The College for Real Farming and Food Culture: new courses

Still time to book places on three of this year’s courses!

The College for Real Farming and Food Culture is designed to explore, develop, and promulgate all the big ideas that are needed to ensure that we, humanity, can provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality effectively forever – an ambition that should be well within our grasp if only we farmed according to the principles of Enlightened Agriculture and sought to emulate the world’s greatest traditional cuisines!

The College is a stable-mate of the Oxford Real Farming Conference (both are projects of the Real Farming Trust), with a two-way flow of ideas (and personnel) between the two. Basically, the ORFC throws the net widely, and the College explores particular angles in depth.

The College operates in the main through joint meetings – conversations, seminars, short courses – with like-minded organisations that offer suitable (very agreeable!) premises. This year – 2019 – we have four lined up. One is already fully booked but there are still places on the other three. To wit:

April 10-12 2019: a residential conversation for 18 participants at 42 Acres Retreat Centre, Somerset on

WILDLIFE ON FARMS

Alas, this meeting is fully booked. But the theme is key, and we intend to return to it time and again.

Booking is open now but only until April 9 for our second course:

May 20-24 2019: A residential seminar for up to 20 participants in collaboration with Schumacher College at Dartington, Devon on:

FOOD, FARMS, AND METAPHYSICS: THE GREAT RE-THINK

An introduction to the whole College thesis: what Enlightened Agriculture really is: the paradigm shift in nutritional theory; and the absolute importance of traditional cuisines. The – immensely cheering – take-home message is that enlightened farming – based on the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty – goes hand in hand with sound nutrition and both are in perfect harmony with the world’s greatest cooking. But Enlightened Agriculture cannot prevail unless we undertake a cross-the-board re-think not only in food and farming but also in politics, economics, science, and – the thing that has gone missing – metaphysics, which asks the “ultimate questions”. With Colin Tudge, Jyoti Fernandez, Tim Gorringe, and Ruth West.

Booking opens on April 1 2019 for our remaining two courses held in collaboration with The Black Mountains College, supported by Hay Festival

June 23 – 24 2019

A two day course for 14 participants at Coleg Trefeca, a retreat centre just outside Talgarth

THE ABSOLUTE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD BREAD

A future diet that will sustain 10 billion people – which, the United Nations tells us, is the likely peak population, to be reached by the end of this century – must rely heavily on staple foods, of which the main ones are cereals and pulses. This should be no hardship – for all the world’s greatest cuisines are heavily cereals-based. But – we must ensure that the staples are grown in biosphere-friendly and people-friendly ways and ensure that the cooking does them justice. Wheat is the world’s most important cereal (with rice a close second) and is mainly eaten in the form of bread. In short – good bread is vital for our long term future! With biologist, baker and author Jeremy Cherfas, creator of the podcasts, Our Daily Bread, Colin Tudge and Ruth West. The second day will be spent at Talgarth Mill (a community-run, water powered flour mill and traditional bakery) and include some hands-on baking using locally grown heritage flour.

August 19-24  2019

A residential course for 14-20 participants also at Coleg Trefeca, and including a visit to Pen y Wyrlod Farm on:

GOOD FOOD FOR EVERYONE FOREVER

“Why we need to re-think everything we do from first principles, and re-think everything in the light of everything else thus achieving a truly holistic approach to food”

Though the scope is broad (it could hardly be more so) the course focuses on the specific ideas of Enlightened Agriculture (aka “Real Farming”) and on the need for a true Food Culture, drawing for inspiration on the local landscape and ways of life.

Enlightened Agriculture is informally but adequately defined as:

“Farming that is expressly designed to provide food of the highest standard for everyone, everywhere, forever, without cruelty of injustice and without wrecking the rest of the world”.

Such a vision may seem merely fanciful – so distant is it from the status quo — and yet should be perfectly achievable. Technically, it should be almost easy to ensure there is no more famine.  Far more than that: our descendants should be able to occupy this planet for literally millions of years to come, each one more personally fulfilled than most people are now, and in harmony with each other and with other creatures. This should be considered a realistic aspiration.

To achieve this, however, requires a total re-think of everything: nothing less than a Renaissance – re-birth; which, for all kinds of reasons, should most fruitfully begin with an Agrarian Renaissance — a re-think of food and farming and our relationship with the rest of nature.

The course will take the form of discussion – a long conversation — conducted in the inspiring landscape of the Black Mountains, and including a visit to a local farm, Pen y Wyrlod guided and informed by: Colin Tudge, Adam Horovitz (poet), Nick Miller and Sarah Dickens (farmers) and Ian Rappel (ecologist).

The research agenda we really need

A modest proposal from Colin Tudge

The science and technologies that governments like Britain’s choose to promote, either by encouraging corporate research or at taxpayers’ expense, is often not what the world really needs — while the problems that really should be explored are largely neglected. The key areas for research, I suggest, are as follows:

1: Outstanding issues in agriculture

The obvious and urgent need to develop Agroecology in all its aspects sets the broad agenda. Thus:

Organic farming in general – which nowadays receives a derisorily small portion of the government research budget. The research that is done is mostly by private organizations.

Agroforestry in particular – which so far as I know does not now feature at all in Defra or BBSRC thinking.

Soil – and particularly soil microbiota: microbes (bacteria and archaeans); “protists”; invertebrates; and fungi – including and perhaps especially the all-important but much neglected mycorrhizas!

Grazing (and browse); ie, pasture-fed livestock. In particular, does well-managed grazing lead to loss of CH4 or to net carbon sequestration? General biological principles suggest the latter. Eg: during the Miocene and Pliocene when there were many billions of grazing animals the world grew steadily cooler. The present, almost hysterical attack on cattle is most inappropriate. True, intensive cattle (of the kind the government now favours) must be massive CH4 generators but cattle judiciously grazed are surely good for the biosphere.

Mixed populations of cereals and other crops. Inter alia, genetic diversity offers more long-term protection against pests and diseases than specific resistance genes.

Wildlife-friendly control of weeds and pests. It really is time we moved once and for all beyond the knee-jerk expedients of industrial chemistry and eye-catching biotech towards methods that are more in tune with the natural world.  In truth, past and present “biological control” methods have often misfired but this is where the future must lie nonetheless.

Pollinators other than honeybees. Flies for example are among the most important pollinators but only a few biologists are taking them seriously.

Animal welfare in all its aspects.

All this should be complemented by nutritional research on a far greater scale and independent of commercial bias. Thus:

2: Outstanding issues in nutrition

In truth, all the problems that were identified 60 years ago (to my knowledge) are still unresolved and perhaps are unresolvable (though we also need to get some feel for what can be solved and what, for various reasons, must always be very uncertain). Thus:

Carbohydrates

What is the real significance of fibre?

Where stand refined carbohydrates – especially sucrose?

Protein. How much do different groups of people really need?

Fats. It’s all still up for grabs!

Saturates vs unsaturates

Omega 3 and omega 6

Transfats

How much is too much (or too little)?

Etc.

Cryptonutrients. A new kind of problem! Cryptonutrients are what the food industry calls “functional foods” and the pharmaceutical industry calls “nutraceuticals”: materials that seem to bring benefits in very small quantities and act in effect as “tonics” including plant sterols which seem to lower blood cholesterol. Basic evolutionary principles suggest that there could be many thousands of such agents foods of all kinds. They are hardly understood at all but individually and cumulatively they could be very important indeed (affecting mood, longevity, resistance to pathogens, etc).

Microbiology – especially gut microbes. Research is proceeding apace but it’s all to do!

Epigenetics. Again, a comparatively new field. How much effect does life experience especially in utero affect the way the genome functions and hence influence the physiology including the response to particular foods?

The relationship between all of the above and agriculture. Eg: how and to what extent does the fat of pasture-fed beef differ from concentrate-fed? – a question that breaks down into hay vs silage etc. Does the difference really affect human health? How does soil biota really affect food quality and how does that impact on health? If microbes are so important, how does hydroponics work? Etc.

3: “Meta-questions”

These include key questions of a social/ political/ economic kind including:

To what extent is the continuing emphasis on productivity justified/ sensible? Should we not be focused far more on food quality, sustainability, wildlife friendliness etc? Can we “feed the world” with more ecologically and socially friendly farming? (The answer is surely “yes” but it needs chapter and verse.

Is it really possible to do what’s needed within a market-driven, “neoliberal” economy? If not then what?

The philosophy of science. What science is and is not – and what it can do and cannot. For science is wonderful and necessary but it all too easily degenerates into “scientism” – the belief that science is the only truly worthwhile source of knowledge and is leading us to omniscience. Technology is the key to all we do (“the extended phenotype”) but all too often gives rise to uncritical “technophilia” – a cargo-cult reliance on the next magic bullet (especially evident among ambitious politicians with no background in science or tech). Phil of sci is not a discrete research project but should always be present if only as an eminence grise.

Etc.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, January 23 2019

Meat, morality, and the vortex of lies

An early morning rant from Colin Tudge

We are invited to be cheered by aspects of the Agriculture Bill for it seems that at last a Secretary of State is finally taking notice of what people who are truly interested in food and farming have been saying for the past half century or so — and to get governments of the usual kind even to listen to people who actually know things and give a damn is itself a triumph. Or so we seem to accept.

But it isn’t really. Agricultural strategy in Britain and increasingly in the world at large is based on a lie, or a series of lies, each one following from the one before; and we are all of us invited or obliged to spend our lives living up to those lies. But if we are serious about the present and future plight of the world, we really can’t afford to base our lives on lies.
The great lie or at least misconception that underpins standard agricultural strategy is that what is sold in greatest amounts is what we truly want: that sales reflect something called demand; and that demand reflects some deep, perhaps even God-given predilection and predisposition; and – which is very strange morality! – that it is morally virtuous and a fundamental principle of democracy to strive always to satisfy these hypothetical predilections.

In particular, people are buying more and more meat and this is taken as irrefutable evidence that human beings have an innate, evolved or perhaps God-given penchant for animal flesh and indeed a need for it; and standard agricultural strategy is accordingly designed to produce more and more of it. In practice, industrial meat production, culminating in “CAFOs” (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — an ugly name for an ugly concept), is an extension of the arable industry, and is intended expressly to dispose of arable surpluses. The modern arable industry in turn is an extension of the petro-chemical industry; and the modern economy is designed to maximize short-term profit which requires us to produce more and more stuff of whatever kind and to flog whatever it is as quickly and abundantly as possible. The petro-chemical industry is hugely profitable (nothing more so) and so it drives the whole global economy, and politics follows the economics however crass the economics may be, and agriculture is swept up in the rush like everything else.

To be sure, people do buy more meat as they get richer – and more booze, and more or less everything else that is tasty (who denies it?) and expensive (and also more clothes and cars and cocaine). Turnips on the other hand seem most unfashionable (it’s hard to get them). But the only thing we can legitimately infer from all these facts – that at any one period of history people buy some things and not others, and that different people buy different things, and that the same people buy different things at different times – is that our tastes, our preferences, in food and just about everything else, are very flexible. Indeed, apart from a few built-in antipathies to foods that make us say “yuk” (and are probably bad for us), our tastes seem almost infinitely flexible. Some people eat sea-urchins and it used to be smart to drink crème de menthe, and so on. What we choose to buy, at any one time, is determined by tradition and fashion (because the things that are perceived to be smart are the things that gain us kudos) and by what we can afford, and, above all, by what is available. Make a food available (but a little bit expensive so it looks prestigious!) and surround it with a good story of one kind or another (which is called salesmanship) and with a following wind and government approval (to remove legal and bureaucratic obstacles) you can sell whatever it may be, in vast quantities, including proverbial fridges to proverbial Eskimos.

That really does not mean that there is any innate “demand” for whatever it is that is commercially successful, or that commercial success reflects some innate, unsatisfied desire, rooted deep in our psyche and biology or instilled in us by divine decree. Scientists are supposed to think critically and they above all should realize that the facts do not justify that idea. But scientists in practice beneath their cleverness and apparent self-confidence tend to be simple souls, and those who take the commercial shilling seem all too ready to leave their critical faculties at the reception desk, and go along with whatever myth the company cares to spin. Not only do they go along with the idea that we need more and more cereal and soya to feed the animals that we are supposed to need, and don’t, they have invented a whole new technology – that of GMOs — to boost the yield of those crops even further, and a whole new mythology to go with it (which says that GMOs are necessary, and that high-tech is innately superior to tradition). After all, scientists have mortgages like everybody else.

So the myth has it that people “demand” more and more meat because of some deep need and unsatisfied desire and agricultural scientists of a certain kind are all too ready to provide the means that enable the myth to be fulfilled if that’s what their paymasters want. CAFOs are the smart thing not because they are “efficient” (as the myth has it; though life-cycle analysis shows them to be immensely profligate in ecological terms) but because they provide the means to add value to oil, which in its pristine state is not desirable at all, by turning it into cereal and soya with the aid of photosynthesis, and then into burgers and barbequed chicken wings, and peppering the world’s high streets with “outlets”.

