The Agroecology (Food Security) Bill

URGE YOUR MP TO SUPPORT THE AGROECOLOGY (FOOD SECURITY) BILL

Following the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s speech on June 4, the Agroecology Alliance, of which our own Campaign is a part, aims to persuade an MP to present a Private Member’s Bill with the long-term aim of shifting Britain’s – and the world’s – agricultural strategy away from its present obsession with economic growth and cash efficiency, and towards Agroecology and Food Sovereignty.

Alas! Many and probably most MPs will find this dull because few think deeply about farming, and most voters in modern Britain are urban. But if we care about the present and future state of the world – the people, other species, and the fabric of the Earth itself – then nothing could be more vital.

Agroecology means, in essence, that we should treat each farm as an ecosystem and farming as a whole as a key component of the biosphere. In practice this needs farms that are diverse and low-input (as organic as possible); so they must be skills-intensive (plenty of farmers), which in general means small to medium-sized. Food Sovereignty means that all communities everywhere should have control over their own food supply.

The two principles fit very well together and both are known to work – producing good food for all while providing secure employment, and without wrecking the environment. But both, together or separately, are absolutely at odds with today’s industrial agriculture – high-input, high tech, vast-scale, with minimum to zero labour, and owned and controlled by transnational corporates and supported by government’s like Britain’s.

If we care at all then we must change direction: recognize that farming is for feeding people; that we must look after the biosphere; and that the crude scramble for wealth is getting in the way of both. The proposed Agroecology (Food Security) Bill is a only a small step. But if we can at least urge parliament to start taking agriculture seriously, and to question present strategies, that has to be worthwhile.

So please cajole your MP!! Click here to find out how.

Our Associates

This page is a directory of people around the country doing all sorts of interesting things. Some of them are contributors to this site. Keep an eye on this page as it develops, and if you would like to be featured here please get in touch.

Tim Waygood at Church Farm

Bob Orskov and the Orskov Foundation

Martin Wolfe at Wakelyns Farm

Nick Snelgar of Future Farms

Matt Dale – North Aston Dairy

Jocelyn Jones and World Family

Calendar

For all those engaged in food sovereignty and local food issues, this calendar provides you with a directory of events across the UK.  If you agree with the 6 Principles of Food Sovereignty, you can register by contacting us for an invitation code, then going here to add your own events, or just use this calendar as a guide to find out what’s happening near you.

Sign up to receive monthly emails with listed events, or check back here, as things are constantly being updated…

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Making Stock

People seem to think that making stock takes hours, well the cooking does, but not your involvement in it. It really only needs 5 minutes of your time but will provide you with the basis for another meal. If the cooking time is a problem for you on the day you have a carcass to use, just freeze it and then make stock on a day when you will be around. I often do freeze the carcass anyway and then make a larger batch of stock when I have two or three. This is especially useful if your bird did not come with giblets as you have less flavour available from one carcass. However even a single carcass will make a light stock suitable for a vegetable soup or risotto.

To make the stock all you have to do is put the carcass and giblets, excluding the liver, into a large saucepan and cover them with cold water. Add a peeled onion, a carrot, stick of celery, half a dozen whole black peppercorns, a bay leaf, sprig of thyme and a small bunch of parsley (the stalks have just as much flavour as the leaves). If you haven’t got all of these things don’t worry, they add flavour but the stock will still be better than a stock cube even if you make it with just a carcass. Other potential flavourings if you have them to hand include leeks (the greener top part is fine) and the stalks, or even skin, of mushrooms. Now put the pan on to a high heat and, as soon as it begins to boil, skim the surface with a slotted spoon to remove any scum that has floated to the top and turn the heat down so that the liquid is just simmering. This means that bubbles are breaking the surface but slowly. If you have an Aga you are probably not reading this because you will already be a regular maker of stock, but you can put the stock into the bottom oven overnight. Otherwise leave it simmering on the hob, uncovered or with the lid ajar, and check the liquid every now and again to make sure that it is not simmering too hard and to skim the scum from the surface. After about 3-4 hours you should have sufficient flavour. If you added too much liquid in the first place you can concentrate the flavour once you have strained the stock by boiling hard to reduce it. Once the stock has cooled put it into the fridge overnight.

The following morning, skim the fat from the surface with a slotted spoon followed by kitchen paper used as a blotter. Any sediment will have sunk to the bottom, so pour the stock carefully to avoid disturbing it and this bit can be left behind. If you are not using the stock straight away it is best frozen, but can be kept in the fridge for up to a week if boiled before using.

Potatoes: Sustaining Staple of Gourmet Gem?

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This article by Silvija Davidson came about through an exchange of emails between her and Suzanne Wynn, following our Oxford Real Farming Conference. They were discussing the issues that the conference raised for cooks. In particular as Suzanne puts it “[I was concerned] about meatless meals centred around our staple carbohydrates. It transpired that Silvija had a real passion for potatoes as a result of her Latvian heritage — eating potatoes twice a day. So it seemed the obvious thing to ask her to put it all down in an article.”

Silvija is a Director of QED London

The photo is of Shetland Black potatoes


In an episode of The Food Programme timed to coincide with last year’s London Potato Fair, a somewhat heated argument suddenly broke out between the three principal participants,  John Reader, author of The Untold History of the Potato; Alan Wilson, Technical Manager for Agronomy for Waitrose (and a renowned potato expert) and Anthony Carroll, award-winning owner of Carroll’s Heritage potatoes.  All three had been extolling the joys and virtues of the not-so-humble tuber, when Reader voiced a fierce objection to  the ‘upmarket push’ and ‘titivation’ afforded by niche market heritage varieties – to him an unwanted distraction from a recognition of the widely affordable, readily growable, high yielding  ‘nutritional powerhouse’ represented by the principal commercial UK varieties.

