Farmers, fear, and human nature

Our 2nd ORFC Review (May 1 2020) contained an article from Professor Charles Foster. Entitled: “Farmers show us how to fear properly”, in it Charles took what I perceived to be a somewhat dyspeptic view of human nature and so I wrote a riposte. Charles then replied to my reply. Here is the exchange, so far. If you would care to join in the conversation, please do.

Colin Tudge.

Charles Foster raises two very interesting points – and with one I agree absolutely and with the other I disagree absolutely. Since both are close to the core of the venture that now is the focus of my working life – our embryonic College for Real Farming and Food Culture — I feel I should comment.

First, I agree absolutely that farming is special and that those who do it well are special too. Adam Smith (1723-1790) made the point in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, Book 1 Chapter X:

“After what are called the fine arts, and the liberal professions … there is perhaps no trade that requires so great a variety of knowledge and experience…. The direction of operations, besides, which must be varied with every change of the weather as well as with many other accidents, requires much more judgement and discretion than that of those which are always the same or very nearly the same”.

Farming is indeed at the heart of all the world’s affairs, both human and non-human. It affects everything else and is affected by everything else. It is the sine qua non. Get it right and everything else can start to fall into place. Get it wrong and everything else we do is compromised. The reverse is true too: we cannot get it right unless we get everything else right as well – the science, the economy, the underlying moral and metaphysical mindset. The present attempts by governments – abetted, to their shame, by so many scientists – to ram the square peg of agriculture in all its complexity into the round, simple-minded hole of neoliberal, market-led economics, all controlled by politicians who generally know nothing and seem to care less, is killing the world. As Foster and Smith agree, farming should be seen as the noblest and most vital of professions, along with teaching, medicine and the caring professions, and those who wrestle most assiduously with its intricacies should be among our most valued citizens. The idea that a stripped-down agriculture with a minimal or even zero workforce somehow represents modernity and progress is perhaps the greatest nonsense in a world that increasingly seems to make no sense at all. Britain in particular needs many more farmers rather than fewer and they must be properly rewarded. So far I couldn’t agree more.

But Charles’s second point — a dyspeptic view of human nature – is surely well wide of the mark. Prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic he says:

“Fear is interesting. It shows us, like nothing else, what we’re really like. It dissolves pretence and disables pose. And so we now know what, as a nation (if we really are a nation these days), we’re like. It’s not how traditionally we’ve liked to think of ourselves. We are not characterised by robust common sense, pragmatism, an irreverent sense of humour, an intolerance of highhandedness, and a stiff upper lip. We have been occupied by a virus, and it has taught us that our commitment to freedom is skin deep. We know now that, however much we think that Dad’s Army captures the true spirit of England, we would unhesitatingly capitulate to any invader who offered force, and turn in any Anne Frank we found hiding in next door’s loft.”

Actually, to my knowledge, nobody did betray Anne Frank and her family – or if they did, then the betrayer was very much out of synch with the rest. A great many people all over Europe risked and often lost their lives protecting fugitives from the Nazis. Anne Frank herself wrote in her diary on July 15 1944:

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart”.

Despite appearances, I am sure she is right. The idea that human beings as a species are fundamentally feckless and selfish has been a common theme of philosophers, priests, and politicians since the year dot. Plato thought that the mob, hoi-polloi, must be kept in their place by patricians and indeed by philosophers. Two thousand years later in his hugely influential Leviathan of 1651 Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote:

“ … the nature of justice consisteth in keeping of valid covenants … but the validity of covenants begins not but with the constitution of a civil power, sufficient to compel men to keep them and then it is also that propriety begins”.
He goes on to tell that if human beings are left to themselves, without such civil power to keep us from each other’s throats —
“The life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

The Leviathan might be seen as the core text of the political Right, even for those who have never heard of it or indeed of Thomas Hobbes. It gives them an excuse to form an elite and boss the rest of us around, for if they did not then we would all be at each other’s throats. They rule for our benefit even if, sometimes, they need to be cruel to be kind. They see it as their duty to seize command. In our own times Theresa May above all promised “strong and stable government” even though in practice she delivered anything but.

