Of course, people in positions of influence do take agriculture seriously. They spend hours and hours and hours on it – many spend their entire careers – and billions and billions of our (taxpayers’) money. But the world is dominated by an oligarchy, and the people who collectively form that oligarchy – governments, corporates, financiers, and their chosen academic advisers — don’t really see the significance of farming and don’t truly engage with it.
To British governments, particularly of the neoliberal kind — all of them since circa 1980, including New Labour – agriculture is merely irksome: a not very efficient contributor to and sometimes a drain on GDP. After all, the ratio of money invested to money returned falls somewhere short of hair-dressing. I am reliably informed that Tony Blair’s government seriously considered abandoning farming altogether, just as Mrs Thatcher’s government polished off the coal industry, and for the same reasons: it was cheaper in the short term to buy what we needed from abroad (and of course, for the time being, it still is). The A in Defra does not, of course, stand for “agriculture”, as might be inferred, but for “affairs” as in Rural Affairs. Perhaps that was in preparation for the day when agriculture had been done away with; it would save re-designing the stationery. (“Thrift, Horatio”, as Hamlet said in an eerily similar context). Defra was set up in 2001 and of the eight secretaries of state so far only two — David Miliband and the present Michael Gove — have taken any serious interest in it, although neither is any kind of agriculturalist.
Exhortations from the previous three Secretaries of State — Owen Paterson, Liz Truss and Angela Leadsom — to raise more beef and pork to sell to the Chinese, and indeed (from Truss) to make more cheese, don’t seem fully to get to grips with the main issues.
Big industry, the second great player in the oligarchy, sees agriculture like everything else simply or at least primarily as a “business opportunity” – an opportunity to make money; and since the neoliberal economy is intended to be maximally competitive (barring the odd cartel and tax concession) each industry is obliged to make the most possible profit, or else lose out to those who do. So industrial agriculturalists strive to produce the most stuff for the least money and call that “efficiency”, which they see as the great desideratum. The perceived need to maximize output (“pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap”) and to cut costs primarily by cutting labour have been the great drivers of agricultural strategy these past few decades.
Financiers, the third great players in the world’s affairs, aren’t interested in producing anything at all but just go where the money is (which, after all, is their job) and in matters agricultural the money as things stand is mainly in land. There is no reason why average farmland should now cost £25K a hectare except that rich people find it convenient to invest in it – and the rest of us too of course willy-nilly through our pension schemes; and the cost of land perhaps affects what is done on it, and by whom, more than anything else. The very high land-prices coupled with the modern zeal for larger and larger units makes it very difficult for newcomers to gain a foothold, and without fresh blood all industries are moribund. The high cost of land means too that all existing farmers who do not own their land outright are obliged to focus primarily on profit just to stay in business. It is possible in the modern economy to focus on animal welfare and wildlife friendliness and food quality and general sociality and some do manage it — but it is very, very difficult to do so without going bust. It should be the job of governments to make it easy for good people to do good things but as things are they often make it harder. It really is odd for example that organic farmers must pay to be recognized as such although all are free within broad limits to base their entire farm practice on industrial chemistry.
Finally, the fourth great player, academe, and particularly science which of course is crucial in a crowded world, is itself dominated by big business, on whom in these neoliberal privatized days it is increasingly dependent for funding. The world should be focusing on agroecology as indeed it should have been for some decades past — treating individual farms as ecosystems and agriculture as a whole as a positive contributor to the biosphere. In particular, we should right now be focusing on organic farming (which certainly could provide most and probably all of the world’s food); diversity (of habitats, species, and genes); a humane, ecological approach to livestock (ruminants and other herbivores fed on pasture and browse, both as natural as possible; with pigs and poultry fed on leftovers and surpluses); and agroforestry, which has the potential hugely to ameliorate and largely to solve the increasing problems of drought and flood and, practiced on a global scale, to reduce global warming.
