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 (http://collegeforrealfarming.org/) 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

Let’s start the world all over again

Colin’s first weekly blog about the College for Real Farming and Food Culture

It’s obvious from all that’s happening that the world has lost its bearings. Not only is it in perpetual conflict. It’s built on conflict. The prevailing, neoliberal economy is designed to be maximally competitive (give or take the odd cartel) and competitions produce many more losers than winners. The people in charge from Kim Jong-un to Donald Trump beggar belief while at home we have the sad distractions of Brexit and UKIP with Theresa May in the guise of Boudicca, and horrendous inequalities, and all public services on the brink, and a housing policy that’s designed to keep the prices high by limiting the supply (just as De Beer’s limits the supply of diamonds).

Worse-placed of all though – because so few seem to have noticed – is agriculture. There’s much talk of “progress” with huge machines and smart little robots and dazzling biotech, yet the whole sorry bandwagon is heading for the buffers, with farmers on their beam ends, soils rendered unfarmable, wildlife dying, and research in the hands of corporates, with busloads of itinerant workers of conveniently uncertain legal status to fill in the cracks. Plenty of farmers worldwide can see that things are dire and many are showing as far as circumstances allow how to do things better (a lot of whom attend the Oxford Real Farming Conference) while many more (also evident at the ORFC) are looking for the chance to get involved and do things differently; and we surely have the know-how to put things right, rooted in 40,000 years’ agricultural experience underpinned by science of the kind that can properly be called “appropriate”. But the science that prevails is of the gung-ho kind, plugged into a crude economy and overseen by opportunist governments obsessed by party politics, with a near-absence of common sense and common humanity.

We need nothing less than a Renaissance – a re-birth: metamorphosis. It won’t happen if we leave it to the powers-that-be for they are looking the wrong way. We – all of us – need to take matters into our own hands. Agriculture is the thing we absolutely must get right and although it is apparently the most disastrously placed and the most sewn-up of all human pursuits it is also the most susceptible to democratically-inspired transformation. The Grand Renaissance can begin with Agrarian Renaissance.

To help things along we’ve started The College for Real Farming and Food Culture. Please tune in to the website and join the conversation. I will remind you with (roughly) weekly blogs, of which this is the first.

Colin Tudge, May 6 2017

Farming is far too important to leave to governments

As we build towards yet another election Colin Tudge suggests that it’s time for a little honesty

I think I’d vote for any party in the coming election that took agriculture seriously – which unfortunately excludes all the major parties and, of course, UKIP. The Green Party has the most appropriate policies but it does not focus on farming as much as it should and must if it is truly to be green. Agriculture after all is right at the heart of all the world’s affairs, human and non-human, and if we don’t get it right then we, the world, have had our chips.

We could get it right. It would not be technically difficult (or certainly not beyond our wit) to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has good food, forever, and that the biosphere as a whole stays in good heart far into  the future  — all of which is what the much-worn term “sustainable” ought to mean. Yet in practice, Britain’s and the World’s agriculture is dire. It certainly does not provide everyone with good food and it is wrecking the world at large, possibly terminally. Furthermore, the neoliberal-industrial brand of farming that is now called “conventional” is rapidly making things worse. Governments like Britain’s and the rest of the EU spend millions (literally) of person-hours and billions of pounds and euros on agriculture and this looks serious enough, but they are not thinking along the right lines. The task they have set themselves is not to meet the real needs of human beings and our fellow creatures but to squeeze the square peg of agriculture – essentially a social and ecological exercise – into the round hole of neoliberal dogma, with as much high-tech as possible to make it look progressive (and also because high-tech is profitable). This is not what’s needed. As Barrack Obama said in a very similar context: “Guess what. It doesn’t work”. But it does keep well-paid people busy for years and years and years, and can do small wonders for GDP, which is the main thing, even if it puts millions more out of work, and makes a horrible mess.

Crucially, most of the people who have the most influence in agriculture don’t know anything about it, or about the biosphere at large (the living world), or they don’t care, or both. Britain’s governments take agriculture seriously only in times of crisis and for a few years afterwards until the memory fades – as they did briefly after the virtual siege of the Napoleonic wars and the two World Wars. Then they revert to “business as usual”, and in “normal” times agriculture in Britain is never designed primarily to provide good food for everyone or to ensure food security (which is not quite the same thing) or to look after farmers or (still less) the biosphere, but to placate whatever lobby happens to be dominant at the time. It used to be the Feudal aristocracy. Now it’s big business and international banking. On the whole the Feudal aristocracy were and are less destructive but neither they nor the corporates met or meets the real needs of humankind or of the biosphere. This was not and is not their agenda.

