Colin Tudge is elated by this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference – but also, with further reflection, profoundly depressed.
At least eight-hundred-and-fifty people turned up to Oxford’s Town Hall on January 4th and 5th for this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference — about half of them farmers: a 1000% increase on our modest beginning in the University Church library in 2010. Another 350 or so wanted to get in but couldn’t. At least half were women and under 40 – the ageing male syndrome to which I am contributing more and more emphatically is very much on the wane. The atmosphere – intellectual, social — was tremendous: a literal and metaphorical buzz. The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, spoke to the assembly, answered questions, gave a filmed interview (now on the ORFC website), stayed for lunch and said many pleasing things. He acknowledged that the economic collapse of 2008 at least showed to government and the city what to “ordinary people” had long been obvious — that we could not forever base the economy on debt. He acknowledged too that an agriculture geared entirely to productivity must drive us all to the buffers (which also has been obvious to a great many people at least for some decades). He acknowledged in particular the value of and the need for organic farming, as the key ingredient of agroecology, which in turn is the key ingredient of Enlightened Agriculture, aka “Real Farming”. Above all, for the first time in at least a decade, and a rarity indeed in modern politics, we seem to have a Secretary of State who takes agriculture seriously, and has a brain. Above all, perhaps, as one old farmer said to me, “We’re talking about things here, in open forum and as a matter of course, that would have been laughed off the stage a decade ago. Organic husbandry of course – but also words like ‘values, ‘compassion’, and ‘spirituality’”. Indeed, these woolly and largely unquantifiable concepts have been on the official index expurgatorius these past few decades, swept aside by the hideous alliance of neoliberalism and uncritical technophilia.
So is the tide turning? Up to a point. Perhaps. But not nearly enough, or fast enough. It’s as if we were in a war but had yet to realize this, and were still wondering whether to call up the troops. Overall, the mindset remains the same. Whatever else happens, we’re told, we must maintain “growth” by competing in the maximally competitive global market. Technological innovation is ipso facto progress whether or not it makes a net contribution to the world’s wellbeing and security (and who can tell whether it does or doesn’t since proper “life cycle analysis” is difficult and rare?). Science is good if it contributes to technological progress of a profitable kind but otherwise is an indulgence, a luxury we can’t afford (be realistic!). Politics as a whole is not a concerted effort to solve real and obvious problems but is a war of ideologies, and ideologies are not principles; and in practice politics is a struggle for power, by whatever it takes. In practice our lives are dominated by the rich and in general (with some very honourable exceptions!) the rich are rich precisely because they have eschewed the woolly concepts (like compassion and spirituality) that should be guiding everything we do. But all the way along the line there are intellectuals on hand, from the world’s most prestigious universities, and in high-profile think-tanks, who are happy, with suitable remuneration, to justify the status quo (and sometimes, to be fair, actually believe that the status quo is OK). However grotesque our leaders may be, however misguided their strategies, there are very clever people out there willing and able to make them look good, while the very clever people who question what they do are sent to the salt-mines, or starved of grants, and in either case air-brushed out. This isn’t conspiracy theory. It’s just natural selection.
A few salients from the ORFC and its immediate aftermath will make the point.
I didn’t expect to like Michael Gove and was pleasantly surprised to find him affable, charming, willing and even keen to listen, and he said many good things (as you may see from his talk and interview on the ORFC website). On a practical note he promised to continue farm subsidies as they are until 2022 – and said how absurd it is that public money should be siphoned in such vast amounts to big farmers who are already rich (or at least are capital-rich) while the smaller producers must take their chances; and agreed that small-to-medium-sized, mixed, more or less organic farms are important.
But he was keen to emphasize too that markets have their place. Most of us and certainly most farmers can agree with this but the question remains – how much of a place? Gove acknowledged that the neoliberal market tunnel-vision that led to the 2008 crash was a huge mistake but he remains a neoliberal. He acknowledged, as who could not, that Brexit raises huge problems but he was and is among the most zealous Brexiteers; and although our “liberation” from the EU ostensibly enables us to re-design our farming along more enlightened lines, in practice, as things are, it surely will drive us further and further into the arms of the World Trade Organization. So Brexit will surely reemphasize the perceived need to maximise market share and profit, and to do all the things that are needed to achieve this (land-grabbing, more and more reliance on high-tech, small farms subsumed into bigger and bigger units, etc). In general, too – an idea that surfaced in various contexts – we need an economy and politics rooted in cooperation rather than the cut-throat competition of the modern market. Competition is grand at the level of friendly rivalry but an all-out battle in all things as a matter of global strategy is a very obvious disaster on all fronts. However, the few who win the global competition then set the tone for the rest. So it seems that whoever wins the grand global punch-up, the same kind of people, with the same kind of mindset, remain in charge. A farmer/ scientist at the conference pointed out, too, that all the things Gove seemed to be advocating could just as well have been achieved within the EU – with Britain at the core, encouraging the rest.
