Can organic farming feed the world?

Emphatically yes, says Colin Tudge; and, in the long run, nothing else can. But we cannot leave food and farming to the present-day powers-that-be.

More or less everything that we are told about food and farming by the oligarchs who dominate our lives – the government, the corporates, big finance, and large but mercifully not all sections of academe — is untrue, or at least is seriously misleading. Thus:

(1): In 2011 in a Foresight Report called The Future of Food and Farming the British government told us that we (humanity) need to produce 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising numbers and rising “demand” – especially for “meat”. Since then some politicians and others have raised the ante and suggested that we will need to double output by 2100. The emphasis, in short, must be on production, production, and ever more production.

(2): We are further assured that this huge increase can be achieved only by raising, yet further, the already prodigious output of our cereals and livestock, to be achieved by ever more intensive breeding and nutrition. Thus we need wheat that yields at least 10 tonnes per hectare on average, about three times the yield of 100 years ago (the British average is already eight tonnes per hectare). We need cattle that give at least 10,000 litres (2000 gallons) per lactation, which basically means per year – which many do already: about six times as much as a wild cow would produce for her calf, and three times more than would have satisfied most farmers of the early 20th century. Broiler chickens are already expected to reach supermarket weight at six weeks and we need to make them even faster, and/or bigger – and cheaper.

(3): We also need the highest of high tech.  Meat substitutes, made from soya or fungi are already commonplace but we could, we are told, by-pass the need to raise whole organisms and simply culture animal cells en masse in the laboratory. The food industry is working on it.

Above all, we are told, we need GMOs: “genetically modified organisms”, tailor-made by genetic engineering. GM soya, maize, and rape (what the Americans call “canola”) is already sweeping the world. GM crops are not yet grown commercially in Britain and mainland Europe but are freely imported from the US and elsewhere and the biotech lobby is tremendously strong and its arguments are seductive and many politicians are taken in by them. Especially amenable are those with no scientific background who want to appear avant garde, up to date, modern. Tony Blair was a positive zealot and so too is Lord Dick Taverne who studied ancient history at Balliol and became a QC and founded “Sense about Science” in 2002. They, in common alas with most scientists, seem to know very little about the philosophy of science. They do not apparently realize that it has severe limitations, and does not and cannot lead us to omniscience, and that exciting ideas do not necessarily lead to good strategies. In truth it is very hard to find any clear examples of GM crops that have been of unequivocal benefit to humankind. Almost always they serve mainly or entirely to make rich people richer (the biotech companies and big industrial farmers) but they solve no problems that really need solving, and (despite denials) are causing enormous collateral damage. But then, modern western agriculture is entirely profit-driven and it’s the rich who make the rules, so GMs are becoming de rigueur.

We are told, of course, that GM crops can and are bred specifically to be pest- and disease-resistant and so can out-yield conventional types without the protection of pesticides. But most popular are the GM crops that are herbicide resistant – enabling farmers to spray their fields not exactly with abandon but without too much restraint, to kill the weeds without killing the crops. The GM seeds and the herbicide are sold as a package. (There is much more on all this in my article in the Colin’s Corner section of the Campaign for Real Farming website, called “GMOs: Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers”. The piece is more than five years old – it was posted on 28/12/2012 – but the answers I and others were calling for are still not forthcoming. See www.campaignforrealfarming.org).

(4): Then, we’re told, we need to reduce the farm labour force worldwide to make it more “efficient”. Efficiency, after all, is measured in money: as output per worker. If the workforce is reduced and the remaining workers produce as much or more than before, then that must be efficient, mustn’t it? And efficiency is good, is it not?  The antithesis, after all, is inefficiency, which means waste – which is obviously bad, is it not? Who can doubt that?