Certainly food historians have generally focused on the saving grace of the potato for many an otherwise grain-dependent North European peasant economy from the 17th century onwards – it proved so for my parents’ country, Latvia, and the Baltics generally – though over-reliance could lead to disaster when blight ravaged the crop, as has happened in the Highlands as well as Ireland.  Acclaimed food writers from Jane Grigson to Rose Prince, meanwhile, have bewailed the loss or at least wide availability of the less usual, generally highly characterful, varieties.  ‘This country has produced many fine varieties of potato, all suited to different methods of cooking.  We have the climate and skill for raising potatoes’ wrote Jane Grigson in her seminal Vegetable Book in 1978.  ‘Yet’, she continued, ‘greengrocers and farmers have managed to reduce this treasure of the Incas…to three or four varieties whose only virtue is yield’.  Some thirty years later, Rose Prince averred in The Savvy Shopper that ‘this is an area of horticulture where the lack of diversity is virtually criminal’.  In The New English Table (2008) she expands on the linked environmental problems, and how monoculture encourages heavy ‘blanket’ chemical spraying.  She does also admit, however, that ‘…the world of potatoes is becoming more interesting again, with farms growing traditional or new breeds’.  Both writers of course give recipes that would be perfectly delicious produced with, say, the maincrop King Edward, the Cox’s Orange pippin of the potato world.  It was, in fact, my family’s favourite – deprived as they were of their beloved native varieties – in post-war Lancashire.  It’s only some half a century later, in London, that I’ve sampled the famous Lancashire variety of ‘Fortyfold’  – thanks to Alan Wilson, and Waitrose.

The Dairy Connection

‘Is it potatoes we love, or the fat they are inevitably cooked with?’  asks a slightly irritated Prince.  To which I might respond: if it takes butter to transform a staple spud from grub to gourmet, is that such a bad thing in a country that excels in the quality of its dairy produce?  Pre-war Latvia, too, was renowned for the quality of its milk, cream and butter, thanks to the native breed of cow that produced particularly rich milk, grazing on extensive, lush pasture.  Perhaps the passion for potatoes evidenced by my mother’s family – dairy farmers, in a mixed farm context, for generations – owed more than a little to this essential adjunct.    Prince, of course, is referring more than glancingly to chip oil as well as butter (or indeed dripping).  A Lancashire childhood would have been strange indeed without a weekly trip to the chippie and I recall the ritual reasonably fondly; but the bond I formed through twice-daily exposure was for potatoes ‘proper’, carted back by the sackful from Bolton market hall by my grandfather, and boiled (mostly), mashed, creamed, baked, chopped into soups and, joy of joys, formed into buttery, crusty pancakes.  I spoke not a word of English before going to school, so I still translate the names of the dishes in my mind.  Mostly I recall the endless discussions – not a mealtime passed without debating the quality of the potato on the plate.  And there was invariably potato, in some form, on the plate.  Quite often, for me at least, it was the main event.  For many years, though urbanites, we did not have a fridge (nor a TV to put fancy ideas in my head); so when feeling peckish I would dive into the larder and lift from the perma-bowl of cold, boiled potatoes.  These would be dipped into a little salt and accompanied by rugušpiens (soured, or ‘clabbered’ milk) either as a drink or a dressing, like yoghourt, depending on the thickness of the curds.  The aim was to have both styles available, as would have been the case in Latvia, but of course fermentation conditions were variable so it didn’t always work out, to my chagrin, as I much preferred the thick curds.  There again, being an only child, I was generally allowed to scrape off the soured cream under the top skin (the milk was ‘green top’ of course).  That was particularly good with hot potatoes.

Gourmet Fare

By common reckoning, this would be considered peasant subsistence – or at any rate refugee-urbanite – cuisine.  For me, though, the daily potatoes were every bit as wonderful as pan-fried river-fresh perch, butter-baked pike, home-smoked eel from the lakes, eggs from the back-yard hens, my grandfather’s barrel-fermented sauerkraut, wild mushroom soured cream sauces, cinnamon baked apples and sweet cardamom-scented yeast breads.  Many of these might be considered ‘gourmet’ fare by common consent.  The term ‘heritage’ variety (now understood to mean pre-1950 in the potato world, though quite a number date back to the turn of the century) would not have been coined, and the only name I recall is King Edward.  Sources were principally Cheshire, Lincolnshire – and Cyprus.  Poor potatoes caused much lament and furious (foreign!) words with the unfortunate stall holder.  None, however, would have been freshly pulled from the earth, though they certainly didn’t reach market washed, scrubbed and plastic-wrapped.   My experience of freshly dug potatoes is all too rare, though we’ve played around with new potatoes grown in a bucket.  Nonetheless I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Alan Wilson’s definition of a taste sensation as a June-grown Duke of York freshly dug, rushed to the pot and served up within 25 minutes.  I do now seek out varieties such as Shetland Black, Arran Victory, Fortyfold, Highland Burgundy Red, Mr Little’s Yeltholm Gypsy (how could anyone resist?!), all of which I’ve enjoyed in the last month or two thanks largely to the more enlightened supermarkets, though also occasionally local market stalls.  Simply boiled, with a little crème fraîche (no home-fermented milk nowadays) it’s a food that could not be bettered, not even by the finest caviar.  The same can be said of fine Jersey Royals and Cornish new potatoes with a pat of truly fresh butter.

But it would be equally inept to argue with John Reader’s perception that this remains at present a relatively rare indulgence.  The ‘non-commercial’ varieties are on the whole pesky individuals, labour intensive to cultivate and harvest, challenging to mass distribution channels.  They have a role, or several – the seed bank alone may prove invaluable in meeting the challenge of changing climate conditions.  I hope there will always be space not only for specialising farmers but budding small-plot gardeners to grow such; long may potato fairs thrive!

The Great Sustainer

Back, however, to Reader’s championing of the potato as a sustaining and sustainable powerhouse of nutrition, four times more productive than grain per land area and unit of labour.  He has even calculated that a potato-patch one quarter the size of Wembley stadium, with a cow added to the mix (!) could keep a family of four perfectly adequately fed for a year, with a little left to trade or barter. I am neither an agronomist nor a statistician, but imagine this could be a rather optimism-inducing statistic in the light of our urgent need to establish UK food-security, with a small surplus of efficiently home-grown foods to trade for non-native fruits, spices and commodities.  My paltry London suburban patch, like so many others, would be but a small blob in Wembley stadium, but if we could allocate farming land sensibly throughout Britain, and grow a suitable range of potato varieties as best suits the soil and climate of each field – all in the context of plenty of mixed farm smallholdings – then here might be a major key to feeding ourselves nutritionally well in the future.

The Star Performer?

How well gastronomically is something I feel more confident in detailing. Let’s assume we are dealing with a few decent, widely available varieties, which might not, simply boiled, constitute a gourmet experience in themselves, even when adorned with a pat of good butter.  In fact, most of us would not consider such a dish a meal in itself, let alone a gastronomically exciting meal.  Unless the need truly strikes, we would not attempt to live off potatoes, a little dairy, and little else.  That is not to say that the addition of a little this, that and the other – from meat to other vegetables, pulses, nuts, sauces and seasonings – might not transform the potato dish into a delightful meal.  The problem is that we have grown used to casting potatoes somewhat aside, rather literally.  Boiled, mashed, chipped, or even in quite richly sauced gratin form, they are a ‘side’ in modern ready meal parlance.

