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

thoughts from Colin Tudge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Tudge November 5 2017


The Social Contract. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)

Tools for Conviviality. Ivan Illich (1973)

Small is Beautiful. E F Schumacher (1973)

The (not very good) art of the impossible

A response to Peter Kindersley’s observation on economics following my article in Colin’ Corner, “Radicals vs. Conventionals, Part II”

Peter wrote:

“At the base of what you are saying Colin is neoliberal economics . . . [is now being used] as the only measure of agriculture and all else. Not many realise that:

“Economics is a unique profession in that it has failed to solve a single one of its problems whether that be poverty, hunger, justice or sustainability”.

Colin replies:

Indeed, Peter! I reckon you have opened a very deep can of worms that deserves exploration in all contexts.  The grand generalization is that nothing, in any field, can be exhaustively understood; and nothing, therefore, can be perfectly controlled or infallibly predicted. But economics is worse than most.

We should not be surprised by this. I reckon the idea that we can understand the world perfectly, and hence control it and predict the likely course of events, is new – and is an illusion: a huge mistake. It began, I suggest, with Francis Bacon and then Rene Descartes in the 17th century. Bacon in The Great Instauration of 1620 suggested that it is humanity’s task in life to recover the absolute wisdom that Adam and Eve sacrificed in The Fall – and implied that we should be able to do this. Descartes a few decades’ later gave the impression that the universe is just a mechanism, akin to clockwork. If we keep cool heads we can see how it all works – and if we knew enough we could predict how it would all turn out, since clockwork is perfectly predictable.

Science over the past three or four centuries has largely proceeded on that basis: that we can in principle pin everything down perfectly if only we do enough research, and do the maths.  The philosophy of logical positivism dating from the early 20th century reinforced this illusion. At least, the logical positivists declared that no idea should be taken seriously unless it was “verifiable”; and in practice, only the ideas that emerge from science – based on repeatable observations and analysed mathematically – should be taken seriously. The speculations of metaphysics are, as A J Ayer put the matter, literal “gibberish”.

Yet Hume and Kant put paid to this conceit in the 18th century – or they should have done. Science is commonly perceived as the exemplar of rationality and Hume, the arch-rationalist, pointed out that rationality has its limits. Some things we just have to intuit. Kant pointed out that all our thoughts are filtered through or engendered by our brains – and the brain too has its limits. Darwin’s ideas in the mid-19th century add fuel to this idea. He suggested in The Origin of Species in 1859 that human beings like every other creature are evolved, and that evolution is driven in the main by natural selection and this goes for the brain, too. Evolutionary biologists since have suggested that our brains did most of their evolving from ape-like to human on the Pliocene-Pleistocene plains of Africa. But the brain is a very expensive organ, energy-wise, and at any point of evolution it has to pay its way. The brain justified its rising importance (so the theory has it) by honing our ancestors’ hunting and gathering skills, and their ability to avoid predators. But it is hard to see how a brain that evolved to help us catch wildebeest and out-smart hyaenas should lead us towards omniscience.

Darwin helped to provide the explanation with his second theory, spelled out in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871: that one of the main drivers of evolution, including the evolution of the brain, is the desire and need to find mates. Men and women prefer partners who are clever – “smarter than the average”, as Yogi Bear used to say; and this they demonstrate by doing tricks and telling jokes and writing learned treatises. In the early 20th century the biologist-statistician R A Fisher came up with “Fisher’s Runaway”. Peafowl show the principle perfectly. Demonstrably, the long tails of the males attract females – but only if the females are attracted by long tails. Generation by generation the tails of the males grow longer and brighter as they compete for attention and the female predilection for long tails grows commensurately stronger as they become more discerning. The males’ long tails are of course a handicap – they make it harder to escape from leopards – but that is part of the point. The males are saying, “See how I can survive the jungle despite my extravagances! What a splendid fellow I must be!” This isn’t an idle boast, either. Birds cannot grow big and beautiful tails unless they are healthy and generally robust.

The same ideas work for brains. Modern theory has it that females prefer males who are smart, so that they have smart offspring. Males therefore need to show how clever they are – which they do with all kinds of tricks and jokes and works of art. Females faced with cavorting and poeticizing males continue to raise the bar. Before too long we have Brahms and Einstein and Picasso with all their many admirers.

Even so, it isn’t obvious why evolutionary processes of any kind should lead us to a state of omniscience. There’s a huge gap between the skills we need to survive, or even to write symphonies and re-write physics, and a complete understanding of all that is. In the end, then, our understanding in all fields is not a complete representation of the world. In the end, everything that we think we understand about the world, down and including the Grand Unified Theory than some physicists dream about, is a story that we tell ourselves – a “narrative”. What we take to be truth is (if you really boil it down) no more than a story that we happen, at the time, to find convincing (often for reasons that are far from “rational”).

There’s more. The world itself has turned out to be far harder to pin down, far more elusive, than it did in Descartes’s day. A whole string of observations and ideas both from science and philosophy lead us to conclude (or they should lead us to conclude!) that in the end for all our science and what Huckleberry Finn called figgerin’, life and the universe are beyond our ken; not merely a problem to be solved, but a mystery that we can never get to the bottom of.

The key insight from science is Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. He showed that it is impossible even in theory to measure the momentum of a fundamental particle and its position in space both together, with absolute precision. That is, if you measure the momentum precisely, you cannot as a matter of principle also pin down its position: and vice versa. Since then – or indeed since the early 20th century; or perhaps more accurately since the observations of James Clerk Maxwell in the mid-19th century — the universe has grown weirder and weirder. The main point, though, for present purposes, is that the universe is innately unpredictable.

Philosophy meanwhile has been throwing ever more doubt on our ability to understand anything at all – and maths itself, commonly perceived to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, turns out to be no such thing. The people who I think between them make the case are J S Mill, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Popper, Sir Peter Medawar, and the mathematician Kurt Godel.

John Stuart Mill simply pointed out in the mid-19th century that however much we know, or think we know, we can never we sure that we haven’t missed something. About a century and a half later US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reminded his colleagues that there are “unknown unknowns” – things we don’t even know we don’t know; and this summarizes the point nicely. Karl Popper from the 1930s onwards showed that science cannot in fact prove anything beyond all possible doubt. It can only disprove, beyond all possible doubt. So much for verifiability and the logical positivists. Sir Peter Medawar, great mid-20th century biologist and a fan of Popper, said that the reason that science seems to provide such bedrock certainties is that scientists are careful to explore only those questions (mainly material questions) that they think they have a reasonable chance of answering in a reasonably convincing fashion. In short, he said, science can only ever be “the Art of the Soluble”.

The Austrian-American mathematician Kurt Godel changed the world forever in the 1930s when he published his “incompleteness” theorems. He showed that it is impossible – absolutely, literally – to provide arithmetical statements of any kind that are certain, complete, and internally consistent all at the same time. It is possible fulfil two of these requirements, but not all three, simultaneously. We can reasonably conclude from this that mathematics itself has an arbitrary quality and is not the infallible arbiter of truth that it is commonly taken to be (successful though it very obviously is).

Put all these thoughts together, and we see that the dream of more innocent times that we can one day understand everything there is, if only we gather enough data and do enough research, is seriously misguided, not to say absolutely wrong. Our brains are not up to the task; we are bound to miss things – but not know what we have missed; and even the material, observable world, so much easier to deal with than wild speculations of a metaphysical or a theological nature, will forever elude our attempts to get to grips with it. In short, we can never be more than story-tellers, picking a path through the thickets of reality: a giant exercize, to put the matter at its lowest, in joining the dots.

None of these observations detract from the wonder of science, which continues to show how extraordinary life and the universe really are, and how lucky we are to be alive in such a privileged corner of the universe, and to have the brains to explore what’s going on, however imperfectly. It’s obvious, too, that the special “high” technologies that derive from science, from vaccines and anaesthetics to IT, can immensely enrich our lives and could, if sensibly deployed, make the world safer for us and for our fellow creatures.

The observations and insights of the past 100 years or so do, however, show the fatuousness of “scientism” – the old-fashioned belief, which some scientists still cling to, that science really can, in time, explain everything beyond equivocation; and of gung-ho technophilia – the assumption that high tech will enable us to do anything we choose, and to dig ourselves out of any hole we dig ourselves into, and that high tech in general represents progress, and that progress is ipso facto good, and that high tech solutions (like, say, GMOs) are intrinsically superior to traditional approaches (like, say, sensible husbandry). Many politicians are technophiles – especially, it seems, those like Tony Blair (though perhaps it’s unfair to single him out) who came to science and technology late in life and have no feel for, or understanding of, the limitations and the caveats.

Yet science – “the art of the soluble” – sets out as a matter of strategy to address only those questions that ought in principle to be the most tractable; questions that relate to the material universe, which can be observed repeatedly and reliably, and measured, and manipulated under controlled conditions so we can find out more, which is what “experiment” means. No other field of inquiry can offer anything like such certainties or such rigorous methods of inquiry.

To return finally to Peter’s point: economics has often aspired to be a science but even if it was, or could be, its insights and explanations would still be far from perfect. In reality, even though economists adopt some of the methods of science (the maths grows fancier and fancier and they are very good at graphs), they will always fall far short.