Alas! In the mid-19th century Charles Darwin (1809-1882), kind and liberal gentleman that he was, added fuel to the right-wing fire. His idea of “evolution by means of natural selection” spelled out in The Origin of Species in 1859 emphasized competition for limited resource as the prime spur of evolutionary change. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) summarized Darwin’s idea as “survival of the fittest”, a phrase that Darwin later adopted. “Fit” in this context means “most apt”, as in “fit for purpose”. It did not necessarily imply brute strength and athleticism. And becoming more appropriate does not necessarily mean getting better in any absolute sense. Barnacles (which Darwin studied at at length) became more apt by losing their brains and sticking what had been their heads to the rock, which objectively speaking seems retrogressive. But the way that words are used and change their meaning seems alone to have given rise to the idea that natural selection necessarily favours the strong and aggressive and that it leads to progress and therefore that competitiveness is a necessary virtue, without which all life including human life would stagnate. Darwin emphasized that natural selection was not the only route to evolutionary change and that animals – and plants – are cooperative too: that it can pay to cooperate. Indeed, taken all in all, nature is more cooperative than it is competitive. If it were not so, life would not be possible at all. At all levels, life is a master class in cooperativeness.

Nowadays more and more biologists recognize that in reality, the best way to survive and to leave offspring is to cultivate the skills of cooperativeness. It seems clear too that in intelligent beings like us who seem to have a choice in the matter (as opposed to ants who seem to be more or less enslaved by their genes), cooperativeness is most robust when underpinned by compassion – by true concern for the feelings and wellbeing of others. In other words, Darwinian natural selection ought to favour compassion. Neoliberalism is intended above all to be competitive (barring the odd cartel) and this is seen to be “Darwinian” and therefore science-based and therefore true. This is bad biology and very bad moral philosophy.

Charles Foster acknowledges in his essay that Covid-19, like all such crises, has brought out the best in people; not just the heroism of front-line medical staff but of people-at-large, going to the shops for oldies and whatever else is compatible with lock-down. That is indeed the norm. Those who are truly unsocial, like the hedge-fund managers who plan to hoover up bankrupt companies at knock-down prices, are the exception. It is true, though, that a little evil goes a long way. A few bad people have a disproportionate influence. One rotten apple in the barrel, and all that. Those who see crises as opportunities for personal enrichment should be seen as sociopaths or indeed as psychopaths. It also an unfortunate fact, however, that ruthless competitiveness does bring material rewards in the short term; and that wealth brings power; and that the short term pre-empts the long term. So although those who think only of short-term personal wealth can properly be seen as psychopaths, they do tend to rise to the top, in the short term. This is all too evident in world politics. Is it not?

I have been arguing for some years that to put the world to rights we need a complete re-think – nothing less than a Renaissance; that this Renaissance must be rooted in food and farming – an Agrarian Renaissance; that the agriculture we need must be of the “Enlightened” kind – rooted in the principles of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty; that the Renaissance must be led by us, people at large; and that we, Ordinary Jo(e)s, are eminently capable to doing what is needed, not least because we are primarily cooperative, and that this is possible because we are primarily compassionate, even though a few people clearly are not, and even though the few who are not are all too apt to gain a short-term material advantage.

Colin Tudge Wolvercote May 4 2020

 

Very many thanks: a splendid response!

A few observations. It is certainly true to say that cooperation, community, and altruism have been enormously powerful evolutionary motors – both in humans and non-humans. I think that they are likely to have been more important than selfishness and competition, and have written a whole book saying so (The Selfless Gene). They are still very prominent -both in humans (as I expressly say in my blog) and in non-humans, and no doubt natural selection is still using them.

So far I think we agree. We may now start to disagree.

The commonest word used in relation to the pandemic is ‘unprecedented.’ Rarely is there any attempt to say exactly what about it is unprecedented. It is certainly not the threat posed to individuals or, as a matter of mere medicine, to populations. There have been far worse threats. The Black Death killed one in three. What is really unprecedented (and in many ways heartening) is the degree to which a statistically very low risk to a small part of the population is generally regarded as a justification for wholescale interferences with civil liberties and significant damage to the national and international economy. This is very interesting. To what can it be attributed?

There are two possibilities: One is a genuine concern for the small number of truly vulnerable people. The other is that it is a result of personal existential fear on the part of the relatively invulnerable bulk of the population, who are (as is usual amongst humans, for reasons well-established by evolutionary psychology) very poor calculators of risk. Both no doubt play a part.

In my blog I acknowledged the role of the first, but argued that the second is likely to be more important. Despite your counter-argument, I still think I was right. Apart from the point about the miscalculation of risk, there is something else going on, which is why I talked about the way that farmers live more satisfactorily with contingencies than others. Most of us are disproportionately fearful because mere biological existence or physical integrity are the only loci of our self-perceived significance. Many of us, for much of our lives, don’t believe or stand for anything much: we are atomistic, hard-shelled billiard balls, impervious to anything other than dread at losing something – biological life – which, by itself, is often not tremendously pleasurable.

To be clear: There is no one at all who is like this all the time, and there are many, many people who aren’t like this for any of the time. To be clear again, the fact that a person may not feel that she is significant does not for a moment mean that she is not: she is.

