Radicals vs Conventionals: Part I

What does it mean to be radical? What does it mean to be conventional?

Colin Tudge looks beneath the surface of two big words that feature in many discussions on all the world’s affairs yet are usually left unexamined – but now have surfaced in the context of the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference

In a nutshell:

Conventional thinkers take the status quo to be a given, and seek to adapt whatever they want to do in life to fit accordingly. Any idea or course of action that strains the limits of the status quo or starts from a different perspective is deemed to be unrealistic.

Radical thinkers begin by stating their values – what they think is really worth achieving in life; and if the status quo doesn’t fit what they feel needs to be done, then they set out to change the status quo.

Worldwide, and perhaps particularly in Britain, the prevailing feature of the status quo is the neoliberal economy – into which we are all required, and indeed obliged, to fit everything that we do, both on the grand scale (as in farming strategy) and in our day-to-day lives. Specifically, so-called “conventional” farming (high input, high output, increasingly monocultural, with minimum labour on large units – ie “industrial”) is perceived to be “modern”, and necessary to “feed the world”, and that is what farmers and the rest of us are required to accept.

But the extreme industrialization we have witnessed this past century, culminating in zero-labour arable and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feed Operations) are not needed to “feed the world” and their net influence is surely negative, since the collateral damage is huge — ecological, social, moral, aesthetic. Agriculture that really could provide everyone with good food and create convivial societies and look after the biosphere would not be an exercize in industrialization and high tech but in applied ecology –  agroecology – and in food sovereignty (all societies having control over their own food supply).

For the neoliberal-industrial (NI) style of farming that is now perceived to be modern is not designed primarily to provide everyone with good food but to maximize and concentrate wealth. More and more wealth – “growth”’; ever-increasing GDP’ measured in accountable money – is perceived to the answer to all the world’s ills or if not the answer then the sine qua non. Today’s ultra-high-tech, high-input agriculture and the economic thinking behind it lead us towards productionism (the perceived imperative to produce more and more and more); to the idea that all agricultural produce should be treated as commodities, to be traded on the global market; and to trade deals of the kind that now obsess the oligarchy of corporates, financiers, government, and their chosen intellectual advisers, who control British agriculture. NI thinking also leads to the idea that the biosphere as a whole, the living world, should be valued primarily or indeed exclusively for what it can do for us in material terms; as a set of “resources” offering “ecoservices” and valued primarily or entirely as “natural capital”. The prime target imposed upon farmers this past half century has not been to provide food of the highest quality and to look after the biosphere but to “compete” for the largest possible share of the global market by making more money than anyone else more quickly. Indeed, competitiveness is now presented as the prime virtue. Finer feelings are for wimps. This way of thinking may seem foul – “asking for trouble” — and indeed it is, yet it is often justified on pseudo-scientific grounds, for competitiveness is perceived to be “Darwinian”, though this is both an insult to Darwin and is very bad moral philosophy.

Radical thinkers, whatever field they are in, state their values up front – whatever their values may be: democracy; justice and equality for all; an economy without private ownership (as envisaged not least by Thomas More); or, indeed, world domination with top-down control by a dictator or an elite.

So what values should we espouse? In a democracy the people should decide which implies that everyone has a right to express their opinion and a responsibility to exercise that right — and I suggest, along with many millions of others worldwide, that we need agriculture that is “expressly designed to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has food of the highest quality, without injustice or cruelty and without wrecking the rest of the world” – which is what we are calling “Enlightened Agriculture”, or “Real Farming”. Technically this should be well within our grasp but to achieve it we need to re-think the status quo across the board: the economic structure; governance (who takes the decisions, and how); the kind of science and technologies needed; and the underlying moral and metaphysical perspective. All must be reconceived from first principles. In all cases we need to get down to the roots, which of course is what “radical” literally means.