Therefore, we are told – it has been official policy for at least 100 years – the whole world should strive to industrialize its farming. As far as possible it must replace farm labour (stroppy; inefficient; gets sick) with machines, industrial chemistry (fertilizers, antibiotics, insecticides, acaricides, nematicides, fungicides, herbicides), and of course biotech. Machines don’t deal easily with mixtures of crops and livestock so farming must as far as possible be monocultural – just one crop, or beast, at a time. All should be increased to achieve economies of scale: combine harvesters as big as a small house; trucks the size of small war-ships; small fields merged into bigger and bigger fields and small farms merged into vast estates. So it is that there are farms in East Anglia of 1000 hectares-plus (more than 2500 acres) with just one full-time employee (though many rely on seasonal gangs of East European and Asian immigrants of conveniently dubious legal status, bussed in to do the fiddly bits). There are farms in the Ukraine bigger than Kent. This too is modernity.

Monocultural farms that produce vast quantities of just one thing at a time cannot of course feed local populations who do not live by chickens or maize or rapeseed alone. Instead they must treat all their crops and animals as commodities to be produced on the largest scale and sold into the global market where they are processed, packaged, and distributed by evermore labyrinthine routes to the far corners of the Earth.

So it is, among other things, that according to the University of Reading Britain’s farm labour force has dropped from around 700,000 in 1984 (when industrialization was already well advanced) to 526,000 in 2009 – 1.7% of the total workforce; and numbers continue to drop. In the 10 years between 2006 and 2016 the number of dairy farmers in Britain fell by 50% from 21,000 to 10,500 – and again, the decline continues.

All this is necessary, we are told. It keeps costs down and people above all “demand” cheap food. Already in Britain one million people a year must resort to food banks and if we farmed any differently, the figure would be higher.

(5): As for organic farming – don’t be ridiculous! If all the world farmed organically food would cost a fortune and half the world would starve.  Either that or we would all have to be vegans, and austere vegans at that, living on fibrous bread and lentil soup. Sales of organic produce are going up in the UK but in 2016 sales of organic accounted for only 1.5% of the total spent on food and drink.  Organic is elitist; strictly for the well-heeled, elite middle class. To recommend it for the world at large is simply to be irresponsible. Only high-tech/ industrial farming can deliver, on the largest possible scale, driven by the competition of the neoliberal, global “free” market.

The above five points are a fair summary of official Defra policy and are what you will hear from most of the important-looking people who appear on public platforms and on TV to tell us what’s what. Most of it is untrue. Whether this is because the people who are informing the rest of us are themselves ill-informed, or because they are deliberately concealing what they know to be the truth, I do not know. I suspect it is a mixture of both. Either way it is deeply reprehensible.

Thus, briefly, to take the five points one by one:

(1). It simply isn’t true that we need more food. According to Prof Hans Herren, President of the Millennium Institute, Washington DC, the world already produces enough food for 14 billion people. This is twice the present world population and, since the UN tells us that world numbers should level out around 2050 at about 10 billion, it is 40% more than we should ever need. The continued emphasis on production has nothing to do with real need, and everything to do with commerce.

You can easily check these figures for yourself.  Thus Google tells us that the world produces around 2.5 billion tonnes of cereal per year and since one tonne contains enough energy and protein for three people that’s enough macronutrient for 7.5 billion. But cereals account for only half our food – the other half comes from pulses, nuts, tubers, fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy, and fish. So the total is enough for 14 billion-plus.

At present, says the UN, a billion people still go hungry. But that has everything to do with inequality and general disruption and nothing to do with total amount. In truth the emphasis must switch from production to sustainability and resilience, and to care of the biosphere, human and animal welfare, social justice and general kindness. Industrial agriculture is anything but sustainable — it is a major cause of global warming and the prime cause of the mass extinction that now threatens 50% of the world’s species. It is certainly not kind, or just, and has little to do with human wellbeing. For while a billion go hungry a billion more suffer “diseases of excess”. The world population of people with diet-related diabetes now exceeds the total population of the United States (by some margin).

(2). Given that we already produce twice as much food as we need the 2000-gallon-plus cow, which commonly suffers mightily from mastitis and lameness and is usually slaughtered after two or three lactations (traditional dairy cows commonly managed 10 or more), is simply unnecessary. So too are 10-tonne per hectare cereals. Such yields year after year rapidly exhaust the soil and it’s reckoned now that many fields in East Anglia will not be farmable, at least for cereals, for more than another 30 years or so.