British governments have demonstrated their indifference to agriculture and their level of appreciation of it first by dropping the words “agriculture” or “farming” from the name of the department that runs it (the F in Defra means “food”; the A “affairs”) and from the body in charge of research (BBSRC? What’s that?); and secondly, by appointing secretaries of state who either are young Turks on the way up (David Miliband was in charge for about a year or so, just passing through) or, more usually, are a “safe pair of hands” (the code-name for “hack”). The latest incumbent, Angela Leadsom, has told spellbound audiences that we should use the lowlands for intensive farming and leave the uplands to the butterflies. Jolly bad luck on lowland butterflies (which is most of them) and indeed on upland farmers.

In passing too, in 1994 the incumbent government shut down the Agricultural and Food Research Council. AFRC had evolved over 150 years or so from John Bennet Lawes’ experiments with superphosphate at his Rothamsted estate in the 1830s, and by the late 20th century it was running about 30 publicly owned research stations all over Britain, with strong links overseas, on all aspects of farming, that truly and rightly were the envy of the world. But through the ’90s and beyond the stations were sold off or privatised. This surely was the greatest act of state-sponsored vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries, but in this urbanised society of ours, who noticed? (It’s a pity farming doesn’t have the same profile as the NHS, or even that of education. At least people at large know that these things matter.)

The fashion / dogma/ prevailing doctrine right now is that of Neoliberalism. The point is not that neoliberalism is “capitalist”. Capitalism in practice is a catch-all term for a whole range of financial mechanisms most of which can be used for good purposes – meaning socially and environmentally responsible – provided those mechanisms are guided by common sense and common morality (a feeling that compassion, justice, and the state of the biosphere actually matter). But neoliberalism as a matter of strategy! – rejects the constraints of common sense and common morality. The machinations of the “free” market – Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – are supposed to ensure that all will be well. The market is left to decide what is morally good: what people will pay for is deemed to be OK (barring child pornography. Even neolibs have kids, after all). But in truth as has been abundantly demonstrated these past 25 years the invisible hand does not work. The market in practice is not democratic and it does not and cannot deliver social justice.

Farming is now deemed to be “a business like any other” (a chill phrase that I first heard in the 1970s, even before the dead hand of neoliberalism came down on us) and “business” is now conceived not as the natural underpinning of a mixed economy in a democratic society but as an all-out, no-holds-barred competition to generate the greatest wealth (measured in money) in the shortest time. In practice of course the no-holds-barred market is not open to all but is dominated by the strongest players, who are the corporates, which are designed expressly for the fray, and are now so powerful that they can override governments (even those like Theresa May’s which promise to be “strong and stable”— meaning they can shove us around (though they can’t out-face the corporates) and will stick to their dogma come what might).

Maximally profitable farming – in the short term! – is not good farming. There is much talk of “sustainable intensification” and other such vacuous slogans from on high but so long as oil is affordable (which it always will be – just! — because the producers need to sell it) it is more profitable to replace people with machines, and good husbandry with industrial chemistry, and farm with minimum to zero labour on the largest possible scale (although sometimes gangs of serfs imported from afar are cheaper than chemistry). All this – despite GM and lightweight robots and other much-vaunted nonsenses – will at best be “sustainable” for the next 30 years or so (by which time the present crop of politicians and tycoons will be safely tucked up in their graves, or in the House of Lords).

As Snoopy would say, Eeeaaagh!

So what’s to be done? At the coming election I don’t know. Regrettably, the result does make a difference. Governments rarely do lasting good (women’s suffrage and the great health and education reforms after World War II are rare one-offs) but they can and often do wreck lives in the short term and do a great deal of lasting harm. But, as is generally the case these days, in England at least, the most attractive party or parties are the least likely to win.  The nasty ones are better organised.

In the longer term, though, if we really care about the future – if indeed we want to enjoy a long-term future at all – then we have to start again from first principles.

To begin with, we must, as a nation and a world, start again to take agriculture seriously. We can’t just throw it to the wolves of the global money market – or seek to curb the worst excesses of the market with one-size-fits-all subsidies. Our lives depend on agriculture and agriculture more than anything else determines whether other creatures can live at all. The mechanisms and pressures of the “free” market are far too crude to attend to all its subtleties, and the goals of the market, its raison d’etre, are quite distinct from what should be the true goals of agriculture. In absolute contrast to what is now perceived as the norm we need “Enlightened Agriculture”, sometimes abbreviated to “Real Farming” – farming that is designed expressly to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest of the world, and without injustice or cruelty. This ought to be eminently possible. The three essential principles of Enlightened Agriculture are Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Economic Democracy, all of which have been well demonstrated and shown to work. Enlightened Agriculture with all that it entails needs to become the global norm. Agriculture needs to be transformed – metamorphosis. We need nothing less than an Agrarian Renaissance: “re-birth”.

