Organic farming and feeding the world – new report

Published in Nature Communications in November 2017, this article on strategies for feeding the world organically is remarkably optimistic.  Abstract as follows:

“Organic agriculture is proposed as a promising approach to achieving sustainable food systems, but its feasibility is also contested. We use a food systems model that addresses agronomic characteristics of organic agriculture to analyze the role that organic agriculture could play in sustainable food systems. Here we show that a 100% conversion to organic agriculture needs more land than conventional agriculture but reduces N-surplus and pesticide use. However, in combination with reductions of food wastage and food-competing feed from arable land, with correspondingly reduced production and consumption of animal products, land use under organic agriculture remains below the reference scenario. Other indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions also improve, but adequate nitrogen supply is challenging. Besides focusing on production, sustainable food systems need to address waste, crop–grass–livestock interdependencies and human consumption. None of the corresponding strategies needs full implementation and their combined partial implementation delivers a more sustainable food future.”

What is Agroecology? Why does is matter?

A new report from the FAO of a regional symposium held last year in Budapest on agroecology for food security and nutrition sets out the important concepts of agroecology and its importance in achieving sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Executive Summary

In September 2014, FAO organized the ‘International Symposium on agroecology for food security and nutrition’ in Rome. This was followed in 2015 by three regional symposia in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and the Pacific. To continue the development of this regional approach, a regional Symposium on Agroecology for Europe and Central Asia was held in Budapest from 23 to 25 November 2016, which was attended by over 180 participants from 41 countries in the Region. The Symposium participants formulated 37 recommendations to develop agroecology for sustainable food and agricultural systems in Europe and Central Asia

This summary reflects the discussions among participants on the following five topics:

»» Agroecological concepts, systems and practices,

»» Research, innovation, knowledge sharing and agroecological movements,

»» Agroecology and natural resources in a changing climate: water, land, biodiversity and territories,

»» Agroecology and sustainable food systems,

»» Public policies to develop agroecology and promote transition.

1. Agroecological concepts, systems and practices

Increasing land degradation, loss of valuable agrobiodiversity and pollinators, and climate variability were highlighted as significant threats to achieving food and nutrition security. The reduced number of farmers, and erosion of their incomes, was also presented as a serious issue in Europe. To ensure global food and nutritional security, two paradigms are often confronted:

»» Sustainable intensification can be presented as producing “more with less” or eco-efficiency, which is the maximisation of agricultural products per unit of inputs or natural resources. Sustainable intensification is usually obtained in highly specialised production systems through a gradual substitution of inputs with knowledge.

»» Agroecology is seen as an alternative paradigm, which is based on the increased use of biodiversity, of integrated production systems and diversified landscapes.

Agroecology is also close to the ‘Save and Grow’ paradigm (FAO, 2011), which addresses the crop production dimension of sustainable food management through an ecosystem approach that draws on nature’s contributions to crop growth, such as soil organic matter, regulation of water flow, pollination and biocontrol of insect pests and diseases. Agroecology goes beyond the agricultural production to embrace the whole food system.

At the heart of agroecology is the idea that agroecosystems should mimic biodiversity levels and the functioning of natural ecosystems. Such agricultural mimicry, similar to the natural models, can be productive, pest resistant, conserve nutrients and be resilient to climate change.

The practices that are conducive to the diversification of systems were considered to be the most strategic as they aim to reduce external inputs and enhance ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen-fixing, natural regulation of pests, pollination, soil conservation, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, water filtration and purification. Linking the animal sector with crop production was presented as crucial to an integrated and holistic approach.

The academic world forms a part of the roots of agroecology, its dynamics are more complex and are framed by social, economic and cultural dimensions. Agroecology is a living concept that is still being adapted to realities.

The re-composition of agroecology, which embraces the three above-mentioned components: science, a set of practices and social movements is now undergoing emerging consensus. An important detail concerning agroecology is related to the farmers’ place in a system as agroecology brings people to the centre.

During the Symposium, agroecology was presented as an inclusive approach that has the potential of including all food producers in their progress towards a more sustainable farming system.

2. Research, innovation, knowledge sharing and agroecological movements

Learning, education and knowledge sharing are central processes that can support the expansion of the practical and political aspects of agroecology and empower food producers. In agroecology research and learning processes, there is a shift from the classical transfer of technology models of research and development to a decentralised, horizontal, bottom up and participatory processes of knowledge creation, tailored to the unique circumstances found in rural, urban and peri-urban contexts.