(3). Appropriate technology that truly makes life easier is certainly worthwhile, and some appropriate technology is indeed high-tech – like the mobile ‘phone or solar panels. But much of today’s agricultural high tech – including the much vaunted GMOs as outlined above – is not appropriate at all: not needed, and often very damaging. There is a huge and growing literature on this not only in polemical articles but in scientific journals (not all scientists are on the side of big business).

The biggest point perhaps is that big high-tech monocultural farms are not the most productive – certainly not over time. A growing literature shows that small mixed farms, well-managed, can be at least as productive in any one year as the big monocultures, and generally are more productive when measured over decades precisely because the mixture of crops and animals leads to resilience, so the mixed farms are better able to resist set-backs – droughts, late frosts, etc. Mixed crops and livestock also are far more resistant to disease, and simply don’t need mega-inputs of pesticides and antibiotics.

(4). “Efficiency” is a horribly abused concept. Cash-efficiency depends entirely on economic context which in truth is highly contrived (although we are told that prices are determined by the dispassionate forces of the “free” market). Thus industrial farming is entirely dependent on oil and is cheaper than the traditional kind only because oil is still available, for the time being, and prices are regulated to make sure it is still affordable (just). Perhaps even more to the point: industrial farming seems cheap because the collateral damage is largely uncosted. Though industrialization worldwide is generally less advanced than in Britain it has still driven many millions of small farmers to the wall such that, according to the UN, a billion people now live in urban slums – and it’s a fair bet that many or most of them are disenfranchised farmers and their families. The cost in human misery and (sometimes) in Aid and the rest is not attributed to industrial farming. Neither is the cost in non-cash terms (or even in cash terms) of mass extinction. The collateral damage is written off as “externalities”. Nothing to do with me, Guv.

Neither, when you analyse it, is the industrially produced food sold in supermarkets anything like as cheap as it may seem to me; and neither can the cost be laid at the feet of the farmer. In truth with the industrialized food chain the farmer gets less than 20% of the retail price and his poor benighted employees who are regularly thrown out in the name of “efficiency” probably account for only 10% of the retail price (at most). The 80% that goes on big machines and fancy forecourts and packaging and razzmatazz and layers and layers of managers and shareholders and bankers who lend the money to make it all possible, is OK. It contributes to GDP even if it doesn’t contribute to human wellbeing and does enormous harm to the biosphere, and increased GDP means economic growth and what else matters?

(5). In truth, organic farming, so despised by the powers that be, dismissed as an elitist myth, ticks all the boxes that really matter. Well managed organic farms can be at least as productive as “conventional” farms, that do use artificial fertilizers and pesticides and the rest. The produce is of course free of pesticide residues and generally is high in essential vitamins and minerals. Organic farms employ more people – which in this populous world should be seen as a good thing; and with appropriate technology, the jobs they provide can be highly agreeable, and sociable – the basis of truly fulfilling careers.

It has long been obvious to me that the oligarchs who dominate our lives have long since lost the plot, seduced by technological quick fixes and neoliberal algorithms, and, quite simply, are not on our side. We can’t afford to leave farming to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The word “agriculture” has been air-brushed out of the department’s title – I suspect in anticipation of a time when British agriculture itself will be air-brushed out, like coal-mining, because Brazilians and African have more sunshine and can grow what we need more cheaply. Neither can we afford to leave agricultural science to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council – again no reference to agriculture, which is now officially perceived, apparently, to be a branch of biotech. We, people at large, Ordinary Joes, need to take matters into our own hands.

Our Campaign for Real Farming (as cited above) and our College for Real Farming and Food Culture (http//:collegeforrealfarming.org) are dedicated to this end. My latest book, Six Steps Back to the Land (Green Books 2016) discusses ways in which people who may have never thought much about farming can get involved. Other groups in this country and many more in the world at large are on the case too. So please do take a look. Britain needs a million more farmers asap, and is in dire and urgent need of land reform.

But all this depends on a sound food culture – people at large need to give a damn – and although we can’t all be farmers we can certainly take a serious interest in food: buy only from growers and farmers who are doing the job in the right way and, vitally, re-learn out to cook. It’s not quite too late to bring the world out of its tailspin but only we can do it. Governments and big industry and the world’s most powerful financiers are looking the other way.

Colin Tudge, January 30 2018

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