But we cannot bring about the Agrarian Renaissance ad hoc. Agriculture affects everything else that we do, and is affected by everything else, and to bring about the necessary transformation we need to re-think everything from first principles. We need an economy that is not simply intended to maximise short-term wealth, and to transfer wealth and power from the many to the few, but to serve all humanity (it can be done). We need to re-think politics, so that we don’t simply elect short-termists, promising endless material growth and rattling sabres at the world at large. We need perhaps above all to make democracy work (it’s the worse form of government, said Winston Churchill, “apart from all the others”). We need to re-think science – who controls it, and for whose benefit; and, much more than that, we need to ask seriously what science really is, and what it can do and what it can’t – the much neglected discipline of the philosophy of science. Science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and ought to be among our greatest assets but as things are it is, in some of its manifestations, among our greatest threats. We need to re-think our moral principles – what do we really think is good, and why? And finally, we need to acknowledge, as has not to my knowledge been acknowledged for some centuries, that all the most interesting ideas, including or especially those of science and morality, are rooted in unknowns and unknowables, which can be sensibly discussed only in the context of metaphysics. Metaphysics needs to be disinterred, dusted down, and placed centre-stage. The point of The College for Real Farming and Food Culture is to do the necessary re-thinking, or at least to set the balls rolling.

But at the same time as the great re-think we need to start doing: setting up the kinds of farms and markets and other enterprises of the kind we really do want, which really could help to bring about the Agrarian Renaissance. Many such initiatives are already in train, though the cards are stacked against them. Our own Funding Enlightened Agriculture initiative (FEA) is helping things along, and so too are various excellent groups at home and abroad.

Above all, since the present government does not take agriculture seriously, and no government of any party has taken it seriously since post-war years, if we seriously want farming that does the job that’s needed then we, people at large, need to take matters into our own hands. In the immediate term, farmers and their surrounding communities need to work together to push things in the right direction. In the longer term – though as quickly as possible – we need to rescue agriculture from government. It needs its own agency, run by people who understand it and care about it, and care about humanity and the biosphere at large, and are also answerable to people at large; an organisation with power that is also democratic and, perhaps above all, competent. The BBC was run like this in its early days – not perfect, but admirable nonetheless. I am told the Dutch dikes also have their own agency, with the power to do what needs doing, because if they did not they would drown. Some things are just too important to leave to governments and farming, beyond doubt, is one of them.

Addendum

I coined the term “Enlightened Agriculture” in 2003 in a book called So Shall We Reap. At a meeting in 2008 with friends and my wife, Ruth (West) we decided that “Real Farming” would be catchier and so (with a generous grant from one of the assembled company) we set up “The Campaign for Real Farming”, including this website. At about that time too Graham Harvey suggested that the world needed an antidote to the establishment’s Oxford Farming Conference and so he, Ruth and I set up the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2010 (which is still going from strength to strength). Then Ruth and I felt we should establish a fund to help new enterprises of an enlightened kind, and so we started Funding Enlightened Agriculture, FEA. Then we gathered all these threads – the Campaign, ORFC, and FEA – together under the umbrella of a new charity, the Real Farming Trust, which has built up a truly outstanding board of trustees. Finally, out of all this came our College for Real Farming and Food Culture, designed formally to access and to carry out all the necessary thinking that governments and the NFU, the BBSRC, and most of academe are singularly failing to do. The College website is still building but it is well in train. The College is also building a programme of seminars – the next of which are in September and October of this year (more news to follow). In the fullness of time the College may have its own premises with an experimental farm attached. We’re working on it. Thus the Agrarian Renaissance might come about through a kind of co-evolution: the necessary thinking and the new enlightened enterprises developing in synergy.

Colin Tudge April 30 2017

Can Britain ever again be fit for farming?