In fact, of course, we could produce all the meat the world really needs, and – even more to the point – all that is needed to meet the requirements of the world’s greatest cuisines (which all use meat sparingly) — by agroecological means that are, as the bureaucratic cliché has it, truly sustainable: by grazing cattle and sheep on land that doesn’t lend itself to crops, and feeding pigs and poultry on leftovers and genuine surpluses.

But then, even if we really did have a huge and insatiable desire for meat, it does not follow that it is necessarily “good”, in a moral sense, to satisfy that desire. Indeed it is very strange to suppose that moral good means satisfying carnal want. Most moral philosophy that is worthy of the name, and particularly of the kind that lies at the heart of all bona fide religions, teaches restraint: that we should not expressly aim always or primarily to satisfy carnal desires. That we, and the world’s most powerful commercial companies – who in practice do more than anyone to determine how we live and indeed how we think – should make a prime virtue  of satisfying carnal desire, and that people in positions of influence do not seem to question this, shows how morally corrupt the world has become. Given that in this case the supposed carnal desire is itself a lie, we are caught in a double whammy. In fact we are caught in a giant tautology, a vortex. We invent a lie to justify greed and then make a virtue of living up to that lie and in the process kill the biosphere and leave a lot of people without enough food at all. It will take more than a government bill that seems marginally more sensible than the outpourings of the past few decades to put that right.

Colin Tudge October 29 2018

Why won’t the powers-that-be take agriculture seriously?

Of course, people in positions of influence do take agriculture seriously. They spend hours and hours and hours on it – many spend their entire careers – and billions and billions of our (taxpayers’) money. But the world is dominated by an oligarchy, and the people who collectively form that oligarchy – governments, corporates, financiers, and their chosen academic advisers — don’t really see the significance of farming and don’t truly engage with it.
To British governments, particularly of the neoliberal kind — all of them since circa 1980, including New Labour – agriculture is merely irksome: a not very efficient contributor to and sometimes a drain on GDP.  After all, the ratio of money invested to money returned falls somewhere short of hair-dressing. I am reliably informed that Tony Blair’s government seriously considered abandoning farming altogether, just as Mrs Thatcher’s government polished off the coal industry, and for the same reasons: it was cheaper in the short term to buy what we needed from abroad (and of course, for the time being, it still is). The A in Defra does not, of course, stand for “agriculture”, as might be inferred, but for “affairs” as in Rural Affairs. Perhaps that was in preparation for the day when agriculture had been done away with; it would save re-designing the stationery. (“Thrift, Horatio”, as Hamlet said in an eerily similar context). Defra was set up in 2001 and of the eight secretaries of state so far only two — David Miliband and the present Michael Gove — have taken any serious interest in it, although neither is any kind of agriculturalist.

Exhortations from the previous three Secretaries of State — Owen Paterson, Liz Truss and Angela Leadsom — to raise more beef and pork to sell to the Chinese, and indeed (from Truss) to make more cheese, don’t seem fully to get to grips with the main issues.
Big industry, the second great player in the oligarchy, sees agriculture like everything else simply or at least primarily as a “business opportunity” – an opportunity to make money; and since the neoliberal economy is intended to be maximally competitive (barring the odd cartel and tax concession) each industry is obliged to make the most possible profit, or else lose out to those who do. So industrial agriculturalists strive to produce the most stuff for the least money and call that “efficiency”, which they see as the great desideratum. The perceived need to maximize output (“pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap”) and to cut costs primarily by cutting labour have been the great drivers of agricultural strategy these past few decades.

Financiers, the third great players in the world’s affairs, aren’t interested in producing anything at all but just go where the money is (which, after all, is their job) and in matters agricultural the money as things stand is mainly in land. There is no reason why average farmland should now cost £25K a hectare except that rich people find it convenient to invest in it – and the rest of us too of course willy-nilly through our pension schemes; and the cost of land perhaps affects what is done on it, and by whom, more than anything else.  The very high land-prices coupled with the modern zeal for larger and larger units makes it very difficult for newcomers to gain a foothold, and without fresh blood all industries are moribund. The high cost of land means too that all existing farmers who do not own their land outright are obliged to focus primarily on profit just to stay in business. It is possible in the modern economy to focus on animal welfare and wildlife friendliness and food quality and general sociality and some do manage it — but it is very, very difficult to do so without going bust. It should be the job of governments to make it easy for good people to do good things but as things are they often make it harder. It really is odd for example that organic farmers must pay to be recognized as such although all are free within broad limits to base their entire farm practice on industrial chemistry.

Finally, the fourth great player, academe, and particularly science which of course is crucial in a crowded world, is itself dominated by big business, on whom in these neoliberal privatized days it is increasingly dependent for funding. The world should be focusing on agroecology as indeed it should have been for some decades past — treating individual farms as ecosystems and agriculture as a whole as a positive contributor to the biosphere. In particular, we should right now be focusing on organic farming (which certainly could provide most and probably all of the world’s food); diversity (of habitats, species, and genes); a humane, ecological approach to livestock (ruminants and other herbivores fed on pasture and browse, both as natural as possible; with pigs and poultry fed on leftovers and surpluses); and agroforestry, which has the potential hugely to ameliorate and largely to solve the increasing problems of drought and flood and, practiced on a global scale, to reduce global warming.

Instead, commerce-driven technophilic science is focused on GMOs – so much so that the Royal Society no less, that universally acknowledged arbiter of scientific excellence and good sense, has been actively campaigning to promote them, even though GMOs these past 30 years have not been shown to bring any unequivocal benefits that could not have been provided by traditional means of a kind that are known to be perfectly safe (provided of course that the traditional approaches had received enough support and so could continue to develop). In a sense, like the financiers, the Fellows of the Royal Society are being true to themselves, and bringing to the table what they are good at. The molecular biology that lies behind genetic engineering is truly wondrous – science at its most dazzling.  But in the grand scheme of things – if the ambition truly is to “feed the world” without wrecking the rest – the emphasis on GMOs is misguided (and so in this regard is the Royal Society. A little humility would not go amiss).

We might note in passing too that Michael Gove’s new Agricultural Bill, although it says some encouraging things, makes no specific mention of organic farming or of agroforestry. Mr Gove likes to give the impression that he listens to everybody but his agenda nonetheless is and presumably always will be that of a right-wing neoliberal. As always, the square peg of agriculture (which really matters) must be rammed into the round hole of economic dogma (which doesn’t).

It would take an entire, dedicated university (we’re working on it; see below!) to spell out all the things that need doing and how they need to be done and why the things that need doing are so far at odds with the status quo – but here are a few tasters:

Agriculture affects, and is affected by, everything else.


For starters – the overwhelming point – very few people in high places or indeed among the urban majority in general seem even to begin to appreciate just how important agriculture is. It is at the heart of all human affairs, and its deficiencies are heavily implicated in, or are the prime cause of, all the world’s ills, from misery and mental depression and chronic diseases of all kinds and general unwellness to civil unrest and war. It is also a prime cause of the ills that beset the biosphere (the word “environment”, which merely means “surroundings”, and tends to be equated with stage scenery and real estate, should be expurgated) including global warming and the current mass extinction — which rarely if ever gets a mention in mainstream political speeches, although it is one of the most significant facts and indictments of our age. Obviously, too, farming is our chief source of food, by far – and the only source remotely able to sustain present and projected numbers. We cannot afford to let it falter even for a week or so. Agriculture is also, still, the world’s biggest employer by far.

Agriculture could solve all employment problems


Farming is not only the world’s greatest employer; it always should be because no other industry is remotely capable of employing all the people who need jobs. Furthermore, it is the only industry that could employ large numbers of people usefully: constructively rather than destructively; not as serfs but in truly satisfying careers. For the more people there are working on the land – provided they know what they are doing – the more they can focus on the essential minutiae, which make it possible to raise food in sufficient quantities without wrecking everything else, and indeed in harmony with wild nature and with human beings at large. This is not a Luddite point (Luddite in the pejorative sense). The new generation of agroecological farmers can and should make use of all the technologies available, provided those technologies are appropriate (in the sense described by E F Schumacher in Small is Beautiful and Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality) and can truly contribute to the grand cause of agroecology. Very smart, discriminating, small and lightweight weed-picking robots could have a place (although I am happy to be corrected on this. Some people like weeding after all, for the peace of mind it can bring; and others point out that there are other ways of controlling weeds besides wiping them out).
But, for example, although Jeremy Corbyn in his excellent address to the Labour Party Conference in 2018 – praised even by at least one Tory MP – promised to find 400,000 jobs in “green” industries he failed to suggest that farming could and should be one of them; yet it would be desirable to recruit about a million ecologically aware new farmers right now, as a matter of urgency, with more to follow, even to begin to put British farming back on an a sensible track, able to provide good food for us all without wrecking what’s left of the biosphere. In the world’s poorest countries, which in reality will never be industrialized to the point that Britain is, it probably would be best all round if up to 50% of people worked on the land. The idea that all countries should “develop” in the way that the present industrial countries did in their profligate and imperialist past is just no longer tenable. So the present Third World norm – about 60% of people on the land — is probably a little high but is surely in the right ball-park. The pressure from the west to reduce the labour force in Third World countries in the name of modernity is absolutely inappropriate. In Britain now only about 1% of people work on the land and if India copied Britain’s agriculture as they have sometimes been encouraged to do in the name of “development” (and big business) then half a billion people would be out of work, roughly equivalent to the total population of the EU. The UN tells us that a billion people now live in urban slums. If all the world adopted Britain’s way of farming it would be two billion. At least.

Global warming


Agriculture as now practiced is a prime cause of all the great disasters that are now befalling the biosphere and therefore, with a radical change of approach and in virtually all policies, it could contribute hugely to their solution.  Green policies did feature in Jeremy Corbyn’s Conference speech (at the time of writing the Tory Conference has yet to pass comment on such matters, if it ever gets round to them) but, as politicians and the other oligarchs generally do, he focused more or less exclusively on global warming and on energy, and especially on wind and solar power (although, controversially, he did not exclude nuclear). He did not mention the crucial roles that agriculture could and should play in putting things right. But then, neither does anyone else in the positions of greatest influence, as far as I can see.

Thus, as all the stats show, farming worldwide – and especially industrial farming – is a prime contributor to global warming; which, together with mass extinction, is the great environmental disaster of our age, and therefore of all ages to come. Farming could, though, be a great ameliorator – first by raising soil carbon (the role of which seems to be to be seriously underestimated); secondly, by shifting away as rapidly and decisively as possible from oil-dependent industrial agriculture to agroecology; and thirdly, in particular, by increasing, dramatically, the number of trees, not exclusively but largely by agroforestry.

Instead, the grand debate that the world ought to be having on agricultural strategy and practice is reduced to a search for scapegoats. Cattle (and other ruminants but mainly cattle) have been singled out as the villains in the piece – belching out methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) as they graze. This has brought big industry, scientists and technologists of the gung-ho kind, and vegans/vegetarians together in unholy alliance. Big industry wants to bring all cattle indoors in giant CAFOs (the full name “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” is appropriately hideous) with thousands of animals fed primarily on cereal and imported soya (all produced with copious inputs of oil and gas, but never mind). The exhalations of the animals are then purged — “scrubbed” — of greenhouse gases (GHGs) with high tech. It is taken for granted that high-tech solutions must be best because high tech means progress (doesn’t it?) and of course high tech is profitable, at least for the few who control it. The vegans and vegetarians want to ban cattle altogether, at least for meat.

Far too little attention is given to the point, first brought into the public domain to my knowledge by Graham Harvey in Grass-fed Nation, that grassland grazed by well-managed cattle and sheep may sequester more carbon than is released – ie that well-managed ruminants can reduce atmospheric GHGs. I like to point out that throughout the Miocene and Pliocene epochs (from about 20 to three million years ago) there were more grazing herbivores (elephants and horses as well as ruminants) than at any other time (billions and billions of them) yet the world grew steadily cooler, culminating in the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene. To be sure, the main reasons for this were cosmological – but the billions and billions of mega-grazers clearly did little or nothing to arrest the steady fall in temperature. Clearly, much more research is needed to monitor the effects of well-managed grazing on the balance of carbon that is released as methane vs carbon sequestered — and some research is taking place, but nothing like enough. Instead the pro-grazers (traditionally-inclined cattle farmers) and the anti-grazers (vegans and industrialists) are locked in often snarling conflict with little prospect of resolution. But then: CAFOs are profitable and so is veganism, and in a modern western democracy we should let a hundred flowers bloom, should we not? (Provided of course that all the flowers are profitable. But then, if they aren’t, they can simply be allowed to go bust. The market can always be relied upon to sort things out. One way or another).