For a start, the worlds of trade and money that economists deal with are shot through with unknowns and unknowables. We never know what’s going to happen next – and anything that does happen, out of the blue, can affect the economy: volcanoes; tsunamis; global warming; epidemics (in people or animals or crops); political wrangling of all kinds; the whims of presidents and oil sheikhs; the Ukrainians’ search for independence; everything that happens in Africa; Donald Trump; Brexit; and, everywhere and at all levels, there is corruption, which often doesn’t come to light until far too late, and can and does make nonsense of all our plans and forecasts.

Economists, though, are fine story-tellers. Like scientists, they build grand narratives on what they do know, or think they know. But they don’t know as much as scientists do – the world of commerce and human interaction is harder to pin down than the material world – and they cannot do experiments of a repeatable kind on a grand enough scale to provide robust conclusions. Their stories – whether those of Karl Marx or Milton Friedman – are based on observations that are obviously limited and swayed by their own experiences, and cannot be subjected to rigorous experiment on a worthwhile scale. Their narratives may be wonderfully rounded and convincing, but the foundations are very shaky indeed.

But once a particular narrative is in place, it becomes policy – and then it becomes the only acceptable truth: the dogma. Some people, life’s ideologues, truly believe that the narrative of the day, whatever it may be, really is the answer to all our problems. Mrs Thatcher was one such, or so it seems: “There is no alternative” (to the neoliberal global market economy), she told us. Among other things, neoliberal economics is clearly unsuited to farming; but anyone who points this out, as many including me have been doing for the past 30 years, is told that the alternatives are “unrealistic” and that their advocates are out with the fairies if not downright subversive – even though the status quo, which apparently is realistic, is clearly hastening the world’s demise, and some at least of the alternatives demonstrably work very well when given half a chance. More broadly, even Milton Friedman conceded that “the free market does not deliver social justice”. He wasn’t a bad man (I believe) and truly thought that social justice was desirable (he was the son of poor Jewish immigrants who knew what injustice looks like). But he was a believer. Stalin clearly believed that Marxist communism was humanity’s destiny (although Marx denied being a “Marxist” and would surely have disowned Stalin’s version of his ideas had he lived to see it). Others who advocate the economic dogma of their day are not ideologues. They are simply doing well out of the status quo, whatever it may be, and don’t want to change it. “Don’t rock the boat”, radicals are told (though I haven’t heard this expression for some time).

In short, economics falls a long way short of science, and always will; and science falls a long way short of omniscience, and always will. In fact I could have saved myself a lot of time (and you, if you have read this far) simply by quoting Leonardo DiCaprio’s line from The Wolf of Wall Street:  “No-one has the slightest idea how any shares will do – least of all the traders!”

Colin Tudge, October 24 2017

Brexit, re-wilding, vegans, GMOs, and the meaning of “progress”: why we need to get back to basics


With Brexit looming and the world in general falling about our ears, farmers, governments, academics, people at large, and a fair sprinkling of journalists are asking, among other things:

In the light of recent reports not least re global warming — should we give up on livestock altogether and become vegan?

As Brexit looms — should Britain bother to farm at all or should we use our trading muscle and our imperial past to buy what we need as cheaply as possible from countries with more sunshine and cheaper labour?

Should we then “re-wild” – dedicate our erstwhile farmland to moose, wolves, and lynx?

Or should we just assume that ours is the superior species and that the rest are for our benefit, and simply get on and do whatever is expedient, or most profitable?

On a point of detail, should we embrace GMOs? More broadly, should the craft of farming give way to the precision of agricultural science? Isn’t that what progress means?

How we respond to these questions matters: our decisions at any one time affect all life forever after – most obviously if they lead us to wipe out entire species and hence to change the biosphere beyond recovery. But although the details change with circumstance people have been asking the same kind of questions for 200 years (free trade vs protectionism was the issue behind the Corn Laws and the Potato Famine) with roots that extend far deeper (Plato drew attention to environmental degradation) – and in all that time we don’t seem to have come up with any convincing answers. Le plus ca change, le plus c’est le meme chose, only more so.

To break the impasse, I suggest, we need to do as John Major advised, although he and his government never quite managed it: get back to basics.  Some people have told me that to dwell on basics – grand principles – is a waste of time, an exercize for idlers and wool-gatherers. We need instead, these hard-heads insist, to address all cases on their merits, making lists of pros and cons, and come to conclusions based on logic and facts. Well, we certainly need all the facts we can summon and think as clearly as possible and attend to the details wherein the Devil lies but if we just do that we’ll just finish up with an endless list of ad hoc recommendations with no coherence. Contrariwise, if we get the principles right – the basics —  then a lot of the answers to what seem like the knottiest of life’s problems become obvious, or at least we’ll be provided with a clear agenda.

So what are the “basics”? What can we say about life in general and farming in particular that is really true, that we can usefully act upon? Here is my own shortlist:

1: The point of farming is to provide good food for everyone, without wrecking the rest of the world

We need agriculture that provides good food for everyone, everywhere, and looks after the biosphere. Technically, this is eminently possible. Those who say it can’t be done – “utopian”, “unrealistic” — are either misinformed or else have a vested interest in the status quo, or indeed in obfuscation, To achieve the desired goal we need “Enlightened Agriculture” (aka Real Farming), rooted in the principles of Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Economic Democracy. What this entails is the subject of a huge and growing literature (and is the ongoing discussion in the College for Real Farming and Food Culture website).

In particular, although farms can properly be conceived as business enterprises, we cannot simply declare as became the fashion in the 1970s, that “farming is just a business like any other”. Still less should we re-conceive business as an all-out struggle to maximize and concentrate wealth as the modern neoliberals take it to be. Margaret Thatcher famously averred that “There is no alternative” to the neoliberal global market but there are — plenty – and they need to be explored and invoked.

2: We will not solve the world’s problems – or our own – if we are exclusively anthropocentric. We need a morality and a metaphysic that embraces all life.

There’s a terrible tendency to define morality exclusively in human terms – as if we are the only species that matters; as if we have the right (and the know-how) to manipulate and administer the world at large exclusively for our own convenience. If other creatures are good to eat – then it follows (doesn’t it?) that we should breed varieties that grow as fast as possible. If other creatures get in our way then we should wipe them out. “The world”, to misquote a somewhat infamous ditty that rose to prominence in the 1930s, “belongs to us”. Alas!, such anthropocentricity seems particularly strong in Christian countries where we’ve been told (in Genesis (1:26)) that God gave us “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”; and “dominion” has all too often been taken to mean carte blanche.

But this view of life is surely not what the authors of Genesis intended, and is foul, and must be proclaimed as such. It is also of course self-destructive, for if we destroy the biosphere then we will destroy ourselves, as many a society has demonstrated in the past and is happening now on the grand scale. We need, post-haste, and with all possible energy, to proclaim the alternative view, reflected not least in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism, and by all manner of pagans: that “All life is one” – and that we need truly to treat all other species as fellow creatures. In other words, we need to adopt a morality and a metaphysic that are biocentric (or ecocentric or gaiacentric).

The cause of wildlife conservation is dead in the water if our attitudes are purely anthropocentric. Concepts that now are seen to be avant garde and the answer to all our prayers, like “natural capital” and “ecosystem services” just will not do. They may be necessary for administrative purposes but they are not sufficient. If nature is not cherished for its own sake then, inexorably, it will be degraded, increment by increment. Very few if any “sustainable” technologies so far on the stocks or even envisaged are truly sustainable. Most at best just slow the decay. Excellent science and smarter technology are vital if we’re to stop the rot but what the world really needs is a change of mindset.

3: We cannot allow ourselves to be led by economics, or by science, or by the intellectuals who embrace these disciplines. In particular, neoliberal technophilia will not do.

John Maynard Keynes, one of the greatest economists of all, put economics in perspective. If and when we get ourselves straight, he said, “… the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs … and the arena of heart and head will be occupied where it belongs, or reoccupied by our real problems, the problems of life and human relations, of creation, and of behaviour and religion.”

But that is not what’s happening. Instead, economic theory dominates; and the most dominant form is the particularly crude form of capitalism known as “neoliberalism”, in which, among other things, the value of everything is judged more or less exclusively in terms of money. (I once took part in a debate on human cloning at the World Economic Forum in Davos where one neoliberal zealot argued that cloning should be encouraged because there is a “demand” for it and so it’s potentially big business). In this neoliberal world whatever is most profitable is likely to come about, however unjust it may seem and however horrendous the collateral damage — personal, social, political, ecological, moral. But because so many people in high places are wedded to economic theory (whether it’s neoliberalism or Marxism or some other ism), the collateral damage is taken to be inevitable, the way of the world, like natural law – and we cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs. (Warning: isms should not be mistaken for principles).

Science, too, is being horribly corrupted. Very few people take the philosophy of science seriously, so most people – including many or most scientists! – don’t really know what science is, and what it isn’t. Few recognize that although science is wonderful and vital it is also limited – for as Sir Peter Medawar observed, it is and can only ever be “the art of the soluble”. In general our attitude to science is ambivalent. On the one hand it’s treated in logical positivist mode as the only reliable source of knowledge — leading politicians to advocate “science-led policy”, at least when it suits them.   On the other hand, with corporates increasingly in charge of research, science to a large extent has become the handmaiden of big business.