Colin Tudge fears that Brexit could mean the end for agriculture that truly aspires to produce good food for everyone

Our excellent friend Nick Snelgar who writes regularly on these pages is among the relatively few who has shown that small farming really can work – and in particular, that there is an important place even in obsessively industrialized Britain for small dairy farms, aka micro-dairies. Over the past six years, with innovation, enormously hard work, some privation, and at huge financial risk, he has built up a herd of twenty cows near the village of Martin in Hampshire and – even more importantly – has established a plant to process milk from like-minded farms nearby. On the back of all this he has built up a more than viable business, supplying a regular beat of local shops with fresh milk from local pasture-fed cows of known provenance, very much appreciated by the villagers. He has had a timber house built on his own land for him and his wife and visiting family which, the planners said, had to be sawn in half (lengthwise) so the two halves could if required be stashed on a lorry and towed away. This was duly done.

Now Nick and his wife are being booted out. Neighbours have complained. They have fled to their country idylls but don’t, apparently, like the sounds or the smells of the countryside, and some of them don’t approve of livestock farming in any form. Nick appealed against the eviction but the appeal has now been turned down.

I was born in England – in South London, for what the information is worth, though with strong connections with Lancashire (through my father). I have been lucky enough to spend time in lots of wonderful places worldwide but England is home, where I feel I belong (in Oxfordshire now). I fear, though, that England in particular, among the countries of the British Isles, has become vile.  Neoliberalism has ruled these past 35 years and short term wealth is now the measure by which all things are judged. Justice is in serious danger since the country is dominated by whoever is richest and everything – including the countryside, and indeed all land, including the finer parts of London – is up for sale to the highest bidder, whomsoever they may, howsoever they came by their wealth (despots and oligarchs – bring ‘em on!).  I fear, too, that in these post-Brexit days, things are bound to get worse. We do in theory have a chance to re-group, to re-think our values, and to re-design England and indeed Britain for the benefit of people at large and of the biosphere. But we won’t.  We will be thrown with ever-rising desperation into ever-more speculative trade-deals, clinging to whatever economic lifelines are thrown our way, taking whatever we can from those who are even more desperate and can offer no resistance.

Every well informed person in the highest places, including various branches of the UN, and organizations like the Millennium Institute in Washington, now agrees that the world is best served by small farms of many kinds, with low inputs (minimum fossil fuels and their derivatives), and managed along organic lines with plenty of TLC (needing plenty of skill). Such farms can be more productive per unit area than the high-input industrial kind; they are more people-friendly (plenty of jobs, higher quality food); and are more wildlife friendly (and far more sustainable!) than the industrial kind. But such is the mind-set of those in power – neoliberal; urbanized – that all this is ignored. High-tech and industrialization are equated with “progress” and everyone knows that progress is good. Ergo, traditional practice must be an anachronism — an elitist, woolly-minded exercise in nostalgia. This – the unquestioned virtue and need for unfettered markets and high tech – is the modern mythology; and all societies, through all of human history, including those that have claimed to be “rational”, have lived primarily by their mythology.

It is part of the modern myth that our decisions are “evidence-based” – but evidence does not mean “fact”. Evidence in reality means facts that people with most influence choose to take seriously. The fact that small farms demonstrably work when they are not actively done down (they feed 70 per cent of the world’s people, even though they are actively done down) is ignored, or suppressed by those with influence. The non-fact – the lie, indeed – that high-tech industrial agriculture is needed to “feed the world” and that it can do so sustainably, is convenient to those with most influence, and so, in most “modern” countries, it is the basis of farming strategy. The “evidence” that supports the prevailing myth is copious but highly selective. The evidence that small, low-input farms are better, when well-managed, is left on one side or, when it does surface, is routinely derided. Smart, urbanized people, though they may live in the countryside and keep Labradors and make sloe gin, go along with the myth. The mythology is seen to be “responsible” even though it threatens to kill us all. And besides, smart modern people don’t like the sounds and smells of cattle (any more than the smart, refined people of the 18th century liked the view of mountains).

Nick may be seen just as one small farmer among – literally – hundreds of millions, worldwide, swept aside by the relentless march of modernity which, although it may not be picturesque, is taken to represent the only possible future for humanity. Or he may be seen as the victim, yet another, of a myth that suits a few people and others are prepared to go along with. Yet, if there is anyone around in the future to write the history of humankind, this myth will surely be seen as the greatest of all our follies. Humanity and indeed the living world as a whole are being sacrificed because of a few daft ideas – dogmas, algorithms — which some find convenient, and people who really should know better, including some who are called intellectuals, rush to support.