Perhaps it’s a symbol of affluence, akin to the relegation of bread, however well crafted and delicious in itself.  Back in 1970, Margaret Costa in her much lauded but now rarely mentioned Four Seasons Cookery Book (the cooking bible of my youth) already had a bit of a struggle persuading readers to consider potatoes a main event.  Describing the Colcannon of her childhood, she notes ‘The Irish knew best how to eat potatoes – and cabbage.  It’s the cuisine of the poor but it’s not without subtlety.’  And of champ: ‘simply potatoes as cooked for colcannon – it’s the way you eat it that makes it the great delicacy it is’.  That well of melted butter certainly resonates with my memories of simple mash served the same way.  Costa’s recipes for ‘exquisite’ freshly dug Spring new potatoes are simple and glorious.  Scalloped New Potatoes involves parboiling and slicing them, then layering with mushrooms and a cheese sauce to produce a decidedly British ‘gratin’.  No mention of this serving as an accompaniment to meat or fish.    By contrast, in Sarah Freeman’s classic Modern British Cookery, first published nearly thirty years later, a terrific recipe for Gabriel Potatoes (another ‘British’ gratin, though the cheese of the title is Irish – here the sliced potatoes are cleverly par-boiled, or rather par-baked in the oven until the water evaporates, thus saving another pot from the washing up bowl) is described as ‘adding interest to a plain item such as baked or grilled non-oily fish, roast chicken, or a pork chop’.  And yet we hardly need the extra protein, or its contribution to flavour.

Nonetheless, it’s probably in the context of a ‘gratin’ that we most readily imagine a potato dish taking centre stage.  The names comes of course from the French baking dish, and many of our most popular recipes are also French in origin, with occasional changes in nomenclature such as Boulangère, generally indicating a departure from the classic cream based cooking medium.  Oddly, we seem generally to stick with the classic models, even though a delve into French regional cookery would come up with a wealth of variations.  No need to use cream, nor even a béchamel or thickened white sauce; stock (of almost any description) can contribute more flavour, if less unctuousness.  A dab of butter can compensate for the latter.  The stock might simply be the liquid from reconstituting wild mushrooms; or the leftover juices from a roast, with shreds of leftover meat added perhaps.  Or you might use tomato juice or a simple soup as a layering agent.  A little ham hock or gammon or bacon would add protein and flavour.  The potatoes can be layered with lentils, and of course with other vegetables, either thinly sliced root or well-drained greens.  I layered thinly sliced potatoes with equally thinly sliced kohlrabi dusted with dried porcini powder (home made, as it happens, though it’s available to buy and goes a long way treated somewhat as a spice) along with a little chicken stock for a cookery competition once upon a time.   This was mandolin-shaved wafer-thin stuff, so the layers magically ‘melded’ – but it needn’t be.  If you want your greens to remain reasonably vibrant, parboil the potatoes before layering – you’re likely to preserve more vitamin C within the potato that way, too.

I won’t give a recipe here because you can look one up almost anywhere, not least the web.  It’s then a matter of confidently forging ahead with whatever ingredients come to hand.  Much the same applies to potato cakes or potato-based ‘cakes’ such as salmon fish cakes.  Try one or two well attested recipe variants first, then it’s simply a matter of packing together mashed potatoes, egg or other binding, and your chosen ‘add in’ protein and herb or spice, so they don’t fall apart in cooking.  Chilling the mixture generally helps with the handling.  Just a little experience and you can vary ad infinitum.

A word about Jansson’s Temptation

Just occasionally, it’s worth following an original recipe to the letter, not least if it sounds a little strange.  Please, please use the right ingredients and technique for Janssons Frestelse.  The potatoes need not be Swedish, but the ansjovis – spiced, fermented sprats and not salted or canned anchovies – do.  Take it from someone brought up with this unique product (you can buy Abbas ansjovis from IKEA – link below – as well as Scandinavian food shops in the UK).  There again, I know plenty of people who love potato gratin flavoured with Mediterranean anchovies.  So maybe ignore what I just said.  Do, however, add some salad to your potato bakes and cakes and forget, for much of the time, the idea of a hunk of flesh, fish or fowl as centrepiece.

Gourmet Canvas

Of course there are sound historical precedents for the British love of a mite more meat or fish in relation to potato, the hallowed roast aside.  Browse through any book of traditional recipes and you’ll encounter a wealth of potato-topped hotpots, Shepherd’s and Cottage ‘Pies’ and of course Fish Pies.  Whether you want to be authentic of innovative, there are again plenty of recipes you can look up.  What interests me in this context  is that the potato is a topping, ‘hiding’ the more savoury ingredients;  often – though not invariably – the latter are rather pale and wan in appearance (even if perfectly flavourful), rather than richly coloured with, say, wine reductions, tomato sauces, saffron and other spices.  This lends credence to the claims of those who say that in contrast to cuisines based on rice or pasta, potato based dishes could never aspire to either great diversity or culinary excellence.  In other words, if the UK were suddenly to have to rely on potato as a mainstay, rather than imported rice or pasta (the latter can be UK made, and theoretically from British wheat, but I’ve never found is as good as the bronze-die extruded Italian artisan versions) we would have to lower our gastronomic sights.  I wonder.  I frequently knock up a ‘Bolognese’ style sauce, with Italian passata (but we could theoretically produce our own) and wine (ditto) but otherwise British products, and then alternate between pasta and mash as the starchy mainstay.  So ‘spag bol’ is not considered a gourmet experience any more than is Cottage Pie.  But a great ragù is.  Maybe we need to adjust our preconceptions rather than our aspirations, along with our ingredients and, occasionally, techniques.

There are more examples of ‘interchangeable starching’ I could cite.  But I’m sure you can work them out for yourself.  Of course potatoes in whatever form are a different texture from rice or pasta – the latter in particular seems endlessly versatile shape wise, even if we stay with a very few basic shapes in the UK.  And both retain their basic shape throughout cooking and saucing.  But it’s not hard to argue that the potato is actually considerably more versatile than either, as well as more nutritious and flavourful (depending, as ever, on treatment).  I strongly suspect that we could create a potato base to suit just about every sauce ever imposed on rice or pasta.