Mr Gove promised to listen to everyone and by spending time at the ORFC he lives up to his promise – but of course he kept all his options open, reserving the right (as a Secretary of State must) to exercize final judgement. It is hard to believe that as a right-wing, neoliberal, ambitious Tory politician he will truly promote the kind of radical shift that is needed, in economics, in politics, in science, in underlying moral stance. Even if he did, we may ask how far the rest of his party would give him the freedom to act. Even if he did persuade his colleagues to support radical change, we may doubt whether our trading partners on whom we now rely so heavily – and of course the transnational corporates and financiers who now run the show and own so much of our infrastructure – would allow a more enlightened government to rock the global gravy train. After all, governments like ours are only part of governance — just one player in an oligarchy that includes government, corporates, financiers, and those academics and intellectuals who are content to go with the flow.
(Neither, of course, though without wanting to sound too creepy, should we underestimate the influence of organized crime in the world’s affairs, and of the black market. The lines between black, white, and many shades of grey are seriously blurred. As Felicity Lawrence pointed out at an earlier ORFC, some of Britain’s most lucrative and therefore most influential branches of agriculture now rely on immigrants of conveniently dubious legal status who sometimes at least are seriously ill-treated. Brexit surely will not help matters. Or as the comedian and social commentator Frankie Boyle put the matter, though not I’m afraid at the ORFC, “We allow foreigners to own our infrastructure but we’re not going to let them pick our fruit”. More generally, as St Augustine observed some 1600 years ago, “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?” (Quoted by Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), 1998)).
All in all, then, it’s a mistake to be too charmed by any conventional politician. Life is obviously easier if the government is on side, or at least is paying attention, and up to a point it is worthwhile to lobby politicians to get them on side as far as possible. But we shouldn’t spend too much time on this, or put too much store by it. The changes we need will not come from the government and still less from the oligarchy as a whole. Bottom-up is the only convincing way forward. However enlightened our politicians may sometimes seem to be, the movements that really matter must be grass-roots. The point of the ORFC is to provide a platform for the grass-roots. This, rather than state visits and chummy lunches, is what really matters.
Plenty of vegetarians and quite a few vegans fetch up at the ORFC and jolly good too. In general, the more that human beings can feed themselves on plants the better. Horticulturalists in all their variety are prominent at the ORFC as well. Arable is of course key and needs serious re-thinking – and as always seems to be the case, the kind of innovation that’s really needed is quite different from the kind that is so zealously supported, largely at our expense (in the end it’s always at our expense) in high (oligarchic) circles. Thus, remote sensing and robots could in theory make life easier –but as Jyoti Fernandez told the meeting (and Ed Hamer and others emphasize) high-quality tech specifically designed for the small scale, often low-tech, is what’s really needed. GMOs, the jewels in the crown of some of the most influential innovators, are, taken all in all, almost the precise opposite of what’s really needed. Among the arable innovators most frequently found at the ORFC are John Letts from Oxfordshire and Martin Wolfe from Suffolk, both of whom combine farming with scientific research, and are focused in complementary ways on small-scale, low-input arable with genetically mixed populations of cereals. They both succeed wonderfully in all the things that really matter.
But the ORFC is meat-friendly too – provided the right animals are kept in the right numbers in the right ways. The Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PFLA) and Compassion in World Farming are among our closest allies. The PFLA of course promotes livestock (of the right kind, raised in the right ways) while Compassion in general leans towards vegetarianism — but both agree on the need for good, kind husbandry.
For although vegans and vegetarians argue on several fronts – health, ecology, the economy – I suggest that the only vegan argument that really stands up to close scrutiny is the moral/ metaphysical one; questioning whether we, human beings, have a right to raise animals for our own convenience. The short answer to this (I suggest) is that if course we don’t – which raises the even broader question that has resounded through the last few hundred years in both Christian and Muslim theology: should human beings lay claim to rights of any kind?