Water


One of the predicted consequences of global warming was and is for more extreme and unpredictable swings in weather with longer and more extreme periods of both drought and flood – a prediction that seems to be coming spectacularly to pass. Even the doubters in the southern United States must be thinking again as their houses are washed away. Again there is much focus on civil engineering but again, the biggest contribution by far could be made by ecological means, and particularly by farming: more trees (Britain could do with at least a three-fold increase) of the right species in the right places, with obvious emphasis on agroforestry; deep-rooted crops; and changes in topography and crops – contour planting, swales, ponds, bore-holes, and so on. Again, I have never heard any of this discussed in mainstream political circles. As always, the prevailing mindset leads politicians and indeed all the oligarchs towards measures (I won’t call them “solutions” because they aren’t) that are high tech and potentially profitable. Solutions based on biology, traditional practice, common sense, and values apart from those of money — social, aesthetic, moral, spiritual — are not on the mainstream agenda. After all, politicians and intellectuals justify their existence by doing things differently and in ways that ensure that they themselves continue to be seen to be necessary.

Wildlife conservation needs wildlife-friendly farming


Agriculture is implicated up to the hilt in the other mega-threat and disaster of our age – that of mass extinction: at least a half of all other species (perhaps around four million out of an estimated eight million) could well be extinct by the end of the 21st century; not yet the biggest but by far the quickest mass extinction in the Earth’s long history. Again farming is a prime cause – and again, at least in large part, it could be a large part of the solution. For farming currently occupies a third of all land on Earth including most of the most fertile land. Most wild creatures favour fertile lowlands too but they are banished or indeed wiped out by industrial farming, so for the most part wildlife is shoved into the margin lands; and industrial farming for good measure is a major pollutant of all other habitats, including the oceans.

It seems to me that unless farming is as wildlife-friendly as can be managed then the cause of wildlife conservation is dead in the water or at least is holed below the water-line. We need wilderness too, of course, but wildlife-friendly farming and wildlife-friendly cities matter at least as much, and perhaps even more. (It’s amazing what’s possible. Apparently the greatest concentration of leopards in the world is in Mumbai. They feed mainly on feral pigs. This isn’t a recommendation but it does show that even the most crowded cities can accommodate a surprising range of surprising species).

Overall, in farming, we need a spectrum of land-use that includes some element of land-sparing but is primarily one of land-sharing: some wilderness (as much as possible) at one end of the spectrum; some exclusively human domains at the other end (all extraneous life-forms should be barred from intensive care units, for example, and preferably from recording studios and restaurant kitchens); but in Britain at least most of the rest of the land should be as mixed as possible, with people living side by side with other species, both wild and domestic, as harmoniously as can be managed. Apart from creatures like Great Bustards, which are seriously stand-offish, most species seem to be far more flexible and accommodating than is commonly supposed. (Old Delhi used to be packed with vultures and eagles. I saw them for myself in the 1980s, roosting and nesting in the trees by the roadside).

Meat


Meat brings out the worst in people. I don’t mean it makes them aggressive like dogs with bones – typically, in traditional societies, meat is shared – but it provokes extreme arguments.

The arguments against livestock farming are of four main kinds: ecological (animals take up too much land and resource); welfare (a lot of livestock farming seems cruel and always has been, though modern intensive methods seem the cruellest of all); nutritional (some say meat is bad for us); and moral/metaphysical (we just don’t have a right to incarcerate, breed, and slaughter animals for own convenience). All of these arguments carry some weight but all except the last are answerable. The moral/metaphysical objection will always be with us.

Thus, there are plenty of stats to show that it takes ten times or so more land to produce a kilo or protein from cattle (say) than it does from wheat (say) and in general plants are far more efficient. But such stats do not tell the whole story. Most obviously, cattle and other herbivores could and should be raised on land that is too cold or wet or dry or steep to raise sensible quantities of cereal by less than heroic means, while pigs and poultry should be fed on surpluses and leftovers, so meat, milk and eggs can be produced in significant quantities in addition to whatever arable farming and horticulture can provide. Furthermore, I know of no system of agriculture or horticulture that would not benefit from the presence of livestock. The key measure is not protein or food energy per hectare but land equivalent ratio. Thus, a judicious mix of arable or horticulture with pigs or poultry, ideally with ruminants interspersed if the area is big enough, typically produces more human food per unit area than cereals or livestock would do alone. Again, provided the animals are deployed as supporting players and not as the raison d’etre of the whole operation, as in today’s industrial livestock farming, they increase the overall efficiency (when efficiency is measured in biological terms, which is what really matters).  Intensive livestock farming as now conceived is just an offshoot of the arable industry – and that really is pernicious. It is profitable, but neoliberal dogma is no substitute for sound ecology (or morality).

Welfare must of course be paramount and if it is, then farming need not be cruel; certainly no worse, for most creatures, than the wild. Overall it’s the desire to maximize output and minimum cost without moral restraint that’s the problem, not livestock farming per se. To be sure, in the hard-nosed commercial attitude that now prevails (and is called “realistic”) maximum output at minimum cost is all that is deemed to matter. Moral finer feeling is deliberately excluded from neoliberal thinking.

The nutritional objection to meat falls short for similar reasons. If livestock is raised intensively on an  unnaturally concentrated and uniform diet; and if meat is seen as the prime or the only worthwhile source of protein; and if animal fat is a prime source of calories — then perhaps (probably) this can be harmful (the jury is out). But if meat is produced only on feed that is as varied and as natural as possible and is consumed in commensurately modest amounts then in net it is surely beneficial: guaranteeing protein quality and providing a wide range of essential micro-nutrients, some of which are understood (such as zinc and calcium) and some of which have yet to be fully worked out (such as the roles of various unsaturated fats). As Ralph Waldo Emerson said (apparently he coined the expression, although it has the feel of ancient folklore) “moderation in all things”. It’s obvious really. Most of what we need to know is obvious.

The final objection – that we have no right to impose so decisively on the lives of fellow, sentient creatures – cannot, I think, be satisfactorily answered. There are two main moral/metaphysical arguments in defence of livestock farming and although both carry weight, neither is totally convincing.

The first argument says that we, human beings, did not ask to be born, but now we are here it is incumbent upon us to look after ourselves. Certainly, at least in Christian theology, suicide is seriously frowned upon. Our anatomy and physiology proclaim that we are designed or evolved to be omnivores and although we obviously can live exclusively on plants (many vegans have been extremely vigorous and long-lived) there can be no doubt that meat, eggs, milk and fish are at the least a very useful safety net (high quality protein, zinc, recondite fatty acids, etc). If veganism was perceived as a worldwide imperative (and as Immanuel Kant said, true moral principles should be universally applicable) them a great many people would be in trouble. We could argue that we have a duty to produce some meat to help ensure that the human race remains in good heart.

But we should not argue (I suggest) that we have a right to raise other animals just for our own convenience – or not, at least, in the sense of “God-given right”, which is the meaning it has in the first paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence (“We take it to be self-evident … etc”). “Rights” in general is a very dodgy concept at the best of times. As Martin Luther and John Calvin both insisted, all good things that come our way are by the grace of God. They are not our right. Eating meat and indeed being alive is a privilege, not a right.

All in all, the best moral/ metaphysical defence of livestock farming and meat-eating that I can come up with is what I understand to be the Buddhist and Jainist argument that while we are on this Earth we should contrive to do as little harm as possible to other people or other creatures. For this reason Buddhists and Jains are generally vegan. But if it is true that it is ecologically more sound to produce some livestock by means that are as natural as possible, rather than none at all, then we may do less harm to the biosphere as a whole by incorporating some livestock farming, than we would if we just grew crops. In short, no creature human or otherwise can survive without incommoding other creatures to some extent but we surely would do least harm to other creatures by farming in ways that are as ecologically pukka as possible: and that should include judicious use of livestock.

Food


As outlined in my essay (III.1: Nutrition: the paradigm shift) in the College website (http://collegeforrealfarming.org/), present nutritional science is a mess and so too is food policy insofar as there is any. There are enthusiasts for high fat and low fat, high protein and minimal protein, high carbohydrate and virtually none at all, and all manner of claims for all kinds of ad hoc ingredients without which we are told we will surely die even though, in many cases, most people have never had access to them. Of course, most people who have ever been born in the history of the world are in fact dead so perhaps that is true, although common sense says it probably is not.

Overall, modern nutritional theory of the more plausible and justifiable kind tends to advocate “Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”; and this is exactly the balance we would get if we farmed in agroecological ways; and it is serendipitously the case that all the world’s greatest traditional cuisines from Italy to China and all places in between, do use meat sparingly while making lavish use of the plants that grow locally (notably wheat and rice); and all are wondrously mixed and various, not least because they make good use of whatever grows locally and naturally – cardamoms in Kerala, thyme and oregano in Italy, whelks in Whitstable (when there were any). So nutritional theory, agroecology, and the best gastronomy are perfectly in harmony. This should be written in six-foot letters over everyone’s desk who has anything to do with food policy.

At present the world produces enough food for 14 billion people – which is easy to work out from FAO stats that are freely available on the web. Thus, one kilo of wheat (or cereal in general) produces enough calories and protein to support one person for a day; so a tonne (1000 kilos) provides enough for three people for a year. The world now produces around 2.5 billion tonnes of cereal per year which would supply all the macronutrient needed for 7.5 billion people – roughly the present world population. But cereals provide only half of our total food intake – the rest comes from tubers, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, fungi etc. So overall we produce enough for 15 billion. Still there is no room for complacency and we need overall to farm far less profligately but the figures show nonetheless that the continuing focus on production, and the damage that so obviously results, is all unnecessary. Profitable, but not necessary. With proper farming — agroecological farming — we should be well able to support the 10 billion who we are told will be with us later in the century – and to go on supporting such numbers, if necessary, forever (which is what “sustainable” ought to mean).

Serendipitously, the UN tells us that 10-11 billion is as big as the world population is likely to get. The population curve continues to rise, but it is flattening — for it seems that when women in particular have the option they prefer to have fewer children rather than more. In centuries to come the population could and should diminish – not through coercion but because of people’s choice — so the problem of “feeding people” should grow less as the decades and centuries pass. But cool heads are needed which, alas, people in positions of influence often don’t have. Political leaders from all kinds of countries have tended to get pro-natalist from time to time. Vladimir Putin is currently encouraging Russians to have as many children as possible so as to out-populate the US. Women with 10 kids become national heroes. The women in China who are now exhorted to have only one child are the daughters and granddaughters of women who were encouraged under Mao Zedong to have as many as possible, so as to build an expendable army of 100 million. But the global population curve is flattening nonetheless, despite the zeal of charismatic leaders.
Present agricultural policy — production, production, production; ever more lethal pesticides and GMOs; the whole over-heated, over-hyped industrial caboodle — is unnecessary and is obviously very damaging. All we really need is to farm by tried and tested methods — agroecological practice is mostly founded in tradition, though further refinement, guided not least by ecological science, is always good — and to re-learn how to cook. This doesn’t sound bad at all — unless of course you happen to be among the oligarchy: an industrialist or a techy-minded investor or an industry-dependent academic or a politician who wants to appear hyper-modern. For all of them, the people who call the shots, the easy solutions that we know can work are very bad news indeed; and are deemed therefore to be “unrealistic”.

The price of food


Actually, it isn’t true that arguments about meat bring out the worst in people. Arguments about the price of food are worse still.

Thus, those who defend the status quo like to tell us that large-scale industrial farming and the food processing industry and the global marketing network that industrial farming gives rise to, culminating in the supermarket, keep food prices down. This is vital, the apologists say, for if we didn’t do things this way then a great many people would not be able to afford food at all. Already, even in affluent Britain (the fifth largest economy in the world, we are told), one million people now resort regularly to food banks.

Since big industrial farms and the elaborate processing and retail chains that they give rise to incorporate a great deal of material stuff that doesn’t seem strictly necessary, including vast quantities of pesticides and designer packaging and to-ing and fro-ing of more or less identical foodstuffs across continents and oceans and layer upon layer of managers and accountants and advertising executives all with BMWs, this does seem a little unlikely. It is true though that as things stand it is generally cheaper to buy food of a kind in Tesco than in the local organic food boutique. Still, though, impressions can be very deceptive. Thus, prices for fresh, local, organic vegetables, fruit, milk, and eggs at our local farmers’ market in Oxford (which my wife organized for several years) were if anything less than for their equivalent in the local high-street supermarkets – but the supermarkets can afford more publicity than farmers’ markets can so the word never got around. Common sense says that it should be cheaper to keep the food chains as short as possible, and so it would be were it not that oil is still relatively cheap and the giant companies who run the industrial food chains can drive hard bargains. Farmers now generally receive less than 20% of the supermarket retail cost of food. Labour may account for 50% or production costs but that is only 10% of the whole. It  makes very little sense (does it?) to try to reduce ever further the cost of producing food – that is, the 20% — while leaving intact the 80% that is largely superfluous. It makes even less sense at all to try to cut costs by reducing labour. I would be grateful if the experts in high places with their firsts in economics could explain why the status quo is just and sensible.