In practice, neoliberal-industrial farming – huge, high-input, high-tech, minimum-to-zero labour monocultural estates, dotted with pony-paddocks and helicopter pads – is the precise opposite of what humanity and the biosphere really need; yet this is what receives government support, meaning it is paid for by us, with the backing of the NFU and of course of industry and industry-dependent  academe. Meanwhile the kind of farms we really need, like Nick’s, are swept aside with equal zeal and somewhat sickening self-righteousness. So it is that in Britain and much or most of the world these days it is relatively easy to make a fat living by doing things that are obviously destructive; and very hard, going on impossible, to make a living by doing good, whether you’re a farmer or a nurse or a teacher or a social worker or what you will. All this sounds like a recipe for a seriously dysfunctional world, which indeed is what we have got.

Truly, we need a Renaissance. Certainly we need to do all that’s possible to defend individual small farmers and others like them. But even more to the point, we need as a matter of urgency to re-think everything that we do and take for granted. Nick in truth is the victim of a world that is seriously off-course.

I and others are now trying to do kick off the Renaissance through the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, which has sprung out of the Campaign for Real Farming and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. Please do take a peek at progress so far

For Britain’s and the world’s agriculture, Brexit is much bigger than Brexit

In the spirit of John McEnroe, Colin Tudge urges our leaders to “Be serious!”

The discussions that have followed Brexit – “Ooh Crikey! What shall we do now?” – are, if anything, even less edifying than those that led us to the present fiasco.  In this as in all things agriculture is in the firing line, and here the general level of conversation (as alas is true of farming in general) has perhaps been worst of all – not least because the implications are so serious.

Thus, newcomers might be forgiven for thinking that all that’s at stake is the CAP subsidies. Will they continue? Will the British government substitute something similar? If it does, will it continue to ensure that the lion’s share goes to the biggest landowners, more or less irrespective of merit, or the lack of it? Will it simply be assumed, in Mrs May’s promised meritocracy, that the rich are the most meritorious, for otherwise they wouldn’t be rich (QED)?

The much bigger question, though, which successive governments of all parties have never apparently realised was a question at all, is the extent to which governments should – must – involve themselves in agriculture; or – an even bigger issue – to what extent they should seek to control the economy as a whole, and for whose benefit; or whether they can safely leave farming, and hence the nation’s food supply, and the general state of the biosphere, to the market, as is becoming the norm in all things. In particular (since the “free” market in truth is dominated by the biggest players) governments (and all of us) should be asking whether it is really safe to leave our and the world’s affairs to corporates and banks.

About 200 years ago the USA was founded on the idea that commerce should be as free as possible – but the early US governments nonetheless took it to be obvious that the market on its own could not be relied on to deliver justice. So they took it to be obvious that a prime task for government must be to control the market and the economy as a whole, insofar as this was necessary to ensure the wellbeing of the people. This philosophy persisted until the neoliberals declared in the 1960s the market would serve the people much better if it was unrestrained – and this somewhat wild piece of speculation has increasingly become the global norm ever since Margaret Thatcher and then Ronald Reagan released it on the world circa 1980. Suddenly farming became “a business like any other” and business itself was stripped of its moral content. It was no longer to be seen as the essential prop of a free and democratic society, but simply as a machine for maximizing wealth, by whatever means, for whatever purposes. Businesses were reconceived as in-house Rottweilers, focused on making their shareholders rich.

In general this has proved disastrous – it’s the main reason for the growing gap between rich and poor, which in turn is at the root of all the world’s injustices and unrest – and for agriculture it is particularly damaging. Governments are wont these days to use words like “sustainable” with a great air of gravitas but if they were really serious about the future they would see that agriculture must be conceived along agroecological lines – each farm designed as an ecosystem, and farming as a whole treated as a positive contributor to the biosphere. The ultra-high-input monocultures favoured by neolib agribusiness are the precise antithesis of what’s required (if, that is, we really take grand words like “sustainable” seriously, and are really serious about the future).

Farmers and farming are particularly in need of government protection even in a non-neolib world for a whole list of reasons of which the most obvious is the weather. It varies. Even the tropics are thrown off course by El Nino. So output swings between troughs and peaks – from zero, to can’t-give-the-stuff-away. Crop failure and gluts can both be disastrous for farmers (and so, eventually, for the people who rely on them, which is all of us) so governments who take their responsibilities seriously must try to see that agriculture does not collapse when the sun decides not to shine or, in this modern age, when some whimsical sheik decides to put up the price of oil. In short, they should keep control of the economy in general for social/ ecological reasons – and above all should regulate the economy of farming.