Science and the “high” technologies it gives rise to are among the greatest achievements of humankind and should be among our greatest assets. Sound economic theory is needed at least to help us to keep our affairs in order. But as things are, the grisly, unthinking alliance of technophilia with neoliberal free market economics is, perhaps, the greatest threat of all to humanity and the biosphere, sweeping all before it like an epidemic, or a mudslide.  We need, as they say in Yorkshire, to think on.

4: We don’t need to give up meat. We simply need to re-learn how to cook.

Now to a particularity, but one with huge ramifications: moral, metaphysical, political, economic, ecological, practical. Should we give up eating meat? Should we become vegan?

On the moral front many say we must stop farming livestock because it is innately cruel. In metaphysical vein many point out that we simply have no right to subjugate other creatures for our own purposes. Indeed, as serious Muslims point out, rights in general is a very dubious concept, for, they say, life is a gift and good things come to us not through our innate entitlement but only by the grace of God. Those archetypal Christians, Augustine, Luther, and John Calvin, would surely have agreed. Some argue on ecological grounds that livestock are too profligate. At least as a broad rule of thumb we can argue that a field of wheat, say, provides about 10 times as much protein as the same area devoted to livestock; and as things are we feed at least half of all the world’s grain (and more than 90% of soya) to animals. So farming that emphasizes livestock takes up far more room than arable or horticulture would do – leaving less for other creatures. For good measure, livestock accounts for most of the fresh water used in farming; its effluent can be highly polluting (a million-head intensive piggery of the kind now found in the US produces as much ordure, or at least as much BOD, as London); and the methane exhaled by cattle is a potent greenhouse gas. All in all, some say, livestock farming is a disaster. Finally, many argue that meat is bad for us. In particular, saturated animal fat apparently predisposes to heart disease and various cancers.

Yet all these caveats can be answered. Farming is often cruel – but it needn’t be; certainly no more harsh than the wild. Indeed we have no right to subjugate animals but we do, we might argue, have some obligation to do so. At least, all mainstream religions argue that we should strive to stay alive (gratuitously to spurn God’s gift of life is a blasphemy) and although we can live on a vegan diet, humanity as a whole in general fares better and is safer with some meat (and fish and eggs) than with none at all. Beyond doubt, livestock farming can be horribly profligate (by 2050 if we persist with present methods our farm animals will be consuming enough grain and soya to sustain four billion people – roughly equal to the world population of the 1970s). But again, it needn’t be. Pigs and poultry were traditionally raised on surpluses and leftovers that would otherwise we wasted, with sheep and cattle (and camels and horses and rabbits etc) grazed and browsed on land too steep or high or cold or hot or wet or dry for easy or even sensible cultivation – and in such modes they add to our food supply. Indeed, farming that includes some livestock should be more productive overall per unit area than all-plant arable or horticulture, and so take up less space than would otherwise be necessary, and so leave more room for wildlife.

The real problem is not meat (or milk or eggs) per se, but a food industry rooted in neoliberalism that seeks above all to maximize profit, which it contrives to achieve primarily by maximizing output, which in turn requires the rest of us to maximize consumption. The food industry tells us that it seeks simply to satisfy public demand for meat; and, it argues sanctimoniously, the satisfaction of public demand is a fundamental requirement of democracy. But this is cant: tendentious nonsense. People clearly do like meat but in general we adapt to and grow to expect whatever is most available – and meat these days is super-available not because people need it or “demand” it but, primarily, because it is profitable, and sold and sold again with all possible vigour, with McDonald’s and KFCs in every high street from Beijing to Bulawayo (actually I don’t know about Bulawayo). In truth the so-called “demand” for meat is a retrospective measure of what people can be persuaded to buy.

Indeed, if it is truly our aim to provide ourselves with good food and look after the biosphere then we should raise at least some animals. But we should also of course ensure that we keep them kindly, and only in accord with the principles of agroecology – which in practice means they should eat only the things that we can’t, or strongly prefer not to, like grass, surpluses, and leftovers. This would produce

“plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”

— and this is exactly what’s needed.  For these nine words —

“plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”

— summarize beautifully the most plausible ideas that have emerged from nutritional science these past 50 years, and also capture, in outline, the basic structure of all the world’s greatest traditional cuisines: Turkish, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Italian, French, and much of those of Eastern and Northern Europe. For all the best traditional cooking is built around grains, pulses, tubers, and sometimes coconuts; all make free with whatever vegetables, fruit, and herbs are in season; all import spices from wherever they grow (the energy costs of transport are very low); and all use meat sparingly – as garnish, stock,  and in bulk only for occasional feasts. Traditional cooking and indeed the haute cuisine to which it gave rise do not require vast quantities of meat, as the modern industry and all its attendant scientists are geared up to provide. It requires small quantities of meat of the highest quality – as raised on hills and in meadows and savannahs and marshes and barnyards the world over.

Taken all in all, there is a perfect, virtually one-to-one correspondence between agroecological farming that respects the biosphere at large; sound nutrition; and great cooking. In other words, we don’t need the industrial food industry – any of it. We just need to promulgate the principles of agroecology and re-learn how to cook. Indeed, once we start to apply the fundamental principles of farming and cooking we see that most of the high-fallutin’ and earnest chat in high places that occupies governments and intellectuals is entirely superfluous, not to say spurious, and that taxing and austere extremes of diet, including veganism, are unnecessary.

However, again in pious vein, defenders of the status quo are wont to tell us that appeals to agroecology and wildlife-friendliness and even kindness to animals are self-indulgent, not to say elitist. In particular, they say, industrialized food production is necessary to keep the price of food down. But this is sanctimoniousness writ large; a sublime exercize in self-deception which, unfortunately, deceives others too. As follows:

5: We need cross-the-board land reform – and radical change in housing policy and planning laws.

Defenders of the status quo argue that without industrial farming we couldn’t produce enough food to feed everybody; that food would be too dear for poor people to buy, even in rich Britain; and that although we all love “the environment” we can’t allow touchy-feely appeals to the joys and intrinsic value of wildlife to interfere with the serious business of “feeding the world”. Politicians go along with this (some of them undoubtedly believe it) and there are academics a-plenty willing to provide supporting arguments (and even to demonstrate, for example, that climate change is just a blip, and even if it isn’t it’s none of our doing, and we’d best not to meddle, even though we need apparently to meddle with everything else).

But it is all the most terrible, pernicious nonsense.

First, the world doesn’t simply need more food: not the “50% more by 2050” demanded by a recent British government report. We already produce enough for 14 billion people, twice the present population and 40% more than are ever likely to occupy this planet at any one time, according to the UN demographers.

Secondly, if the world does need more food, is doesn’t primarily need industrialization. An estimated 70% of the world’s food is still produced by low-tech, small, traditional farmers who in general receive no support and commonly experience a great deal of hindrance from governments and big-time commerce. So industrialized farms in the forms now advocated produce only a third of the world’s food though they gobble up huge quantities of oil (the biggest share is for fertilizer) and the lion’s share of the world’s fresh water and are clearly unsustainable.

Thirdly, food in Britain accounts for only 10% of average expenditure and the main reason so many Brits can’t afford it (a million now resort to food banks) is that incomes are so unequal, so that 10% to the average earner would be 50% or more to the poorest, and too little to register in the household budget of the very rich (if they ate the kind of food that most people eat). Food prices are highly manipulated despite much talk of the “free market” and it is impossible to fix a sensible price when the richest are 1000 times richer than the poorest. Perhaps even more to the point: houses are now so dear that they gobble up a third or more of the average income, and on top of that there’s taxes, so again the notionally average 10% becomes nearer 30% of what most people actually have to spend. But houses don’t have to be so dear. They weren’t in the past. They are expensive for the same reason as diamonds; because it is more profitable to restrict the supply. Overall, the price of food has very little to do with the cost of producing it and everything to do with the structure of the economy as a whole.

However – fourthly – for social, economic, and social reasons we clearly need many more people on the land – an eightfold increase in Britain would probably be about right – but this cannot be achieved so long as farmland costs £25K a hectare or thereabouts. Massive reform is needed. Ideally, we would take all land out of the market altogether, in the manner advocated in particular by Henry George at the end of the 19th century. (George was hugely popular for a time and then forgotten). In practice, the nearest we can get to George’s ideal, probably, is through community ownership, where communities are defined geographically — by village or by neighbourhood — or by common interest as with the National Trust or the RSPB. Of course the issue is not simple. For instance, some private landowners including some of the remaining Feudal kind manage their land beautifully and benignly, inviting new farmers onto their land and offering security of tenure. So we can’t just assume that change is better. But whatever the particularities, we have to put a stop to land speculation, which means removing it from the market.

By the same token, we have to ensure that rents or mortgages cost 10% of income rather than 30%, as was the case 60 years ago. Then people will be free to spend a great deal more on good food, which would be good for everybody.  Among other things, the money would go to the people who do the work – the farmers and their workforce and not, as now, largely to bankers. Support for good, agroecological farming is win-win-win.

Finally, we need more sensible planning laws, or laws less rigidly applied, to ensure that the new farmers we need can live on the land that we need them to manage.