However – and this is the crunch point which no major political party seems to have grasped – the main reasons why so many people can’t afford food in a country like Britain have nothing to do with the price of food. The most obvious, immediate reason why people must resort to food banks these days is that they, meaning most people, are forced to pay so much for housing. As Simon Fairlie pointed out recently in The Land (everyone should read The Land) British people 60 years ago spent an average of 11% of their income on the mortgage or on rent and about 30% of their income on food. Now it’s the other way around: at least 30% spent on housing (mortgages often swallow up 50%: one partner working exclusively to pay for the roof over the head) and about 11% on food. The difference is that the 30% that used to be spent on food went largely to farmers and farmworkers whereas the 30-50% now spent on the mortgage goes to bankers. But houses have now taken over from money as the principal nest-egg. They are no longer seen primarily as places to live but as vital security.

Houses now of course are notoriously expensive. The house that my own daughter bought a few years ago in South London cost almost exactly 100 times more than an almost identical house that I bought in the same area in the late 1960s (and since she bought it the price has gone up by another third). Houses like the one that I was brought up in in South London which my father bought on the wages of an army musician (albeit a very good one) now sell for more than a million. This prodigious hike has almost nothing to do with the increasing cost of building or even of land prices. Indeed it is possible now with modern materials and clever design to build chalet-style eco-friendly houses that I for one would be very happy to live in for around £30,000. (There are plenty of ads on the web). The enormous prices are caused primarily because, for the past few decades, that has been the intention. Houses, like agriculture, have been seen not primarily as a way of meeting essential needs but as another way of making money. The supply of housing has been restricted for the same reason that De Beer’s restricts the supply of diamonds. To keep the customers keen, demand must exceed supply. This seems to me to be wicked. Yet to reverse the trend we don’t have to be particularly radical or embrace the politics of Trotsky. Building houses need not be seen as political subversion. Harold Macmillan was an old-style patriarchal Tory but as housing minister in Churchill’s peacetime government he found the money to build 300,000 council houses per year. That will do.

It’s the same story with land. Ordinary farmland now costs around £25K per hectare only because land, like housing, and indeed everything else, is treated as a commodity by which smart people can make a very great deal of money which apparently is good for all of us because the money is said to “trickle down”. Except it doesn’t.

This leads us to the even bigger reason why so many people must resort to food banks: inequality. According to the Equality Trust the net income of the richest 10% in Britain is nine times higher per head than in the bottom 10% (£80K-plus versus £9.5K). Before taxes the richest 10% receive 24 times more than the poorest 10%. The discrepancy between the super-rich who have such enormous influence and the poorest is surely at least 1000-fold – several millions per year vs a few thousand. The gap between rich and poor in Britain, the Trust tells us, is very high compared to other developed countries.
As Kate Pickett and Richard G Wilkinson relate in The Spirit Level  (Allen Lane, 2009) economic inequality, especially on such a scale, is perhaps the prime cause of social unrest and a huge contributor to personal depression (it’s not poverty per se that gets people down but the sense of injustice). More immediately to the point – it is impossible to fix a sensible price for food when some people earn so much less, or more, than others. Eleven per cent of earnings for the average person amounts to far more than the poorest can afford, and if the richest people ate what most people eat then the amount that most people now spent on food would be too small to register. There are bound to be such anomalies in a country that tolerates such inequality. With a more egalitarian economy worthy of a country that claims to be civilized everyone would be able to afford good food, and farmers could afford to produce that food by means that are kind and ecologically sound as most of them surely want to do.

But neoliberalism, presented by its advocates as the natural economy of democracy (because anyone in theory can join in the fun and success in the market depends on giving other people what they want) creates and exacerbates inequality. Certainly, inequality in Britain is far greater now than it was before 1980 when neoliberalism became the norm. The reason seems obvious. The neoliberal economy is based on the idea of the “free” market, which in turn is entirely materialistic: only money counts. Everyone (in theory!) is invited to compete with everyone else to make as much money as possible (maximizing profit by maximizing output and minimizing costs) and to bag as much as they can of the market share. In a maximally and indeed ruthlessly competitive market those who begin with a slight material advantage can use their bargaining power to pull even further ahead. So the rich are bound to get richer and increasingly to outstrip the less well-off.

The whole economic caboodle is distorted even further by finance capitalism, which trades not in real things but in money itself. The money does not even exist in physical form but it can be increased hand over fist just by playing the right games on a computer screen. Yet it can then be translated back into real goods, including land and buildings which people want and need. Furthermore, though Gordon Brown spoke of “prudence”, we have been positively encouraged these past 40 years or so to subscribe to the debt economy.

Individuals or indeed entire countries have been encouraged to borrow as much as possible — for all that matters, the theorists have assured us, is the continuing ability to pay the interest. So most of us are net borrowers paying out interest – and a few are net lenders, receiving the interest. Hence, again, the very rich must grow richer while the poor grow poorer. Architect turned economist Margrit Kennedy first pointed this out, as in Interest and Inflation (1990).

So it is that Britain’s and the world’s richest people by far are not those who do real and useful things (laying bricks, taking care of other people, teaching, growing food, taking care of the biosphere) but those who know how to manipulate the wealth created by those who do; and people who do useful things, like scientists and farmers (and indeed teachers), are increasingly obliged to tailor their skills and talents to the whims and demands of the richest.  This can’t be right, can it?

So what’s to be done?


Time for Renaissance and the College for Real Farming and Food Culture
The global disaster and the anomalies are such, and the prevailing strategies are so at odds with what is really needed, that we, humanity, need to re-think everything from first principles; and since everything is connected to everything else we need to re-think everything in the light of everything else. We cannot hope to devise agriculture that provides everyone with good food (which is eminently possible) and looks after the biosphere and can continue to do so for thousands and millions of years to come (it’s absurd that we are now staring Armageddon in the face) if we focus only on agriculture. Agriculture of the kind we need is impossible without an appropriate economy (which cannot be based purely on an invitation to rich people to make themselves richer) and we cannot devise an appropriate economy without a sympathetic government. At the present stage of history we cannot hope to survive without science but science should never be taught without the philosophy of science (which tells us that science has limits) and without reference to politics (for political naivety leaves it open to corruption) or to moral philosophy (what is it actually right to do?). Neither should science or moral philosophy or anything else be taught without reference to metaphysics which asks for example where morality comes from and whether the material world that science so wondrously describes is all there is. And so on.

It is for such reasons that a few of us are now seeking to establish the College for Real Farming and Food Culture as outlined roughly on the College website. I say “roughly” because the website and the College itself are work in progress – and always must be, because there can be no final, definitive solution to the world’s problems; only a continuing and real desire make human societies more convivial, and individual lives more fulfilling, and to keep the biosphere as a whole in good heart, and to go on doing so. “Progress” should mean progress towards these ends. What now passes as progress, to a very large extent, is leading us in the opposite direction.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, September 29 2018

An Emergency Summit for Change

an invitation to a meeting convened by CTRLshift

at The Edge, Wigan, on March 27-29 2018

Colin Tudge previews a gathering that could be the start of something big

In Britain, these days, all the essential endeavours that are supposed to promote general wellbeing and what is known as “civilization” are, it is widely agreed, in crisis: the health and social services; housing; education; energy; transport; and of course, though successive governments haven’t taken it seriously, agriculture. Oh yes, and then there’s “the environment” – nothing less than the biosphere; nature; the living world — but commonly thought of these days as real estate or “natural capital” whose job is to provide “ecosystem services”. A third of our native species are in imminent danger of extinction although that, surely, is a very conservative estimate.

Britain is not the worst country in the world. Not by any means. It is, however, the world’s fifth largest economy with all the trappings of riches beyond dreams – all that OTT architecture and those countless coffee bars in the city of London – and so we have less excuse than most. But all that successive governments from all the major parties have offered these past 40 years is more of the same: the same technophilic, mechanistic mindset; the same obsessive pursuit of ever-increasing, quantifiable wealth, without apparent regard to how it’s produced, or what it is used for, or who finishes up with it. It would be good to report that the various religions, as guardians of morality and probity (aren’t they?) are making a difference and pointing the way forward and so, to be fair, they sometimes do. But all are riven by internecine strife and endless, quasi-theological debates that seem to belong to past ages that in some ways were even darker than the present; and in net, alas, their contribution the world over is highly equivocal.

Beyond doubt, billions worldwide are seriously discontented. A survey of Americans in the 1990s showed that most of them wanted their country and the world to be different – less materialistic; focused far more on human values – though most, it turned out, believed that their fellow citizens remained fixated on wealth and “economic growth” and that nothing therefore could be changed. Many millions, though, worldwide, in hundreds of thousands of communities and movements – societies, NGOs, informal gatherings – are trying to change things around, on all fronts; with new ideas and, more to the point, with action: different ways of organizing our lives; different ways of doing things. The tremendous weight, momentum, and general inertia of the status quo is against them – law, bureaucracy, corporate power, and of course successive governments – but the mavericks keep trying and sometimes, to some extent, they succeed.

What’s lacking, though, is coordination; and crucial to this, I suggest, is a coherent philosophy. At present, different groups that in reality want the same things and to a significant extent agree on what should be done nonetheless dress their ambitions in different words and pursue their own agenda.  Our own College for Real Farming and Food Culture is intended to provide the essential, coherent philosophy that’s missing.

Above all, though, we need concerted action. Perhaps most obviously, small farmers need to work together more than they do so that they can market their produce more effectively – and, ideally, coordinate management to some extent so that although each enterprise remains small, together they can operate on a landscape scale. Farmers, growers, and whole communities, rural and urban, need to work more closely together too. Farming, healthcare, social care, education, transport, housing, conservation – all feed into each other and all need to coordinate their efforts far more than they do.

It’s clear, though, for a whole list of reasons, that we cannot afford to leave our affairs and the fate of the world to governments, or rather these days to the oligarchy of governments, corporates, and financiers, supported by compliant academics and other intellectuals. The oligarchy operates de haute en bas and although some of its members are well-meaning their net effect is to perpetuate the hierarchy and the status quo. We, people at large, must take control. The world’s affairs must in practice be organized at all levels from the individual to the United Nations – but, many suggest, the prime focus of action and of change must be the community. Communities can be democratic, as larger gatherings cannot; and they can be effective, as most individuals (all but the obscenely rich) cannot. In short: control should not come from the top down, but neither can it come from the bottom rung of all. It must come from near the bottom. The community must be the epicentre of power.

Some of those who feel this way, gathered together under the name of CTRLshift, are convening in Wigan on March 27-29 to see what they can do to push things forward and get the world moving on a different tack. It could and should be an historic meeting. To some extent the endeavour is linked to Brexit, which some feel offers an opportunity for Britain to start again on a fresh and more agreeable footing – though a great many people including me regret our departure in the same way that Matthew Arnold, a century and a half ago, regretted the passing of religious faith:

“ … now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of  the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world”.

Why meet in Wigan – and  why the end of March? Because, the CTRLshift organizers say, Wiganers voted emphatically to leave the EU; March 29 is the anniversary of the signing of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which kicked off the formal process of withdrawal; and 2018 is close to the 80th anniversary of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. I’m told that Wigan has brightened up a lot since Orwell described “the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs”. These days it’s nice.

Partners in this initial meeting include The Alternative UK; Co-ops UK; Forum for the Future; People’s Food Policy; Shared Assets; Permaculture Association; Solidarity Economy Association; Social Enterprise UK; Stir Magazine; Unltd; Totnes REconomy project; Transition Network; Shared Future CIC; Coop Business Consultants; The Low Impact Living Initiative; Counter Coin; Quantum Communications; and indeed the Real Farming Trust, of which the Campaign for Real Farming (including this website), the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, and the Oxford Real Farming Conference are projects.  Indeed, there’s a lot going on.

Further information from http://www.ctrlshiftsummit.org.uk

Lies, Misconceptions, and Global Agriculture

More or less everything that we are told about food and farming by the oligarchs who dominate our lives – the government, the corporates, big finance, and large but mercifully not all sections of academe — is untrue, or at least is seriously misleading.  This, says Colin Tudge, is why the world is in such a mess – and why we must take matters into our own hands.