In the years after World War II until the 1970s, British governments of both major parties took pains to do just that. There were subsidies, grants, intervention buying, quotas, guaranteed prices, tariffs – whatever was needed to ensure that the ship stayed afloat come what may, and that food remained affordable (and was of high quality), and that farmers could make a fair living. But the neolib business-like-any-other mentality of the 1980s onwards put paid to all that. Governments both Tory and “New Labour” were content to let big business rip, fired by cheap loans and “the white heat of technology”. Even they, however, were forced to admit the obvious: that it simply is not safe to leave the nation’s or the world’s food supply entirely to big business and bankers. So as a compromise, a vestige of more sensible times, the EU introduced its subsidies which evolved in the interests of bureaucratic simplification into the single farm payments – massive hand-outs which in Britain, in the true tradition of banking, are paid mainly to those who are already rich. Meanwhile, in Britain, the soils collapse and the wildlife disappears and a million people rely on food banks and farmers go broke by the bus-load (and of course the gap continues to grow between rich and poor). But nothing dents the neoliberals’ confidence in their economic dogma.

The EU to some extent has managed to maintain social and ecological standards even in the face of neoliberalism, which is one reason why the Brexiteers wanted to leave. But it has itself become more neoliberal with the passing years. Brexit is probably a disaster but it has given Britain the chance, if it chooses to take it, to take some control of its own economy in general, and in particular to make the economic adjustments needed to ensure that British farming can thrive again, and also can provide us all with good food without wrecking the rest of the biosphere.

That at least is the opportunity. But the government and the NFU and the corporates will probably, instead, continue to focus on the perceived “need” of British farming to compete for wealth in the world market, and on the role (or not) of subsidies in helping this to happen. The idea that farming in general and British farming in particular ought to be about producing good food, and looking after the biosphere, and creating convivial rural economies, and that elected governments ought to use their power and our money to intervene in the economy where necessary to bring all this about, will continue to be labelled “unrealistic”.

Such issues will at least be raised at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on January 4-5 2017. When the College for Real Farming and Food Culture gets fully into its stride, they will be discussed in proper depth.

Colin Tudge, December 12 2016.

The NFU, glyphosate, and statistics

The NFU is telling its members that the herbicide glyphosate is “vital”, and that all protests are fatuous. But, says Colin Tudge, the NFU’s thinking is highly suspect.

In the December edition of its own British Farmer and Grower the NFU is urging its readers to lobby their MPs and MEPs to ensure the long-term future of glyphosate, the central ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Round-Up. In June 2016 the EU extended the license to market glyphosate for another 18 months, which means it’s up for review by the end of 2017 – when, theoretically, the European Chemical Agency by could ban it. But, says the NFU’s senior health plant health adviser Emma Hamer, glyphosate is “a vital tool for weed control” which allows “a number of conservation tillage techniques such as min-till”. The anti-glyphosate lobby argues among other things that glyphosate is carcinogenic but such “scare stories promoted by NGOs have no factual basis”.

Many farmers and growers have indeed found Round-Up to be useful in all kinds of situations although it always dangerous to argue as Ms Hamer does that there is “no factual basis” for alarm. Such claims have been made in medicine as well as agriculture and all too often have proved hubristic.

More to the point, the statistics that the NFU offers in support of glyphosate are deeply suspect – and if these are the best it can do, then we must at least declare their case “not proven”.

So they tell us that min or zero tillage, made possible with glyphosate, increases the earthworm population by 53%. To control weeds by cultivation rather than with herbicide would require 49% more labour. Its use “allows 15% more rapeseed and 17% more wheat to be produced”. Losing glyphosate would mean we would need 546,000 ha more land to produce the same amount of food – which is 3.4 times bigger than London. If weeds were controlled mechanically then greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the production of arable crops would increase by 25%. This would include 12 million tonnes of extra CO2 per year – the equivalent of 2.5 million cars.  QED, the busy reader might conclude.

But what’s lacking in all such polemics is context. Increase in earthworms and reduction in CO2 – compared with what? No-one over the age of 40 or so can doubt that there were far more earthworms in the past, well before glyphosate came on the scene. It surely isn’t a lack of glyphosate that’s killed them off but the rise and rise of industrial agriculture in general – including the over-use of fertilizers and the decline of rotations which has (demonstrably) reduced the soil organic content and so robbed worms of their food supply. What, in short, is the baseline, from which the hypothetical 53% increase is judged?