If we remove the question of rights from the argument or at least put it on hold (in the pending file: to be discussed), then the strongest remaining argument for livestock in the end is one of moral pragmatism. We cannot survive on this Earth without incommoding other creatures to some extent but, as the Jains and others point out, we should always strive to do least harm. Demonstrably, agriculture that includes some animals – appropriately kept! — can provide more and better food for us with less damage to the biosphere as a whole than horticulture and arable alone could do. But we should not keep too many animals – and need therefore to decide how many is enough; and we do have to keep them in ways that are ecologically sound; and always as kindly as possible.
As many have been pointing out for many a decade (not the least being Kenneth Mellanby of Monks Wood Experimental Station in the 1970s) we can always keep modest numbers of livestock without feeding them the kind of food that we could eat ourselves, and with increased biological efficiency (which means the farming needs less room). We merely need to do what was traditional: keep pigs and poultry as sweepers-up of wastes and surpluses, and more or less confine sheep and cattle to land that is too steep or rocky or high or cold or hot or shady or wet or dry for sensible horticulture and arable. At least since the 1970s more and more nutritionists have been pointing out that human beings don’t need vast quantities of protein (which in the 1950s was widely considered to be de rigueur) and certainly don’t need a lot of animal protein – although, many said, meat is a good and often essential source of micronutrients such as zinc (and of other things that are less obvious). Some too (including N W “Bill” Pirie of Rothamsted, in the 1970s) pointed out that all the world’s greatest cuisines (Persia, Turkey, China, India, Italy – and indeed the traditional cuisines of Britain, Germany, Poland, France and so on) traditionally used meat sparingly – primarily as garnish or as stock. Meat qua meat is reserved for the occasional feast – and the whole animal is eaten, with offals of all kinds among the most prized.
So the idea that really should be pushed is that of food culture. If the average Brit or American or Australian and their intellectual leaders knew and cared half as much about food as the traditional Italian peasant then we would have no hang-ups about meat. We would be content to produce modest quantities in ecologically sound and kindly ways (although, alas, peasant husbandry is often very unkind) and turn it into the world’s finest dishes. The future does not belong to the vegan and still less to the meat-substitute techie but to the gourmet. What the world really needs is to re-learn how to cook. Agricultural strategy should be led by agroecological farmers and good cooks and not, as now, by big business, aided and abetted by Harvard economists and politicians. Of course, meat produced in eco-friendly and kindly ways must be expensive – too expensive for all but the richest in a country like ours – but this is not because production costs are too high. It is mainly because there is such grotesque (and increasing) inequality of income worldwide that the poorer among us can hardly afford anything; and in Britain the cost of houses is kept artificially high by limiting the supply in the way that De Beer’s limits the price of diamonds, to increase the profits of those who control the markets, so many are forced to choose between housing and food. If we had an economy that wasn’t flawed to the point of wickedness the price of meat would not be a problem.
All this has been obvious for decades as some of us have been pointing out but still “the media” and organizers of conventional public discussions lazily focus on the ancient argument of vegans/vegetarians versus omnivores – ground so well trodden that no fresh thinking is required (argument by numbers: cut ‘n’ paste). So it was that an otherwise largely pleasing account of the ORFC in The Guardian online focused on a debate sponsored by the old-style Oxford Farming Conference at the Oxford Union on the first night of the ORFC conference. There, the marvellously articulate George Monbiot apparently persuaded at least 100 farmers who began by being sceptical that livestock is indeed a bad thing. George is an excellent fellow and highly intelligent who has spoken at the ORFC and is more than welcome to do so again but in this, as in many (most?) big issues agricultural, he is wrong. The trouble is that the easy, routine, vegetarians-omnivore debate that is trotted out decade after decade detracts from the much more promising, more true, and only slightly more complicated arguments that have to do with agroecology and food culture. We need governments, intellectuals, and all “the media” to take far more interest in food and farming than they generally do, and get stuck in to what really matters. The things that really matter are being discussed and acted upon by thousands of groups and many millions of individuals worldwide but most of the remaining billions and most of our administrative and intellectual leaders just don’t seem to take enough interest and the conventional media do not help.