As much knowledge is produced outside academia, it was strongly emphasised there is a need to support self-organized research that strengthens local organizations of farmers and their federations. This will have the advantage of strengthening the capacity of farmers and citizens and will facilitate transdisciplinary innovations to bridge different knowledge systems and horizontally spread agroecological innovations.

The request was made that the concept of innovation be perceived broadly to include technical innovations, as well as those that are conceptual, methodological, social and institutional, which are required to achieve agroecological transition and transformations.

The private sector was mentioned in relation to its role in fostering innovation and contributing to agroecological innovation. An example was given of companies that promote the preservation of nature by pursuing sustainable agriculture practices, while working towards minimalizing their environmental impacts and carbon footprints.

The links between agroecology and high and low-technological advances were considered to be of interest and that they should be studied. The debate was raised concerning the possible contradictions that may appear between technology and farmers’ autonomy, which is seen to be an important aspect of agroecology.

Moreover, it was considered important to ensure that innovations and outcomes of research remain in the public and collective realm. Open innovation and data are of increasing concern, as there are large gaps in political and ethical frameworks guiding data ownership.

3. Agroecology and natural resources in a changing climate: water, land, biodiversity and territories

The effect of climate change in Europe and Central Asia remains a primary issue. The region is suffering from the effects of climate change: water scarcity, salinity and extreme weather events. Agroecology is a possible solution, as it has the potential of adapting agroecosystems to climate change, as well as mitigating its effects.

The ecological strategy of agroecological systems comprises the replacement of fossil fuels by ecosystem services underpinned by biodiversity. Inputs requiring large amounts of fossil fuels for their production such as inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, and imported animal feed, are replaced. This is achieved by investing in biodiversity at all levels from soil to landscape and involving people collaboratively. The system relies on local resources and is intensive in its observations thinking and knowledge.

Highlighting the sociocultural aspects of farming systems led to the discussion of the environmental and social impacts of investments related to indigenous people and their right to land. Significant natural resources are often found within indigenous peoples’ territories of residence and economic activity.

The importance of the dynamic management of agricultural biodiversity (called in situ and on-farm), which has been developed throughout the world to renew agricultural biodiversity, was accentuated. In this respect, food producers are insisting on their right to have access to seeds, to exchange them and for peasants to widely develop breeding programmes to ensure food security.

4. Agroecology and sustainable food systems

It was recalled that over 80 percent of the food in the world is sold through local, peasant, regional and informal markets, demonstrating that it is not possible to rely on global markets alone to feed the world. Landscapes with small and medium-sized farms have demonstrated they are better able to support local economies and farmer’s well-being as compared to landscapes where there are larger export-oriented enterprises.

It was considered that, agroecology could potentially ensure access to a diverse and nutritious diet for people at all income levels. Growing evidence suggests that agroecology, by implying diversified farming systems, facilitates the diversification of diets for producers, households and consumers through the increased consumption of a range of important nutritional elements that are often missing in diets based only on the staple cereal crops.

Public procurement was seen as being one of the most significant opportunities, among actions governments may take to encourage adoption of agroecology. It was considered important that governments reinvest in agriculture, through public procurement programmes for agroecological producers, by adapting procurement protocols to the local realities of agroecological production. Further, governments have an important role to play in the development of innovative market models and have a key role in building local economies and markets, as they govern food chains. Also mentioned was support to innovations with, for instance, the creation of food councils at the local, regional and national level and the need for subsidies to establish local markets. It was also suggested governments could focus on regulating the market, thereby ensuring fair prices for farmers.

5. Public policies to develop agroecology and promote transition

The challenge is to address the lock-ins of the transition towards agroecology, especially in Europe where there is a high dependence on inputs and a strong role of input providers and the food chain sector in the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System.

The importance of having a universal framework, such as the Strategic Development Goals (SDGs), was recalled, where Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) is connected to achieving all other goals. Zero Hunger is considered to be the strongest leverage in dealing with, among others, health, education, climate, water, biodiversity, inequity, gender equality, decent work, sustainable communities, life on land and below water.

There has already been a change, as many agroecology initiatives have been developed and it is important to move beyond niche thinking. It will be valuable to develop opportunities that can overcome the constraints that prevent change, and to support the policies required to develop agroecological practices and progress in the design of agroecological systems. Several existing opportunities were presented and highlighted during the discussions that would facilitate transition to agroecology.