A final recipe

Anyhow, for fun, and just to soften the edges of all such argument, here is an account and recipe for perfected ‘gnocchi’.  We could give them a British name.  Latvians had something similar (though not one of my family’s staples) called, in translation, ‘bullets’.  Here we use British potatoes, British sea salt, British eggs for the egg-enriched version, and a little soft flour which may as well be British too.  This would suit fine a scenario where we major on potatoes, grow a little wheat, and keep free-ranging chickens widely.  And as we know, ‘gnocchi’ can take quite a variety of those wonderful Italianate sauces we’ve grown used to.  As well as simply a little butter, and/or cheese, perhaps a scattering of herbs, or wilted spinach.  A mere sprinkle of crisp bacon adds texture, but fried breadcrumbs would do just fine.  The other, really important, British aspect is that, in contradistinction to the dire warnings of Italian cookery writers, it’s actually terribly easy and simple to produce them. Believe me; I tried endless variations when I undertook the challenge.  You won’t need to, and you don’t even need to read the background notes, though you could just for fun…

POTATO GNOCCHI THE BRITISH WAY

So, why roll your own when you can buy them in dinky packets, various sizes and sometimes tricolour too?  Well, in contradistinction to pasta, taste and texture of the home made version will prove far superior.  It will of course cost less.  It’s more fun (honestly!)  And it’s only very slightly messier.  Unless your children want to help.  But then it’s even more fun…

First, the allegedly tricky challenge.  According to Anna del Conte (whom I respect in every way): ‘You have to know the right potatoes to use, to add just enough flour to hold the gnocchi together but not to make them heavy, and to boil them on the right heat, just enough for the flour to cook’.  She describes graphically the dangers of disintegration, or ‘a gluey mess’.  The great Marcella Hazan goes to great lengths to suggest ways of preventing gnocchi collapse, and insists on split second timing at the boiling stage.  Gulp.

Rest reassured: my first attempt, with a non-recommended potato and far less flour than considered ‘safe’ met with complete, unexpected success.  And it was no fluke, though I encountered minor disappointments in the course of experiment.  I grew lackadaisical, yet never once did my gnocchi dissolve into particles, or produce wallpaper paste.  The final formula I could prepare in my sleep.

The potato. Yes, it’s all about the potato and little else (as little else as possible).  Forget the bouncy, flavour-free commercial item (OK, some are better than that) and see the process as aiming to present mash in dumpling form.  So you want a potato that will produce decent mash and taste good.  You can find lists of ideal mashing potatoes on the web (see below).  I tried mainstream varieties on principle, but have just experimented, successfully, with Shetland Black.

In essence:  Maris Piper actually had a decent potato flavour, but was slightly sweet.  Estima was similar, and the samples I tried had a musty note.  Sante were somewhat boring and produced a crumbly mixture.  Romano didn’t taste at all bad but were a bit gluey.  Near-cousin Desirée fared better with a positive potato flavour and creamy texture.  The best flavour came from an organic Cara; but King Edwards proved consistently good and gave a light texture.  By all means experiment with heritage varieties (the photos are from the Shetland Black session) but King Edwards will do nicely.

The flour. Everyone agrees on the one hard and fast rule:  the less flour, the lighter the gnocchi.  Del Conte points out that in Piedmont, the best gnocchi makers add only 100g flour to 1Kg of potatoes.  I actually managed less than that, but after many variables am suggesting a little more in the recipe as a safety margin.

It’s equally important that the flour ‘cooks out’ in about 2½ minutes.  Think of your white sauces and you’ll realise that strong or even ‘plain’ flour, organic or no, is out.  I tested it anyway, and found that the gnocchi prepared with a good organic plain flour tasted unbearably floury and potato was hard to discern.  That’s not to say you won’t find an apt one; I’ll keep trying.  In the end I used traditional, soft Italian ‘00’ flour, though the lightest results came from a French patisserie flour described as ‘free-flowing’.  You can find commercial flours that are labelled as soft (McDougalls even label theirs as ‘00’).  Britain excels in soft, flavourful flours, but they are generally blended for bread making.  See what you can find.

The eggs. Pasta expert Julia della Croce avers that ‘Egg gives gnocchi an unappealing bouncy quality’.  Anna Del Conte is more diplomatic:  ‘gnocchi with eggs have more ‘spirit’ and more body’ (but she prefers them without).    I tried for myself.  Whole egg samples proved too rubbery, partly due to the need for considerably more flour to bind the mixture.  Egg yolk mixtures do have their attractions, not least a golden colour, particularly if using Legbar eggs.  And the resultant gnocchi can take more ‘robust’ saucing.  Once again, King Edward potatoes proved the best medium.

Seasoning. Salt, in rather generous quantity, is crucial at all stages:  boiling the potatoes, forming the dough, simmering the gnocchi.  Any less than I’ve indicated produces a disconcertingly sweet result.  You can of course add pepper, nutmeg and even fresh herbs (but a small amount, to avoid overmuch moisture) to counteract this somewhat.

Cooking the potatoes. Opinions on this are fierce and varied from boiling (skin-on), to baking, to embracing the microwave.    I found that given the size of maincrop potatoes, boiling uncut, skin-on spuds took an infuriation 30-35 minutes, by which times the skins had cracked, and texture remained uneven.  Peeling was quite literally a pain, as it should be done while the potatoes are still fairly hot.  Microwaving whole potatoes in skins did produce dry and fully mash, but as with conventional baking, a thickish and intransigent layer that formed under the skin had to be discarded.  Actually the mash was too dry to absorb a sensible amount of flour.  I finally resorted to peeling the spuds (overwintering maincrops are anyway likely to be heftily chemically treated), boiling in cubes for 10 minutes, then driving off excess moisture over a low heat.  No discernible loss of flavour, and the texture seemed perfect for the job.

Mashing the potatoes. There’s only one sensible method:  use a ricer, or a mouli as second choice.

Blending the mixture. Forget instructions to knead for 4 minutes.  Bring mash, flour and salt together with a fork (yes, it seems unlikely at first) then knead lightly for a minute or two before rolling and cutting.

Flouring surfaces. Hazan and others tell you to flour everything:  work surfaces, fingers, thumbs, knife, fork – the cat.  Forget it.   You don’t need to flour anything at all unless you have added egg.  In which case, yes, flour everything, but lightly.

Forming the gnocchi. A ‘lifetime’s skill’ I acquired in a moment.  OK, I won’t claim masterly perfection, but ended up with the requisite ‘hollow’ middle and ridged edges at the first attempt.    You could cop out, as does Delia, simply cutting and sometimes pressing little squares against the tines of a fork.  But nothing could be simpler than rolling a cut length of dough from one concave end of a fork to the other, holding it in place with your thumb, then lifting off with the aid of a finger.   I’m not sure I ever developed a skilled flick but I didn’t really feel the need for one, either.