All this of course requires massive structural change which is economic and political in nature – not for the most part technical at all.

6: We need to re-think education

The standard academic disciplines from science and economics to moral philosophy and music and theology, and the world’s many crafts and trades, between them cover most of what we need to know to live well and harmoniously and to keep the biosphere in good heart. But – a huge but! – as things are they are usually taught in isolation, one from another: in silos, as the jargon has it. Scientists are given no proper insight into the philosophy of science, or moral philosophy, and are commonly told that religion is bunk instead of exploring the rich dialogue between religion and science that has taken place these past few thousand years; and economists learn that economics is a game of money with no worthwhile reference to moral principle; and so on. So the world is dominated by extreme specialists – some of them very clever but very few who can properly be called wise.

We need instead to teach everything in the light of everything else, “holistically” – which is the agenda of the College for Real Farming Food Culture.

Once everything is re-thought in the light of everything else; once farming is seen as an exercize in ecology, and linked to health and cooking, and economics is embedded in moral philosophy, and everything is traced as all subjects can be to their metaphysical roots; then a lot of the day-to-day problems that now seem so intractable simply disappear. The answers become obvious. Of course we don’t need to be vegans – but we don’t need CAFOs either! Of course we need to take care of skylarks and choughs, and mosses and solitary bees, without stopping to ask, “What do they do for us?” The principles of agroecology and of food sovereignty tell us that of course we need to become more self-reliant in food – as all  countries should – so as to make best use of land the world over, and to ensure that no one country ever becomes too reliant on another. Of course we need trade, and banking – but we should seem them only as devices, to help us to get organized and generally to keep track. They cannot be allowed to determine how we live, and how we treat the rest of the world.

Then, when the broad principles are in place and acted upon, we can get down seriously to the details.

Colin Tudge October 5 2017

Radicals vs Conventionals: Part I

What does it mean to be radical? What does it mean to be conventional?

Colin Tudge looks beneath the surface of two big words that feature in many discussions on all the world’s affairs yet are usually left unexamined – but now have surfaced in the context of the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference

In a nutshell:

Conventional thinkers take the status quo to be a given, and seek to adapt whatever they want to do in life to fit accordingly. Any idea or course of action that strains the limits of the status quo or starts from a different perspective is deemed to be unrealistic.

Radical thinkers begin by stating their values – what they think is really worth achieving in life; and if the status quo doesn’t fit what they feel needs to be done, then they set out to change the status quo.

Worldwide, and perhaps particularly in Britain, the prevailing feature of the status quo is the neoliberal economy – into which we are all required, and indeed obliged, to fit everything that we do, both on the grand scale (as in farming strategy) and in our day-to-day lives. Specifically, so-called “conventional” farming (high input, high output, increasingly monocultural, with minimum labour on large units – ie “industrial”) is perceived to be “modern”, and necessary to “feed the world”, and that is what farmers and the rest of us are required to accept.

But the extreme industrialization we have witnessed this past century, culminating in zero-labour arable and CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feed Operations) are not needed to “feed the world” and their net influence is surely negative, since the collateral damage is huge — ecological, social, moral, aesthetic. Agriculture that really could provide everyone with good food and create convivial societies and look after the biosphere would not be an exercize in industrialization and high tech but in applied ecology —  agroecology – and in food sovereignty (all societies having control over their own food supply).

For the neoliberal-industrial (NI) style of farming that is now perceived to be modern is not designed primarily to provide everyone with good food but to maximize and concentrate wealth. More and more wealth – “growth”’; ever-increasing GDP’ measured in accountable money – is perceived to the answer to all the world’s ills or if not the answer then the sine qua non. Today’s ultra-high-tech, high-input agriculture and the economic thinking behind it lead us towards productionism (the perceived imperative to produce more and more and more); to the idea that all agricultural produce should be treated as commodities, to be traded on the global market; and to trade deals of the kind that now obsess the oligarchy of corporates, financiers, government, and their chosen intellectual advisers, who control British agriculture. NI thinking also leads to the idea that the biosphere as a whole, the living world, should be valued primarily or indeed exclusively for what it can do for us in material terms; as a set of “resources” offering “ecoservices” and valued primarily or entirely as “natural capital”. The prime target imposed upon farmers this past half century has not been to provide food of the highest quality and to look after the biosphere but to “compete” for the largest possible share of the global market by making more money than anyone else more quickly. Indeed, competitiveness is now presented as the prime virtue. Finer feelings are for wimps. This way of thinking may seem foul – “asking for trouble” — and indeed it is, yet it is often justified on pseudo-scientific grounds, for competitiveness is perceived to be “Darwinian”, though this is both an insult to Darwin and is very bad moral philosophy.

Radical thinkers, whatever field they are in, state their values up front – whatever their values may be: democracy; justice and equality for all; an economy without private ownership (as envisaged not least by Thomas More); or, indeed, world domination with top-down control by a dictator or an elite.

So what values should we espouse? In a democracy the people should decide which implies that everyone has a right to express their opinion and a responsibility to exercise that right — and I suggest, along with many millions of others worldwide, that we need agriculture that is “expressly designed to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has food of the highest quality, without injustice or cruelty and without wrecking the rest of the world” – which is what we are calling “Enlightened Agriculture”, or “Real Farming”. Technically this should be well within our grasp but to achieve it we need to re-think the status quo across the board: the economic structure; governance (who takes the decisions, and how); the kind of science and technologies needed; and the underlying moral and metaphysical perspective. All must be reconceived from first principles. In all cases we need to get down to the roots, which of course is what “radical” literally means.

Enlightened Agriculture in practice embraces the ideas of agroecology, food sovereignty and economic democracy, all of which lead us to favour farms that are mixed, low-input, small (at least by the standards of modern Britain), high in tender loving care and so needing plenty of farmers and growers; with short – meaning simple — food chains; and geared to a global strategy, for all nations, of self-reliance (not to be confused with self-sufficiency) and fair trade. In other words, agriculture of the kind that is truly intended to provide us all with good food without wrecking the rest is the precise opposite of what now prevails. It follows that if we are to rescue farming, and ourselves, and the biosphere then we must be radical. We must re-think from first principles. Overall indeed we need nothing less than metamorphosis – a Renaissance. Specifically, we need an Agrarian Renaissance.

There is a downside, of course. Radical thinking and action are always disruptive, precisely because they challenge the status quo. This is why so many people oppose the radical approach – because they fear disruption. To be sure, if the disruption is too abrupt, as in large-scale revolution, it can do more harm than good and in any case the outcome is most uncertain. The necessary disruption must be measured, therefore. We need to re-build the kind of society we want in situ, building on what is good in the present world, keeping direct confrontation to a minimum.  The things we don’t want should, as far as possible, be encouraged simply to wither on the vine. But the world is fading fast and we can’t afford to hang about. The withering of out-moded or inappropriate institutions and ways of thinking must where necessary be assisted.

Many of the people who now seem content with or at least resigned to the status quo would dearly like to change course — including a lot of civil servants and corporate middle management, and indeed farmers who have been pressured against their better judgment to industrialize.  A prime task for the Renaissance therefore is to provide an alternative so that those who would prefer to escape from the status quo have somewhere else to go. In the short term we need to provide life-rafts – small, manageable, enlightened enterprises that do what needs doing locally and employ people. In the longer term these scattered initiatives should form a network that replaces the status quo with a truly viable alternative.

Radicals, in short, must not simply be negative, simply attacking the status quo. If we don’t like neoliberal-industrial farming we must devise something closer to what we do want, and show that it works.   If we don’t like the neoliberal economy we must ask what we can put in its place – and show that that works too. In all cases, having conceived the alternative, we must ask how it can be installed: and (preferably) how this can be achieved with minimum collateral damage. Worldwide, there are many thousands of examples of farming and food culture, and not a few economic models, that are far removed from the neoliberal model, and clearly can be made to work. It is simply untrue to insist, as Mrs Thatcher did, that there is no alternative.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) is radical, not in the Beano sense of black fedoras and smoking bombs, but at least in the sense outlined here. The ORFC aims to show-case and bring together some (as many as possible) of the novel approaches on all fronts (husbandry, science, politics, economics, metaphysics) that are already contributing to the Agrarian Renaissance (even if their perpetrators are not formally signed up to the renaissance idea). The ORFC is a project of the Real Farming Trust (RFT), a registered charity, together with the College for Real Farming and Food Culture (CRFFC) which seeks to identify and develop all the necessary ideas on all fronts that are needed to put the Agrarian Renaissance onto a firm footing; and Funding Enlightened Agriculture (FEA) which seeks to help enterprises of all kinds (but mainly small farms) that are helping the Renaissance to happen. The Campaign for Real Farming is in reality a website – this one: an on-line magazine to help hold everything together.

The Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) in contrast does not apparently begin with the premise that farming should be designed primarily along enlightened lines (agroecology, food sovereignty), or that we need an Agrarian Renaissance. The OFC takes it to be self-evident (or seems to) that farming first and foremost must conform to the economic and political status quo – i.e. that it must be “conventional”. Various people have suggested over the years that the two conferences should work together. Both, after all, are concerned with agriculture and to that extent they are on the same side, and as Winston Churchill said, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war”. Most delegates to both conferences would surely claim that they want the world to be a better place, and to a very large extent they would surely agree on what a better world would look like (including an end to hunger and mass extinction and general environmental run-down).

