Agriculture – and the world – are in desperate need of reform on all fronts – but reform on its own is not enough and it is dangerous to suppose that it is.
Though there’s no definite date for it yet, the government’s long-awaited National Food Strategy for England is due to be published next year – and meanwhile, to help things along, the restaurateur and food critic Henry Dimbleby has been invited to prepare an independent commentary. Part I of his review is now published and Part II is due in the Spring of 2021, and the government will then respond with a White Paper.
Part I has much to commend it. Its tone is moderate, humane, and level-headed and it at least touches base with most of the main issues. Who could ask for more? Yet its very acceptability makes it all the more pernicious. For what’s wrong with modern agricultural strategy – as with everything that has emerged from recent governments – is the underlying mindset: the fundamental and largely unexamined assumptions on which all their thinking and strategizing is based. Mr Dimbleby does not, as is surely needed, set out to describe a system of agriculture that could provide us all with the best possible food and keep the natural world in good fettle – and neither, we can be sure, will the government’s new strategy. Instead, as the case in all areas of endeavour, government policy is designed to squeeze, as best as may be done, the square pegs of agriculture and of wildlife conservation into the round holes of neoliberal doctrine and dogma.
The whole approach to agriculture needs radical transformation — in the proper sense: we need to get down to the roots of things. Policies and reports that seek simply or primarily to find accommodation with the status quo merely postpone our troubles. So to begin:
What’s wrong with the neoliberal approach?
If the neoliberals had a coat of arms the motto beneath would read “Let the market decide!” This is supposed to be democratic since it implies that what is actually produced is what people want: so industry becomes an expression of the people’s will – and what else does democracy mean? The market is supposed to be “free” – and freedom is one of the great desiderata, is it not? If we are not free, then we are slaves (or so the thinking has it). Corporates may wreak havoc among ecosystems and traditional societies – but good on them! They are only pursuing their dreams, which we would all do if only we had the necessary get-up-and-go. In truth their bullishness is an example to us all. Government curbs are obstructive and mostly unnecessary.
In practice, though, the market is not the neutral, dispassionate, smooth-running machine that enables us all, better than any more regulated system can do, to partake of life’s goodies. It has become the moral arbiter – displacing the Church and the world’s gurus and philosophers. The market decides what is good and bad, and so it is left to shape all human values. Whatever “consumers” are prepared to pay for is OK, and whatever they won’t pay for, or pay too little for, is allowed to wither on the vine. Furthermore, “the market” is supposed to be maximally competitive – barring the odd trade deal and cartel to keep fractious outsiders at bay (including all those pesky countries that are too poor to join in but are sitting on useful resources – land, oil, niobium – that are grist to the mills of the more progressive). Competition has become the prime virtue – as ruthless as is necessary to come out on top. Cooperativeness and compassion are for wimps. “Get ahead” is the battle-cry, dinned into the heads of schoolchildren and tyro executives. Old-fashioned moralists are simply holding us up; standing self-righteously between us and the sunlit uplands.
The things we are encouraged to compete for (the neolibs make no bones about it) are money and influence, which are deemed self-evidently to be good. Millions of Americans in “the Christian Right” take it to be obvious that God Himself is a good neoliberal. Competitiveness and acquisitiveness are the way of the world that He, in His wisdom, created. Those exemplary Christians of the past who abandoned wealth (St Francis, St Anthony) or who warned against too much of it (St Gregory) are, well, old-fashioned: of their time. What they said was doubtless appropriate in the chivalric world of centuries past, but not now. The chivalric world wasn’t exactly comfortable, after all.
Agriculture, accordingly, like everything else in the neoliberal world, has been encouraged or compelled to be maximally profitable – not at some time in the hypothetical future but here and now. Either that, or fall by the wayside — and good riddance, for whatever does not fill the coffers to over-flowing is ipso facto unfit for purpose, and a drag on society.
The result of such thinking, and all that goes with it, is all too obviously disastrous. Market competition was supposed to increase “consumer choice” which for Thatcher and Blair alike was the ultimate goal – but in truth the ruthless infighting has reduced the former plethora of producers to a handful of corporates, which we are left to choose between. In Britain as elsewhere the super-rich have become incomparably richer while the middle classes have at best stood still and the poor, despite the massaged statistics, have been increasingly dispossessed and disenfranchised. All Britain’s public services – healthcare, education, public housing, and even the police and judiciary, though Tories are the self-proclaimed guardians of law and order – are in crisis, propped up by the superhuman efforts of at least some of their employees. Everything that was not nailed down and even some that was has been flogged off to the highest bidder, no matter what their provenance or political values. The natural world has been horribly neglected, its budgets steadily diminished. This in large part is why Britain’s wildlife has declined so tragically these past few years. There haven’t been enough scientists on the ground to monitor the collapse and to sound an early warning – or not at least in the mathematicised, chapter-and-verse form that governments and bureaucrats demand in the interests of what they spuriously call “evidence”.
Along the way, science has been horribly corrupted, as scientists are called in to justify the status quo – including some, especially in the US, who, at least according to Donald Trump, are still prepared to deny the reality of global warming. To be sure, some of the deniers are true mavericks, convinced that current explanations of climate change are wrong, or indeed that climate change is an illusion. They are surely wrong, but they are entitled to their opinion. Many deniers though are simply saying what their paymasters want to hear — scientists qua hired advocates. That really is corrupt.
What is really “realistic”? Yet anyone who does not think exclusively along neoliberal lines, ultra-materialist and “competitive”, is deemed to be “unrealistic”. Apparently it is more realistic to defend a doctrine and a modus operandi that are killing us all, and to seek accommodation with them, than it is to re-examine our politics and our values, admit that we have been lured down a blind alley, and start again. Reculer pour mieux sauter, as the French have it: “Take a run-up, the better to jump”.
Mr Dimbleby’s essay and, we may safely anticipate, the new and still evolving National Food Strategy, are exercises in compromise, and make a virtue of this. They are and will be attempts to reconcile and to come to terms with the status quo, where in reality we need to dig deep, re-examine all our premises, and start to create the kind of world we need — whatever the present powers-that-be choose to do. The conciliatory, moderately reformist route will only lead us further down the blind alley. The world is not lacking in good ideas, or good techniques, or goodwill. It’s the mindset that’s all wrong.
I discuss what we really need to do in my latest book THE GREAT RE-THINK, to be published later this year.
Colin Tudge, September 16 2020