Twenty-five per cent less GHGs with glyphosate – but again, compared to what? Glyphosate may well improve on the hyper-industrialized status quo which depends on machines and agrochemicals which all depend on oil, which eventually, by one route or another, is reduced to GHGs. But well-managed low-input farming, exemplified by organic farming, already produces far less GHG than the industrial kind. Does industrial-plus-glyphosate farming improve on that?

More broadly, to what extent do modern high technologies of all kinds – including glyphosate – serve primarily to make good the damage done by earlier technologies that in their day were introduced with similar hype and razzmatazz?

Increase in labour of 49% – but is that necessarily a bad thing? More and more evidence shows that small mixed farms which perforce are skills-intensive can be far more productive per hectare than the vast monocultures of industrial farming, which in the interests of centralizing profit veer towards zero-labour (with ultra-cheap immigrant labour in the interim). Even more to the point, as more and more people in all areas worldwide are displaced by high tech, unemployment and all the misery and discontent that go with it have become prime concerns for all humankind. Farming worldwide is still the biggest employer so far, offering billons of real jobs (as opposed to car-cleaning and call-centres). Even if – and it’s a big “if” — the industrial kind is “efficient” in financial terms, it is also, beyond all doubt, a social disaster.

To make a sensible judgment on glyphosate, or on agrichemicals in general, or on any aspect of agriculture, requires broad and integrated, “holistic” thinking, taking everything into account; with a proper sense of history and indeed of science, and an educated feel for what “evidence” really means. That is not what we get from the NFU or, in general, from Defra.

You will certainly find such thinking at next year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference to be held in Oxford Town Hall on January 4th and 5th (and throughout the year on the website of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture). For the antidote to the shoot-from-the-hip stereotyped polemic that rains down on us from high, the ORFC and the CRFFC are the best places to be.

Colin Tudge, December 4, 2016.

The World’s Agriculture: Wrong Ideas, Wrong Intentions, and the Wrong People in Charge

Intellectuals from all quarters are exposing the flaws of present farming      strategy, writes Colin Tudge

The neoliberal-industrial agriculture that now prevails worldwide and perhaps especially in Britain is not designed to “feed the world” nor to take care of the biosphere — which is why it does neither. Instead it is designed consciously or unconsciously to make rich people richer, which it does succeed in doing very well. This isn’t intentionally wicked, although the effects are disastrous. It is perfectly in line with the neoliberal conceit that this is the best way to run the world.

The status quo is run by “the Establishment” at the core of which is an oligarchy, consisting of governments like Britain’s, with the corporates and banks that are too big to fail, all supported by experts and intellectuals drawn from academe and dependent increasingly on industrial grants. These intellectuals are of course of high IQ but are of narrow vision, trained rather than educated, knowledgeable but rarely wise.

Very few of those who frame the world’s agricultural strategy have any direct knowledge of farming, or care about it very much, or know any working farmers (as opposed to landowners or agribusinesspeople). But they don’t seem to think that that matters. Their political or academic status, they feel, is sufficient. Many millions of people worldwide do understand agriculture and do care about it, and about humanity and the biosphere, and these include millions of farmers and a great many scientists and economists, plus moralists of all kinds including leaders of all the great religions, and millions more “concerned citizens” who just take an interest in the world around them. But the people who really know and care about food and farming are routinely sidelined, even though many of them are eminent and quite a few have Nobel Prizes.

How come? Why, given that all our lives are threatened, and the glorious world in which we are privileged to live, do we, the majority, put up with nonsense, when there are so many good ideas out there, and good people to put them into practice?

One reason is logistic: the oligarchs (governments, corporates, financiers, and their selected intellectuals) have covered all bases. They have statutory power, money, and a constant stream of new high-tech — and they have locked themselves into a positive feedback loop. The British government supports big industry (with tax breaks and the rest) and bails out the banks with taxpayers’ money when, at intervals, they collapse. The corporates in turn support the technologists who supply the kinds of technologies that make the corporates even richer so they can then spend more on the technologists who then supply them with even smarter technologies — and so on round and round and round. The government oils the wheels with taxpayers’ money. It calls the steadily rising pile of wealth “GDP” and takes the credit for this “economic growth” and does not stop to ask whether any of this hypothetical wealth actually does the rest of us any good. In truth, the poor grow steadily poorer and, as roughly summarised by the word “unsustainable”, the high-tech, high-input, growth economy, run from on high, is threatening to kill us all.