Yet, at least as things stand, we must recognize that the two approaches are very different – and the difference at its core is one of mindset: whether we can make the kind of world we really need and most people surely want (deep down) within the present economic and logistic status — which I take to be the view of the OFC); or whether and by how much and by what means we need to change the status quo — which is the radical view and is the thinking behind the ORFC.

Of course, that in itself could be a most interesting discussion, with huge (endless) ramifications.

Colin Tudge, August 14 2017

Radicals vs Conventionals: Part II

Can radicals and conventional thinkers ever really talk to each other?

In particular, can the Oxford Real Farming Conference and the Oxford Farming Conference ever engage in truly useful dialogue.  By Colin Tudge

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) – held every year in January since 2010 — is by definition radical. That is, is doesn’t simply ask what’s new in farming but also asks whether the economic constraints that now operate, and the science and high tech that are now promoted, and the system of governance that promotes the present economy and the present-day science and high tech, are really fit for purpose. After all, modern-day, “conventional” farming can look very good (those endless waving fields of ripening wheat!) and is in many ways impressive (eight tonnes of wheat per hectare as an average; the 10,000 litre cow; the chicken that grows to oven weight in six weeks) – and yet very obviously it is deeply flawed. It is utterly dependent on oil (it is, in effect, an extension of the oil industry and for that reason alone and many others it is obviously unsustainable); it is often cruel; it is a key player in every environmental catastrophe, from mass extinction to climate change; it destroys traditional and often highly convivial communities; and yet worldwide, for all its razzmatazz, it still leaves a billion people undernourished while a billion or so others seem to eat too much of the wrong things (such that the world population of diabetics is now greater by far than the total population of the US). The status quo, it seems, really does need questioning.

But in general, those who attend the “official”, Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), also held early in January and now more than six decades old, certainly are “conventional” in the proper sense. That is, they seek to operate within the economic status quo, and accept that modern science and technology (GMOs and robots etc) are indeed what’s needed, and tend to suggest that those who say otherwise and dream as the ORFC delegates tend to do of small mixed farms (and cooperatives), and emphasize low-input farming (which mainly means organic) are “unrealistic”: well-meaning perhaps but out with the fairies nonetheless.

Yet every year, someone or other from either or both conferences suggests that the ORFC and the OFC should get together, if not to merge or indeed actively to collaborate then at least to engage in public dialogue. Both “sides”, after all, the advocates say, have much to offer. Some suggest that wisdom must lie between the two approaches, or in an eclectic mix of the two. Others suggest that if only the delegates to the OFC took seriously the ideas of the ORFC, then they would instantly be converted – though some from the OFC argue the same point in reverse.

Well, discussions between opposing point of view do seem in essence to be desirable. Frank exchange of views etc.  This is what diplomacy is supposed to be about, and some of the diplomats I have met including a few ambassadors have been among the wisest birds of all. But to what extent is it possible, in the “real world”, and in the time available, to conduct a truly fruitful dialogue? How far can we get before each side retreats to its own castle and pulls up the drawbridge, confirmed in its view that the other side is beyond redemption?

All kinds of things get in the way of useful discourse. Many, including many senior academics, some with directorships and Fellowships and a few even with Nobel Prizes, have committed their whole lives to a particular point of view – the joys of the “free”, neoliberal market; the absolute need for GMOs; absolute faith in the ability of science to tell us all we need to know – and a mistrust of any idea that has not been filtered through a refereed journal; and so on. Others, including megabuck corporates on the one hand and individual industrialized farmers on the other, are committed financially to big-time investment in big-time tech, with no hope of retreat. Others, perhaps particularly farmers, large or small, are simply conservative. A few, at the other end of the scale, really are dreamers, rejecting all science and shunning all talk of money and apparently believing that the world can be put to rights by good feelings alone, which alas, does not seem to be the case (good feelings are necessary but not sufficient). All may be said to have a vested interest – intellectual and emotional (including spiritual and moral), and social as well as financial, in not doing things differently, or even seriously considering other ways of doing things.

An even bigger problem, though – far bigger – is the sheer complexity of all the issues. I’ve been thinking about food and farming for more than half a century and found above all that no one aspect of it can be thought through in isolation. I like the idea of Enlightened Agriculture, aka Real Farming (which gave its name to the ORFC and then to the College for Real Farming and Food Culture – which simply means farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone with excellent food without wrecking the rest.  In practice Enlightened Agriculture requires diverse and low-input farming, which means lots of tender loving care which means plenty of hands-on farmers and growers which leads us to favour smaller units rather than larger. Small mixed organic farms should be the norm, the default position, traditional in structure though not necessarily in technique – the very opposite of the kind of large-scale, high-tech, high-input, high-capital, neoliberal-industrial agriculture that is now considered modern and de rigueur.

But it was clear from the outset that we could not set up such “enlightened” farms on a robust basis within the prevailing neoliberal economy, geared as it is to the maximization and concentration of wealth, which is a quite different ambition. So we need a different economy. Clearly, too, we aren’t going to get a new economy unless we have a different government – and indeed a different kind of government. So we have to rethink politics – not just party politics but the whole basis of governance. Neither is the kind of science that is now taken to be respectable and fundable – i.e. the kind that contributes most directly to GDP – what the world really needs. Right now the emphasis is on molecular biology but the need is for broader and better ecological science – still much neglected relative to its importance. Behind all this lies the philosophy and politics of science – what is science, and what it can tell us and what it can’t, and how should it be funded and by whom? It’s clear, too, that no political or economic strategy can work for the general good unless we define what the general good is and why it matters – which are matters of moral philosophy which is rooted in metaphysics. Most of all we need compassion — i.e. we have to give a damn. But why should we give a damn when it’s easier (and in the present economy more profitable) not to? So our College for Real Farming and Food Culture focuses on all these issues, in unison, each feeding off all the others. I know of no other outfit in the world that is attempting to do this.

It follows that if we are to have a really worthwhile discussion on any farming topic then we really should attack it on all these fronts. But this takes an awfully long time, and no-one these days can take the necessary time, unless they were born rich or are retired with a pension. It also requires a true desire on both sides to listen, and to find the best way forward.

So is such discussion doomed? Specifically, can we envisage any fruitful dialogue between the ORFC and the OFC? Well — perhaps. At least, I can think of a few areas where good ideas might emerge from such dialogue, and we might even agree on some joint initiatives, which could be worthwhile.

Ideally these discussions would be initiated and led by farmers. In the meantime here are a few of my own suggestions:

** We can surely show beyond reasonable doubt that the present gung-ho emphasis on GMOs, which the Royal Society no less endorses and so do powerful elements within the British government, is seriously misguided and is at best a terrible diversion. But people who believe this are commonly written off as Luddites (in the bad sense) or as “anti-science” – even though many opponents of GMOs are scientists themselves, including some who are very distinguished. Yet no-one versed in science (or at least, no-one that I know) doubts that the science that lies behind GMO technology – molecular biology – is hugely important in many contexts. On the theoretical front it is showing yet again just how extraordinary nature really is – for the subtleties of genes and genomes constantly outstrip our imagining; and this, many would say, is the real purpose of science – not to help us to manipulate and “conquer” nature but to enhance appreciation of it. On the practical front the kind of science that has produced GMOs with net results that undoubtedly are deleterious, also helps us to identify useful genes in traditional varieties and among wild plants and so can greatly increase the efficiency and speed of conventional plant breeding.

In short: yet another discussion on the pros and cons of GMOs properly convened and chaired could be worthwhile, and both conferences could and should be interested.

** We could have a similar discussion about robots. If they are deployed simply to prop up high-tech neoliberal industrial farming as seems to be the present intent, and to put people out of work in the name of (commercial) “efficiency”, then they really are a threat to good farming and to society. Indeed it seems to be the ambition at least of some robo-geeks to render the human race obsolete. In truth, though, the discussion re robots is a continuation of the one that was begun in earnest in the 18th century by John-Jacques Rousseau at the start of the Industrial Revolution: how to use machines of any kind in ways that enhance our lives and don’t simply enslave us or make us redundant. This isn’t just a technical or an economic matter. It has huge psychological and cultural implications. For work isn’t simply drudgery, to be avoided and ultimately done away with at all costs. Human beings evolved to work. The first bona fide human beings in the genus Homo were dubbed Homo habilis: “handy man”. Our first recognizably human ancestors were artificers. Work that is challenging and sometimes hard but falls short of drudgery is the arterial road to personal fulfilment; and societies cannot be truly convivial, and worthwhile, unless the individuals of which it is composed are personally fulfilled. A farm that is zero-labour is culturally dead; and since it is likely to be zero-wildlife too it is also ecologically dead – a green desert, as conservationists are wont to say. There are plenty such in Britain already, spreading fast, with the weight of big money, big science, and big government behind them.

The discussion that Rousseau began in the modern age has been continued not least by the Luddites, John Ruskin, William Morris, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Fritz Schumacher, Tim Berners-Lee and so on. Ruskin, Morris, Tolstoy and Gandhi in particular stressed the cultural and spiritual implications. The discussion can never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction but it must be continued. Green deserts in the countryside and concrete-and-glass deserts in the cities is not a cheering prospect.