Instead, commerce-driven technophilic science is focused on GMOs – so much so that the Royal Society no less, that universally acknowledged arbiter of scientific excellence and good sense, has been actively campaigning to promote them, even though GMOs these past 30 years have not been shown to bring any unequivocal benefits that could not have been provided by traditional means of a kind that are known to be perfectly safe (provided of course that the traditional approaches had received enough support and so could continue to develop). In a sense, like the financiers, the Fellows of the Royal Society are being true to themselves, and bringing to the table what they are good at. The molecular biology that lies behind genetic engineering is truly wondrous – science at its most dazzling. But in the grand scheme of things – if the ambition truly is to “feed the world” without wrecking the rest – the emphasis on GMOs is misguided (and so in this regard is the Royal Society. A little humility would not go amiss).
We might note in passing too that Michael Gove’s new Agricultural Bill, although it says some encouraging things, makes no specific mention of organic farming or of agroforestry. Mr Gove likes to give the impression that he listens to everybody but his agenda nonetheless is and presumably always will be that of a right-wing neoliberal. As always, the square peg of agriculture (which really matters) must be rammed into the round hole of economic dogma (which doesn’t).
It would take an entire, dedicated university (we’re working on it; see below!) to spell out all the things that need doing and how they need to be done and why the things that need doing are so far at odds with the status quo – but here are a few tasters:
Agriculture affects, and is affected by, everything else.
For starters – the overwhelming point – very few people in high places or indeed among the urban majority in general seem even to begin to appreciate just how important agriculture is. It is at the heart of all human affairs, and its deficiencies are heavily implicated in, or are the prime cause of, all the world’s ills, from misery and mental depression and chronic diseases of all kinds and general unwellness to civil unrest and war. It is also a prime cause of the ills that beset the biosphere (the word “environment”, which merely means “surroundings”, and tends to be equated with stage scenery and real estate, should be expurgated) including global warming and the current mass extinction — which rarely if ever gets a mention in mainstream political speeches, although it is one of the most significant facts and indictments of our age. Obviously, too, farming is our chief source of food, by far – and the only source remotely able to sustain present and projected numbers. We cannot afford to let it falter even for a week or so. Agriculture is also, still, the world’s biggest employer by far.
Agriculture could solve all employment problems
Farming is not only the world’s greatest employer; it always should be because no other industry is remotely capable of employing all the people who need jobs. Furthermore, it is the only industry that could employ large numbers of people usefully: constructively rather than destructively; not as serfs but in truly satisfying careers. For the more people there are working on the land – provided they know what they are doing – the more they can focus on the essential minutiae, which make it possible to raise food in sufficient quantities without wrecking everything else, and indeed in harmony with wild nature and with human beings at large. This is not a Luddite point (Luddite in the pejorative sense). The new generation of agroecological farmers can and should make use of all the technologies available, provided those technologies are appropriate (in the sense described by E F Schumacher in Small is Beautiful and Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality) and can truly contribute to the grand cause of agroecology. Very smart, discriminating, small and lightweight weed-picking robots could have a place (although I am happy to be corrected on this. Some people like weeding after all, for the peace of mind it can bring; and others point out that there are other ways of controlling weeds besides wiping them out).
But, for example, although Jeremy Corbyn in his excellent address to the Labour Party Conference in 2018 – praised even by at least one Tory MP – promised to find 400,000 jobs in “green” industries he failed to suggest that farming could and should be one of them; yet it would be desirable to recruit about a million ecologically aware new farmers right now, as a matter of urgency, with more to follow, even to begin to put British farming back on an a sensible track, able to provide good food for us all without wrecking what’s left of the biosphere. In the world’s poorest countries, which in reality will never be industrialized to the point that Britain is, it probably would be best all round if up to 50% of people worked on the land. The idea that all countries should “develop” in the way that the present industrial countries did in their profligate and imperialist past is just no longer tenable. So the present Third World norm – about 60% of people on the land — is probably a little high but is surely in the right ball-park. The pressure from the west to reduce the labour force in Third World countries in the name of modernity is absolutely inappropriate. In Britain now only about 1% of people work on the land and if India copied Britain’s agriculture as they have sometimes been encouraged to do in the name of “development” (and big business) then half a billion people would be out of work, roughly equivalent to the total population of the EU. The UN tells us that a billion people now live in urban slums. If all the world adopted Britain’s way of farming it would be two billion. At least.