Simmering and draining. Not quite the split-second affair too often portrayed.  A batch (12-15) of gnocchi tipped into a widish saucepan of bubbling, salted water will rise to the surface within 1-1½ minutes.  They could probably do with a further 30 seconds’ or so cooking but a little less or more won’t make much difference.  Much more and the little dumplings will soften and mis-shape, unless a commercially-comparable quantity of flour is added.    Eggy gnocchi need about 30 seconds longer and are less likely to over-soften.  Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon or skimmer and drain briefly on kitchen towel, then tip onto a plate, ideally buttered or oiled, but this is not crucial.  The gnocchi will firm as they cool.

THE RECIPE

350g maincrop potato, preferably King Edward (see notes above)

50g soft flour (‘00’ or ‘patisserie’)

½ tsp sea salt

Method

Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks.

Cook in rapidly boiling, salted water until tender – about 10 minutes.

Drain well, then return to a low heat to drive off excess moisture, shaking the pan from time to time.

Press the potato through a ricer into a mixing bowl.

Add the flour (no need to sift) and the salt and bring the mixture together with a fork.

Knead lightly for a minute or two until you have something resembling soft shortbread.

Divide this into two and roll out into two ropes, about 2-3cm think.  With a sharp knife, cut off 3cm lengths.

Roll briefly in the palm of your hand to a marble shape, then place the thumb of one hand in the centre of one piece and roll or flick from one end (it doesn’t matter which) of the tines of a fork to the other, finishing the curve by lifting or flicking the gnocchi with a finger of the same hand.

Assemble the finished shapes on a plate (floured if you wish; it’s not necessary if you cook the gnocchi at once) or greaseproof paper.

You can cook one half while shaping the other.  Tip the formed gnocchi, in one go, into bubbling salted water.

Reduce to a low simmer, wait until the gnocchi have floated to the surface, then allow them a further 15-30 seconds before removing with a slotted spoon onto kitchen paper, and tumbling onto a tray or oven-proof dish.

If you want to check the consistency, cut one open and test if for softness and possible flouriness, adjusting the cooking time if necessary.

Reheat with butter or chosen sauce, in the microwave or oven.

Gnocchi with Egg

350g maincrop potato

1 medium free-range egg yolk plus 50g plain, soft flour OR

2 medium free-range egg yolks plus 75g plain, soft flour

Rounded ½ tsp sea salt

Method

Follow the recipe exactly as before, incorporating the egg yolk(s) with the flour and salt, first with a fork, then by hand.

When it comes to rolling and shaping, you will need to flour all surfaces as well as the knife, fork and plate to prevent the dough sticking.  Don’t add more flour to the dough itself, though.

The gnocchi will take a little longer to rise to the surface when simmering, and can be cooked 30 seconds longer without coming to any harm.

Advance Prep

The mash can be prepared in advance with flour and salt (and egg) added when convenient, but I found it a little easier to mix everything whilst still warm.  If you let the mixture stand any length of time before shaping, you may find you need to add more flour to make it manageable – best to make and shape, and indeed cook, in one go.  Cooked gnocchi can be kept in a closed container in the fridge for a day or two, but will not taste quite as fresh as those used immediately.  They will also freeze successfully for a few weeks.

Sauces

The Italian rule is simple saucing for eggless gnocchi, robust tomato sauces and ragùs for eggy ones.  I suggest you try your first batch simply with a little melted butter or warm olive oil and a light grating of cheese (good Cheddar or parmesan).  You can layer with butter and melting cheese and place in a hot oven for 5 minutes, just long enough for the cheese to melt.  Sprinkle with crisp, crumbled bacon or fried breadcrumbs if you like.  Then experiment with a variety of sauces.

Further Information

Websites which list and/or sell specialist or ‘conventional’ eating and seed potatoes:

http://www.jbaseedpotatoes.co.uk/

http://www.specialistpotatoes.co.uk/index.html

http://www.heritage-potatoes.co.uk/

http://varieties.potato.org.uk/menu.php (Potato Council)

http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/catalog/products/00028570

–          to mail order Abbas Ansjovisfiléer from IKEA (if you don’t have a store near you).  Ignore the rather daft English descriptor, these are indeed the pickled sprats.

The Seriously Bad Ideas that are Killing us all

In Britain just a few years ago it was the smart thing in high circles to suggest that British farming should go the way of its mining. Farming was surplus to requirements. It was cheaper and therefore more “rational” to buy food in from foreigners with more sunshine and cheaper labour.

Now the mood seems to have changed. “Food security” has become a big issue. Just a few weeks ago the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee produced a two-volume report with more than 600 pages on Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges faced by the UK. All were invited to contribute (and there is even a piece by me on Enlightened Agriculture. Volume II p 275 et seq).

There is no need to doubt the government’s sincerity in all this. The present government really is a disaster on all fronts and no-one hates it more vehemently than I do but it does include some good and intelligent people and the same is true, despite appearances, for big industry and the banks.

But all of the present-day powers-that-be, and all the economists and scientists who advise them – or at least the ones who are listened to – have crammed their heads with the most appalling nonsense: a series of political, economic, and quasi-scientific dogmas that are obviously highly damaging and yet have the force of revealed truth. So long as the present-day powers-that-be continue to cling to these dogmas, they can never solve the world’s food problems, or the world’s problems as a whole, no matter how good their intentions may be or how many earnest reports they may commission.

In truth, we should not dwell on negatives – the task for those of us who give a damn is not to complain about the status quo but to bring about Renaissance: to take over the food chain and do the job ourselves. But as Napoleon said, we need to know our enemies – not individual people, but unexamined and deeply pernicious ideas. So what are these dogmas that are ruining the world?

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THE SERIOUSLY BAD IDEAS THAT ARE KILLING US ALL

By COLIN TUDGE

Underlying all government policy in all contexts, at the root of all the government reports that have emerged of late on agriculture, lies a set of dogmas. These are not proper, respectable dogmas, in the sense that the Catholic Church uses the term: summaries of ideas that have been thrashed out over decades or centuries by the best scholars in the field. They are for the most part assumptions, arbitrary statements dreamed up by economists and scientists. They have been taken up by politicians not because they are true, and good, and tried and tested, but because they are of the kind that reinforces their power; and they are taken up by industry because they are of a kind that tends to generate wealth, and to concentrate that wealth in the hands of a few. The governments, industrialists, and experts who espouse these dogmas invariably claim above all to be “rational”, but unlike true rationalists (and unlike serious theologians) they do not examine their dogmas. The status quo is taken to be modern, by definition; and, more or less self-evidently, to be good. In truth, almost none of these dogmas is truly modern in the sense of being novel. But all of them are deeply pernicious.

