Farmers, fear, and human nature

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

Colin Tudge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Tudge Wolvercote May 4 2020


Very many thanks: a splendid response!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All best wishes.

The radical toadstool

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

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

A brief appreciation by Colin Tudge.

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

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

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

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

Colin Tudge April 19 2020

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

What happens after Covid-19?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Matter of Vocabulary

Colin Tudge writes (February 15 2020):

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

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

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

In practice, EA combines two key ideas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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:


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


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:


“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:


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


How much is too much (or too little)?


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.


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).


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 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.


As outlined in my essay (III.1: Nutrition: the paradigm shift) in the College website (, 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

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