A footnote on all this: on the day after the ORFC, a scientist from Rosslyn Institute in Scotland excitedly told the BBC’s Today programme that he and his colleagues were now using gene editing to produce chickens that are meatier (which presumably means leaner) and grow faster than any we have seen so far (though they already reach supermarket weight in six weeks). This, we were invited to believe, is self-evidently good. In truth it is ridiculous. We simply don’t need more meat. What we do eat should be as flavoursome as possible, or there is no point in it, and super-lean chicken of the kind that is already produced requires the eleven secret herbs and spices that Colonel Sanders plies it with or it wouldn’t taste of anything at all. Properly raised chicken might cost nearer £30 than £3.00 – but in a food culture that wasn’t hopelessly debased chicken would not be a fast food but an occasional treat, as it always was in the past; and in an economy that wasn’t designed expressly to make the rich richer everyone would be able to afford the occasional treat. Science itself is being and has already been horribly corrupted and misdirected by the Zeitgeist.
Farming and Wildlife
But there were sessions at the ORFC which showed that science really can work for the good of humanity and the biosphere. I attended two such – both on wildlife conservation. (Alas, with seven simultaneous strands, no-one can attend everything, though it’s all recorded on the website and quite a lot is filmed).
In the first, Dave Goulson of Sussex University and David Macdonald of Oxford University talked to playwright Sarah Woods about the horrendous decline of flying insects revealed by studies in German wildlife reserves – areas that ought to be the safest: a horrendous 75% fall in 27 years. Entomologist Dave Goulson (known in particular for his work on bumblebees) was involved in the survey which shows beyond all doubt that the collapse of wild creatures is now beyond crisis point; and, since the survey relied on data from amateur enthusiasts as well as from professionals, it shows once more the value of pro-am partnerships in scientific research. David Macdonald, founder of WildCru and primarily a mammalogist, described the state of the world’s wildlife as “approximately catastrophic”, with agriculture a prime threat. He and his colleagues have done a great deal to show what kind of on-farm conservation measures work well and what work less well – and it’s clear in this as in all things that the devil lies in the detail. For example, each kind of animal, whether hedgehogs in an English hedgerow or leopards in the African bush, see the landscape through their own eyes and pick their own routes through it and whether or not it’s useful to them depends in large measure on what obstacles they encounter along the way – obstacles that may not be apparent to us without detailed study. On the other hand, there is only so much that an individual wildlife-friendly farm can achieve. If we really take wild creatures seriously, we must think at least on the scale of landscapes, and for some purposes (migrating birds for instance) on the scale of the whole world. In this as in all things, cooperation is crucial to success.
In the second wildlife session Devon/Cornwall farmer Derek Gow of Derek Gow Consultancy, Estate Manager Jake Fiennes from South Norfolk, and farmer Chris Jones from Cornwall asked how farms can help to restore specific wild species. Derek Gow has a special interest in voles – the principal small mammals of farmland, near the bottom of the food chain that leads up to foxes, owls, hawks, and falcons; and both are very involved with beavers. Both showed (like Dave Goulson and David Macdonald) that nothing worthwhile can be achieved without appropriate mindset. The extirpated word “spirituality” must be brought to the fore. We can after all do without beavers – and the choice to introduce them in the end is aesthetic, moral, and metaphysical. The materialistic appeal to “ecosystem services” is not by itself sufficient argument. That said, beavers make a tremendous contribution to the landscapes and the biosphere both of North America and mainland Europe by creating waterways that harbour some of the greatest diversity of creatures to be found anywhere outside tropical forests or coral reefs. On the more material front, as Chris Jones described, by slowing the passage of rainfall to the sea the dams of beavers hugely reduce the risk of flood.
The details of the natural history and the science are endless and endlessly intriguing (please do visit the various websites) but the general take-home lesson must be that nature conservation can succeed only if tackled at three levels. Of course it needs good technique — craftsmanship; husbandry. It also needs very good science that often includes large-scale and long-term experiments but also requires huge amounts of data that in practice can be collected only through the combined efforts of everyone, professional and accomplished amateur, who gives a damn and will put in the time. Then, the sine qua non, it needs the appropriate mind-set: moral, which means compassionate; and metaphysical, which really means spirituality. Without this – the feeling that our fellow creatures matter — why take the trouble in the first place? Materialist and anthropocentric arguments taken alone – “What’s in it for us?” — will not do, and an economy geared simply to the generation and concentration of material wealth certainly will not.
So – were the many good things discussed at the 2018 ORFC really the harbingers of sea-change? It would be good to think so. But somehow the general state of the world, and the mindset of the world’s most powerful leaders, and the squabbles and turf wars that now count as politics, bring to mind the world-weary words of the mid-19th century Parisian journalist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “Le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose”
Colin Tudge, January 8 2018