** The economy needs addressing from all sides too. For example, does anyone even within the OFC seriously believe that the “free” market economy alone can do all that’s needed, or is the best we can come up with? Some who claim to believe this take their subsidies nonetheless and apparently see no contradiction. Or, for example, what should be the role of corporates? Are they necessary? Do they really add to the sum total of wellbeing or do they merely expropriate – take over what others have developed and are or were already doing perfectly well before they came on the scene? The same question applies to governments. Are they our protectors and caretakers, or are they predators? Serious politicians in the past – Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke – used to ask such questions. But they seem to have fallen out of fashion. But they concern us all.

** On the other hand, the many and various people who commonly operate under the broad umbrella of what is loosely called “capitalism” have devised a host of financial mechanisms of all kinds, some of which can certainly be used for benign purposes. Various attendants of the ORFC are very well versed in such stuff but beyond doubt, the OFC also harbours some real experts. Combined effort could be fruitful.

** I would also like to know who in both or either conference agrees with the proposition that agriculture is too important to be left to government — or at least to the vagaries and caprice of party politics, as is now the case? Do we need a new MAFF – a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, with a powerful and properly informed Secretary of State? Or do we need a quite new agency, answerable but independent – a quango, indeed, run not by the great and the good but by farmers, cooks, scientists, economists, moralists, and others who know a thing or two and give a damn? That surely is a discussion that all could have.

In short, although for the foreseeable future the two conferences should surely stick to their respective lasts it is possible at least to envisage some interesting interchange. What such interchange might lead to only time could tell.

Colin Tudge August 18 2017

Food, Farming & a 21st Renaissance: Oct 16-20 2017

Come and be inspired (leave your Brexit woes behind)! Join us at Schumacher College for this week-long course in October!  Bursaries available. BOOK HERE

This from Colin Tudge about the course                                                                       “We could be looking forward with real optimism to the next million years. But to achieve a world that is truly good to live in, for us and our fellow creatures, we need to rethink everything – beginning with food and farming.

Nothing is more important than agriculture!

The good news is that we already know enough to feed ourselves well. The bad news is that the governments, corporates, and intellectuals to whom we have entrusted our affairs, seem to have misconstrued the nature of the task and are pursuing strategies that are often the precise opposite of what’s required.

What we need is an Agrarian Renaissance – a democratic renaissance in which all humanity plays a part. We need ‘a people’s takeover of the world’s farming’, based on agroecology, food sovereignty and economic democracy. This may sound too daunting for words, but enough is going on around the world over to suggest it is already happening. The task is now to identify the ideas and initiatives that are truly helpful and build upon them.

All the necessary techniques are out there, and although much more research is needed, urgently, we already seem to have enough know-how to turn things round even at this late hour – not GM and neonicotinoids but with agroecology, rooted not in high tech but in truly modern biology.

The even better news is that a great many people worldwide are already showing what can be done – even in the present economy. We will look at one very instructive example near to Schumacher College: Whippletree Farm, a smallholding with vegetables, fruit, and livestock run by young, first-time farmers Lucy and Sam Henderson.

Geetie Singh of Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge organic pub and Riverford Field Kitchen will explore how “real” farming, sound nutrition and the best ever cuisine go hand in hand; Ed Hamer will lay out the Landworkers’ Alliance’s vision for farming beyond Brexit; Stephan Harding and Tim Crabtree (Schumacher College) will look at the science, morality, metaphysics, and economics that we need, and the positive impact they can have on our future.”

A post-Brexit re-think for food and farming

If we seriously care about the plight and the future of the human race and the biosphere then we have to re-think food and farming policies from first principles.

Colin Tudge suggests how Britain might lead the way.


Food and farming strategy in Britain, insofar as there is such a thing, is based on a series of misconceptions and untruths. These include the idea that:

I.1: The world (including Britain) needs to produce more and more food to keep pace with rising numbers. A British government report of 2011 said we need 50% more by 2050.

Not true. It is easy to demonstrate that the world currently produces enough food for 14 billion people: twice the present population and 40% more than we should ever need. Re population: the UN tells us that the percentage rate of population growth is falling and should fall to zero in the 2nd half of this century (i.e. no more growth) when total numbers are around 10 billion.

Policy implication:

The world as a whole including Britain should switch the focus from production, production, production to food quality and to farming that is kinder to livestock and other species; and seek to re-build rural economies and communities.

I.2: The world needs more food because people are “demanding” more and especially are “demanding” more meat.

Not true. At least, the evidence is very shaky (and those scientists who put their weight behind this idea should be thoroughly ashamed). The evidence shows only that people adapt (happily enough, given time!) to what is around. They eat more meat when it is available and it is now widely available because the world invests so much in its production – not because of genuine “demand” but because it is possible to sell it with in-your-face marketing and livestock is therefore profitable.

I.3: Livestock production is so profligate that we cannot “feed the world” unless everyone becomes vegetarian.

Not true. Industrial livestock is profligate (we give 50% of grain and 90% of soya to animals). But all the world’s great cuisines use meat sparingly (as garnish, stock, or occasional feasts) and we could produce enough meat to support them by raising cattle and sheep on grass and browse where it is difficult to grow crops, and pigs and poultry on leftovers and surpluses i.e.: we cannot produce all the meat that people could be persuaded to buy but we could produce enough fairly comfortably to underpin the world’s great cuisines. That is, we cannot all be gluttons but we could all be gourmets. What more do we want?

Policy implications:

1: We need a massive programme of re-education – teach farming and all that goes with it as a core subject. Note, though, that the people most in need of such education are the people who are in charge of agriculture!

2: Cooking too should be a core subject. If the world at large truly appreciated good food – knew quality when they saw it, were good cooks, and truly “demanded” what is good — then there need be no food problems. In truth, “the future belongs to the gourmet”

1.3: Large, high-input, monocultural industrial estates are more “efficient” and they alone can produce all the food we need. We need to cut farm labour to cut costs.

Not true. Most (~ 70%) of the world’s food comes from small mixed low-input farms which for the most part are unsupported and are often actively done down — while the industrial kinds benefit form massive subsidies and grants.  Small, skills intensive units can be far more productive per unit area and with proper support could “feed the world” far better and more sustainably than big estates.

Policy implication:

We should be supporting small, mixed, low-input (which mostly means organic) farms

I.4: The neoliberal market economy can support the kind of farming we need and is needed to encourage “competition”, without which the system would run down.

Not true. The market economy requires farmers to be as profitable as possible (in competition with everyone else) and in the present economy the big industrial monocultures are the most profitable (for a few) and yet are the very opposite of what the world needs. Agriculture has been run on neoliberal lines for the past 40 years (apart from the subsidies!) and despite astonishing technologies it still leaves a billion people hungry.

Policy implication:

We need “Enlightened Agriculture”. See below.

I.5: Unless food is produced on big zero-labour industrial estates it will be too expensive.

Not true. Inter alia, the cost of food production accounts for only 20% of the retail price of which only about half (10%) goes to the workers who are sacked in the name of efficiency. Traditional markets well run can bring the price down. The main reason so many people can’t afford food nowadays has to do with maldistribution of income: some people earn 100 or 1000 times more than others so it is impossible to fix a sensible price; and land prices are artificially high because some people find that profitable.

Policy implications:

1: We need to encourage traditional markets

2: We need to achieve far greater equality of income (see essay IV.2.3 on the College website: “How much should food cost?)

3: We need massive land-reform (and in particular to bring down the price of housing).


II.1. The world as a whole including Britain needs “Enlightened Agriculture” aka “Real Farming”, loosely but adequately defined as:

“Agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality, without wrecking the rest of the world”

This is eminently possible. With enlightened agriculture (and all that goes with it!) we would not, as now, be facing Armageddon. We should be contemplating the next million years with equanimity.

The component ideas are those of:

Agroecology: treating farms as ecosystems

Food Sovereignty: society should have control over its own food supply.

Economic democracy.

Policy implication

All three components of Enlightened Agriculture need to be explored and developed.

II.2: In the neoliberal world geared to production and profit all crops are treated as commodities to be sold on the world market. In financial terms – in the neoliberal economy! – this is “efficient”. In ecological and social terms it is a disaster.

Policy implication:

We need to move to a strategy of national self-reliance (not to be confused with self-sufficiency!) and fair trade.

II.3. At present scientific research is financed primarily by corporates who support only the kind that produce technologies that are potentially profitable. Hence the emphasis on GMOs, the present support for Round-Up and neonicotinoids, and robots, and the relative neglect of ecology, the science that is needed to underpin agroecology. Essentially, science has become corrupted; it has lost its intellectual integrity (the dispassionate search for knowledge) which is its sine qua non.

Policy implication:

We need to re-establish independent agricultural science: in effect to restore the old Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC) and the Experimental Husbandry Farms (EHFs).

II.4: Agriculture must be answerable to government provided the government in fact represents the true interests of the people and the biosphere. But: the record of successive governments of all parties since the 1970s has been dismal, leading to the conclusion that agriculture is far too important to be left to the whims and vagaries of government, and must be liberated in particular from the ambitions of particular political parties.