Different observers might summarize these underlying dogmas in different ways. I have reduced them to the following eight:

1: That the political system and way of life that we have in Britain and the Western world as a whole is fundamentally good, or in some Hegelian sense is inevitable.

The state that now prevails is assumed to represent “progress”. The west is said to be “developed”; we are the “First World”; we are rich and we are democratic. In all respects therefore we have the kind of society that (a) is innately desirable; (b) is envied by the rest of the world; and (c) provides the model for the rest to follow.

All these assumptions are highly questionable and I would say, if we take terms like “progress” or “democracy” seriously, then they are obviously wrong. They can be justified only if we define the terms tautologically – for example if we define democracy as “that form of government that Britain claims to possess”.

2: That the economy of the day should be taken as a given, and everything else must be built around it.

All governments, of whatever kind, tend to believe this. They take their favoured form of economy as a given, and take it to be self-evident that everything else – technology, social structure, way of life – must adjust to it. So it was that Stalin created his collective farms, as a rural imitation of the urban factories which he felt must form the economic core of a communist state.

We recognize the mistake in Stalin. We don’t seem to recognize exactly the same mistake in ourselves. In truth if we want agriculture that works – farming that feeds people without wrecking the rest of the world — we have to acknowledge that what really counts – what are most fundamental – are physical reality and morality. We have to work with the bedrock principles of biology, and we have to have a very clear idea of what we think is desirable – concepts such as justice, peace, human fulfillment, and the wellbeing of our fellow creatures. The economy must then be adjusted to suit these realities. To begin with economic dogma and then expect humanity and the physical world to adjust accordingly is to invite disaster. And disaster is precisely what we have.

3: That the particular economy we have now – the neoliberal, exclusively money-based, allegedly “free” global market – represents some kind of denouement: inevitable, immutable, and desirable.

The ground-rules of the neoliberal economy were first laid down by Milton Friedman in Chicago in the early 1960s. The “Chicago School” economic model was taken up with huge enthusiasm in the late 1970s by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and by Ronald Regan in the US, and has become the norm. A whole litany of assumptions is embedded within it, all of them highly questionable, though not necessarily questioned by the powers-that-be. Over the past 30 years, as the neoliberal philosophy has spread around the world, it has brought havoc in its wake.

Thus, to begin with, neoliberal economics assumes the supremacy of money. Without money we can do nothing, or so the dogma has it. With enough money we can do anything. Therefore the point of government is to encourage industries to generate as much money as possible. In earliest times, money was a symbol, a token of real things that could be bought and exchanged, a device to iron out the problems inherent in barter. Increasingly it has become a commodity in its own right. Nowadays, too, money is not so much generated, as deemed to exist. People and companies have been encouraged to borrow money that does not exist on the basis that they will, in the fullness of time, pay it back – a “debt economy”.  The debtors pay compound interest on whatever they are deemed to have borrowed. Compound interest increases exponentially so long as the debt remains unpaid — which means that debts can rise rapidly towards infinity. This is a strange state of affairs in a finite world.

At present the total amount of money that is deemed to exist exceeds the amount of stuff that could theoretically be bought with it by about 20 times. This is why bankers talk of the need for “confidence”. People now routinely borrow vast sums of money which they spend their lives paying back and for a few brief decades may harbour the illusion of genuine affluence. But it really is an illusion, which depends absolutely on everyone being prepared to go along with the game. Indeed, Sir Charles Stamp, President of the Bank of England in the 1920s, remarked even then that “The modern banking system … is perhaps the most astounding piece of sleight-of-hand that was ever invented”. The system requires people’s confidence because it is, quite simply, a confidence trick. If people get cold feet and decide that they would rather have real stuff than hypothetical loot, then the whole house of cards comes crashing down. Which, recently, it did.

Behind the belief in money, to be fair to the powers that be, lies the idea that money makes people happy, and that the more they have, the happier they will be. So the declared aim of all modern governments is to increase Gross Domestic Product, GDP, which is the sum total of all the wealth generated in a given country in a given year, by whatever means. “Economic growth” – year-by-year increase in GDP — is the yardstick by which governments like Britain’s measure their success. Of course it’s obvious that increase in national wealth does not necessarily increase personal wealth. John Ruskin pointed this out in the 19th century: “It is impossible to conclude, of any given mass of acquired wealth, merely by the fact of its existence, whether it signifies good or evil to the nation in the midst of which it exists”. This is obvious today in countries such as Nigeria, with oil pouring out of its ears, generating pots of money, and huge and unprecedented misery. The same will surely come about too in Poland, as the traditional agriculture that serves people so well is trashed to make way for big business – as reported in this blog by Sir Julian Rose.

Even when the newly generated money does get to the people,  common sense and many a formal study show that happiness does not correlate with wealth, once people have enough to keep a roof over their heads, raise their children, know where the next meal is coming from, and can afford to have a drink with their friends. In short, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out the better part of a century ago when the concept of GDP was still new, GDP is not a measure of human wellbeing, and never was intended as such, and in truth has almost nothing to do with it. We might also point out as any six-year-old could do, that indefinite material growth in a finite world is just not possible.

Thus, simple theory and common sense reveal the fatuousness of the neoliberal model, at least as it has been applied. The experience of the past 30 years, when neoliberal economics has been given virtually free rein, have shown its shortcomings beyond all doubt. The rich have grown incomparably richer while the poor have grown steadily poorer, with more and more tipping over the edge, and this applies both between nations and within nations. In countries like Britain, the middle class are now increasingly to be numbered among “the poor” – and so it is that people in good jobs, including plumbers and shopkeepers and schoolteachers and architects and university dons, can no longer afford to live in the cities where they work, and farm workers cannot afford to live in their villages, and all are clustering in ex- Council houses that once were intended to serve the less well-off.  Neoliberal apologists claim that the wealth of the few “trickles down” to the many but in practice it does not — or at least, only under special circumstances. The newly disenfranchised might get a job in Macdonald’s, for example.