To put the matter portentously, the misconceptions that underpin present-day agricultural strategy reflect the over-confident, ultra-“rational”, reductionist, materialist, positivist, imperialist mindset of the post-Enlightenment western world. The general, almost unquestioned assumption is that humanity’s task in life is to make ourselves more and more comfortable; that this this can be achieved only, or primarily, by producing more and more stuff, including food; that it is possible to go on producing more and more, even though the Earth is finite, because technology will always find a way; that, indeed, the pursuit of science will one day make us both omniscient and omnipotent, so we’ll soon understand everything and be able to control everything for our own purposes; that this – essentially western – way of thinking is superior to other ways of thinking (because those who think in the western way do become technically powerful and so are able to dominate the rest); and hence that the present world, led intellectually by the west, is on the right  lines (despite appearances) and we can safely put our trust in our present leaders.

All these beliefs must be re-examined – which of course is the point of this Campaign and of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture. Here, though, are six particular untruths that have come to dominate global agriculture and are leading the world hopelessly astray. They are:

(1): We must produce more and more food

In 2011 in a Foresight Report called The Future of Food and Farming the British government told us that we (humanity) need to produce 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising numbers and rising “demand” – especially for meat. Since then some politicians and others have raised the ante and suggested that we will need to double output by 2100. The emphasis, in short, must continue to be on production, production, and ever more production.

BUT: this simply isn’t true. According to Prof Hans Herren, President of the Millennium Institute, Washington DC, the world already produces enough food for 14 billion people. This is twice the present world population and, since the UN tells us that world numbers should level out around 2050 at about 10 billion, it is 40% more than we should ever need. The continued emphasis on production has nothing to do with real need, and everything to do with commerce.

Anyone who wants to can easily check these figures for themself.  Thus Google tells us that the world produces around 2.5 billion tonnes of cereal per year and since one tonne contains enough energy and protein for three people that’s enough macronutrient for 7.5 billion. But cereals account for only half our food – the other half comes from pulses, nuts, tubers, fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy, and fish. So the total is enough for 14 billion-plus.

At present, says the UN, a billion people still go hungry. But that has everything to do with economic and political inequality and general disruption (notably war) and nothing to do with total amount. In truth the emphasis must switch from production to sustainability and resilience, and to care of the biosphere, human and animal welfare, social justice, and general kindness. Industrial agriculture is anything but sustainable — it is a major cause of global warming and the prime cause of the mass extinction that now threatens 50% of the world’s species. It is certainly not kind, or just, and has little to do with human wellbeing. For while a billion go hungry a billion more suffer “diseases of excess”. Among other things, the world population of people with diet-related diabetes now exceeds the total population of the United States (by some margin).

(2): As people grow richer, they “demand” more meat.

This is obvious from the fact that as societies are “lifted out of poverty” meat consumption rises prodigiously. In particular the US became hooked on steaks and burgers after World War II and the economic depression that preceded it; and the Chinese, for centuries sustained on bowls of rice with bits and pieces of whatever else was available, are now “demanding” all the pork, beef, and chicken that they can produce themselves and the rest of world can supply them with. Beijing and other big Chinese cities bristle with burger joints. In Britain, successive secretaries of state have told farmers that they should strive to produce more and more pork and beef for export to China.

IN TRUTH: Nutritionists have been telling us for decades that we, human beings, don’t need a great deal of meat, and of course, many people live long and agreeable lives on a vegetarian or even a vegan diet. Most people it seems do like meat, but there is very little evidence for active “demand”. No-one to my knowledge has ever taken to the streets with placards demanding more meat, in the way that they have often demanded fairer wages or more jobs or rights for various minorities. The evidence, when looked at objectively, is that people eat what’s available and what – for whatever reason – is deemed “smart”, and fashionable. We need not assume that the observed correlation between rising wealth and meat consumption is any more than a tautology. Meat in general is expensive and as people grow richer they can eat more expensive things – not just meat but also chocolate and cream cakes and a better class of booze. People who are really rich don’t need to demonstrate their wealth by eating 32-ounce steaks, as are still available in Texas. California and Germany are the world’s epicentres of vegetarianism. More generally, all the world’s greatest cuisines from Italy to China via the Middle East and India make only sparing use of meat – as garnish, stock, and for occasional feasts. Thus a low-meat diet doesn’t mean austerity. We just need to re-learn how to cook.

The real reason for promoting meat so vigorously is not to meet the needs or satisfy the deepest desires of the human race. It is to dispose of arable surpluses. On industrial farms which western governments now put their weight and our money behind more and more livestock is raised largely or exclusively on cereal and soya (not least in what the Americans call “CAFOS” – “concentrated animal feeding operations”). The greatest problem for world agriculture is not to produce enough food (see point 1) but to avoid producing too much, for surpluses tend to be sold unprofitably or even at a loss. If agricultural output was truly geared to need – or indeed to true “demand” – then it would be all too easy to produce far more grain and other staples than the world really needs, as indeed we already do. Industrial farmers all too easily bump up against the “market ceiling” which of course restricts their profits. But animals can consume all the cereal (and soya) that arable farmers can produce – provided producers and processors can hype up the demand for meat. This they do; and a lot of academics are content to put their critical faculties on hold and help them to do this.

If even the livestock market is glutted (perhaps because farmers don’t have enough animals to gobble up all that’s going) then these days the surplus can be turned into alcohol and called “biofuel”, of which modern governments like those of Britain and the US make a virtue, and support with public money. That is, industrial farmers solve the problem of surplus cereal by burning it — profitably. This is economically ingenious, but it does humanity little or no good and does the biosphere a great deal of unnecessary harm.

(3): We need ever more productive crops and livestock

We are further assured that the huge increase in food that we allegedly need can be provided only by raising, yet further, the already prodigious output of our cereals and livestock, to be achieved by ever more intensive breeding and nutrition (as in CAFOs). Thus we need wheat that yields at least 10 tonnes per hectare on average, about three times the yield of 100 years ago (the British average is already eight tonnes per hectare). We need cattle that give at least 10,000 litres (2000 gallons) per lactation, which basically means per year – which many do already: about six times as much as a wild cow would produce for her calf, and three times more than would have satisfied most farmers of the early 20th century. Broiler chickens are already expected to reach supermarket weight at six weeks and we need to make them even faster, and/or bigger – and cheaper. Sows in Australia produce an average of 22.3 live piglets a year in two litters, while those in the USA now manage 27.8 — about four times the typical output of wild boars.

BUT: Given that we already produce twice as much food as we need, and we don’t really need a lot of animal protein, the rapid-growth chicken and the prodigiously fecund sow, are simply unnecessary. So too is the 2000-gallon-plus cow, which commonly suffers mightily from mastitis and lameness and is usually slaughtered after two or three lactations (traditional dairy cows commonly managed 10 or more). So too are 10-tonne per hectare cereals which in large part are grown to feed these beasts. Such crop yields year after year produced with the aid of artificial fertilizers rapidly exhaust the soil and destroy its structure so it’s now reckoned that many fields in East Anglia will not be farmable, at least for cereals, for more than another 30 years or so. Indeed, according to UN’s Global Land Output of September 2017 about a third of all the world’s agricultural soils are now seriously degraded, largely and to some extent entirely because of such intensive, industrial farming,

(4): Only high-tech can save us now

We are also given to understand that to go on feeding ourselves we need the highest of high tech.  Meat substitutes, made from soya or fungi are already commonplace but we could, we are told, by-pass the need to raise whole organisms and simply culture animal cells en masse in the laboratory. The food industry is working on it.

Above all, we are told, we need GMOs: “genetically modified organisms”, tailor-made by genetic engineering. GM soya, maize, and rape (what the Americans call “canola”) is already sweeping the world. GM crops are not yet grown commercially in Britain and mainland Europe but are freely imported from the US and elsewhere and the biotech lobby worldwide is tremendously strong and its arguments are seductive and many politicians are taken in by them. Especially amenable are those with no scientific background who want to appear avant garde: up to date, modern, “progressive”. Tony Blair, who read law at St John’s Oxford, was a positive GMO zealot and so too is Lord Dick Taverne who studied ancient history at Balliol and became a QC and founded “Sense about Science” in 2002. They, in common alas with most scientists, seem to know very little about the philosophy of science. They do not apparently realize that it has severe limitations, and does not and cannot lead us to omniscience, and that exciting ideas do not necessarily lead to good strategies. In truth it is very hard to find any clear examples of GM crops that have been of unequivocal benefit to humankind. Almost always they serve mainly or entirely to make rich people richer (the biotech companies and big industrial farmers) but they solve no problems that really need solving, and (despite denials) are causing enormous collateral damage.

But then, modern western agriculture is entirely profit-driven and it’s the rich who make the rules, so GMs are becoming de rigueur. Although there are plenty of protestors, Americans in general seem already to have accepted GM – mainly maize, soya, “canola”, and cotton – as the normal way of things.

We are told, of course, that GM crops can be and are bred specifically to be pest- and disease-resistant and so can out-yield conventional types without the protection of pesticides. But most popular are the GM crops that are herbicide resistant – enabling farmers to spray their fields not exactly with abandon but without too much restraint, to kill the weeds without killing the crops. The GM seeds and the herbicide are sold as a package. (See below, the article called “GMOs: Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers”. The piece is more than five years old – it was posted on 28/12/2012 – but the answers I and others were calling for are still not forthcoming).

IN FACT: Appropriate technology that truly makes life easier is certainly worthwhile, and some appropriate technology is indeed high-tech – like the mobile ‘phone or solar panels. But much of today’s agricultural high tech – including the much vaunted GMOs as outlined above – is not appropriate at all: not needed, and often very damaging. There is a huge and growing literature on this not only in polemical articles but in scientific journals (not all scientists are on the side of big business). This literature, though, in the most influential circles, is simply ignored: or else answered with statistical quibbling, mostly of the kind that could be applied to almost any scientific study, if anyone cared to do so. The quibbling does not answer the objections, but it can hold things up and wear the opposition down which is what it is intended for.

The biggest point perhaps is that big high-tech monocultural farms are not the most productive – certainly not over time. A growing literature shows that small mixed farms, well-managed, can be at least as productive in any one year as the big monocultures, and generally are more productive when measured over decades precisely because the mixture of crops and animals leads to resilience, so the mixed farms are better able to resist set-backs – droughts, late frosts, etc. Mixed crops and livestock also are far more resistant to disease, and simply don’t need mega-inputs of pesticides and antibiotics.

(5): Fewer workers means greater efficiency – and efficiency is all

Then, we’re told, we need to reduce the farm labour force worldwide to make it more “efficient”. Efficiency, after all, is measured in money: as output per worker. If the workforce is reduced and the remaining workers produce as much or more than before, then that must be efficient, mustn’t it? And efficiency is good, is it not?  The antithesis, after all, is inefficiency, which means waste – which is obviously bad, is it not? Who can doubt that?

Therefore, we are told – it has been official policy for at least 100 years – the whole world should strive to industrialize its farming. As far as possible we must replace farm labour (stroppy; inefficient; gets sick) with machines, industrial chemistry (fertilizers, antibiotics, insecticides, acaricides, nematicides, fungicides, herbicides), and of course biotech. Machines don’t deal easily with mixtures of crops and livestock and so farming must as far as possible be monocultural – just one crop, or beast, at a time. All should be increased to achieve economies of scale: combine harvesters as big as a small house; trucks the size of small war-ships; small fields merged into bigger and bigger fields and small farms merged into vast estates. So it is that there are farms in East Anglia of 1000 hectares-plus (more than 2500 acres) with just one full-time employee (though many rely on seasonal gangs of East European and Asian immigrants of conveniently dubious legal status, bussed in to do the fiddly bits). There are farms in the Ukraine bigger than Kent. This too is modernity.

Monocultural farms that produce vast quantities of just one thing at a time cannot of course feed local populations who do not live by chickens or maize or rapeseed alone. Instead they must treat all their crops and animals as commodities to be produced on the largest scale and sold into the global market where they are processed, packaged, and distributed by evermore labyrinthine routes (with plenty of scope for chicanery, profiteereing, and general malpractice) to the far corners of the Earth.

So it is, among other things, that according to the University of Reading, Britain’s farm labour force has dropped from around 700,000 in 1984 (when industrialization was already well advanced) to 526,000 in 2009 – 1.7% of the total workforce; and numbers continue to drop. In the 10 years between 2006 and 2016 the number of dairy farmers in Britain fell by 50% from 21,000 to 10,500 – and again, the decline continues. Worldwide, the UN tells us, one billion people now live in urban slums and it’s a fair bet that most of them are dispossessed farmers or their erstwhile dependents.

All this is necessary, we are told. It keeps costs down and people above all “demand” cheap food. Already in Britain one million people a year must resort to food banks and if we farmed any differently, the figure would be higher.