Fear is diagnostically useful: it can highlight our areas of ontological emptiness. it would be unfortunate if we missed the opportunity that the pandemic is giving us to see some important things about ourselves. Because there’s some very good therapy available.

All best wishes.
C

Agriculture Bill – 3rd Reading tomorrow (May 13): still time to ask your MP

There’s still time (just) to ask your MP to ask for certain key amendments to the Agriculture Bill which is being hastened through parliament in order to gain Royal Assent by the autumn. Here’s the link to the webpage with details of how and what to send your MP.

And here’s what Colin Tudge has to say about it:

The third reading of the government’s Agriculture Bill on Wednesday (May 13) is crucial, though it will probably attract very little attention from the British media and arouse commensurately little interest among MPs. For nothing matters more to humanity and to the natural world than agriculture and as things are, despite appearances and all the rhetoric, Britain’s agriculture like that of most of the world is a disaster: profitable for a few no doubt but hugely damaging ecologically and socially and obviously unsustainable. 
 
There are a couple of amendments to the original bill that are of outstanding importance. One says in effect that trade cannot and must not be conceived simply as a way of maximising short-term profit but as a means to improve wellbeing – good economically and socially both for sellers and buyers and raising the general quality of food. Others stress the absolute importance of agroecology – which, mercifully, for the past few years has enjoyed the services of its own All-Party Parliamentary Group, now chaired by Labour MP Kerry McCarthy. Britain’s and the world’s farming must move away from the neoliberal mindset which says that “farming is just a business like any other” and that business is just another way of making money, and embrace the idea that the job of agriculture is to provide good food for everyone, and provide good jobs, and look after the the biosphere. Otherwise we’re sunk.  Watch this space.

New study shows the “insect apocalypse” not quite as bad as thought

The research was published in Science (April 24 2020)

Abstract as follows:

Recent case studies showing substantial declines of insect abundances have raised alarm, but how widespread such patterns are remains unclear. We compiled data from 166 long-term surveys of insect assemblages across 1676 sites to investigate trends in insect abundances over time. Overall, we found considerable variation in trends even among adjacent sites but an average decline of terrestrial insect abundance by ~9% per decade and an increase of freshwater insect abundance by ~11% per decade. Both patterns were largely driven by strong trends in North America and some European regions. We found some associations with potential drivers (e.g., land-use drivers), and trends in protected areas tended to be weaker. Our findings provide a more nuanced view of spatiotemporal patterns of insect abundance trends than previously suggested.

A piece in ScienceAlert by Mike Mcrae, April 24 2020 gives an overview (extract as follows):

News of an insect apocalypse has become a familiar headline in recent years, with study after study pointing to an alarming loss in invertebrate numbers. As consistent as the message seems, the results don’t always agree with one another.

A new study led by ecologists from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research suggests the decline in global populations might not be as steep as we thought, and could actually be improving in some areas.

That conclusion might appear to be in stark contrast to claims we heard last year that 40 percent of all insect species face extinction, with some claiming an annual decline of 2.5 percent in their numbers worldwide, or even higher in some corners of the globe.

But taken in context, the new study builds a picture that shows how important it is to protect our environment and pay close attention to this vital part of the biosphere.

By compiling more than 160 surveys monitoring the weight of insect and arachnid populations around the globe, the researchers were able to get a good sense of the biomass and distributions of creepy crawlies dating as far back as 1925.

Their figures suggest there’s a marked difference in trends for invertebrates in different ecosystems in different parts of the world.

 

COVID-19 and food supply: MPs seek assurances from Secretary of State 

This from EFRACOM’s press release:

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee has today written to George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as part of its inquiry into COVID-19 and food supply.

 

Following discussions with officials, the cross-party Select Committee asks for further information, including on:

 

  • Government action to protect food suppliers adversely affected as a result of decreased demand in the foodservice sector and steps to enable takeaway and restaurant businesses to re-open whilst adhering to public safety advice.

 

  • Efforts to recruit UK nationals for seasonal agricultural labour, including success to date. The Committee also asks about measures taken to ensure that seasonal workers still arriving from overseasare appropriately tested.

 

  • The number of people having trouble accessing healthy food as a result of the pandemic. The Committee is calling for further support to be provided to support the redistribution of surplus food to food charities.

 

Chair of the EFRA Committee, Neil Parish MP, said:

 

“From our discussions with Ministers and officials in recent weeks, it’s clear that the Government is working incredibly hard and we welcome the action it has taken. But I am concerned that we will see long term damage to our ability to produce high quality food in the UK, and many more people at risk of going hungry. One immediate step would be greater support to help charities redistribute surplus food meant for closed cafes and restaurants to the people who need it most. We will be taking further evidence on this next month.”