“The market” is supposed to solve all our problems. Adam Smith in the 18th century said that in a free market everyone should simply do their own thing – and if they did, then justice and honesty would prevail because the bad and dishonest traders would be weeded out as the consumers took their custom elsewhere. But common sense and the simplest computer models show that this principle works only if there is an infinite number of traders and customers, and if the customers have perfect information and perfect access to all the competing trades people. Such an ideal is clearly impossible. Interestingly, Adam Smith saw the corporates as the enemies of the free market because they represented oligopoly which is one step away from monopoly. But the laws of complexity show that it is impossible to prevent the rise of corporates unless we regulate expressly to prevent this (as was the case in the early decades of the United States). But regulation is the very thing that the advocates of the free market abhor, and now the corporates hold the whip hand.

In short, whatever way you look at it, neoliberalism cannot work and demonstrably does not work. Such is its hold, however, that the market nowadays is seen as the arbiter not simply of the economy, but of morality itself. What is deemed to be “good” is whatever people with money are prepared to pay for. Only a few taboos are now holding out. Child pornography is still verboten, even though some people will pay a great deal for it. But increasingly, whatever you can pay for is deemed to be OK.

Oddly, although common sense, some formal studies, and decades of experience are against them, the governments and intellectuals who subscribe to neoliberal economics invariably claim to be “rationalists”. Well, if we equate rationalism with short-term materialism, they are right. But if so, then we must conclude that in the running of human affairs, mere rationality just won’t do.

4. That competition is the vital spur to all action

The market that dominates the world’s prevailing economy and hence our entire lives is supposed, above all, to be “competitive”. When prime ministers and presidents are not talking about “economic growth” they talk about the need to be “competitive”. Put the two together and the market becomes a global dogfight in which the notional winner is the one with the biggest pile of money, at least as measured by the computer. What does it matter if you throw most of your farmers out of work, or wreck the countryside, or drive your fellow creatures to extinction, or reduce the quality of food, so long as you are “competitive”? We can drive ourselves to the brink of disaster, as indeed we have, so long as our pile of money is bigger than anybody else’s. (In truth, present-day Britain is deemed to be rich even though it owes about trillion. It gets weirder and weirder).

Even in fields that were not conceived originally simply as a source of cash, “competition” is supposed nowadays to provide the vital spur. Education, medicine, farming – all are supposed to be ruthlessly “competitive”. I even heard one of Britain’s most senior scientists solemnly assert of late that his fellow scientists do better research because they have to compete for private funding (although I am not sure, considering his age, that he would ever have needed to).

So what is the supposed virtue of all this competition? Why do the modern powers that be attach such importance to it? Apparently competition leads to “efficiency”, and “efficiency” vies only with “growth” and “competitive” as the buzz-word of the day. But does competition really make us more efficient? Would Mendel have got to his laws of heredity more quickly if he’d had to apply to Monsanto for funds? Should Bohr have spent his days writing grant applications to Toshiba? Ernest Rutherford positively refused to cash in on his own, early contributions to radio, and left the spoils to Marconi instead. Think what he might have achieved if only he had been more competitive! It is all so obviously crass. But it is the modern mantra nonetheless.

There is irony, here, too. Game theory shows that if you want to concentrate all the community’s wealth in the hands of one individual or of an elite then indeed you should be maximally competitive. But if your aim is truly to create maximum wealth, and to ensure that everyone gets fair shares, and that no-one misses out, then game theory tells us that cooperation must be the name of the game. It’s good to have game theory on side because maths does have a certain rigour about it, and it does impress people. Yet we don’t need game theory to tell us that cooperation is more “efficient” than competition – if your aim is to spread sweetness and light to all, and not to create misery and wreck the world. Common sense tells us that those who compete need above all to fight and fighting needs time and energy and makes a mess and kills people. The same time and energy could be spent doing the things that you originally thought were worth doing.

There is worse. Darwin did indeed emphasise competition as the spur to natural selection and hence to evolution. No competition, no biodiversity; no oak trees no cows no human beings. In truth, nature is more cooperative than it is competitive – if it weren’t it would not work at all – but competition is in there too. Darwin certainly had a point.

It is a huge mistake, though, to extrapolate in any simple fashion from what is perceived to be “natural”, to what is perceived to be right. In practice to a huge extent our sense of what is “right” is informed by what we perceive to be “natural”. Certainly the Catholic Church comes down hard, as St Paul did, on whatever it perceives to be “unnatural”. But we cannot extrapolate simplistically from “natural” to “good”. Nature does bad things too, including rape, infanticide, cannibalism – you name it, it happens. Nonetheless, the idea that competition is good and can and should be pursued to the death because that is what Darwin said and therefore that is how nature works, has crept in to modern morality and informs a great deal of modern business practice. I recall with some chill a director of Enron who had walked off with a billion dollars or so of other people’s loot before the crash he knew was imminent, telling a TV interviewer that he knew this was OK because he had read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and concluded that selfishness is the way of the world. This is not what Dawkins intended but you can see how the Enron director made the mistake, and others are making it all the time.

There is competition in everyday life, of course. Farmers and growers love competitions: the biggest marrow, the shapeliest cow, the straightest furrow. But in well-tempered societies the competition is just a friendly rivalry – competitive in the way that club cricket is competitive. It is a spur to action and self-improvement but nobody is meant to get hurt. In traditional societies, farmers or shopkeepers or publicans who are ostensibly in competition help each other out when the chips are down, or indeed do so all the time. Everybody recognizes that no-one can survive in the end unless everyone is basically on the same side, and they all pull together.

In a real, gloves-off competition, as American sports movies are forever assuring us, there is only one winner, and a great many losers. The billion people who are now undernourished and the billion who live in urban slums, and the billion who are obese and marginally diabetic and permanently ill-tempered, are the losers in an economy that is designed to produce losers. “Over-population” is often blamed for the mass deprivation. If a billion people are hungry it’s because there are a billion too many. QED. As Ebenezer Scrooge remarked in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, if the paupers die “It will only lower the surplus population”. But if you have an economy designed to be competitive then there will always be losers, however big or small the population may be. If the competition is intended to be ruthless then the losers will die, as indeed is happening before our eyes. But even if world numbers were reduced to three billion, by whatever draconian means, then an economy like ours would ensure that hundreds of millions would die in any case.

In truth, if we truly want agriculture to feed people, then we need to design it expressly for that purpose. The present notion, that if we set out with maximal competitiveness to produce the biggest possible pile of money by whatever means we will somehow produce a just and tolerable world, including good farming, is the crassest conceivable nonsense. Yet this is the modern mantra, boomed to us daily from on high.

5: That technology, and particularly science-based “high” technology, can always dig us out of whatever holes we may have dug ourselves into.