Enlightened Agriculture in practice embraces the ideas of agroecology, food sovereignty and economic democracy, all of which lead us to favour farms that are mixed, low-input, small (at least by the standards of modern Britain), high in tender loving care and so needing plenty of farmers and growers; with short – meaning simple — food chains; and geared to a global strategy, for all nations, of self-reliance (not to be confused with self-sufficiency) and fair trade. In other words, agriculture of the kind that is truly intended to provide us all with good food without wrecking the rest is the precise opposite of what now prevails. It follows that if we are to rescue farming, and ourselves, and the biosphere then we must be radical. We must re-think from first principles. Overall indeed we need nothing less than metamorphosis – a Renaissance. Specifically, we need an Agrarian Renaissance.

There is a downside, of course. Radical thinking and action are always disruptive, precisely because they challenge the status quo. This is why so many people oppose the radical approach – because they fear disruption. To be sure, if the disruption is too abrupt, as in large-scale revolution, it can do more harm than good and in any case the outcome is most uncertain. The necessary disruption must be measured, therefore. We need to re-build the kind of society we want in situ, building on what is good in the present world, keeping direct confrontation to a minimum.  The things we don’t want should, as far as possible, be encouraged simply to wither on the vine. But the world is fading fast and we can’t afford to hang about. The withering of out-moded or inappropriate institutions and ways of thinking must where necessary be assisted.

Many of the people who now seem content with or at least resigned to the status quo would dearly like to change course — including a lot of civil servants and corporate middle management, and indeed farmers who have been pressured against their better judgment to industrialize.  A prime task for the Renaissance therefore is to provide an alternative so that those who would prefer to escape from the status quo have somewhere else to go. In the short term we need to provide life-rafts – small, manageable, enlightened enterprises that do what needs doing locally and employ people. In the longer term these scattered initiatives should form a network that replaces the status quo with a truly viable alternative.

Radicals, in short, must not simply be negative, simply attacking the status quo. If we don’t like neoliberal-industrial farming we must devise something closer to what we do want, and show that it works.   If we don’t like the neoliberal economy we must ask what we can put in its place – and show that that works too. In all cases, having conceived the alternative, we must ask how it can be installed: and (preferably) how this can be achieved with minimum collateral damage. Worldwide, there are many thousands of examples of farming and food culture, and not a few economic models, that are far removed from the neoliberal model, and clearly can be made to work. It is simply untrue to insist, as Mrs Thatcher did, that there is no alternative.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) is radical, not in the Beano sense of black fedoras and smoking bombs, but at least in the sense outlined here. The ORFC aims to show-case and bring together some (as many as possible) of the novel approaches on all fronts (husbandry, science, politics, economics, metaphysics) that are already contributing to the Agrarian Renaissance (even if their perpetrators are not formally signed up to the renaissance idea). The ORFC is a project of the Real Farming Trust (RFT), a registered charity, together with the College for Real Farming and Food Culture (CRFFC) which seeks to identify and develop all the necessary ideas on all fronts that are needed to put the Agrarian Renaissance onto a firm footing; and Funding Enlightened Agriculture (FEA) which seeks to help enterprises of all kinds (but mainly small farms) that are helping the Renaissance to happen. The Campaign for Real Farming is in reality a website – this one: an on-line magazine to help hold everything together.

The Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) in contrast does not apparently begin with the premise that farming should be designed primarily along enlightened lines (agroecology, food sovereignty), or that we need an Agrarian Renaissance. The OFC takes it to be self-evident (or seems to) that farming first and foremost must conform to the economic and political status quo – i.e. that it must be “conventional”. Various people have suggested over the years that the two conferences should work together. Both, after all, are concerned with agriculture and to that extent they are on the same side, and as Winston Churchill said, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war”. Most delegates to both conferences would surely claim that they want the world to be a better place, and to a very large extent they would surely agree on what a better world would look like (including an end to hunger and mass extinction and general environmental run-down).

Yet, at least as things stand, we must recognize that the two approaches are very different – and the difference at its core is one of mindset: whether we can make the kind of world we really need and most people surely want (deep down) within the present economic and logistic status — which I take to be the view of the OFC); or whether and by how much and by what means we need to change the status quo — which is the radical view and is the thinking behind the ORFC.

Of course, that in itself could be a most interesting discussion, with huge (endless) ramifications.

Colin Tudge, August 14 2017

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