A Matter of Vocabulary

Colin Tudge writes (February 15 2020):

I reckon it is worth making clearer than we perhaps do the meanings of particular expressions and why the terms that we favour – REAL FARMING, derived from ENLIGHTENED AGRICULTURE, and also FOOD CULTURE and BIOSPHERE are (not to put too fine a point on it) the best i.e., all the other terms that are now fashionable – “Sustainable Agriculture”, “Regenerative Agriculture”, and “Re-wilding”, though they have their uses, fail to capture the essence of what’s really needed; and the term “Environment” absolutely should not, as now, be used to describe the natural world.

Thus, ENLIGHTENED AGRICULTURE (EA) aka REAL FARMING very specifically means:

“Agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, forever, with food of the highest quality, both nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the rest of the world”.
— and FOOD CULTURE is cuisine that is expressly designed to complement EA.

In practice, EA combines two key ideas:

  • AGROECOLOGY: individual farms should be designed as ecosystems and agriculture as a whole should as far as possible  contribute positively to the global biosphere; and
  • FOOD SOVEREIGNTY: which means in essence that every society should have control of its own food supply.

(I now reckon “”Economic Democracy” should be seen as a means to an end rather than as a core principle.)

Thus conceived, it seems to me, “Enlightened Agriculture” covers all bases: moral, spiritual, and ecological.

The other (more) fashionable terms, do not. Thus:

Sustainable Agriculture raises the question: what is it that is being sustained? It is possible, after all, to envisage systems of agriculture that are eminently sustainable and yet are sub-optimal – failing for example to provide the best possible food for the whole world population.

Similarly, although much that is excellent has been achieved in the name of Regenerative Agriculture the term implies that we are trying to restore something, which in turn implies that there was some past state that we should be trying to get back to. But what exactly is it that we are trying to get back to? When and where did the thing we are trying to get back to exist?

Re-wilding has its place –the world does need much more wilderness and some present-day farmland is hardly worth farming (at least by conventional means). But again re-wilding can lead to sub-optimal or positively inappropriate use of land and can indeed be deeply pernicious – a cloak for ideas that are positively harmful.

Thus, re-wilding implies that particular areas should not be used to grow food at all – which means that whatever farmland is left must become more productive (assuming we maintain present levels of production). This seems to justify high-tech, high-capital, industrial agriculture – very much at odds with the enlightened kind that the world really needs.

Re-wilding, too, often seems to be allied with veganism: the general idea being that livestock is a prime cause of the world’s ills. But Knepp – which is one of the most successful examples of re-wilding – uses domestic livestock (Longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs) as substitutes for the original aurochs and wild boars. This is sensible. Big herbivores are key players in all continental ecosystems (though not on small islands which cannot support them).

In both cases re-wilding leads to a general strategy of land-sparing: some land exclusively used for intensive agriculture, some for a kind of wilderness, and some for cities and roads etc. In fact, the world does need as much wilderness as possible and does need to use some land exclusively for humans (my favourite example is the intensive care unit, free of pigeons and silverfish) but most land should be multi-purpose – an exercise in land sharing. Above all we need wildlife-friendly farms and wildlife-friendly cities – and both can be very wildlife friendly if we put our mind to it.

Footnote 1: Most big governments like Britain’s present shower favour land-sparing because they like high-tech, high-capital farming because their whole mindset is one of neoliberal technophilia (profitable techno-fixes as opposed to re-thinking and re-structuring). Hence they tend to favour re-wilding to fill in the gaps between intensive (inc “factory”) farms and as a sop to the “environmentalists”; and besides, land sparing is easier, ecologically and bureaucratically. Thus George Monbiot makes common cause with the extreme Right Wing. How ironic is that?

Footnote 2: “Environment” literally means “surroundings” and tends in practice to means state scenery and/or real estate; an entirely anthropocentric concept. “Biosphere” means “living world” of which human beings are a part.

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