Radicals vs Conventionals: Part II

Can radicals and conventional thinkers ever really talk to each other?

In particular, can the Oxford Real Farming Conference and the Oxford Farming Conference ever engage in truly useful dialogue.  By Colin Tudge

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) – held every year in January since 2010 — is by definition radical. That is, is doesn’t simply ask what’s new in farming but also asks whether the economic constraints that now operate, and the science and high tech that are now promoted, and the system of governance that promotes the present economy and the present-day science and high tech, are really fit for purpose. After all, modern-day, “conventional” farming can look very good (those endless waving fields of ripening wheat!) and is in many ways impressive (eight tonnes of wheat per hectare as an average; the 10,000 litre cow; the chicken that grows to oven weight in six weeks) – and yet very obviously it is deeply flawed. It is utterly dependent on oil (it is, in effect, an extension of the oil industry and for that reason alone and many others it is obviously unsustainable); it is often cruel; it is a key player in every environmental catastrophe, from mass extinction to climate change; it destroys traditional and often highly convivial communities; and yet worldwide, for all its razzmatazz, it still leaves a billion people undernourished while a billion or so others seem to eat too much of the wrong things (such that the world population of diabetics is now greater by far than the total population of the US). The status quo, it seems, really does need questioning.

But in general, those who attend the “official”, Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), also held early in January and now more than six decades old, certainly are “conventional” in the proper sense. That is, they seek to operate within the economic status quo, and accept that modern science and technology (GMOs and robots etc) are indeed what’s needed, and tend to suggest that those who say otherwise and dream as the ORFC delegates tend to do of small mixed farms (and cooperatives), and emphasize low-input farming (which mainly means organic) are “unrealistic”: well-meaning perhaps but out with the fairies nonetheless.

Yet every year, someone or other from either or both conferences suggests that the ORFC and the OFC should get together, if not to merge or indeed actively to collaborate then at least to engage in public dialogue. Both “sides”, after all, the advocates say, have much to offer. Some suggest that wisdom must lie between the two approaches, or in an eclectic mix of the two. Others suggest that if only the delegates to the OFC took seriously the ideas of the ORFC, then they would instantly be converted – though some from the OFC argue the same point in reverse.

Well, discussions between opposing point of view do seem in essence to be desirable. Frank exchange of views etc.  This is what diplomacy is supposed to be about, and some of the diplomats I have met including a few ambassadors have been among the wisest birds of all. But to what extent is it possible, in the “real world”, and in the time available, to conduct a truly fruitful dialogue? How far can we get before each side retreats to its own castle and pulls up the drawbridge, confirmed in its view that the other side is beyond redemption?

All kinds of things get in the way of useful discourse. Many, including many senior academics, some with directorships and Fellowships and a few even with Nobel Prizes, have committed their whole lives to a particular point of view – the joys of the “free”, neoliberal market; the absolute need for GMOs; absolute faith in the ability of science to tell us all we need to know – and a mistrust of any idea that has not been filtered through a refereed journal; and so on. Others, including megabuck corporates on the one hand and individual industrialized farmers on the other, are committed financially to big-time investment in big-time tech, with no hope of retreat. Others, perhaps particularly farmers, large or small, are simply conservative. A few, at the other end of the scale, really are dreamers, rejecting all science and shunning all talk of money and apparently believing that the world can be put to rights by good feelings alone, which alas, does not seem to be the case (good feelings are necessary but not sufficient). All may be said to have a vested interest – intellectual and emotional (including spiritual and moral), and social as well as financial, in not doing things differently, or even seriously considering other ways of doing things.

An even bigger problem, though – far bigger – is the sheer complexity of all the issues. I’ve been thinking about food and farming for more than half a century and found above all that no one aspect of it can be thought through in isolation. I like the idea of Enlightened Agriculture, aka Real Farming (which gave its name to the ORFC and then to the College for Real Farming and Food Culture – which simply means farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone with excellent food without wrecking the rest.  In practice Enlightened Agriculture requires diverse and low-input farming, which means lots of tender loving care which means plenty of hands-on farmers and growers which leads us to favour smaller units rather than larger. Small mixed organic farms should be the norm, the default position, traditional in structure though not necessarily in technique – the very opposite of the kind of large-scale, high-tech, high-input, high-capital, neoliberal-industrial agriculture that is now considered modern and de rigueur.

But it was clear from the outset that we could not set up such “enlightened” farms on a robust basis within the prevailing neoliberal economy, geared as it is to the maximization and concentration of wealth, which is a quite different ambition. So we need a different economy. Clearly, too, we aren’t going to get a new economy unless we have a different government – and indeed a different kind of government. So we have to rethink politics – not just party politics but the whole basis of governance. Neither is the kind of science that is now taken to be respectable and fundable – i.e. the kind that contributes most directly to GDP – what the world really needs. Right now the emphasis is on molecular biology but the need is for broader and better ecological science – still much neglected relative to its importance. Behind all this lies the philosophy and politics of science – what is science, and what it can tell us and what it can’t, and how should it be funded and by whom? It’s clear, too, that no political or economic strategy can work for the general good unless we define what the general good is and why it matters – which are matters of moral philosophy which is rooted in metaphysics. Most of all we need compassion — i.e. we have to give a damn. But why should we give a damn when it’s easier (and in the present economy more profitable) not to? So our College for Real Farming and Food Culture focuses on all these issues, in unison, each feeding off all the others. I know of no other outfit in the world that is attempting to do this.