Agriculture as now practiced is a prime cause of all the great disasters that are now befalling the biosphere and therefore, with a radical change of approach and in virtually all policies, it could contribute hugely to their solution. Green policies did feature in Jeremy Corbyn’s Conference speech (at the time of writing the Tory Conference has yet to pass comment on such matters, if it ever gets round to them) but, as politicians and the other oligarchs generally do, he focused more or less exclusively on global warming and on energy, and especially on wind and solar power (although, controversially, he did not exclude nuclear). He did not mention the crucial roles that agriculture could and should play in putting things right. But then, neither does anyone else in the positions of greatest influence, as far as I can see.
Thus, as all the stats show, farming worldwide – and especially industrial farming – is a prime contributor to global warming; which, together with mass extinction, is the great environmental disaster of our age, and therefore of all ages to come. Farming could, though, be a great ameliorator – first by raising soil carbon (the role of which seems to be to be seriously underestimated); secondly, by shifting away as rapidly and decisively as possible from oil-dependent industrial agriculture to agroecology; and thirdly, in particular, by increasing, dramatically, the number of trees, not exclusively but largely by agroforestry.
Instead, the grand debate that the world ought to be having on agricultural strategy and practice is reduced to a search for scapegoats. Cattle (and other ruminants but mainly cattle) have been singled out as the villains in the piece – belching out methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) as they graze. This has brought big industry, scientists and technologists of the gung-ho kind, and vegans/vegetarians together in unholy alliance. Big industry wants to bring all cattle indoors in giant CAFOs (the full name “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” is appropriately hideous) with thousands of animals fed primarily on cereal and imported soya (all produced with copious inputs of oil and gas, but never mind). The exhalations of the animals are then purged — “scrubbed” — of greenhouse gases (GHGs) with high tech. It is taken for granted that high-tech solutions must be best because high tech means progress (doesn’t it?) and of course high tech is profitable, at least for the few who control it. The vegans and vegetarians want to ban cattle altogether, at least for meat.
Far too little attention is given to the point, first brought into the public domain to my knowledge by Graham Harvey in Grass-fed Nation, that grassland grazed by well-managed cattle and sheep may sequester more carbon than is released – ie that well-managed ruminants can reduce atmospheric GHGs. I like to point out that throughout the Miocene and Pliocene epochs (from about 20 to three million years ago) there were more grazing herbivores (elephants and horses as well as ruminants) than at any other time (billions and billions of them) yet the world grew steadily cooler, culminating in the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. To be sure, the main reasons for this were cosmological – but the billions and billions of mega-grazers clearly did little or nothing to arrest the steady fall in temperature. Clearly, much more research is needed to monitor the effects of well-managed grazing on the balance of carbon that is released as methane vs carbon sequestered — and some research is taking place, but nothing like enough. Instead the pro-grazers (traditionally-inclined cattle farmers) and the anti-grazers (vegans and industrialists) are locked in often snarling conflict with little prospect of resolution. But then: CAFOs are profitable and so is veganism, and in a modern western democracy we should let a hundred flowers bloom, should we not? (Provided of course that all the flowers are profitable. But then, if they aren’t, they can simply be allowed to go bust. The market can always be relied upon to sort things out. One way or another).