Committee Membership

Neil Parish MP (Chair) (Conservative, Tiverton & Honiton); Geraint Davies MP (Labour, Swansea West); Dave Doogan MP (SNP, Angus); Rosie Duffield MP (Labour, Canterbury); Mary Glindon MP (Labour, North Tyneside); Dr Neil Hudson MP (Conservative, Penrith and The Border); Robbie Moore MP (Conservative, Keighley); Mrs Sheryll Murray MP (Conservative, South East Cornwall); Toby Perkins (Labour, Chesterfield); Julian Sturdy (Conservative, York Outer) and Derek Thomas (Conservative, St Ives).

Ecological Land Cooperative’s Community Share Offer – still open; doing well; needing your support

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Invest any amount from £500 and gain 3% interest whilst securing access to land for new entrant farmers.
 
Their latest film (shown here) documents the success of their previous ventures

You can find out more about their share offer at: https://www.ethex.org.uk/elc2020.

The radical toadstool

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures

by Merlin Sheldrake (The Bodley Head, London, 2020).

A brief appreciation by Colin Tudge.

If the world is to be better after The Virus has done its worst then it needs to be radically different. Everything needs to be re-thought and most of it needs to be re-structured. Encouragement comes not from what politicians call “recovery”, implying a return to the status quo ante, but from a plethora of radical thinkers on all fronts: economics, politics, science, religion. All are relevant to farming because everything is relevant to farming, and farming is relevant to everything else, even if the people in charge of the world don’t realise that.

Among the radical thinkers and of seminal significance is a new generation of biologists who question the idea ascribed to Charles Darwin that life is innately and primarily competitive: a “struggle for life” as Darwin regrettably put the matter; one long punch-up from conception to the grave (or indeed from before conception, because the gametes may compete too). For in truth, life is at least as cooperative as it is competitive. If it were not so, life would not be possible at all. All Earthly life is a dialogue between two classes of molecule – proteins and nucleic acids: amino acids and nucleotides. The eukaryotic cell is a master-class of cooperativeness – a coalition of different kinds of microorganism fused into one. Ecosystems are competitive but in the end everything depends on everything else. Competition is a fact of life to be sure but cooperativeness is its essence. Modern biology indeed is leading us to embrace the ancient, metaphysical, essentially Eastern concept of oneness. All life is one.

All this comes across in Merlin Sheldrake’s new book – which is on fungi in particular and mycelia in particular. Plants almost certainly could not have ventured from water to land without the help of fungi (and other micro-organisms) breaking down rock to create the rudiments of soil; integrating with the plants’ own tissues and serving them as roots. Today’s land plants have roots of their own but largely depend nonetheless on their mycelial extensions. All the trees in a forest may be joined by the mycelial connections between them into one great physiological unit that in principle could cover a continent.

More broadly, fungi are a kingdom in their own right – an alternative life-form that does things differently. Linnaeus’s suggestion in the 18th century that they were just degenerate plants was the biggest mistake he ever made — which, I suggest, has hugely and damagingly distorted our appreciation of them, and hence of the nature of life in general. Sheldrake’s book requires us to re-assess. If the world was cooperative, as nature really is, and not just a battle for ascendancy, as we are told is the case, there would indeed be cause for hope. The kind of radical thinking the world really needs can begin with mushrooms.

Colin Tudge April 19 2020

Entangled Life will be published on September 3 2020. It can be pre-ordered here

Michael Shulman: Eight Principles for post Covid-19 Reconstruction

Michael Shulman takes Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage and turns it on its head to become The Theory of Comparative Resilience.  You can read the whole blog here

These are his eight criteria by which to measure your community’s comparative resilience:

(1) Local Ownership – What percentage of jobs are in businesses owned by people living in your community?  A high percentage means your community is relatively independent and will enjoy the high multiplier benefits of local businesses buying from one another.  Local businesses have always been the building blocks of a successful economy, but now we can’t afford to get distracted by global businesses. Putting a penny into attracting an Amazon HQ—let alone a few billion dollars—rather than expanding locally owned businesses is the most counterproductive approach to economic development imaginable.

(2) Local Investment – To what extent are your residents investing in local businesses, projects, and people?  Localizing purchasing patterns boosts prosperity but it’s not enough. Why invest in global companies, about which you know little and which leave you vulnerable to the whims of public markets, when you can make a higher return, with less risk, by investing in the merchants you love, or your city’s stormwater management system, or getting your son out of student loan debt?