This is the mentality that lies behind the current government zeal for GMOs. In thirty years genetic engineering has produced no new crops or livestock that truly help to improve the food security of the world as a whole or to supply good food to poor people in particular — but that in no way stems government enthusiasm. Whatever problems we are confronted with, high tech must find a way. That too is the dogma.

High tech by definition is science-based tech – gmos and electronics as opposed to oxcarts and windmills which people devised long before there was formal science. Science is widely assumed at least by some scientists (by no means all) and many non-philosophers of science (including most politicians and industrialists) to offer us a royal road to unequivocal truth. In effect, it is seen as the royal road to omniscience. If the underlying science is omniscient, then the high technologies that emerge from it should make us omnipotent. (That doesn’t quite follow of course, but it as good as the thinking gets). But of course, as all serious philosophers of science have been emphasizing for a very long time (J S Mill in the mid 19th century more or less said it), science tells us only what science tells us. As Sir Peter Medawar put the matter in the mid 20th century, science cannot be more than “the art of the soluble”. As for omnipotence – well: the same applies. We can do the things we can do, but there is a lot we can’t, and there is a whole string of obvious reasons to show why that will always be so.

The notion that we can understand life exhaustively and manipulate it how we will is particularly dangerous when we try to control nature for our own purposes, which in essence is what farmers aspire to do. Every serious ecologist knows that nature is way beyond our ken, and always must be. The idea that we can re-shape nature at will in any form we choose is not only hubristic but ludicrous.  But that is the conceit that lies behind modern biotech – or at least behind the megabucks that are invested in it. Good farmers approach their task humbly. They are keen to experiment, but they do not take liberties. Excellent science is vital of course, in agriculture as in all modern life. But it must be seen as an aide to good practice; not as the means to supplant good practice with systems that are intended primarily to generate cash.

6: That we can always provide the kind of technologies we need if we spend enough on R & D.

This was the assumption that lay behind the American dream to get to the moon in the 1960s – which in that context seemed to be vindicated. The same assumption lay behind Richard Nixon’s campaign to “lick cancer in the ‘70s” – and there it clearly wasn’t. It might seem unjust to suggest that Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of global warming rests on the same assumption – that we have the means to do what needs doing, and with enough cash we can buy our way out. Yet to me this seems uncomfortably true – although Stern is among the more enlightened ones. Common sense suggests that we are likely to succeed in a predictable period and with a finite budget only if we undertake tasks that are highly  specific (like getting to the moon) and which partake of scientific principles that are simple and seem well understood (like Newtonian physics). But  we are likely to fail if the problem is full of unknowns and possible unknowables – including the many biological quirks that underlie cancer, or the likely the behaviour of the world in the face of unprecedented climate change. Some philosophers of science like to tell us that the task of science is to improve on common sense but in truth, in real life, we dispense with common sense at our peril.

But governments believe in the power of high tech just as the inhabitants of Tanna island believed in the beneficence of John Frum. They further believe that we can always devise the high tech that we need if we spend enough on it. This in turn reinforces their most fundamental, neoliberal belief that it is their principal duty to maximize the nation’s wealth. If we are rich enough, the dogma has it, we can always buy our way out of trouble.

7: That “strong central government” is necessary; that the present governments of the western world are democratic; and that they are a good thing — doing more good than harm.

British politicians as ostensibly divergent as Lord Hattersley and Kenneth Clarke are wont to assure us in public debates that countries need “strong” government. The anti-terrorist laws that grow more draconian by the month in Britain and the US presumably reflect a belief that strength implies minute-by-minute interference. But if recent governments really have been strong, then we must conclude that strong government  is not obviously to the public good. We have disaster on almost every front. Societies and perhaps the world at large probably do need some kind of government. But present experience and all of history show that in practice governments rarely work in the best interests of their people. History suggests that wars are made by governments, not by people at large. The governments that do benefit their people are not necessarily the “strong” ones, whether they are totalitarian or allegedly democratic.

Specifically, it used to be the perceived job of government to control big business in the interests of the people. But Britain’s present government, and that of the US, have in effect become extensions of the corporate board room, and make a virtue of this. In short, our allegedly strong government interferes with our lives at every conceivable turn. But it does not truly govern, in any worthwhile sense of the word.

In short, the whole issue of governance needs to be re-thought from first principles. The prevailing conceit, that Britain should be ruled by one or other of two of three political parties is too crude by half.

In truth, most human enterprises that are of most direct relevance to human beings, including education and agriculture, are best run by communities of people who know something about them and give a damn. The prime task for central government is to ensure that the communities under its jurisdiction have fair shares; that at least as much is spent on educating poor kids, as on rich kids; and that farmers in difficult areas are at least as well rewarded as those who can simply run their combines through the fertile lowlands. It is not the government’s job to tell teachers what to teach, minute by minute, or to turn farming into a branch of industrial chemistry, just to swell the coffers.

8: That the development of the western world this past few hundred years represents “progress”, and is a model for all the rest to follow.

By most objective measures of human wellbeing, Britain and the United States come out badly. Yet we achieve our mediocrity by gobbling up far more resources than the world can possibly sustain. Indeed we would need the resources of three to five planets Earth to raise everyone to our level of material consumption. We cannot possibly sustain what we have without perpetuating the enormous injustices that now prevail, and accepting that billions must go the wall. Actually, of course, we cannot sustain even that which we have for more than a few more decades, however unjust we allow the world to be.  It is not even remotely logical, let alone morally desirable, to regard ourselves as a model for the rest. Such progress as we may have made has been down a blind alley; or, to shift the metaphor somewhat, we have climbed further and further out along a limb that grows thinner and thinner, with an ever more precipitous drop beneath, held aloft by nothing more substantial than hype and wishful thinking.

In sum: all this is a long-winded way of backing up the notion that we really do need the Campaign for Real Farming. With the help of people who really do know something about agriculture, those of us who give a damn just have to do what needs doing ourselves. The minds of the powers that be are not on the job at all.

In truth, the fight is not between left wing and right wing, or capitalism against socialism, or East against West, or atheism against religion. It is between people who take it to be self-evident that the economy comes first and we must work outwards from there, and people like me who acknowledge that the physical world, not money, is the only tangible reality;  and that human action must be moral, and it is vital to spell out, and never stop trying to spell out, what morality ought to mean. Then “the economy” must be re-thought from first principles to match what is physically possible in this world, with what it is right to do. This task involves all human enterprise, of course. But for all kinds of reasons, most of them obvious, agriculture is a very good place to start.

Colin Tudge, August 6 2009