Policy implication:

We need a quasi-independent agency to run agriculture – a quango indeed: though run not by the Great and the Good but by people truly knowledgeable in food and farming and who care about it: farmers, cooks, thinking scientists and economists, and thinking and caring citizens at large.

Colin Tudge August 2 2017

Why the Price of Food has Nothing to do with the Price of Food – and why science has been corrupted

By Colin Tudge

Last night’s Panorama (July 10 2017) fronted by Countryfile’s Tom Heap, explored food and farming post-Brexit: a sign – one of several – that after 40 years of slumber the Establishment is again taking agriculture seriously. Pending disasters concentrate the mind wonderfully.

For although Brexit was supposed to offer Britain huge opportunities to do, er, something or other, it is at least equally likely to hasten our social, economic, and intellectual descent – and in particular, to drive yet more farmers into oblivion yet more quickly, and compromise food quality, animal welfare, wildlife, and landscape. In particular, said the programme, it could (and probably will) make food more expensive and if that happens then even more people would be unable to afford it.

However, with or without Brexit, agriculture needs re-thinking from first principles, which means it needs radical thinking. Panorama, proud flagship of the BBC, for all its excellence is a child of the Establishment and radical thinking is what the Establishment, more or less by definition, does not do.  So we were told as in all such discussions that (a) we must reduce the cost of food production at home by greater “efficiency”, largely achieved by shedding permanent staff; (b), increase production while reducing costs (at least in the long term) by higher and higher technologies, focusing now on robots, GMOs, and fancier and fancier herbicides and pesticides; and (c), tighten our belts and adapt our diets to whatever it is that the high-tech, high-input food industry finds it most profitable to produce (because in the global free market only the most profitable can survive at all). Either that or (d), we must play the global market even more ruthlessly than we do already and simply buy from whoever in the world produces food most cheaply.

To conventional thinkers, all this seems obvious. Those who say otherwise are written off as dreamers and/ or backsliders, leftie loonies, anti-science, “unrealistic”, elitist, and so on. Already a million people in Britain must resort to food banks, and any further increase in food prices will “hit the poor” even harder. At least at first sight this kind of analysis seems perfectly logical and humane and is defended by sober-sided and well-dressed gentlemen and ladies in parliament, on television, and in learned journals, and yet is the most absolute nonsense.

For in truth, the reasons why so many people in Britain cannot afford food that’s good and fresh has almost nothing to do with the cost of production; and the reasons farmers go bust has almost nothing to do with their supposed “inefficiency”; and the current obsession in high places with robots and GMOs and industrial chemistry is a horrible perversion of science and a huge waste of money which, in the end, is public money. Food is too expensive for more and more people in well-heeled Britain for three main reasons, none of which has anything directly to do with the cost of production, and none of which is alleviated by attempts to make production more “efficient” by sacking people, joining big farms into big estates, or festooning the whole exercize with high-tech. Attempts to mitigate rising prices in the short term by buying more from the world at large will only transfer misery elsewhere, as indigenous agricultures everywhere that evolved to serve the needs of their people are replaced by industrialized monocultures owned by corporates, to provide commodity crops for export.

The first and most obvious reason why food now seems too dear for so many people in Britain is economic inequality. According to the latest New Internationalist (July/August 2017 p 21) the richest 10% in Britain make 17.4 times as much as the poorest 10%. In the US – the world’s leaders in inequality – the richest 10% earn more than 20 times as much as the poorest. In Denmark, the ratio of richest to poorest is just a little over five. Britain used to be nearer to Denmark: in 1978 the very richest were less than eight times as rich as the poorest, But the “free” market put paid to that. The average Brit, according to Panorama, spends 8% of their income on food. But for the richest, what is 8% to most would surely be too little to register – or would be if the very rich ate the same kind of things as most people. For the poorest, though, what for the average is 8% must be nearer to 30 or 40%. It is impossible to say what a reasonable expenditure or a “fair price” for food ought to be when the discrepancy between rich and poor is so great.

But people who aren’t positively rich can’t afford to spend 30% plus of their income on food because they are obliged to spend 30-50% on average on their mortgage or, more realistically, on rent. Food plus housing, which the UN very reasonably suggests are basic human rights, thus may account for 80% of total income, leaving 20% for clothes, buses, and – dare we venture such indulgence? – for leisure. Given that poor people have a low income to start with, the amounts allowable for each are horribly small. Landlords demand to be paid on pain of eviction so some or all of the rest just has to give way. In short: the second reason that food seems too dear is that housing is so expensive. It doesn’t need to be. As Simon Fairlie pointed out recently in The Land, people 60 years ago spent on average only 11% of their income on accommodation. Houses are dear now because successive governments since 1980 have deliberately limited the supply for the same reason that De Beer’s limits the price of diamonds – to keep the prices up. Most of the 30-50% we now spend on housing goes to bankers to service mortgages, or to landlords. In Britain only a small proportion of our income is spent on tangibles. Most just disappears into the system.

Then again, of every £1.00 spent on food in a supermarket the farmer receives on average only 18p. Farmers who sell through traditional high-street retailers may receive about 35% of the retail price and those who sell through farmers’ markets may receive 60% plus. Thus in theory at least a farmer could double or triple his or her income without any change in husbandry simply by a change in marketing. Putting it another way, food is as dear as it is largely because the food chains are too long – not in miles but in complexity. We shouldn’t be trying to reduce costs still further by sacking workers, and with bigger and bigger machines and fancier and fancier high tech. We should be seeking ways to cut down on the middle-men and extraneous processors and tiers of management. It makes no sense to cut down on the production costs that account for a mere 20% while leaving the 80% untouched. At least it makes no sense to ordinary people. Presumably it does make sense to those who run the world.

One presumably unintended consequence of the present, nonsensical food strategy is the perversion of science. Science is surely vital if we are to solve the world’s food problems – but the science that matters most is that of ecology: to show how to farm productively (or as productively as is necessary) without wrecking the biosphere. There are huge issues to be explored, many or most of which have been sadly neglected – not least those of soil biota; and, more broadly, those of small-scale indigenous farmers the world over. But the lion’s share of research money is spent instead on science and technologies that are intended primarily to reinforce high-tech industrial agriculture – to maximize productivity and centralize wealth, and as far as possible to cut the labour force which, according to some analyses, is the very opposite of what we really need to do.

Brexit is raising problems we didn’t know we had – to do with food prices and the future of farming as a whole and the fate of the biosphere. But we won’t solve those problems ad hoc. We can’t solve any of farming’s problems, or any other social or environmental or health programme unless we look at everything we do, and take for granted from first principles: not just at the economics of farming as things are now but at the whole basic of the economy, and the structure of society, and the roles of science, and, most importantly, at our values. What do we really think matters? As the literary critic F R Leavis put the matter, “By what do we stand?”

July 11 2017

Gove and the Great Ministerial Tradition

A rant from Colin Tudge

The appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (agriculture is in there somewhere) continues the British tradition of putting people in charge of farming who don’t know anything about it, or indeed, as far as can be seen, have ever given it a moment’s thought. “New Labour” did it too – Margaret Beckett and super-Tzar Larrie (Lord) Whittie – while the Tories in recent years gave us Owen Patterson (“Sell more beef to the Chinese!), Liz Truss (“Sell more pork to the Chinese!), and Angela Leadsom (“Butterflies must take to the hills!” (though I paraphrase).)

The idea, of course, as with most ministerial appointments, is that by coming to the subject fresh these bolts from the blue can be “objective” – in the same way that I, say, could take an objective stance on Mediaeval Arabic or Australian rules football, having not the slightest clue what either is about. But never fear! As with all his predecessors, a few lunches with a few landowners and the top echelons of the NFU, some techies from Monsanto, and a few selected intellectuals, will soon bring Gove up to speed. Like his predecessors, he simply has to learn a few stock phrases and idées fixes and graft them on to the standard neoliberal agenda.

So he and we will be told that British farmers must above all “compete” in the world market to keep prices down, because the economy in general and agriculture in particular is now “global” – especially when we leave the EU with all the protection it brings and are ‘free’ to compete with the rest of the world head-to-head, under the gentle guidance and wise counsel of the WTO.

In effect, the mantra has it, all crops and livestock must be seen as commodities. To compete, farmers must be “efficient” – in cash terms, that is, and in the short term. The cost of any damage is as far as possible “externalised” and long-term damage (the full horrors of which don’t become apparent till after the life of the present parliament) is “discounted”, as accountants somewhat ambiguously put the matter. In the name of efficiency costs must be minimized – which in the short term is achieved by sacking people, replacing them with big machines, reducing the whole exercize to monoculture and making good the inevitable problems including the gleeful invasions of specialist pests, with industrial chemistry – or, soon, once we have swept aside those meddlesome greenies, with GM.