(3) Economic Diversity – Is your economy diverse enough to meet the basic needs of residents?  Put another way, how self-reliant is your economy? The more self-reliant you are – on local food, energy, water, and finance – the less global disruptions will matter.  Diversity also boosts your local economic multipliers, which increases income, wealth, and jobs.

(4) Regeneration – Is your economy living within its natural means?  We are already spending 70-80% of our family budgets on services, which is great news for sustainability, because most service businesses have light environmental footprints.  But even for goods like food, water, wood, and paper, we will need to bring inputs of our diverse industries in line with what our local ecosystems can renewably provide.

(5) Innovation – To what extent are you fostering local innovation?  The key to economic dynamism is entrepreneurship. Is every person in your community with a great business idea, especially young people, able to find the capital, people, space, and partnerships needed to succeed?  The proliferation of incubators, maker spaces, and shared workspaces are among the many tools communities can deploy realize this objective.

(6) Social Equity – Is your community economy leaving no one behind, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, and so forth? Look out for blind spots in your economic-development strategy.  One reason to embrace locally owned businesses is that we know, thanks to studies by the Federal Reserve, that communities with high densities of local business have higher per capita incomes and less inequality.  Entrepreneurship and workforce development programs should focus on those who most need inclusion. This means embracing social inventions like worker cooperatives, community land trusts, and Time Dollar systems.

(7) Connectivity – To what extent is your community cosmopolitan and connected with the rest of the world? Are your businesses learning from their peers elsewhere? Are your policymakers?  Those connections—especially with people, culture, and knowledge—will allow you to take advantage of the best of what the world offers, without becoming dangerously dependent on it.  When other communities get in trouble, your connections will enable you to offer help. When you get in trouble, they can help you.

(8) Social Performance of Business – Are all your businesses embracing the principles above?  How many, for example, are measuring their performance through tools like the B-Corp assessment?  Those businesses that are monitoring their social performance with respect to their workers and other stakeholders and are steadily trying to improve it should be recognized and rewarded, and their practices shared and spread with other local businesses.

Small emergency loan programme

Providing critical funds to the food sector during the Covid-19 crisis

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the fragility and vulnerability of our globalised food system and our reliance on long, just in time supply chains. This has led to a big increase in demand for local food but many agroecological producers and community food businesses have had to stop taking on new customers due to lack of resources, staff and supply chain difficulties.

We want to try and do something to help these organisations through this crisis, both ensuring that they are able to survive, but also helping them to meet growing demand by developing new routes to market and scaling their operations for the long term.

LEAP’s offer

We are offering the following funding for a period of 3 months from 1st April 2020:

  • Small unsecured loans from £5,000 to £20,000
  • 3-month capital and interest holiday, followed by 12-month capital holiday
  • Interest rate: 5%
  • Term: 5 years and 3 months
  • Quick decision (we aim for funds to be paid to successful organisations within 14 days of application)
  • Arrangement fee: Waived while this offer is open.

No grant will be paid with these small loans. If you need more than £20,000 of funding please apply to the general LEAP programme (which provides a blended financial package of loans, grants and mentoring) in the usual way.

Criteria

The focus for this funding will be on established community food businesses and agroecological growers and it can be used for anything that helps them navigate this crisis. The investment could be used for working capital to develop new routes to market or to scale up production to meet growing demand. It can be used for recruiting more staff, investing in IT and delivery vehicles, new processing facilities and equipment. We have set the following main criteria:

  • At least 50% of income must come from food and drink production or sales
  • Must have been established and trading for at least 3 years and have a turnover of at least £40,000
  • Must be constituted as a CBS, CIC, CLG, Coop or CIO. We cannot fund sole traders, partnerships or CLSs
  • We will look for evidence that you meet our enlightened agriculture and social impact criteria

Application process

We ask for the following basic information:

  • Brief description of the business
  • The amount required and what it will be used for
  • Last set of approved accounts
  • Most recent set of quarterly management accounts
  • Legal form of governance
  • Information on what the loan will be used for
  • Information on security of tenure
  • A brief social impact statement

To apply, please fill out this brief application form. We aim to reply within 24 hours with any follow-up questions, and will ask you to send us your last set of approved accounts and your most recent set of quarterly management accounts.

If you have any questions please contact us at leap@feanetwork.org

What happens after Covid-19?

There could be at least some silver lining in the horrible black cloud of coronavirus. It might prompt the general change of direction and of mindset of the kind that the world so desperately needs. But, says Colin Tudge, if we leave our future in the hands of governments, we will probably just continue to lurch from crisis to crisis.