One of the predicted consequences of global warming was and is for more extreme and unpredictable swings in weather with longer and more extreme periods of both drought and flood – a prediction that seems to be coming spectacularly to pass. Even the doubters in the southern United States must be thinking again as their houses are washed away. Again there is much focus on civil engineering but again, the biggest contribution by far could be made by ecological means, and particularly by farming: more trees (Britain could do with at least a three-fold increase) of the right species in the right places, with obvious emphasis on agroforestry; deep-rooted crops; and changes in topography and crops – contour planting, swales, ponds, bore-holes, and so on. Again, I have never heard any of this discussed in mainstream political circles. As always, the prevailing mindset leads politicians and indeed all the oligarchs towards measures (I won’t call them “solutions” because they aren’t) that are high tech and potentially profitable. Solutions based on biology, traditional practice, common sense, and values apart from those of money — social, aesthetic, moral, spiritual — are not on the mainstream agenda. After all, politicians and intellectuals justify their existence by doing things differently and in ways that ensure that they themselves continue to be seen to be necessary.
Wildlife conservation needs wildlife-friendly farming
Agriculture is implicated up to the hilt in the other mega-threat and disaster of our age – that of mass extinction: at least a half of all other species (perhaps around four million out of an estimated eight million) could well be extinct by the end of the 21st century; not yet the biggest but by far the quickest mass extinction in the Earth’s long history. Again farming is a prime cause – and again, at least in large part, it could be a large part of the solution. For farming currently occupies a third of all land on Earth including most of the most fertile land. Most wild creatures favour fertile lowlands too but they are banished or indeed wiped out by industrial farming, so for the most part wildlife is shoved into the margin lands; and industrial farming for good measure is a major pollutant of all other habitats, including the oceans.
It seems to me that unless farming is as wildlife-friendly as can be managed then the cause of wildlife conservation is dead in the water or at least is holed below the water-line. We need wilderness too, of course, but wildlife-friendly farming and wildlife-friendly cities matter at least as much, and perhaps even more. (It’s amazing what’s possible. Apparently the greatest concentration of leopards in the world is in Mumbai. They feed mainly on feral pigs. This isn’t a recommendation but it does show that even the most crowded cities can accommodate a surprising range of surprising species).
Overall, in farming, we need a spectrum of land-use that includes some element of land-sparing but is primarily one of land-sharing: some wilderness (as much as possible) at one end of the spectrum; some exclusively human domains at the other end (all extraneous life-forms should be barred from intensive care units, for example, and preferably from recording studios and restaurant kitchens); but in Britain at least most of the rest of the land should be as mixed as possible, with people living side by side with other species, both wild and domestic, as harmoniously as can be managed. Apart from creatures like Great Bustards, which are seriously stand-offish, most species seem to be far more flexible and accommodating than is commonly supposed. (Old Delhi used to be packed with vultures and eagles. I saw them for myself in the 1980s, roosting and nesting in the trees by the roadside).
Meat brings out the worst in people. I don’t mean it makes them aggressive like dogs with bones – typically, in traditional societies, meat is shared – but it provokes extreme arguments.
The arguments against livestock farming are of four main kinds: ecological (animals take up too much land and resource); welfare (a lot of livestock farming seems cruel and always has been, though modern intensive methods seem the cruellest of all); nutritional (some say meat is bad for us); and moral/metaphysical (we just don’t have a right to incarcerate, breed, and slaughter animals for own convenience). All of these arguments carry some weight but all except the last are answerable. The moral/metaphysical objection will always be with us.
Thus, there are plenty of stats to show that it takes ten times or so more land to produce a kilo or protein from cattle (say) than it does from wheat (say) and in general plants are far more efficient. But such stats do not tell the whole story. Most obviously, cattle and other herbivores could and should be raised on land that is too cold or wet or dry or steep to raise sensible quantities of cereal by less than heroic means, while pigs and poultry should be fed on surpluses and leftovers, so meat, milk and eggs can be produced in significant quantities in addition to whatever arable farming and horticulture can provide. Furthermore, I know of no system of agriculture or horticulture that would not benefit from the presence of livestock. The key measure is not protein or food energy per hectare but land equivalent ratio. Thus, a judicious mix of arable or horticulture with pigs or poultry, ideally with ruminants interspersed if the area is big enough, typically produces more human food per unit area than cereals or livestock would do alone. Again, provided the animals are deployed as supporting players and not as the raison d’etre of the whole operation, as in today’s industrial livestock farming, they increase the overall efficiency (when efficiency is measured in biological terms, which is what really matters). Intensive livestock farming as now conceived is just an offshoot of the arable industry – and that really is pernicious. It is profitable, but neoliberal dogma is no substitute for sound ecology (or morality).