For conventional farmers and policy-makers, who question the economic performances of agroecological systems, it is important to prove that agroecology can be profitable and that agroecology goes beyond short-term performance and benefits society. Data show how diversified agroecological systems can compete with the productivity of conventional systems, and how they increase biodiversity and the resilience of the production system. It was emphasised that increased data on externalities is needed to reverse the dependency on subsidies that support conventional farming, despite the high cost to society. In this respect, farm performance parameters and measures of success should go beyond the common micro-economic parameters.

Performance assessments need to be designed and tested that are integrative, systems-based, taking multi-perspectives, are participatory and reflexive.

An urgent need was expressed to address the means and incentives that would encourage conventional farmers to move towards transformative change, instead of their stopping at an incremental change. These incentives are fundamental during the transition period when farmers must face uncertainty and the transition costs of readapting an ecologic and socioeconomic system.

Examples of policies, at the European and national levels, were presented that already harness and support transformation towards agroecology. These are the French Agroecology Project or the Organic Law in Romania. Regarding organic agriculture, it was recognized that organic farming is largely rooted in agroecological approaches, both in principles and actual practices, and it was recommended that the synergies and co-evolution within agroecology and organic farming be considered.

Guide to Cooperative Farming: Frameworks for Farming Together

Written for the Greenhorns, “a non-traditional grassroots non-profit organization made up of young farmers and a diversity of collaborators”, this is a comprehensive guide to farming together — setting up collaborative businesses. Everything’s covered: from legal frameworks to conflict resolution. As the compiler of the guide, Faith Gilbert, explains: “There are collaborative enterprises corresponding to virtually every component of farming. The question to start with is, “How do I want to work with other people?” This guide addresses two main categories for working together. In the first, several separate businesses share access to resources and services, like marketing, equipment, and labor. In the second category, individuals work together to form one farm operation with multiple owners, such as a worker cooperative.” “It’s clear that we face common challenges. It’s also clear that by working together, we get more than just a solution to a problem: we get solidarity.”