The continuing attack on farm labour has left Britain desperately short of skilled farmers and growers. We might conservatively suggest that we need at least a million more asap – a whole new generation. Urgent and radical land reform is needed too to provide them with farmland to work on.

IN REALITY: “Efficiency” is a horribly abused concept. Cash-efficiency depends entirely on economic context which in truth is highly contrived (although we are told that prices are determined by the dispassionate forces of the “free” market). Thus industrial farming is entirely dependent on oil and is cheaper than the traditional kind only because oil is still available, for the time being, and prices are regulated to make sure it is still affordable (just). Perhaps even more to the point: industrial farming seems cheap because the collateral damage is largely uncosted – including the cost of mass unemployment, in money (including Aid) and human misery, as the countryside worldwide is depopulated. The cost is not attributed to industrial farming. Neither is the cost in non-cash terms (or even in cash terms) of mass extinction. The collateral damage is written off as “externalities”. Nothing to do with me, Guv.

Neither, when you analyse it, is the industrially produced food sold in supermarkets anything like as cheap as it may seem to me; and neither can the cost be laid at the feet of the farmer. In truth with the industrialized food chain the farmer gets less than 20% of the retail price and his poor benighted employees who are regularly thrown out in the name of “efficiency” probably account for only 10% of the retail price (at most). The 80% that goes on big machines and fancy forecourts and packaging and razzmatazz and layers and layers of managers and shareholders and bankers who lend the money to make it all possible, is OK. It contributes to GDP even if it doesn’t contribute to human wellbeing and does enormous harm to the biosphere, and increased GDP means economic growth and what else matters?

(6): Organic farming is a middle-class indulgence — strictly niche. It cannot possibly feed the world.

As for organic farming – don’t be ridiculous! If all the world farmed organically food would cost a fortune and half the world would starve.  Either that or we would all have to be vegans, and austere vegans at that, living on fibrous bread and lentil soup. Sales of organic produce are going up in the UK but in 2016 sales of organic accounted for only 1.5% of the total spent on food and drink.  Organic is elitist; strictly for the well-heeled, elite middle class. To recommend it for the world at large is simply to be irresponsible. Only high-tech/ industrial farming can deliver, on the largest possible scale, driven by the competition of the neoliberal, global “free” market.

IN TRUTH: organic farming, so despised by the powers that be, dismissed as an elitist myth, ticks all the boxes that really matter. Well managed organic farms can be at least as productive as “conventional” farms that do use artificial fertilizers and pesticides and the rest. The produce is of course free of pesticide residues and generally is high in essential vitamins and minerals. Organic farms employ more people – which in this populous world should be seen as a good thing; and with appropriate technology, the jobs they provide can be highly agreeable, and sociable – the basis of truly fulfilling careers.

What’s to be done?

Though obviously based on untruth and misconception, these six points are a fair summary of official Defra policy and are what you will hear from most of the important-looking people who appear on public platforms and on TV to tell us what’s what. Whether the policy makers and those who inform public opinion are themselves ill-informed, or are deliberately concealing what they know to be the truth, I do not know. I suspect it is a mixture of both. Either way it is deeply reprehensible.

All in all is has long been obvious to me and a great many other people that the oligarchs who dominate our lives have lost the plot and, quite simply, are not on our side. Successive American and British governments in particular over the past 35 years have seen it as their role in life not directly to meet the needs of the people but to support the corporates (and banks) that are perceived to provide the wealth that is perceived to be vital for our wellbeing – the sine qua non. If and when there is any money left over we can spend some of it on the biosphere but we cannot afford to that until, well, we are richer than we are now (or indeed are ever likely to be). Agriculture is run on this assumption – perceived somewhat chillingly as “a business like any other”. In Britain, housing, education, transport, health, are all now subject to the same mentality. Enterprises that do not yield maximum measurable wealth in the shortest time – and concentrate that wealth so that it benefits those who do the measuring – are not considered “realistic”. Apparently it is more important to maximize wealth, expressed as “GDP”, than it to promote human wellbeing and to keep the biosphere in good heart.

Nothing matters more than agriculture and we simply can’t afford to leave it to the present oligarchy, driven as it is by this post-Enlightenment mindset. In Britain, this means that we can’t afford to leave agriculture to the Defra, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Indeed the word “agriculture” has been air-brushed out of the department’s title – I suspect in anticipation of a time when British agriculture itself will be air-brushed out, like coal-mining, because Brazil and Africa have more sunshine and cheaper labour and at least for the time being and can grow what we need more cheaply than we can grow it ourselves. Neither can we afford to leave agricultural science to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council – the title of which again makes no reference to agriculture, which is now officially conceived, apparently, as a branch of biotech.

We, people at large, Ordinary Joes, need to take matters into our own hands. I have summarized some of the things we need to do and can do (and here are there are already being done!) in Six Steps Back to the Land (Green Books 2016) To coordinate all our efforts we need a new, quasi-independent agency, or series of agencies to run food and farming – similar to the community-organized agencies that plan and run the dikes of Holland, without which the country would be submerged. The Dutch long since acknowledged that the dikes were too important to be run by governments, subject to political ambition and whim.  A quasi-independent organization is of course a quango, and quangos in Britain have an ambivalent reputation. The quango for food and farming that we need must be run, not as quangos often have been, by the great and the good and their spouses, but by people who really know what needs doing, which mainly means farmers, cooks, and conservationists, with input from scientists, sociologists, and people at large who give a damn.

Our Campaign for Real Farming and our College for Real Farming and Food Culture are intended to contribute not only to better food and farming but to grass-roots control. Six Steps Back to the Land discusses ways in which people who may have never thought much about farming can get involved, and communities can start to run things for themselves. A new book edited by Michel Pimbert of the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, called Food Sovereignty, Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity: Constructing and Contesting knowledge (Routledge, London, 2018), argues that people everywhere must get more involved not simply in on-the-ground farming but in shaping policy. The book is truly radical and right now, radical thinking is vital.

However, farmers can’t farm in the way the world really needs unless people at large buy their produce; sound farming depends on a sound food culture. People at large need to give a damn, and although we can’t all be farmers and don’t want to be, we can all take a serious interest in food. This means, as far as possible, buying only from growers and farmers who are doing the job in the right way. Vitally, too, we must re-learn out to cook. Governments that encouraged this really would be doing something useful.

It’s not quite too late to bring the world out of its tailspin but only we can do it. Governments and big industry and the world’s most powerful financiers are looking the other way.

February 19 2018

Is the tide really turning?

Colin Tudge is elated by this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference – but also, with further reflection, profoundly depressed.

At least eight-hundred-and-fifty people turned up to Oxford’s Town Hall on January 4th and 5th for this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference — about half of them farmers: a 1000% increase on our modest beginning in the University Church library in 2010. Another 350 or so wanted to get in but couldn’t. At least half were women and under 40 – the ageing male syndrome to which I am contributing more and more emphatically is very much on the wane. The atmosphere – intellectual, social — was tremendous: a literal and metaphorical buzz. The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, spoke to the assembly, answered questions, gave a filmed interview (now on the ORFC website), stayed for lunch and said many pleasing things. He acknowledged that the economic collapse of 2008 at least showed to government and the city what to “ordinary people” had long been obvious — that we could not forever base the economy on debt. He acknowledged too that an agriculture geared entirely to productivity must drive us all to the buffers (which also has been obvious to a great many people at least for some decades). He acknowledged in particular the value of and the need for organic farming, as the key ingredient of agroecology, which in turn is the key ingredient of Enlightened Agriculture, aka “Real Farming”. Above all, for the first time in at least a decade, and a rarity indeed in modern politics, we seem to have a Secretary of State who takes agriculture seriously, and has a brain. Above all, perhaps, as one old farmer said to me, “We’re talking about things here, in open forum and as a matter of course, that would have been laughed off the stage a decade ago. Organic husbandry of course – but also words like ‘values, ‘compassion’, and ‘spirituality’”. Indeed, these woolly and largely unquantifiable concepts have been on the official index expurgatorius these past few decades, swept aside by the hideous alliance of neoliberalism and uncritical technophilia.

So is the tide turning? Up to a point. Perhaps. But not nearly enough, or fast enough. It’s as if we were in a war but had yet to realize this, and were still wondering whether to call up the troops. Overall, the mindset remains the same. Whatever else happens, we’re told, we must maintain “growth” by competing in the maximally competitive global market. Technological innovation is ipso facto progress whether or not it makes a net contribution to the world’s wellbeing and security (and who can tell whether it does or doesn’t since proper “life cycle analysis” is difficult and rare?). Science is good if it contributes to technological progress of a profitable kind but otherwise is an indulgence, a luxury we can’t afford (be realistic!). Politics as a whole is not a concerted effort to solve real and obvious problems but is a war of ideologies, and ideologies are not principles; and in practice politics is a struggle for power, by whatever it takes. In practice our lives are dominated by the rich and in general (with some very honourable exceptions!) the rich are rich precisely because they have eschewed the woolly concepts (like compassion and spirituality) that should be guiding everything we do. But all the way along the line there are intellectuals on hand, from the world’s most prestigious universities, and in high-profile think-tanks, who are happy, with suitable remuneration, to justify the status quo (and sometimes, to be fair, actually believe that the status quo is OK). However grotesque our leaders may be, however misguided their strategies, there are very clever people out there willing and able to make them look good, while the very clever people who question what they do are sent to the salt-mines, or starved of grants, and in either case air-brushed out. This isn’t conspiracy theory. It’s just natural selection.

A few salients from the ORFC and its immediate aftermath will make the point.

Michael Gove

I didn’t expect to like Michael Gove and was pleasantly surprised to find him affable, charming, willing and even keen to listen, and he said many good things (as you may see from his talk and interview on the ORFC website). On a practical note he promised to continue farm subsidies as they are until 2022 – and said how absurd it is that public money should be siphoned in such vast amounts to big farmers who are already rich (or at least are capital-rich) while the smaller producers must take their chances; and agreed that small-to-medium-sized, mixed, more or less organic farms are important.

But he was keen to emphasize too that markets have their place. Most of us and certainly most farmers can agree with this but the question remains – how much of a place? Gove acknowledged that the neoliberal market tunnel-vision that led to the 2008 crash was a huge mistake but he remains a neoliberal. He acknowledged, as who could not, that Brexit raises huge problems but he was and is among the most zealous Brexiteers;  and although our “liberation” from the EU ostensibly enables us to re-design our farming along more enlightened lines, in practice, as things are, it surely will drive us further and further into the arms of the World Trade Organization. So Brexit will surely reemphasize the perceived need to maximise market share and profit, and to do all the things that are needed to achieve this (land-grabbing, more and more reliance on high-tech, small farms subsumed into bigger and bigger units, etc). In general, too – an idea that surfaced in various contexts – we need an economy and politics rooted in cooperation rather than the cut-throat competition of the modern market. Competition is grand at the level of friendly rivalry but an all-out battle in all things as a matter of global strategy is a very obvious disaster on all fronts. However, the few who win the global competition then set the tone for the rest. So it seems that whoever wins the grand global punch-up, the same kind of people, with the same kind of mindset, remain in charge. A farmer/ scientist at the conference pointed out, too, that all the things Gove seemed to be advocating could just as well have been achieved within the EU – with Britain at the core, encouraging the rest.

Mr Gove promised to listen to everyone and by spending time at the ORFC he lives up to his promise – but of course he kept all his options open, reserving the right (as a Secretary of State must) to exercize final judgement. It is hard to believe that as a right-wing, neoliberal, ambitious Tory politician he will truly promote the kind of radical shift that is needed, in economics, in politics, in science, in underlying moral stance. Even if he did, we may ask how far the rest of his party would give him the freedom to act. Even if he did persuade his colleagues to support radical change, we may doubt whether our trading partners on whom we now rely so heavily – and of course the transnational corporates and financiers who now run the show and own so much of our infrastructure – would allow a more enlightened government to rock the global gravy train.  After all, governments like ours are only part of governance — just one player in an oligarchy that includes government, corporates, financiers, and those academics and intellectuals who are content to go with the flow.

(Neither, of course, though without wanting to sound too creepy, should we underestimate the influence of organized crime in the world’s affairs, and of the black market. The lines between black, white, and many shades of grey are seriously blurred. As Felicity Lawrence pointed out at an earlier ORFC, some of Britain’s most lucrative and therefore most influential branches of agriculture now rely on immigrants of conveniently dubious legal status who sometimes at least are seriously ill-treated. Brexit surely will not help matters. Or as the comedian and social commentator Frankie Boyle put the matter, though not I’m afraid at the ORFC, “We allow foreigners to own our infrastructure but we’re not going to let them pick our fruit”. More generally, as St Augustine observed some 1600 years ago, “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?  What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?” (Quoted by Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), 1998)).