Welfare must of course be paramount and if it is, then farming need not be cruel; certainly no worse, for most creatures, than the wild. Overall it’s the desire to maximize output and minimum cost without moral restraint that’s the problem, not livestock farming per se. To be sure, in the hard-nosed commercial attitude that now prevails (and is called “realistic”) maximum output at minimum cost is all that is deemed to matter. Moral finer feeling is deliberately excluded from neoliberal thinking.
The nutritional objection to meat falls short for similar reasons. If livestock is raised intensively on an unnaturally concentrated and uniform diet; and if meat is seen as the prime or the only worthwhile source of protein; and if animal fat is a prime source of calories — then perhaps (probably) this can be harmful (the jury is out). But if meat is produced only on feed that is as varied and as natural as possible and is consumed in commensurately modest amounts then in net it is surely beneficial: guaranteeing protein quality and providing a wide range of essential micro-nutrients, some of which are understood (such as zinc and calcium) and some of which have yet to be fully worked out (such as the roles of various unsaturated fats). As Ralph Waldo Emerson said (apparently he coined the expression, although it has the feel of ancient folklore) “moderation in all things”. It’s obvious really. Most of what we need to know is obvious.
The final objection – that we have no right to impose so decisively on the lives of fellow, sentient creatures – cannot, I think, be satisfactorily answered. There are two main moral/metaphysical arguments in defence of livestock farming and although both carry weight, neither is totally convincing.
The first argument says that we, human beings, did not ask to be born, but now we are here it is incumbent upon us to look after ourselves. Certainly, at least in Christian theology, suicide is seriously frowned upon. Our anatomy and physiology proclaim that we are designed or evolved to be omnivores and although we obviously can live exclusively on plants (many vegans have been extremely vigorous and long-lived) there can be no doubt that meat, eggs, milk and fish are at the least a very useful safety net (high quality protein, zinc, recondite fatty acids, etc). If veganism was perceived as a worldwide imperative (and as Immanuel Kant said, true moral principles should be universally applicable) them a great many people would be in trouble. We could argue that we have a duty to produce some meat to help ensure that the human race remains in good heart.
But we should not argue (I suggest) that we have a right to raise other animals just for our own convenience – or not, at least, in the sense of “God-given right”, which is the meaning it has in the first paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence (“We take it to be self-evident … etc”). “Rights” in general is a very dodgy concept at the best of times. As Martin Luther and John Calvin both insisted, all good things that come our way are by the grace of God. They are not our right. Eating meat and indeed being alive is a privilege, not a right.
All in all, the best moral/ metaphysical defence of livestock farming and meat-eating that I can come up with is what I understand to be the Buddhist and Jainist argument that while we are on this Earth we should contrive to do as little harm as possible to other people or other creatures. For this reason Buddhists and Jains are generally vegan. But if it is true that it is ecologically more sound to produce some livestock by means that are as natural as possible, rather than none at all, then we may do less harm to the biosphere as a whole by incorporating some livestock farming, than we would if we just grew crops. In short, no creature human or otherwise can survive without incommoding other creatures to some extent but we surely would do least harm to other creatures by farming in ways that are as ecologically pukka as possible: and that should include judicious use of livestock.
As outlined in my essay (III.1: Nutrition: the paradigm shift) in the College website (http://collegeforrealfarming.org/), present nutritional science is a mess and so too is food policy insofar as there is any. There are enthusiasts for high fat and low fat, high protein and minimal protein, high carbohydrate and virtually none at all, and all manner of claims for all kinds of ad hoc ingredients without which we are told we will surely die even though, in many cases, most people have never had access to them. Of course, most people who have ever been born in the history of the world are in fact dead so perhaps that is true, although common sense says it probably is not.