The Weston A Price Foundation no less has issued a blog to say that the coronavirus epidemic is “A Total Scam” which the world is taking far too seriously — apart from President Trump of course who thinks it will go away if he ignores it and shouts at journalists. Covid-19, says Weston Price, is no worse than winter flu which is nasty and kills people but doesn’t warrant a potentially global shut-down.

This, very obviously, is nonsense. Some bona fide experts predict that covid-19 could infect 50-80% of the world population. Conservatively, that could be around 4 billion people. The death rate has been around 3% which, if things pan out as predicted, means a total tally of around 120 million; equivalent, almost, to the populations of Britain and France combined; almost twice the number who died in World War II, which was by far the bloodiest conflict in human history; about six times as many as died in the flu pandemic of 1918-1920, which killed more people than the battles of World War I. If that is not serious it is hard to see what is.

The British government has responded with what many see as commendable vigour but others, including President Macron of France, feel is too little too late. In the background lurks the spectral, somewhat alien figure of Dominic Cummings, more interested it seems in his conception of the economy than in the human condition or the state of the biosphere. The newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has floated a £350 billion emergency fund with more to come. The latest government slogan in this age of slogans is “Whatever it takes!” As John Maynard Keynes pointed out, governments can always find money when they feel they need to. The response sounds heroic and is as the government points out, unprecedented. But then, covid-19 is itself unprecedented so of course the response must be too. We need to be asking — Is it enough? Is it in time?  Will the money go to the people who need it and deserve it most – before they go bust?

As always in times of crisis, farmers are in the firing line. As always, the devil is in the detail. Thus a farmer friend of ours relies as many do on a holiday rental – farmers need to diversify these days if they want to earn enough to stay in business, and actually produce food. But people are cancelling bookings and disaster looms. More broadly, over the past 40 years of neoliberalism successive governments of all parties have been proud to tell us that Britain’s economy is above all globalised; firmly plugged in to the one grand global market. Accordingly, we import about half of our food and a great deal of the feed for our increasingly industrialised livestock. It’s cheaper that way and therefore more profitable and profit is seen as the sine qua non. Some governments, including the present one and Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government of the 1990s, seriously wondered and wonder whether we should farm in Britain at all, since so many foreigners have more sunshine and cheaper labour, and are happy to economise on safety.

More generally, British governments are urban-based and are content to live in an abstract, idealised world and have no feel for farming. Quite simply, they do not take it seriously. ‘Twas ever thus. Globalised agriculture in embryonic form was already on the cards more than 200 years ago, when we were importing cotton wholesale from India and wheat from America. Then, the Napoleonic wars and the threat of blockade focused attention on the need to grow food at home. At least it did until the memory faded and Britain’s farming was again neglected – until World War I again showed the need for it. But by the 1930s agriculture was run down once more – until the awful shock of World War II and the Atlantic blockade. During the war and until around 1970 British governments again took agriculture seriously – although, with the munitions factories idle after the war and with technophilia riding high, agriculture was launched very firmly on the road to agrochemistry and industrialisation. Not wise. Still, for a couple of decades or so, farmers were valued, and helped.

Then, in the 1970s, with neoliberalism on the horizon, interest in farming faded again. Agriculture began to be seen simply as another way of making money – “a business like any other” – and not a very efficient one at that. Better (some said) just to let it go the way of Britain’s coal mines and steelworks. Relics from yesteryear.

The present pandemic, horrible though it is, will be finite. The virus will surely stay with us and the whole coronavirus group will surely throw up new variants, each needing to be dealt with, but the pandemic phase of covid-19 will surely run its course. Those of us who survive – by far the majority – will largely be immune, and although the expression “herd immunity” has somewhat fallen into disrepute of late, it is, in the end, what will do the trick. It’s the same with all infective diseases apart from the kind that have mastered the trick of hanging around, like TB and leprosy. More quick-fire pathogens whatever form they take generally induce immunity in those they don’t kill and so they run out of potential hosts and can no longer go on the rampage. So it is that epidemics of measles or small pox or plague run through vulnerable populations like wildfire until there’s enough herd immunity to make life difficult; and often these days (more often than not, if the money is well spent) better hygiene and mass vaccination can prevent further epidemic. We may hope that coronavirus will be hastened on its way some time in 2021 by an effective vaccine, and subsequently kept in check.

But – and it’s a huge “but” — horrible though the present pandemic is, it is not the worst of the world’s ills. It is dwarfed by far by the louring threats of global warming, mass extinction, general environmental degradation, rising numbers, global hunger, mass poverty, growing inequality, and huge, perfectly justified discontent, leading to personal misery, societal breakdown, and an endless succession of conflicts, including all-out wars – too many even for most governments to keep track of; all exacerbated by mass migration of people from the worst-hit regions to countries that on the whole don’t want them. All those problems will still be with us when the pandemic is past.