The guide can be downloaded here

New Leaf Project

This piece comes from Chas Griffin’s book: More Scenes from a Smallholding (2006). His proposal to take over a large barley farm in East Anglia and convert it into a mixed organic farm, consisting of about 33 organic farming enterprises cooperatively run was maybe an idea before its time back then. But we’re living in post Fordhall Farm, post Joel Salatin days. So why just one such farm; rather let’s have a whole network of them! Four issues: • Everyone wants more and cheaper organic veg. • Lots of people want to get out of the cities. • Nobody is happy paying East Anglian barley barons millions to not grow crops. • And everyone deplores the depletion of wildlife and habitat, and the depopulation of the countryside. Could we combine these four problems, I wonder? And find a joined-up solution, perhaps thus: Why not set up a Trust whose brief is ‘to buy a 500-acre ex-barley farm in East Anglia, and to split it up into smaller units, whose purpose is to co-operatively produce lots of affordable organic food’? The split-up might be into, say, 1 x 150-acre farm; 2 x 50 acres; 10 x 10 acres; plus 50 acres split into 20 lots of varying sizes. Two things become apparent here: 1. We’ve lost a hundred acres somewhere (but read on), and 2. We’re talking about not just a gaffer, a day-man, and several huge machines, but a population of at least fifty people. Who are these people, and where do they come from? Some would come from the ranks of organic organisations who have always wanted to try living off the land, but could never afford to buy in. Others would come from training schemes set up by various bodies, including government initiatives. And others would come from elsewhere, including Holland, if I know anything. We’re talking about building a hamlet, really. That’s a very big deal, and expensive. Obviously the settlers would keep costs down by self-building, using appropriate technology and materials to minimise running costs. Once up and running (and we don’t need all thirty-three units to start on the same day) they produce organic food, as economically as possible. This means appropriate co-operation. Big Farm does the ploughing for everyone, for example, and small farmers help pick Big Farm’s two acres of runner beans. Details TBA. Marketing needs to be carefully thought through in advance by the Trustees and at least some of the farmers. Top priority would be to sell locally, including ‘at the gate’, then further afield, primarily to small shops. Some cautious arrangements might be made with some supermarkets for bulk crops. Value-added processing would be high on the agenda, particularly as a means of generating income off-season. Polytunnels producing salad crops might need to import labour, thus creating local jobs. So let’s assume all thirty-three units have negotiated their relationships, via a suitably mandated council of their own members, and are happily marketing hundreds of tons of lovely veg. In the evenings, if they so wish, they entertain and bore themselves and each other with charades* and Bruce Willis videos, or pitch into communal projects like laying new water lines, or working on the ‘Big Green Brother’ Video Diary to sell to the BBC as ‘diversification’. And there’s more! The whole place should be a hive of experiment, training, and education. Sooner or later facilities would be built on the hundred acres that went missing from the calculation above, to house weekend learners from the cities; students on bursaries; paying guests; WWOOFers; visitors from university agronomy departments, checking on their projects; holiday-makers who are sick of being ripped off and bored rigid at the seaside; scout and guide groups; Portuguese Woodcraft Folk; gardening clubs on bargain breaks; all manner of people, all wanting to learn, and happy to sing for their home-grown supper (unless physically restrained, in certain cases). More formal research and education takes place in the experimental plots, laboratory, and lecture hall.** This is only the broadest of pictures, but you get the drift. Would it work? Well, I’ll guarantee that ninety-nine out of a hundred readers will shake their heads and smile at such naivety: ‘It’ll never work.’ They may be right. But I also guarantee that there will also be that hundredth person, the one with a dash of spirit, who’ll say: ‘Now that’s what I call a worthwhile challenge.’ About fifty thousand people will read this article. One per cent equals five hundred live-wires. Not a bad start. Australia probably started with less. So I don’t doubt that thirty-three good wo/men and true will be findable. What about the money? Trickier. I’ve no idea how to cost this adventure, but I’m absolutely certain somebody does. That somebody should be on the Trust. Who else should be there? A worthy and competent patron with ‘gravitas power’; also, the persons who prime the financial pumps, who might well be pop stars or lottery winners, or successful entrepreneurs, who are looking for a creative and worthwhile cause; and an organic guru. Other experts will be co-opted as necessary. A foolish fancy that would just soak away millions? I don’t see why, because the New Leaf Project would have a sound business plan, using its mountains of prime veg to pay its way and refund its set-up costs, if appropriate. What’s more, it would gradually build up enough capital to eventually buy the 500-acre farm next door, co-operatively independent Project. Some years on, both Projects would buy a third farm. The scheme would grow … organically. Eventually the UK would become organically self-sufficient. And those ‘four issues’ would be resolved en route. I can probably think of more snags and problems than you can, but I also know that the longest journey begins with the first step. And we all know this journey must be undertaken sooner rather than later. Why not now? Any views? * * * After this article first appeared in the HDRA magazine, about a dozen people contacted me with an interest in the New Leaf Project. Two snags quickly became apparent. First, most people assumed that just because I’d mooted the idea, I was then going to organise the whole thing myself. A couple of bold souls did pitch in with some ideas of their own, but as we lived hundreds of miles apart, we couldn’t really make any progress, even by email. The second snag was much more important. I still think all the points I make above are valid, but they all hang on one thing which I didn’t broach in any depth: ownership. OK, a Trust … but what then? Would individuals rent their properties from the Trust? Would private ownership be possible in any way? If not, then people moving in might either lose their place on the property ladder when they felt they wanted to pull out for whatever reason, if they had sold up when joining NLP. Or, conversely, maybe some people would use the scheme as a means of finding a subsidised billet while they rented out their own house at a big profit. Problems. If private ownership was to be allowed, how would it be administered? Who would be ‘worthy’ of joining? And could the Trust reasonably impose restrictions on who the new owners might or might not eventually sell to? Might some people just use the scheme as a get-rich-quick investment opportunity? And would the idealistic venture just end up as yet another island of middle-class consumerism? No doubt wiser souls than I can suggest workable solutions to this problem. I’m sure there must be precedents. Bearing all this in mind, think back: after reading the article, did you find yourself thinking something like ‘Wow … that sounds fun!’ before you thought ‘It’ll never work’? I think an awful lot of people will find the basic idea appealing: a meaningful, human-scale, productive, and co- operative life. And once an idea is ‘out there’, if it really is a good one, somebody sometime will take it up and run with it. Whether it actually succeeds or not will depend on a thousand things, but most of all it will depend on a few individuals having the courage to think it through and get it moving. There will be other snags, of course. Precisely who will be on the Trust? And why? What will the Constitution of the Trust be? Who will devise it? Who will select the thirty-three incomers? By which criteria? How will disputes be solved? How will the NLP ‘vision’ or ‘programme’ be developed? By whom? I expect you can think of other snags as well. But none of them is beyond the wit of wo/man to solve. Personally, I think you would need a strong democratic base to elect a strong manager, who would be the gaffer until pitched out on his ear by said strong democratic base. The danger I can foresee is of the vision becoming enfeebled by political manipulators and power-game queens. Some people are like that, you know. I would put a lot of effort into keeping the power-freaks away from power. Another constant worry for the Trust, before the NLP could be set up, would be the problem of the supermarkets. I’m sorry to keep banging on about this, but they will do everything in their power to reduce the producers of veg to serfdom. They will promise all, then pull the plug, and leave you in a mess. Then, unless you have laid your plans well, you’ll have to crawl back to them, on their terms, which will be beyond extortionate. Thus, the Trust would need to be supremely careful in its marketing strategies, right from well before planting the first seed. Sensible caveats aside, many other people have set up successful co-operative ventures. A group of three villages in North Wales bought a mountain, to improve local job prospects. Several schemes are up and running in Scotland too. It can be done. Chas Griffin * The last time I got suckered into playing charades, you got your subject by lucky dip from a list of TV programmes. While other people got easy stuff like The Bill (project fingers forward in front of mouth; raise and lower thumb beneath them) and Top Gear (waggle a gearstick about in a non-suggestive manner), I got Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Go on … I defy you. ** If you think there is nothing left to research in farming/gardening, read Tompkins and Bird’s two astonishing books: The Secret Life of Plants and Secrets of the Soil.