Overall, modern nutritional theory of the more plausible and justifiable kind tends to advocate “Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”; and this is exactly the balance we would get if we farmed in agroecological ways; and it is serendipitously the case that all the world’s greatest traditional cuisines from Italy to China and all places in between, do use meat sparingly while making lavish use of the plants that grow locally (notably wheat and rice); and all are wondrously mixed and various, not least because they make good use of whatever grows locally and naturally – cardamoms in Kerala, thyme and oregano in Italy, whelks in Whitstable (when there were any). So nutritional theory, agroecology, and the best gastronomy are perfectly in harmony. This should be written in six-foot letters over everyone’s desk who has anything to do with food policy.
At present the world produces enough food for 14 billion people – which is easy to work out from FAO stats that are freely available on the web. Thus, one kilo of wheat (or cereal in general) produces enough calories and protein to support one person for a day; so a tonne (1000 kilos) provides enough for three people for a year. The world now produces around 2.5 billion tonnes of cereal per year which would supply all the macronutrient needed for 7.5 billion people – roughly the present world population. But cereals provide only half of our total food intake – the rest comes from tubers, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, fungi etc. So overall we produce enough for 15 billion. Still there is no room for complacency and we need overall to farm far less profligately but the figures show nonetheless that the continuing focus on production, and the damage that so obviously results, is all unnecessary. Profitable, but not necessary. With proper farming — agroecological farming — we should be well able to support the 10 billion who we are told will be with us later in the century – and to go on supporting such numbers, if necessary, forever (which is what “sustainable” ought to mean).
Serendipitously, the UN tells us that 10-11 billion is as big as the world population is likely to get. The population curve continues to rise, but it is flattening — for it seems that when women in particular have the option they prefer to have fewer children rather than more. In centuries to come the population could and should diminish – not through coercion but because of people’s choice — so the problem of “feeding people” should grow less as the decades and centuries pass. But cool heads are needed which, alas, people in positions of influence often don’t have. Political leaders from all kinds of countries have tended to get pro-natalist from time to time. Vladimir Putin is currently encouraging Russians to have as many children as possible so as to out-populate the US. Women with 10 kids become national heroes. The women in China who are now exhorted to have only one child are the daughters and granddaughters of women who were encouraged under Mao Zedong to have as many as possible, so as to build an expendable army of 100 million. But the global population curve is flattening nonetheless, despite the zeal of charismatic leaders.
Present agricultural policy — production, production, production; ever more lethal pesticides and GMOs; the whole over-heated, over-hyped industrial caboodle — is unnecessary and is obviously very damaging. All we really need is to farm by tried and tested methods — agroecological practice is mostly founded in tradition, though further refinement, guided not least by ecological science, is always good — and to re-learn how to cook. This doesn’t sound bad at all — unless of course you happen to be among the oligarchy: an industrialist or a techy-minded investor or an industry-dependent academic or a politician who wants to appear hyper-modern. For all of them, the people who call the shots, the easy solutions that we know can work are very bad news indeed; and are deemed therefore to be “unrealistic”.
The price of food
Actually, it isn’t true that arguments about meat bring out the worst in people. Arguments about the price of food are worse still.
Thus, those who defend the status quo like to tell us that large-scale industrial farming and the food processing industry and the global marketing network that industrial farming gives rise to, culminating in the supermarket, keep food prices down. This is vital, the apologists say, for if we didn’t do things this way then a great many people would not be able to afford food at all. Already, even in affluent Britain (the fifth largest economy in the world, we are told), one million people now resort regularly to food banks.