All is made even more efficient by “scale up”: merging small farms – anything less than 100 acres – into bigger ones, so that the machines, the bigger the better, have room to turn round. Until the bubble burst, bankers queued up to lend the vast sums required,  which means that much of what the farmer earns and much of what people spend on food goes to bankers, to pay off the debts on the loans. But that’s fine. It produces a “buoyant” economy. Soon the time comes when dispossessed erstwhile workers will work for almost nothing, and then they can be bussed in, en masse, to carry out essential tasks for less than it would cost to buy a new machine (and to pay off the bank-loan), and then kicked out since they have no proper status. So as Del-boy from Fools and Horses used to say, it’s still luvly jubbly.  The prettier workers’ cottages are sold for weekenders (the erstwhile workers can live, well, somewhere else) and more or less everything is put up for sale “to attract foreign capital” — from Arabs, Chinese, and Russian oligarchs, or anyone else with a cheque book. We continue to land-grab the world over (along with the Arabs, Chinese, and Russians) and thus create a new generation of banana republics, while we ourselves are also seeking, or so it seems, to achieve banana republic status on our own account.

Meanwhile lip service is paid to the “need” to increase production to “keep pace” with “rising population” and “rising demand”.

Above all we must always remember that although we must try to produce as much of our own food as possible (that we import so much cheese is a “disgrace” according to Liz Truss) we can always buy in our food from people with more sunshine and lower standards if farmers get too uppity, just as we did with coal – not least from the vasty fields of Africa, once the Chinese have had time to get them sorted.

All this is called progress. Politicians, industrialists, and senior academics who run think tanks and organize portentous conferences in prestigious venues all subscribe to the grand thesis. Those farmers and growers, cooks, scientists, economists, and citizens  at large who feel in their bones or spell out in fine detail why the grand thesis is flawed at every turn are written off en bloc as hippies and loonie lefties, if not, these days, as potential terrorists. Very few politicians of any party really care about agriculture, or what they call “the environment”.

As for Gove: I will send him this blog. After all, it summarizes all that he and the government think he needs to know.

Colin Tudge June 15 2017

What the Oxford Real Farming Conference is really all about

The absolute importance of being radical

By Colin Tudge

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) has become more popular than anyone could reasonably have expected, or indeed hoped. Eight-hundred-and-fifty different delegates, about half of them farmers, came to this year’s version – the eighth — over two days in early January.

The ORFC is different from most other farming conferences. First, it has a very broad agenda. And secondly, it is radical — in the proper sense. Radicals don’t necessary wear torn jeans or cloaks with big black hats – some of them even wear suits with collars and ties. But “radical” means “root” and whatever radicals may look like and whatever they wear, they are united by a true desire to get to the roots of things. They seek to find the real reasons why the world is not as we would like it to be, and what we really need to do to put things right, and how we can go about it.

Our thinking must be broad because farming sits right at the heart of all the world’s affairs, human and otherwise. Like everything else, only more so, it affects everything else and is affected by everything else – and clearly, right now, in most countries worldwide and in the world as a whole, it leaves a great deal to be desired. In Britain, our soils are collapsing, at least a third of all wild species are in decline and many are disappearing, a million people at any one time must resort to food banks, and most farmers are poorly rewarded, seriously under siege and going out of business by the hour. Indeed, as Felicity Lawrence pointed out at the 2016 ORFC, British farming now depends to a large extent on labour gangs bussed in from the world’s most beleaguered countries and controlled by international crime. In the world as a whole a billion go hungry and half our fellow creatures are in imminent danger of extinction. It’s a horrendous litany of disaster wherever we look although it would be  technically easy (relatively speaking) to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has control over their own food supply and is well fed (to the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy).

But to put things right is not just a matter of husbandry. A mass transition into organic farming, as some are advocating, is necessary but not sufficient – and it cannot come about at all if we simply talk about organic farming. We must also explore the underlying economic structure which, at present, forces farmers down the industrial route, even though the industrial route can be so obviously destructive and can be so cruel and unjust. Then we must ask what kind of government is needed to install the necessary economy; and what kind of law is needed to help ensure that the right things are done (and does not, as is so often the case at present, encourage bad practice and prevent good things from happening); and what kind of science is really needed and who should control it; and what kind of moral principles we are seeking to uphold.

But to tackle any of these issues in ways that might actually bring about permanent and worthwhile change we need to probe as deeply as we can: never reaching a bedrock of truth and certainty, because there is no bedrock, but at least to provide an account that is “robust”, and stands up to scrutiny, and could, if its conclusions were applied, bring worthwhile change.

The economics of organic farming provide a key example. Of course it’s extremely hard to make a living as a working farmer these days whatever you do, and usually even harder to earn a decent crust if you stray ever so slightly from the tramlines laid down by government and big business; in particular, if you fail to focus all your efforts on short-term profit, with maximum production and minimum labour. So no farmer can be blamed, organic or otherwise, if he or she is content (more or less) to cling to whatever life-raft may come their way: an offer from Tesco, say, to stock some of their produce. Farmers have enough to think about without stopping to ask if Tesco is really a good thing.

Out of such expediency grows moral justification: that if Tesco starts to support local (organic) farmers and if this proves profitable then Tesco might perceive – for financial reasons alone – that they should change their whole ethos; and if the really powerful players in the commercial world did change their ethos, then perhaps the world’s problems would be solved. Macdonalds, bete noire of the green left, have smartened up their act considerably of late, with free-range chickens and saladings and all kinds of cheerful things. Other organic or otherwise out-of-the-mainstream farmers find niche markets, and heave a sigh of relief, and leave it at that, and who can blame them? Certainly not me, aloft in my cozy room-with-a-view.

So it is that many an advocate of organic farming feels that the principal task before us is to show “mainstream” (which in reality tends to mean industrial, high-input) farmers how they can make a living by being more eco-friendly – which, in the short term, can sometimes be achieved by selling to Tesco or establishing niche markets. Do that, they are wont to suggest, and the job is done.

Beyond doubt, this approach is worthwhile, and as things are, may often be necessary. The more farmers turn away from industrial inputs and adopt the methods of agroecology (with organic farming at its core), the stronger the agroecological lobby will become and the better it should be for the world.

Yet this is not enough. To persuade industrial, “mainstream” farmers to become organic – or, more to the point, to show that it is possible to make a living if they do so – is necessary, but taken alone will not do the trick. The tension will remain. Industrial farming goes hand in hand with an economy that is geared to short-term profit, achieved by competition on the global market, and if we probe beneath the surface (the odd shelf of organic produce in Tesco’s) we soon find that the perceived need to maximize short term profit is at odds with what should be the grand goal: to create systems of farming that can supply everyone in the country and in the world with good food, and to keep the biosphere in good heart, for many thousands of years to come. So however convenient and even agreeable it may seem in the short term to do a deal with the status quo, the present powers-that-be, we still need to ask what kind of marketing strategy, and what kind of economic structure, do we really need if we are to put farming, and the whole world, on to a secure basis? Almost certainly, the corporate-driven oligarchy we have now, won’t do. The point is not that the people who run Tesco or Macdonald or Cargill or any of the rest are nasty people (some are, but that’s true of all walks of life). In my experience, some of them are very nice. The point is rather that by getting involved in corporate farming the nice people have simply backed the wrong horse. But then, in the modern world, in which education too is mainstream, that simply means they have gone with the flow (and it’s very hard to do otherwise).

In short, although the desperate need in the immediate term must be to make a living in a harsh and largely hostile world; and although that in itself is exhausting; yet we must, if we really care about our children and grandchildren, and about the world as a whole, dig deeper, and ask what kind of economy we really need, and how we can bring it into being. That is what it really means to be radical.

So the task for people who really want to make the world a better place is twofold. First, obviously, they have to make a living. That is the sine qua non. If they don’t then they fall by wayside which is bad for them and their families – and also bad for the world because it means there is one less right-thinking person to show what ought to be done.

But secondly, and in the long term just as importantly, they must if they really care about the world, help to define and to create a different kind of economy, one that really could provide the basis for an agreeable and stable world: good jobs, reasonable incomes, good food, and a flourishing biosphere. The kind of approach that is already well-known seems well up to the task – an agriculture based primarily on small-to-medium-sized, low input (primarily organic), polycultural (mixed) farms that deliver mainly (though not necessarily exclusively) to markets that are as local as possible, all supported by government intervention of a sensible kind (the free market won’t do but neither will crude, one-size-fits-all subsidies). Some farmers and communities the world over are already showing that such systems can work and although some new thinking is always needed, the prime task right now seems to be to identify those who are doing good things, and emulate.

We must, if we really care about the future, apply the same kind of approach across the board: to governance, the law, science, and so on. This is what the ORFC aspires to do – and, as far as we are able, is indeed doing. We collaborate with some specialist groups who obviously know a thing or two but absolutely not will we allow any particular lobby to call the shots. Most don’t try, but some do, and need to be kept at arm’s length.  Our new College for Real Farming and Food Culture ( has the same broad agenda, but aspires to probe all the key questions at greater depth and length, in extended seminars throughout the year, carried out in partnership with academic and other institutions.

A great many people, including a great many farmers, some of them new to the game and some very well established, some in torn jeans and some in collars and ties, support our general approach. In the end, all big ideas – including or especially those of science and morality – end in unknowns; and so they find their denouement in the much-neglected, virtually abandoned discipline of metaphysics. We held a session at the 2017 ORFC on this very issue — “Farming and Metaphysics”, with a rabbi, a priest, and a sufi. It proved to be one of the most popular, a lock-out indeed. Very encouraging!

Colin Tudge, May 30 2017