All in all, then, it’s a mistake to be too charmed by any conventional politician. Life is obviously easier if the government is on side, or at least is paying attention, and up to a point it is worthwhile to lobby politicians to get them on side as far as possible.  But we shouldn’t spend too much time on this, or put too much store by it. The changes we need will not come from the government and still less from the oligarchy as a whole. Bottom-up is the only convincing way forward. However enlightened our politicians may sometimes seem to be, the movements that really matter must be grass-roots. The point of the ORFC is to provide a platform for the grass-roots. This, rather than state visits and chummy lunches, is what really matters.

Meat

Plenty of vegetarians and quite a few vegans fetch up at the ORFC and jolly good too. In general, the more that human beings can feed themselves on plants the better. Horticulturalists in all their variety are prominent at the ORFC as well. Arable is of course key and needs serious re-thinking – and as always seems to be the case, the kind of innovation that’s really needed is quite different from the kind that is so zealously supported, largely at our expense (in the end it’s always at our expense) in high (oligarchic) circles. Thus, remote sensing and robots could in theory make life easier –but as Jyoti Fernandez told the meeting (and Ed Hamer and others emphasize) high-quality tech specifically designed for the small scale, often low-tech, is what’s really needed. GMOs, the jewels in the crown of some of the most influential innovators, are, taken all in all, almost the precise opposite of what’s really needed. Among the arable innovators most frequently found at the ORFC are John Letts from Oxfordshire and Martin Wolfe from Suffolk, both of whom combine farming with scientific research, and are focused in complementary ways on small-scale, low-input arable with genetically mixed populations of cereals. They both succeed wonderfully in all the things that really matter.

But the ORFC is meat-friendly too – provided the right animals are kept in the right numbers in the right ways. The Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PFLA) and Compassion in World Farming are among our closest allies. The PFLA of course promotes livestock (of the right kind, raised in the right ways) while Compassion in general leans towards vegetarianism — but both agree on the need for good, kind husbandry.

For although vegans and vegetarians argue on several fronts – health, ecology, the economy – I suggest that the only vegan argument that really stands up to close scrutiny is the moral/ metaphysical one; questioning whether we, human beings, have a right to raise animals for our own convenience. The short answer to this (I suggest) is that if course we don’t – which raises the even broader question that has resounded through the last few hundred years in both Christian and Muslim theology: should human beings lay claim to rights of any kind?

If we remove the question of rights from the argument or at least put it on hold (in the pending file: to be discussed), then the strongest remaining argument for livestock in the end is one of moral pragmatism. We cannot survive on this Earth without incommoding other creatures to some extent but, as the Jains and others point out, we should always strive to do least harm. Demonstrably, agriculture that includes some animals – appropriately kept! — can provide more and better food for us with less damage to the biosphere as a whole than horticulture and arable alone could do. But we should not keep too many animals – and need therefore to decide how many is enough; and we do have to keep them in ways that are ecologically sound; and always as kindly as possible.

As many have been pointing out for many a decade (not the least being Kenneth Mellanby of Monks Wood Experimental Station in the 1970s) we can always keep modest numbers of livestock without feeding them the kind of food that we could eat ourselves, and with increased biological efficiency (which means the farming needs less room). We merely need to do what was traditional: keep pigs and poultry as sweepers-up of wastes and surpluses, and more or less confine sheep and cattle to land that is too steep or rocky or high or cold or hot or shady or wet or dry for sensible horticulture and arable. At least since the 1970s more and more nutritionists have been pointing out that human beings don’t need vast quantities of protein (which in the 1950s was widely considered to be de rigueur) and certainly don’t need a lot of animal protein – although, many said, meat is a good and often essential source of micronutrients such as zinc (and of other things that are less obvious). Some too (including N W “Bill” Pirie of Rothamsted, in the 1970s) pointed out that all the world’s greatest cuisines (Persia, Turkey, China, India, Italy – and indeed the traditional cuisines of Britain, Germany, Poland, France and so on) traditionally used meat sparingly – primarily as garnish or as stock. Meat qua meat is reserved for the occasional feast – and the whole animal is eaten, with offals of all kinds among the most prized.

So the idea that really should be pushed is that of food culture. If the average Brit or American or Australian and their intellectual leaders knew and cared half as much about food as the traditional Italian peasant then we would have no hang-ups about meat. We would be content to produce modest quantities in ecologically sound and kindly ways (although, alas, peasant husbandry is often very unkind) and turn it into the world’s finest dishes. The future does not belong to the vegan and still less to the meat-substitute techie but to the gourmet. What the world really needs is to re-learn how to cook. Agricultural strategy should be led by agroecological farmers and good cooks and not, as now, by big business, aided and abetted by Harvard economists and politicians. Of course, meat produced in eco-friendly and kindly ways must be expensive – too expensive for all but the richest in a country like ours – but this is not because production costs are too high. It is mainly because there is such grotesque (and increasing) inequality of income worldwide that the poorer among us can hardly afford anything; and in Britain the cost of houses is kept artificially high by limiting the supply in the way that De Beer’s limits the price of diamonds, to increase the profits of those who control the markets, so many are forced to choose between housing and food. If we had an economy that wasn’t flawed to the point of wickedness the price of meat would not be a problem.

All this has been obvious for decades as some of us have been pointing out but still “the media” and organizers of conventional public discussions lazily focus on the ancient argument of vegans/vegetarians versus omnivores – ground so well trodden that no fresh thinking is required (argument by numbers: cut ‘n’ paste). So it was that an otherwise largely pleasing account of the ORFC in The Guardian online focused on a debate sponsored by the old-style Oxford Farming Conference at the Oxford Union on the first night of the ORFC conference. There, the marvellously articulate George Monbiot apparently persuaded at least 100 farmers who began by being sceptical that livestock is indeed a bad thing. George is an excellent fellow and highly intelligent who has spoken at the ORFC and is more than welcome to do so again but in this, as in many (most?) big issues agricultural, he is wrong. The trouble is that the easy, routine, vegetarians-omnivore debate that is trotted out decade after decade detracts from the much more promising, more true, and only slightly more complicated arguments that have to do with agroecology and food culture. We need governments, intellectuals, and all “the media” to take far more interest in food and farming than they generally do, and get stuck in to what really matters. The things that really matter are being discussed and acted upon by thousands of groups and many millions of individuals worldwide but most of the remaining billions and most of our administrative and intellectual leaders just don’t seem to take enough interest and the conventional media do not help.

A footnote on all this: on the day after the ORFC, a scientist from Rosslyn Institute in Scotland excitedly told the BBC’s Today programme that he and his colleagues were now using gene editing to produce chickens that are meatier (which presumably means leaner) and grow faster than any we have seen so far (though they already reach supermarket weight in six weeks). This, we were invited to believe, is self-evidently good. In truth it is ridiculous. We simply don’t need more meat. What we do eat should be as flavoursome as possible, or there is no point in it, and super-lean chicken of the kind that is already produced requires the eleven secret herbs and spices that Colonel Sanders plies it with or it wouldn’t taste of anything at all. Properly raised chicken might cost nearer £30 than £3.00 – but in a food culture that wasn’t hopelessly debased chicken would not be a fast food but an occasional treat, as it always was in the past; and in an economy that wasn’t designed expressly to make the rich richer everyone would be able to afford the occasional treat. Science itself is being and has already been horribly corrupted and misdirected by the Zeitgeist.

Farming and Wildlife

But there were sessions at the ORFC which showed that science really can work for the good of humanity and the biosphere. I attended two such – both on wildlife conservation. (Alas, with seven simultaneous strands, no-one can attend everything, though it’s all recorded on the website and quite a lot is filmed).

In the first, Dave Goulson of Sussex University and David Macdonald of Oxford University talked to playwright Sarah Woods about the horrendous decline of flying insects revealed by studies in German wildlife reserves – areas that ought to be the safest: a horrendous 75% fall in 27 years. Entomologist Dave Goulson (known in particular for his work on bumblebees) was involved in the survey which shows beyond all doubt that the collapse of wild creatures is now beyond crisis point; and, since the survey relied on data from amateur enthusiasts as well as from professionals, it shows once more the value of pro-am partnerships in scientific research. David Macdonald, founder of WildCru and primarily a mammalogist, described the state of the world’s wildlife as “approximately catastrophic”, with agriculture a prime threat. He and his colleagues have done a great deal to show what kind of on-farm conservation measures work well and what work less well – and it’s clear in this as in all things that the devil lies in the detail. For example, each kind of animal, whether hedgehogs in an English hedgerow or leopards in the African bush, see the landscape through their own eyes and pick their own routes through it and whether or not it’s useful to them depends in large measure on what obstacles they encounter along the way – obstacles that may not be apparent to us without detailed study. On the other hand, there is only so much that an individual wildlife-friendly farm can achieve. If we really take wild creatures seriously, we must think at least on the scale of landscapes, and for some purposes (migrating birds for instance) on the scale of the whole world. In this as in all things, cooperation is crucial to success.

In the second wildlife session Devon/Cornwall farmer Derek Gow of Derek Gow Consultancy, Estate Manager Jake Fiennes from South Norfolk, and farmer Chris Jones from Cornwall asked how farms can help to restore specific wild species. Derek Gow has a special interest in voles – the principal small mammals of farmland, near the bottom of the food chain that leads up to foxes, owls, hawks, and falcons; and both are very involved with beavers. Both showed (like Dave Goulson and David Macdonald) that nothing worthwhile can be achieved without appropriate mindset. The extirpated word “spirituality” must be brought to the fore. We can after all do without beavers – and the choice to introduce them in the end is aesthetic, moral, and metaphysical. The materialistic appeal to “ecosystem services” is not by itself sufficient argument. That said, beavers make a tremendous contribution to the landscapes and the biosphere both of North America and mainland Europe by creating waterways that harbour some of the greatest diversity of creatures to be found anywhere outside tropical forests or coral reefs.  On the more material front, as Chris Jones described, by slowing the passage of rainfall to the sea the dams of beavers hugely reduce the risk of flood.

The details of the natural history and the science are endless and endlessly intriguing (please do visit the various websites) but the general take-home lesson must be that nature conservation can succeed only if tackled at three levels. Of course it needs good technique — craftsmanship; husbandry. It also needs very good science that often includes large-scale and long-term experiments but also requires huge amounts of data that in practice can be collected only through the combined efforts of everyone, professional and accomplished amateur, who gives a damn and will put in the time. Then, the sine qua non, it needs the appropriate mind-set: moral, which means compassionate; and metaphysical, which really means spirituality. Without this – the feeling that our fellow creatures matter — why take the trouble in the first place? Materialist and anthropocentric arguments taken alone – “What’s in it for us?” — will not do, and an economy geared simply to the generation and concentration of material wealth certainly will not.

So – were the many good things discussed at the 2018 ORFC really the harbingers of sea-change? It would be good to think so. But somehow the general state of the world, and the mindset of the world’s most powerful leaders, and the squabbles and turf wars that now count as politics, bring to mind the world-weary words of the mid-19th century Parisian journalist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “Le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose

Colin Tudge, January 8 2018

Why the Oxford Real Farming Conference is distinct and intends to remain so

A disclaimer by ORFC co-founder Colin Tudge

We don’t want to be unfriendly and we are all in this world together but: as a co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) I would like to make clear that despite rumours that are beginning to amount to a press campaign, we are not joining forces with the original Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) and have no intention of doing so. Occasional, ad hoc, collaborative ventures – possibly on matters where we have the same point of view, and possibly to discuss points of difference – are conceivable. But any kinds of gathering that could be mistaken for any kind of merger:  absolutely not.

But why be so emphatic, not to say strident? Why should anyone else care? Is the perceived rivalry between the ORFC and the OFC any more than a turf war, such as might arise between two neighbourhood tennis clubs?

Well no it isn’t, is the answer. For even though the ORFC and the OFC may have common concerns – such as Brexit – and may sometimes agree on some big issues – on the importance of organic farming, for example – our approaches remain distinct. And in essence, even though the two conferences do not take place on the world stage, and are not generally thought to be of global significance, the differences between the two go right to the heart of all the world’s problems – not just specifically in agriculture, but across the board.

For the key difference, as discussed elsewhere in this column, is that the ORFC is radical, and the OFC very definitely is not. In fact, by all reasonable standards, the OFC is “establishment”. “Radical” does not mean that ORFC delegates wear fedoras and black cloaks, and carry bombs marked “Bomb”, as in Beano; or that they are obliged to wear beards and torn jeans.

It does mean that we start with an idea of what farming ought to be like, and must be like if all human beings everywhere are to be properly catered for, and if the “biosphere” – including our fellow creatures – is to survive in more than a relic form. Then, and only then, do we ask what kind of husbandry is needed to ensure that humanity and the biosphere are properly looked after, now and forever; and what kind of economy, what kind of government, and what kind of science and high-tech are needed to support the appropriate husbandry.