Since big industrial farms and the elaborate processing and retail chains that they give rise to incorporate a great deal of material stuff that doesn’t seem strictly necessary, including vast quantities of pesticides and designer packaging and to-ing and fro-ing of more or less identical foodstuffs across continents and oceans and layer upon layer of managers and accountants and advertising executives all with BMWs, this does seem a little unlikely. It is true though that as things stand it is generally cheaper to buy food of a kind in Tesco than in the local organic food boutique. Still, though, impressions can be very deceptive. Thus, prices for fresh, local, organic vegetables, fruit, milk, and eggs at our local farmers’ market in Oxford (which my wife organized for several years) were if anything less than for their equivalent in the local high-street supermarkets – but the supermarkets can afford more publicity than farmers’ markets can so the word never got around. Common sense says that it should be cheaper to keep the food chains as short as possible, and so it would be were it not that oil is still relatively cheap and the giant companies who run the industrial food chains can drive hard bargains. Farmers now generally receive less than 20% of the supermarket retail cost of food. Labour may account for 50% or production costs but that is only 10% of the whole. It makes very little sense (does it?) to try to reduce ever further the cost of producing food – that is, the 20% — while leaving intact the 80% that is largely superfluous. It makes even less sense at all to try to cut costs by reducing labour. I would be grateful if the experts in high places with their firsts in economics could explain why the status quo is just and sensible.
However – and this is the crunch point which no major political party seems to have grasped – the main reasons why so many people can’t afford food in a country like Britain have nothing to do with the price of food. The most obvious, immediate reason why people must resort to food banks these days is that they, meaning most people, are forced to pay so much for housing. As Simon Fairlie pointed out recently in The Land (everyone should read The Land) British people 60 years ago spent an average of 11% of their income on the mortgage or on rent and about 30% of their income on food. Now it’s the other way around: at least 30% spent on housing (mortgages often swallow up 50%: one partner working exclusively to pay for the roof over the head) and about 11% on food. The difference is that the 30% that used to be spent on food went largely to farmers and farmworkers whereas the 30-50% now spent on the mortgage goes to bankers. But houses have now taken over from money as the principal nest-egg. They are no longer seen primarily as places to live but as vital security.
Houses now of course are notoriously expensive. The house that my own daughter bought a few years ago in South London cost almost exactly 100 times more than an almost identical house that I bought in the same area in the late 1960s (and since she bought it the price has gone up by another third). Houses like the one that I was brought up in in South London which my father bought on the wages of an army musician (albeit a very good one) now sell for more than a million. This prodigious hike has almost nothing to do with the increasing cost of building or even of land prices. Indeed it is possible now with modern materials and clever design to build chalet-style eco-friendly houses that I for one would be very happy to live in for around £30,000. (There are plenty of ads on the web). The enormous prices are caused primarily because, for the past few decades, that has been the intention. Houses, like agriculture, have been seen not primarily as a way of meeting essential needs but as another way of making money. The supply of housing has been restricted for the same reason that De Beer’s restricts the supply of diamonds. To keep the customers keen, demand must exceed supply. This seems to me to be wicked. Yet to reverse the trend we don’t have to be particularly radical or embrace the politics of Trotsky. Building houses need not be seen as political subversion. Harold Macmillan was an old-style patriarchal Tory but as housing minister in Churchill’s peacetime government he found the money to build 300,000 council houses per year. That will do.
It’s the same story with land. Ordinary farmland now costs around £25K per hectare only because land, like housing, and indeed everything else, is treated as a commodity by which smart people can make a very great deal of money which apparently is good for all of us because the money is said to “trickle down”. Except it doesn’t.
This leads us to the even bigger reason why so many people must resort to food banks: inequality. According to the Equality Trust the net income of the richest 10% in Britain is nine times higher per head than in the bottom 10% (£80K-plus versus £9.5K). Before taxes the richest 10% receive 24 times more than the poorest 10%. The discrepancy between the super-rich who have such enormous influence and the poorest is surely at least 1000-fold – several millions per year vs a few thousand. The gap between rich and poor in Britain, the Trust tells us, is very high compared to other developed countries.
