are unsupported and are often actively done down — while the industrial kinds benefit form massive subsidies and grants. Small, skills intensive units can be far more productive per unit area and with proper support could “feed the world” far better and more sustainably than big estates.
We should be supporting small, mixed, low-input (which mostly means organic) farms
I.4: The neoliberal market economy can support the kind of farming we need and is needed to encourage “competition”, without which the system would run down.
Not true. The market economy requires farmers to be as profitable as possible (in competition with everyone else) and in the present economy the big industrial monocultures are the most profitable (for a few) and yet are the very opposite of what the world needs. Agriculture has been run on neoliberal lines for the past 40 years (apart from the subsidies!) and despite astonishing technologies it still leaves a billion people hungry.
We need “Enlightened Agriculture”. See below.
I.5: Unless food is produced on big zero-labour industrial estates it will be too expensive.
Not true. Inter alia, the cost of food production accounts for only 20% of the retail price of which only about half (10%) goes to the workers who are sacked in the name of efficiency. Traditional markets well run can bring the price down. The main reason so many people can’t afford food nowadays has to do with maldistribution of income: some people earn 100 or 1000 times more than others so it is impossible to fix a sensible price; and land prices are artificially high because some people find that profitable.
1: We need to encourage traditional markets
2: We need to achieve far greater equality of income (see essay IV.2.3 on the College website: “How much should food cost?)
3: We need massive land-reform (and in particular to bring down the price of housing).
II.1. The world as a whole including Britain needs “Enlightened Agriculture” aka “Real Farming”, loosely but adequately defined as:
“Agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality, without wrecking the rest of the world”
This is eminently possible. With enlightened agriculture (and all that goes with it!) we would not, as now, be facing Armageddon. We should be contemplating the next million years with equanimity.
The component ideas are those of:
Agroecology: treating farms as ecosystems
Food Sovereignty: society should have control over its own food supply.
All three components of Enlightened Agriculture need to be explored and developed.
II.2: In the neoliberal world geared to production and profit all crops are treated as commodities to be sold on the world market. In financial terms – in the neoliberal economy! – this is “efficient”. In ecological and social terms it is a disaster.
We need to move to a strategy of national self-reliance (not to be confused with self-sufficiency!) and fair trade.
II.3. At present scientific research is financed primarily by corporates who support only the kind that produce technologies that are potentially profitable. Hence the emphasis on GMOs, the present support for Round-Up and neonicotinoids, and robots, and the relative neglect of ecology, the science that is needed to underpin agroecology. Essentially, science has become corrupted; it has lost its intellectual integrity (the dispassionate search for knowledge) which is its sine qua non.
We need to re-establish independent agricultural science: in effect to restore the old Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC) and the Experimental Husbandry Farms (EHFs).
II.4: Agriculture must be answerable to government provided the government in fact represents the true interests of the people and the biosphere. But: the record of successive governments of all parties since the 1970s has been dismal, leading to the conclusion that agriculture is far too important to be left to the whims and vagaries of government, and must be liberated in particular from the ambitions of particular political parties.
We need a quasi-independent agency to run agriculture – a quango indeed: though run not by the Great and the Good but by people truly knowledgeable in food and farming and who care about it: farmers, cooks, thinking scientists and economists, and thinking and caring citizens at large.
Colin Tudge August 2 2017