Cooperative and Alternative Food System Initiatives: Special July issue of the JAFSCD

This special edition of the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development (Vol 4 Issue 3, Spring 2014) has been made “freely available — no subscription needed! — through the month of July”. As the publishers say: “We are doing this to make these papers more readily available to researchers and practitioners and to extend the research on and practice of cooperatives. It also offers prospective subscribers a chance to explore the contents of JAFSD. We welcome you sharing this information with your colleagues and networks.

The list of contents can be found here: in all 9 peer reviewed papers and one commentary, exploring “the state of the art in cooperative alternative food networks and exemplify[ing] the diversity and dynamism of the field”.

The issue has been edited by the following people:

– Colin Ray Anderson, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry Univ. UK

– Lynda Brushett, Cooperative Development Institute, USA

– Thomas W. Gray, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development-Cooperative Programs, USA, and Center for the Study of Cooperatives, University of Saskatchewan, Canada

– Henk Renting, RUAF Foundation (International Network of Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture and Food Security), the Netherlands

Their guest editorial Working together to build cooperative food systems can be found here.

Agroecology in Europe: conforming – or transforming the dominant agro-food regime

by the Transform Sub-group: Les Levidow, Open University,; Michel Pimbert, Centre for Agroecology and Food Security (CAFS), Coventry University; Pierre M. Stassart, Université de Liège; Gaetan Vanloqueren, Université de Louvain

This paper, Agroecology in Europe, was given as part of a Conference in Brussels (26-27 June 2013) on “Agroecology for Sustainable Food Systems in Europe: A Transformative Agenda”.

Can Britain feed itself?



Colin Tudge argues that the answer to both of these unfashionable questions is a resounding “Yes!” – and we should
start the ball rolling immediately

Could Britain grow enough food to feed its own people? Should we even try to do so – or rely, as now, on imports? Could other countries also seek to be self-reliant – and should they? If Britain and other countries did embark on a course of agricultural self-reliance, what other changes would result – to landscapes, economies, and ways of life? What kind of changes would be necessary, to enable self-reliance to come about?

A few years ago such questions would not even have been allowed on to the agenda – or not, at least, on to the agenda of the world’s most powerful governments and industries. The prevailing philosophy had it that only free trade and the global market could meet the growing “demands” of humanity. Applied to food and agriculture, this implied that every country should pursue David Ricardo’s principle of “comparative advantage” – treat all its crops as commodities, to be sold on to the world market. In turn this meant that agriculture in general should be monocultural – focused on those few crops and animals that in any one country could be raised at least cost and sold for the greatest return.