In practice it seems that farming should be guided by three grand principles which may all be grouped under the heading of “Enlightened Agriculture”, of which “Real Farming” is an abbreviation. They are:

Agroecology

Food Sovereignty and

Economic Democracy

The grand principles in part are moral – “what is it right to do?” – and in part ecological – “what is it necessary to do (if we really want to do the right things) and what is it possible to do” (given that the Earth is finite)? The details of what’s entailed if we want to behave in ways that are morally just and ecologically sound (“sustainable”, “resilient”) is the main subject both of the ORFC and of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, which is intended to pick up on all the big issues that really matter and talk them through.

The ORFC organisers do not presume to pre-empt those discussions. All ideas including our own premises are up for grabs (though it is surely hard to improve on morality and ecological reality). What is important, and is sacrosanct, is the structure of the discussions. That is, we start with the idea that what really matters is, or are, these bedrock principles. Then we ask what kind of husbandry is needed to meet our moral obligation, to provide good food without cruelty or injustice; and to take good care of the biosphere. Then we ask what kind of science and technology are needed to support the appropriate husbandry. Then we ask what kind of economy and governance are needed that will support appropriate science and husbandry; and also ask whether what we have now is fit for purpose.

That is what being “radical” implies: start with principles, and then ask how the status quo can and must be structured, and if necessary transformed, if those principles are to be upheld.

But non-radicals – those of the kind that can be called “Establishment” – approach the problems the other way around. They begin with the premise that the status quo is OK, or is “here to stay”, and then ask what can be done within its constraints. The economy we have right now is “neoliberal”: materialist through and through; all action and indeed all moral principle decided and constrained by the “free” market – what people will pay for is good, and “realistic”, and whatever isn’t profitable in the short term just has to go. Governance, despite much talk of “democracy” when governments want to invade some foreign power with a president who obviously isn’t democratic, is decidedly top-down. Ecological principles give way to the perceived need to maximise wealth (“economic growth”) which is seen as the sine qua non. Care for the biosphere, concern for our fellow creatures, is measured out according to its immediate material benefit to us: “ecosystem services”, “natural capital”, “the triple bottom line” are the guiding slogans. It is not apparently “realistic” to suggest that maximally profitable strategies should give way to the far more fundamental principles of morality and ecology. It is apparently “realistic” to forego compassion, and care, and protection of the fabric of the Earth itself, to boost GDP.

I am not suggesting that the OFC does not recognise the need to break out of the neoliberal, establishment strait-jacket. Clearly many of its delegates do want to. I do suggest, however, just to change the metaphor, that the OFC has not grasped the nettle, which is that we need to start by defining principles; decide– what we really hold to be important — by what we stand, as F R Leavis put the matter; and then devise structures and modus operandi that support those principles; and not be alarmed if the structures and methods we really need turn out to be very different from the ones that are now in place.

So long as this nettle remains un-grasped, then the difference between the ORFC and the OFC, however slight it may sometimes seem to some observers, remains absolute. More broadly, so long as the world fails to see that we need to define our bedrock principles, and act as if they mattered, then we will continue to head, as we very decidedly are heading, to the buffers.

Colin Tudge, November 20 2017

Aquaponics, high-tech swill, GMOs and robots: context is all

thoughts from Colin Tudge

Scientists and technologists, especially those involved in controversial enterprises, are wont to claim that science and technology are politically and morally neutral. What makes them good or bad is the use to which they are put. The proper answer to this is the one given in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop by the editor of The Daily Beast to his boss, the magnate Lord Copper, who was apt to say daft things: “Up to a point, Lord Copper”.

For, beyond doubt, some forms of science and some technologies do push societies and economies in particular directions by the very fact that they exist at all – and thus they can hardly claim to be neutral. The sheer expense of genetic engineering for example, leading to GMOs, and the intellectual excitement that goes with them (the science and technology are awfully clever), and the promise they bring of near monopoly, with all the wealth and influence that that implies, encourages universities and governments like Britain’s to put their weight behind the commercial companies that seek to develop it. (The same kind of impulsion, it has often been pointed out, applies to nuclear weapons. Little Boy cost, well, a bomb. It seemed a shame after all that effort not to drop it on somebody).

Yet, up to a point, the claim of neutrality is usually justified. Most technologies can be used in ways that are good for humanity and/or the biosphere — or very much to the bad: not really improving our lives and the lot of our fellow creatures, but merely helping (up to a point) to compensate for the things we are doing wrong. This is abundantly true of most of the technologies and high technologies now coming on line in agriculture.

Take aquaponics: a portmanteau word compounded from “aquaculture” – the culture of fish or molluscs or crustaceans or perhaps algae in custom-built ponds or aquaria; and “hydroponics” – “soil-less culture”: plants rooted in nutrient solutions. The nutrients are commonly given in inorganic form; just a soup of simple compounds, a fair sampling of the periodic table, of the kinds that are considered to be most essential. The idea of aquaponics is to raise fish (usually fish) in tanks and use the mucky water that results to fertilize crops (usually high-value salads) grown hydroponically – a quasi-organic form of hydroponics. Is this good or bad?

Surely the system could be good. On the small scale it emulates (up to a point) the traditional, mixed farming of South-East Asia which perhaps is the most productive of all, and is often startlingly beautiful. Rice is grown in flooded paddy fields with billions of invertebrates between the stems and roots, preyed upon by carp and ducks, with horticulture on the islets that poke above the paddy, all contributing to a human diet which, at its best, is unimprovable, nutritionally and gastronomically; and is also very much under the control of the local people. Such farming is the prime example of agroecology in action, and to some extent of food sovereignty  – so why not seek to replicate it?

But it all depends. If, as is often the case, the aquaponics system is sold as a high-tech and high-capital package, then it is likely to require loads of extra energy – both heat and light. Warm-water fish are generally favoured – like Tilapia, from the Great Lakes of Africa.  The traditional Asian systems make use of what grows naturally and locally, all very vernacular and artisanal. The western version is very contrived, dependent on high tech, high energy, and imports. The Asian version is built around rice, the chief staple and indeed, for many people, the main food. The western high-tech copies on the whole provide luxury crops. Nobody actually needs lamb’s lettuce.

On the other hand – there is always another hand! – aquaponic systems needn’t take up much room and so can be integrated into otherwise intensive housing estates and thus re-introduce town-dwellers to the delights of home-grown food. In schools they could be a wonderful educational device, touching as they can do on all aspects of biology and husbandry (including issues of animal welfare. Do the fish enjoy being stuck in tanks?). New plastics now being developed pick up and store solar energy – with the promise of greenhouses and poly-tunnels that are self-heating. Here, surely, is eco-friendly high-tech – a “tool for conviviality” as demanded by Ivan Illich, and an “appropriate technology (even though high tech) of the kind advocated by Ernst (“Fritz”) Schumacher.

But is hydroponics really the best way to produce food plants even in cities? Wouldn’t it be far better just to do what is traditional – encourage gardening, in allotments and rooftops and on walls (which are marvellous storage-heaters)? Shouldn’t we design cities properly so that there is always room for urban growing and farming? As for livestock – we should indeed make more use of freshwater fish – but Tilapia? Surely we should be revisiting the great cold-water carp culture and cuisines still evident in Eastern Europe, and prominent in Jewish cooking? Isn’t aquaponics, in the end, just another, potentially highly profitable high technology designed not to expand the horizons of the human race but to rectify (up to a point) the mistakes of the past (including inappropriately designed cities and eco-unfriendly houses)? Is it really a serious attempt to solve humanity’s problems and keep the biosphere in good heart, or yet another example of short-term commercial opportunism, the perceived need to get rich quick in the neoliberal economy?

I would not presume to judge. I just think the issues should be discussed more than they are.

Or take the new technologies for processing food waste to make swill for pigs that is not only nutritious (as pigs seem to find it) but is also safe: all bugs and worms destroyed en route. FAO says that in rich countries like ours a third of all food is thrown away after it reaches the kitchen. If only half of what’s wasted was properly processed then millions of tonnes of soya could be replaced, and millions of hectares of forest that is now being sacrificed to grow it could be saved.

Indeed. But the same kind of caveats apply as to aquaponics. First, should be really be trying to produce so much pork? Shouldn’t we be seeking instead to encourage, not vegan diets necessarily, but low-meat cuisines (including those of SE Asia)?  Assuming, though, that we do opt to keep some animals (which on various grounds is usually desirable) it surely it would be good to feed them on safe swill rather than on soya. But the caveat applies nonetheless. Safe swill may be a good or even the ideal pig-feed in a crowded world but it is not the priority. The priority is to ask whether we really need so much pork in the first place. We should also ask whether in practice, it is better for kitchen waste to be turned by elaborate tech into safe swill or simply to compost it or turn it into biogas (or both), which is far simpler. In short, as with aquaponics, safe swill might be seen more as attempt to patch up an enterprise that is misguided, than to solve the real problem which is, many might say, that we produce far too much meat of all kinds, and that we attempt to do so by industrial means which in the short term is more profitable and which governments and their selected intellectual advisers feel is more “modern” and hence “progressive”.

Indeed, the out-and-out cynic might suggest that in practice, in the present economy, processed swill will turn out to be yet another scam. It will not serve primarily to reduce the strain that the world’s pigs impose on the world’s ecosystems. It will be used instead to justify the idea that it is OK to eat as much pork as we like because it is all being produced in ecologically sound ways. Safe swill will not necessarily, or probably, curb the spread and spread of soya. A great deal of soya (most?) is grown not for pigs but for cattle, which have in effect at times been fed a form of swill (hence BSE) but on the whole aren’t. Besides, the meat industry is ingenious – and, like all industries in the global neoliberal economy, it feels impelled to produce as much as possible, so as to maximize profit, which it must do to “compete” in the world market, which the world’s most powerful governments and international agencies see as the prime desideratum. So however, pork is produced, the meat industry (backed by governments like ours) will find new ways to encourage us, or our pets, or some new as yet unthought-of technology, to consume more of it. In any case, if the soya market is cut back, those who grow it can always switch to maize – which can be burnt, and called “biofuel”, and again, with the right rhetoric, can be made to seem virtuous.

Indeed, the same kind of arguments apply to all technologies. All but a very few (atomic weapons are an obvious exception) could be used for the general good if applied in the right ecological, economic and political context and with the right intent. It is hard to find a bona fide case to defend commercially-marketed GMOs, and it is very easy to find a long list of reasons for banning them — but the underlying science of GMOs has all kinds of highly, almost unequivocally beneficial applications, in medicine, in animal conservation (rapid analysis of DNA enables us to see what’s really out there) and indeed for conventional plant breeding (helping to track down potentially useful genes in forgotten varieties and wild relatives).  Or then again — all farmers, including small, organic farmers of the kind the world really needs, could make some use of robots, to help take the grunt out of some of the more tedious tasks (like weeding). But the current ambition, in the current neoliberal economy, is to use them not as an aide to good practice but to replace traditional farms and skilled workers with vast-scale, industrial monocultures with minimum-to-zero labour which, now and for the next few decades, are maximally profitable. As David Jason’s Del-boy used to say in Only Fools and Horses, “Luvly jubbly!” – and what else matters?

The bottom line as accountants used to say is that after a million years or so of technological development, tricked out by several centuries of bona fide science, humanity as a whole still has not worked out how to uses science and technology truly for our benefit, and for the benefit of the biosphere as a whole. The problems for most people didn’t become really pressing until the 18th century when manufacture came truly to the fore – though there were complaints long before that that water-mills for example were ruining the fishing and the scenery, as the naturally meandering streams were being straightened out to make them faster and turn the wheels. But as factories appeared in Swiss valleys (I think it was Switzerland) Jean-Jacques Rousseau began to point out in prose that refused to be ignored that big tech had a serious downside. He was soon joined by the Luddites (who weren’t just wreckers, but had a serious political and philosophical point to make) and then by intellectuals and artists including John Ruskin, William Morris, Tolstoy, Ghandi, and on to Schumacher and Illich.

Nothing is more important to the human race, or to the biosphere, than the way we deploy science and technology. We need to ask ever more urgently, as some of the world’s greatest thinkers and moralists have been asking for some centuries, why some ways are better than others, and, perhaps, why some lines of inquiry some technologies should not be pursued or developed at all.

Such conversations are taking place but not, as is usually the case with issues that matter most, in high places. For governments like ours and the corporates in general all that counts is how much profit can be made in the shortest time, with sufficient backing and PR. It won’t do.

Colin Tudge November 5 2017

See:

The Social Contract. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)

Tools for Conviviality. Ivan Illich (1973)

Small is Beautiful. E F Schumacher (1973)