So although all sensible minds and economies are focused on the present crisis, we must also be thinking ahead. Beyond question, the pandemic will change the world. Future generations, at least for a few decades, will divide history into the time before coronavirus, and the time after, just as my parents’ generation used to speak of the time before the war and the time after.

Over the past few decades a succession of international conferences and learned reports, plus various individual scientists, popes, and archbishops, have been telling us that “we cannot continue with business as usual” — but then the world’s most powerful governments, including Britain’s, have in general carried on as before, usually without breaking step. Yet the present pandemic, if it takes hold in the way that seems likely, must – surely? – cause even the most intransigent governments to realise that they, and we, really do have to change our ways and our preconceptions. The present pandemic was not directly caused by global warming or mass extinction or industrial farming but it must bring home the point that present ways of doing things, on all fronts, leave the whole world horribly vulnerable. We need to calm things down; take the heat out of our lives; stop seeking to grow the economy and compete to be richer than anyone else; stop believing quite so ardently in the algorithms of high tech and global trade. We surely should not seek to become insular and self-centred in the style of Trump and Putin but we should certainly seek to become more self-reliant, and to focus afresh on the things that really matter – personal fulfilment, convivial societies, a flourishing biosphere.

This would be a transformation, a metamorphosis – and the key to it, the world over, is agriculture.  We need what I for some years have been calling “Enlightened Agriculture” aka “Real Farming” — rooted in the ideas of Agroecology (treat all farms as ecosystems) and Food Sovereignty (every society should have control of its food supply). More broadly, Enlightened Agriculture is rooted in the guiding principles of ecology and morality — as all human endeavours need to be. In practice it requires low-input farming (organic is at least the default position) with mixed farms (where feasible) with emphasis on agroforestry, usually in small-to-medium-sized units, with plenty of skilled farmers and growers, feeding primarily into local or regional economies. All nations should strive for self-reliance in food – at least producing enough of the basics to get by on – and exporting food only when the home population is well fed, and importing only what is truly desirable and cannot reasonably be grown at home. Such farming needs a corresponding cuisine – which basically means traditional cooking: “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”. There is no need for veganism on the one hand or ersatz meat on the other, which some see as panaceas, now bound in unlikely alliance.

In other words, we need agriculture that is almost diametrically opposite to the kind that successive British governments have been promoting for past 40 years – high-input, high tech farming on units as large as possible with minimum to zero labour, geared to the global market, and producing only what is most profitable.

So how in practice will the British government and other powerful governments respond when the covid-19 pandemic has run its course? Will they acknowledge that the world really does have to change, radically, at all levels – technical, economic, political, moral, and most broadly in mindset — and focus on what used to be called human values? Or will Boris, Cummings, Rees-Mogg, Gove and their cohorts, if they are still in power, endeavour, whatever they may promise to the contrary, simply to resurrect the status quo ante – high-tech neoliberalism with top-down control, masquerading as democracy?

I suspect the latter, for Britain’s governments since about 1980 have been one-trick ponies, technophilic and neoliberal. To them, that is progress; the trappings of a “developed” society. To them the status quo ante is normality, and normality is good and must be restored.

I become more than more convinced that we really cannot leave governments to manage the things that really matter: medicine, education, the biosphere at large, and above all farming. Governments are needed to dole out central funding but absolutely not to strategise and to micro-manage. Still less should we do what the present government and recent governments want to do, and hand responsibility to “the private sector”, which in practice means corporates. We need a new kind of economy, and new ways of governing ourselves. There are plenty of promising models out there and some encouraging precedents, which show that those models can work, given half a chance.

If this kind of idea emerges from the present pandemic – that we need a radical re-think, and that we cannot allow governments to do the thinking for us – then that would at least be considerable compensation for the present disaster.

Colin Tudge is currently writing a book to discuss the kind of changes that need to be made, and how. It should be published by the end of this year.

Crop diversity or intensive monocultural farming – guess which is better for biodiversity and climate change?