As Kate Pickett and Richard G Wilkinson relate in The Spirit Level (Allen Lane, 2009) economic inequality, especially on such a scale, is perhaps the prime cause of social unrest and a huge contributor to personal depression (it’s not poverty per se that gets people down but the sense of injustice). More immediately to the point – it is impossible to fix a sensible price for food when some people earn so much less, or more, than others. Eleven per cent of earnings for the average person amounts to far more than the poorest can afford, and if the richest people ate what most people eat then the amount that most people now spent on food would be too small to register. There are bound to be such anomalies in a country that tolerates such inequality. With a more egalitarian economy worthy of a country that claims to be civilized everyone would be able to afford good food, and farmers could afford to produce that food by means that are kind and ecologically sound as most of them surely want to do.
But neoliberalism, presented by its advocates as the natural economy of democracy (because anyone in theory can join in the fun and success in the market depends on giving other people what they want) creates and exacerbates inequality. Certainly, inequality in Britain is far greater now than it was before 1980 when neoliberalism became the norm. The reason seems obvious. The neoliberal economy is based on the idea of the “free” market, which in turn is entirely materialistic: only money counts. Everyone (in theory!) is invited to compete with everyone else to make as much money as possible (maximizing profit by maximizing output and minimizing costs) and to bag as much as they can of the market share. In a maximally and indeed ruthlessly competitive market those who begin with a slight material advantage can use their bargaining power to pull even further ahead. So the rich are bound to get richer and increasingly to outstrip the less well-off.
The whole economic caboodle is distorted even further by finance capitalism, which trades not in real things but in money itself. The money does not even exist in physical form but it can be increased hand over fist just by playing the right games on a computer screen. Yet it can then be translated back into real goods, including land and buildings which people want and need. Furthermore, though Gordon Brown spoke of “prudence”, we have been positively encouraged these past 40 years or so to subscribe to the debt economy.
Individuals or indeed entire countries have been encouraged to borrow as much as possible — for all that matters, the theorists have assured us, is the continuing ability to pay the interest. So most of us are net borrowers paying out interest – and a few are net lenders, receiving the interest. Hence, again, the very rich must grow richer while the poor grow poorer. Architect turned economist Margrit Kennedy first pointed this out, as in Interest and Inflation (1990).
So it is that Britain’s and the world’s richest people by far are not those who do real and useful things (laying bricks, taking care of other people, teaching, growing food, taking care of the biosphere) but those who know how to manipulate the wealth created by those who do; and people who do useful things, like scientists and farmers (and indeed teachers), are increasingly obliged to tailor their skills and talents to the whims and demands of the richest. This can’t be right, can it?
So what’s to be done?
Time for Renaissance and the College for Real Farming and Food Culture
The global disaster and the anomalies are such, and the prevailing strategies are so at odds with what is really needed, that we, humanity, need to re-think everything from first principles; and since everything is connected to everything else we need to re-think everything in the light of everything else. We cannot hope to devise agriculture that provides everyone with good food (which is eminently possible) and looks after the biosphere and can continue to do so for thousands and millions of years to come (it’s absurd that we are now staring Armageddon in the face) if we focus only on agriculture. Agriculture of the kind we need is impossible without an appropriate economy (which cannot be based purely on an invitation to rich people to make themselves richer) and we cannot devise an appropriate economy without a sympathetic government. At the present stage of history we cannot hope to survive without science but science should never be taught without the philosophy of science (which tells us that science has limits) and without reference to politics (for political naivety leaves it open to corruption) or to moral philosophy (what is it actually right to do?). Neither should science or moral philosophy or anything else be taught without reference to metaphysics which asks for example where morality comes from and whether the material world that science so wondrously describes is all there is. And so on.
It is for such reasons that a few of us are now seeking to establish the College for Real Farming and Food Culture as outlined roughly on the College website. I say “roughly” because the website and the College itself are work in progress – and always must be, because there can be no final, definitive solution to the world’s problems; only a continuing and real desire make human societies more convivial, and individual lives more fulfilling, and to keep the biosphere as a whole in good heart, and to go on doing so. “Progress” should mean progress towards these ends. What now passes as progress, to a very large extent, is leading us in the opposite direction.
Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, September 29 2018