It follows that if we are to have a really worthwhile discussion on any farming topic then we really should attack it on all these fronts. But this takes an awfully long time, and no-one these days can take the necessary time, unless they were born rich or are retired with a pension. It also requires a true desire on both sides to listen, and to find the best way forward.

So is such discussion doomed? Specifically, can we envisage any fruitful dialogue between the ORFC and the OFC? Well — perhaps. At least, I can think of a few areas where good ideas might emerge from such dialogue, and we might even agree on some joint initiatives, which could be worthwhile.

Ideally these discussions would be initiated and led by farmers. In the meantime here are a few of my own suggestions:

** We can surely show beyond reasonable doubt that the present gung-ho emphasis on GMOs, which the Royal Society no less endorses and so do powerful elements within the British government, is seriously misguided and is at best a terrible diversion. But people who believe this are commonly written off as Luddites (in the bad sense) or as “anti-science” – even though many opponents of GMOs are scientists themselves, including some who are very distinguished. Yet no-one versed in science (or at least, no-one that I know) doubts that the science that lies behind GMO technology – molecular biology – is hugely important in many contexts. On the theoretical front it is showing yet again just how extraordinary nature really is – for the subtleties of genes and genomes constantly outstrip our imagining; and this, many would say, is the real purpose of science – not to help us to manipulate and “conquer” nature but to enhance appreciation of it. On the practical front the kind of science that has produced GMOs with net results that undoubtedly are deleterious, also helps us to identify useful genes in traditional varieties and among wild plants and so can greatly increase the efficiency and speed of conventional plant breeding.

In short: yet another discussion on the pros and cons of GMOs properly convened and chaired could be worthwhile, and both conferences could and should be interested.

** We could have a similar discussion about robots. If they are deployed simply to prop up high-tech neoliberal industrial farming as seems to be the present intent, and to put people out of work in the name of (commercial) “efficiency”, then they really are a threat to good farming and to society. Indeed it seems to be the ambition at least of some robo-geeks to render the human race obsolete. In truth, though, the discussion re robots is a continuation of the one that was begun in earnest in the 18th century by John-Jacques Rousseau at the start of the Industrial Revolution: how to use machines of any kind in ways that enhance our lives and don’t simply enslave us or make us redundant. This isn’t just a technical or an economic matter. It has huge psychological and cultural implications. For work isn’t simply drudgery, to be avoided and ultimately done away with at all costs. Human beings evolved to work. The first bona fide human beings in the genus Homo were dubbed Homo habilis: “handy man”. Our first recognizably human ancestors were artificers. Work that is challenging and sometimes hard but falls short of drudgery is the arterial road to personal fulfilment; and societies cannot be truly convivial, and worthwhile, unless the individuals of which it is composed are personally fulfilled. A farm that is zero-labour is culturally dead; and since it is likely to be zero-wildlife too it is also ecologically dead – a green desert, as conservationists are wont to say. There are plenty such in Britain already, spreading fast, with the weight of big money, big science, and big government behind them.

The discussion that Rousseau began in the modern age has been continued not least by the Luddites, John Ruskin, William Morris, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Fritz Schumacher, Tim Berners-Lee and so on. Ruskin, Morris, Tolstoy and Gandhi in particular stressed the cultural and spiritual implications. The discussion can never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction but it must be continued. Green deserts in the countryside and concrete-and-glass deserts in the cities is not a cheering prospect.

** The economy needs addressing from all sides too. For example, does anyone even within the OFC seriously believe that the “free” market economy alone can do all that’s needed, or is the best we can come up with? Some who claim to believe this take their subsidies nonetheless and apparently see no contradiction. Or, for example, what should be the role of corporates? Are they necessary? Do they really add to the sum total of wellbeing or do they merely expropriate – take over what others have developed and are or were already doing perfectly well before they came on the scene? The same question applies to governments. Are they our protectors and caretakers, or are they predators? Serious politicians in the past – Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke – used to ask such questions. But they seem to have fallen out of fashion. But they concern us all.

** On the other hand, the many and various people who commonly operate under the broad umbrella of what is loosely called “capitalism” have devised a host of financial mechanisms of all kinds, some of which can certainly be used for benign purposes. Various attendants of the ORFC are very well versed in such stuff but beyond doubt, the OFC also harbours some real experts. Combined effort could be fruitful.

** I would also like to know who in both or either conference agrees with the proposition that agriculture is too important to be left to government — or at least to the vagaries and caprice of party politics, as is now the case? Do we need a new MAFF – a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, with a powerful and properly informed Secretary of State? Or do we need a quite new agency, answerable but independent – a quango, indeed, run not by the great and the good but by farmers, cooks, scientists, economists, moralists, and others who know a thing or two and give a damn? That surely is a discussion that all could have.

In short, although for the foreseeable future the two conferences should surely stick to their respective lasts it is possible at least to envisage some interesting interchange. What such interchange might lead to only time could tell.

Colin Tudge August 18 2017

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