Self-reliance implies the precise opposite. It requires that each country should contrive to raise all the crops and livestock that its people need. Self-reliance does not mean total self-sufficiency and isolationism – the food trade will always be important. But individual countries ideally should import only those crops that in effect are luxuries, and export only what is surplus to home requirements. All trade should of course be fair, bringing real benefits to the producer countries and in particular to the producers. No crop should be traded between regions unless its value is high relative to the environmental costs of its production and transport – so it is reasonable and in principle highly desirable for Britain to import tea, coffee, and bananas. But it is highly undesirable to import French beans from Kenya by jumbo jet to sell in Solihull and Crouch End, or for Europe as a whole to import soya that is grown at the expense of the Amazonian rainforest or the Cerrado, just to bolster its pigs and cattle.

But to achieve self-reliance we need a quite different approach to agriculture and all that goes with it. Self-reliance requires not monoculture but polyculture. This in turn implies complexity of husbandry, which seems to require labour-intensiveness, which in turn requires a serious shift in economic policy and social structure.  Clearly, then, to those steeped in the economic lore of the free market, the idea of agricultural self-reliance has been almost literally unthinkable.

But the events of the past few months have come as a terrible jolt. It has been obvious for many years that present-day, industrialized agriculture and monoculture is not catering for all of humanity — one in seven people are chronically undernourished while another one sixth are overfed – but the standard response has been to offer more of the same. Now it’s clear that more of the same is not an option. We are reaching “peak oil” – meaning that the oilfields just won’t be able to keep up with demand. Fresh water will pose even greater problems. Human numbers continue to grow from the present 6.5 billion to an estimated nine-billions-plus by 2050. Hanging over all is the growing reality of global warming, exacerbated in several ways by the carbon-profligacy of industrial agriculture. Then, in 2008, the money market itself, on which all else now depends, began to look extremely rocky. It is not obvious that the present “recession” will ever end; whether we can ever return to the norms of the late 20th century, or whether it is desirable to do so.

In short, it seems hazardous indeed to entrust the world’s food supply, and all that is affected by it, to technologies that do not seem sustainable, and to an economy that for many reasons need re-thinking.  Suddenly, more and more people – including people in positions of influence – are beginning to suspect that we need to disengage our agriculture from the vagaries of the world market, and to develop agricultural systems that do not cause so much collateral damage. In January 2009 Britain’s Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs told the Oxford Farming Conference that Britain should strive to produce as much of its own food as possible. The question that a few years ago seemed simply to be beyond the pale is now perceived to be urgent.

What are the realities? Three months ahead of the Oxford Farming Conference, also in Oxford, a group of government representatives, academics, farmers and general thinkers met to discuss this very issue **. I played some modest role in helping to organize the meeting and this is my personal impression of it.

Can Britain feed itself?

If we, humanity, seriously want to provide good food for everybody then we have to design farming specifically that purpose –  what in various books*** and articles I have called “Enlightened Agriculture”. This seems obvious, yet it has rarely been acted upon. Present-day British farming is designed somewhat schizophrenically to fit in with the European Common Agricultural Policy on the one hand and the global, ultra-competitive free market economy on the other – and to “compete” it needs to be maximally profitable in cash terms. Enlightened farming, intended to feed people well and to go on doing so without wrecking the rest of the world, must be designed according to basic principles of biology. Such a system is not intrinsically profitable, within the present global economy. Enlightened agriculture and maximally profitable agriculture are different concepts and must be structured quite differently.

If we did farm as if we really wanted to feed people, then of course Britain could be self-reliant. We could easily produce enough temperate crops to keep us all well nourished in times of crisis – enough, that is, to feed the 70 million people who may well be living here within a decade or so. Even more to the point: most countries worldwide could be self-reliant if they chose to be, including most of those that have appeared on the news in recent years as basket cases.

This can be shown with a few back-of-the-envelope calculations – and they need to be back-of-an-envelope because although the question is of extreme importance, there have been no formal studies. To make things easy, let’s just first focus on the macronutrients – energy (“calories”) and protein. Macronutrients, above all, means cereals – grown on the field scale, in arable systems. Cereals provide calories and protein in roughly the proportions that human beings require and in practice human beings worldwide derive half of all our energy and two thirds of all our protein from just three of them – wheat, rice, and maize; astonishing statistics, but apparently the case. Overwhelmingly, in Britain, cereal means wheat. So if we grow enough wheat, we are at least halfway to our target. Indeed, for the purposes of calculation, we might reasonably ask if it is possible to produce all of our energy from wheat (and hence all our protein too). Could we, in fact, grow enough wheat to feed all of the 70 million people who could well be living here within a decade or so?