Here’s the abstract for this new study published in Nature March 18 volume 579pages 393–396 (2020)  Authors: J. Nicholas Hendershot, Jeffrey R. Smith, Christopher B. Anderson, Andrew D. Letten, Luke O. Frishkoff, Jim R. Zook, Tadashi Fukami & Gretchen C. Daily

Agricultural practices constitute both the greatest cause of biodiversity loss and the greatest opportunity for conservation1,2, given the shrinking scope of protected areas in many regions. Recent studies have documented the high levels of biodiversity—across many taxa and biomes—that agricultural landscapes can support over the short term1,3,4. However, little is known about the long-term effects of alternative agricultural practices on ecological communities4,5 Here we document changes in bird communities in intensive-agriculture, diversified-agriculture and natural-forest habitats in 4 regions of Costa Rica over a period of 18 years. Long-term directional shifts in bird communities were evident in intensive- and diversified-agricultural habitats, but were strongest in intensive-agricultural habitats, where the number of endemic and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List species fell over time. All major guilds, including those involved in pest control, pollination and seed dispersal, were affected. Bird communities in intensive-agricultural habitats proved more susceptible to changes in climate, with hotter and drier periods associated with greater changes in community composition in these settings. These findings demonstrate that diversified agriculture can help to alleviate the long-term loss of biodiversity outside natural protected areas1.

And the write up by Stanford University in Physics News (March 18 2020)

Crop diversity can buffer the effects of climate change

How we farm can guard against climate change and protect critical wildlife—but only if we leave single-crop farms in the dust, according to a new Stanford study.

The research provides a rare, long-term look at how farming practices affect bird biodiversity in Costa Rica. “Farms that are good for are also good for other species,” said Jeffrey Smith, a graduate student in the department of biology and a co-author on the paper. “We can use birds as natural guides to help us design better .”

By and large, the team found that diversified farms are more stable in the number of birds they support, provide a more secure habitat for those birds and shield against the impacts of climate change much more effectively than single-crop farms.

“The tropics are expected to suffer even more intensely in terms of prolonged dry seasons, and forest dieback under climate change,” said Gretchen Daily, director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project and the Center for Conservation Biology and a senior author on the paper. “But diversified farms offer refuge—they can buffer these harmful effects in ways similar to a natural forest ecosystem.”

The findings, published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature, highlight the importance of farms that grow multiple crops in a mixed setting instead of the more common practice of planting single-crop “monocultures.”

“This study shows that climate change has already been impacting wildlife communities, continues to do so, and that local farming practices really matter in protecting biodiversity and building climate resilience,” said Nick Hendershot, a graduate student in the department of biology and lead author on the study.

Threatened in the tropics

Tropical regions are some of the most species-rich in the world, but they also face the to biodiversity. As their forests are felled to plant cash crops like bananas and sugarcane, the amount and availability of natural habitats have shrunk dramatically. Meanwhile, climate change has resulted in longer, hotter dry seasons that make species survival even more challenging.

“It’s the one-two punch of land-use intensification and ,” Hendershot said. “Wildlife populations are already severely stressed, with overall decreased health and population sizes in some farming landscapes. Then, these further extreme conditions like prolonged drought can come along and really just decimate a species.”

Until now, little had been known about how agricultural practices impact biodiversity in the long term. This study’s researchers used nearly 20 years of meticulously collected field data to understand which birds live in natural tropical forests and in different types of farmland.

“It is only because we had these unusually extensive long-term data that we were able to detect the role of diversified farmlands in helping threatened species persist over multiple decades,” said Tadashi Fukami, an associate professor of biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences and a senior author on the paper, along with Daily.

The varied agricultural systems at work in Costa Rica provided the research team with an ideal laboratory for studying bird communities in intensively farmed monoculture systems, diversified multi-crop farms, and natural forests. They compared monoculture farms—like pineapple, rice, or sugar cane—to diversified farms that interweave multiple crops and are often bordered by ribbons of natural forest.

Who’s there matters

Surprisingly, the researchers found that diversified farmlands not only provide refuge to more common bird species, they also protect some of the most threatened. Species of international conservation concern, like the Great Green Macaw and the Yellow-naped Parrot, are at risk in Costa Rica due to habitat loss and the illegal pet trade.

In intensive monocrop farmlands, these species are declining. But in the diversified systems the researchers studied, the endangered birds can be found year after year.

“Which species are in a given place makes a huge difference—it’s not just about numbers alone, we care about who’s there,” Daily said. “Each bird serves a unique role as part of the machinery of nature. And the habitats they live in support us all.”

Changing the paradigm

In Costa Rica and around the world, the researchers see opportunities to develop integrated, diversified agricultural systems that promote not only crop productivity and livelihood security, but also biodiversity. A paradigm shift towards global agricultural systems could help human and wildlife communities adapt to a changing climate, Daily said.

“There are so many cash crops that thrive in diversified farms. Bananas and coffee are two great examples from Costa Rica—they’re planted together, and the taller banana plant shades the temperature-sensitive coffee bean,” she added. “The two crops together provide more habitat opportunity than just one alone, and they also provide a diversified income stream for the farmer.”