But what really keeps the oligarchs in power is their control of information. Commercial companies lobby MPs and impress them with brochures stuffed with graphs and pie-charts, the symbols of science. Even worse, the alliance of government and big-time commerce now controls academe itself. Universities have been re-conceived as retailers of degrees. Education, the broadening of minds, is conflated with training, which requires a narrowing of focus. Science is seen not as a dispassionate search for truth but as the source of high-tech. Economists learn, as Mrs Thatcher insisted, that there really is no alternative to the free market, in which everything, including crops and livestock, land and buildings, and indeed human beings, are treated as commodities. The mainstream media trail complaisantly behind, blaming the world’s ills on terrorism, or Jeremy Corbyn, or the laws of physics.

The whole sorry mess is justified by untruths: that farming must be ruthlessly productionist because the world needs 50% more food by 2050 (it doesn’t); that the ultra-competitive market is efficient (it demonstrably is not); that we cannot “feed the world” without high-input industrial farms on the vast scale with zero labour (although low-input organic farms can be more productive per unit area and of course are far more sustainable and without any of the support enjoyed by the big industrialists, provide 70% of the world’s food). Outrageously, we are told from on high that the world needs GMOs, and glyphosate, and neonicotinoid insecticides, and that all responsible scientists agree that they are necessary and safe, and that objections are rooted in superstition or indeed are “hysterical”. Yet, as a great many scientists and agriculturalists agree, none of these latest gizmos is necessary — except to prop up the neoliberal food chain and to make the people who run it even richer. The people in power who perpetrate all these untruths are either ill-informed or else are deliberately dissembling – and in either case, are deeply reprehensible. Whether they intend to or not (and most of them, to be fair, do not) they are perpetrating crimes against humanity and indeed against nature. Such crimes are beyond crime; within the purlieus of sin.

The good news is that a great many people, including some in what at least are seen as positions of influence, are fighting back. Intellectuals who have not been caught up in the neoliberal high-tech loop are exposing the flaws in the ideas that underpin the status quo. So on World Food Day (October 16) Pope Francis wrote to the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN to say that the scientific arguments that are wheeled out to defend present practices (as in “not enough evidence to warrant a change of direction”, etc) are nothing but “facile sophistry that hides behind statistical data or conflicting predictions”. Modern-day commercial scientists who are now to be found in the highest reaches of academe and in learned institutions that include the Royal Society, need to be knocked off their perch, for in truth they have lost sight of what science really is, what it can do and what it can’t, and what it is for. The Vatican is very well equipped to do the necessary knocking. It has far better philosophers of science than most university departments of science (which generally have none at all).

Many economists too, as well as the world at large, are seriously disillusioned with the dogma of neoliberalism, which says that we can safely leave the world’s affairs to the “free” (de-regulated) market. Neoliberalism took its lead from the Chicago economist Milton Friedman who in 1970 infamously wrote in The New York Times Magazine that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”. The underlying idea, which alas can be traced back to the in many ways admirable Adam Smith, is that a truly free market will provide a kind of algorithm that will ensure that the world is well-run even if its participants are driven by nothing but self-interest; in other words, that selfishness is a moral good and that what most people mean by morality (which in general means unselfishness) is at best misguided.  But as Prof Kenneth Stikkers of the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale is now pointing out this Smith-Friedman idea is at least misguided and demonstrably is dangerous. In practice the world simply cannot function without compassion. Right now we need compassion far more than we need high-tech.

While intellectuals who have retained their freedom of thought attack the status quo at its roots, people of all kinds the world over are taking action. Many are creating small farms and markets, and showing that these alternatives do indeed work. Others, including Britain’s Real Farming Trust and quite a few more, are seeking to provide those enterprises with finance, land, and business advice. All the necessary ideas – moral, economic, political, scientific, practical — are now being discussed formally and together, so as to frame a coherent and practical philosophy, under the umbrella of the newly-founded College for Real Farming and Food Culture.

Nothing can be more important than to re-think agriculture and all that goes with it. To gain some insight into the new ideas, and to see who is doing what, come to the Oxford Real Farming Conference on January 4 and 5 2017.

Colin Tudge. October 30 2016

Invitation to join Colin for a weekend seminar in Scotland

The seminar will be held from Friday September 30 – Sunday October 2 at the Chisholme Institute near Hawick in Scotland.  Details can be found here

A weekend that promises rewards for the body and the mind: fine food, walks around a beautiful estate and plenty of stimulation for the mind. But the greater purpose is to take a real step toward a happier future.

Each day will combine lectures by Colin Tudge with presentations from the Chisholme staff. There will be plenty of time given for discussions both in the meeting room as well as outside it, for example while enjoying the good food for which Chisholme is noted.

Cost:  £130