The answer, it seems, is “Easily!” Let’s assume that each and all of us should have 3000 calories every day. In truth, men who are not labourers or athletes generally need about 2500 calories a day, while women need only about 2000 and children need even less – so 3000 a day leaves plenty of leeway. But it’s a reasonable starting point.

Three thousand food calories is contained in just one kilogram of wheat. So one kg per head per day is enough. That means that each of us would need around 365 kg of wheat per year – just over one third of a metric tonne (which is roughly the same as an imperial ton). So one tonne can feed three people for a year. The average yield of wheat in Britain at present is around 8 tonnes per hectare. So one hectare can feed 24 people for a year – meaning that it could in theory provide them with all of their protein and energy. So to feed 70 million people we would need 70 million divided by 24, which is roughly 3 million hectares of wheat. This is almost exactly the amount of land which, in practice, Britain now devotes to arable farming (which isn’t all wheat, other cereals are nutritionally roughly equivalent). In short, in theory, we already have enough arable land to provide us all with all our most basic provender.

But human beings do not live by bread alone, or by wheat alone. We also need various essential fats and a range of micronutrients – minerals, vitamins, and what might be called “paravitamins” which do not all occur in cereals. To supply these we also need horticulture – fruit and vegetables; some oilseeds (grown on the arable scale); and, preferably, at least some livestock. Have we got room for these too?

Plenty, is the answer. Eighteen million hectares of Britain is now deemed to be agricultural. With three million for wheat that leaves 15 million for fats and micronutrients. In practice, in present-day Britain, in addition to cereals we also produce 1.17 million tonnes of non-cereal arable crops, and devote 140,000 hectares to potatoes, and 69,000 hectares to horticulture.  For good measure we raise ten million cattle, 34 million sheep, five million pigs, and 167 million poultry. So what’s the problem?

Ideally, the different forms of agriculture – arable, producing staples such as wheat; horticulture, for fruit and vegetables; and livestock – should be mixed, with each kind of crop and animal played off against all the others, in imitation of a wild ecosystem. Even more broadly, scientist and organic farmer Professor Martin Wolfe argues that all farming should be conceived as an exercise in agro-forestry – crops and livestock should always be integrated, in many different ways, with trees.  But we will come to this later.

Whatever the details, Enlightened Agriculture must focus on arable and horticulture, with the livestock slotted in as and when – cattle and sheep feeding mainly on grass, and usually in places where arable is difficult; while pigs and poultry live on leftovers and surpluses. The result is to provide plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety. And here we encounter two wondrous serendipities. First, “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety” encapsulates, in nine words, the essence of nutritional theory of the past 30 years; and it also captures the essence of all the great cuisines of the world from Italy via Turkey to China and India. In short, farming that is designed primarily to provide enough, sustainably, also provides us with excellent nutrition and the best possible cooking. So we would eat much better than we do now if only we farmed as if we really wanted to feed people. One of my own little slogans, indeed, is that “The future belongs to the gourmet” – a sentiment very much in line with the Slow Food Movement, founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini in the 1980s and now with a presence in 122 countries. In short, to secure our food supply well into the future we don’t even need to be austere — and this would be just as true even if we grew all our basic crops at home.

But alas, life is not quite so simple. I based these calculations on present-day yields of wheat – eight tonnes a hectare. But such yields are produced by industrial methods — the kind that are now called “conventional”. But this, as is widely agreed, is not sustainable – not least because it depends so heavily on oil. For this and other reasons, more and more farmers and consumers are turning to organic methods – without recourse to oil-based fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Organic farmers must practice rotations, leaving fields fallow (more or less) so although their maximum yields can be as high as the industrialist’s, when averaged over several years they are lower – perhaps only four tonnes per hectare. Now, too – although fashions change — people in Britain are accustomed to high-meat diets. For these and other reasons Simon Fairley from The Land Magazine argues that we need to explore not just one, but many different models of future possibilities – depending on how we choose to farm.

As he is the first to point out, Simon Fairley’s own calculations are also back-of-envelope, although more detailed than mine. He has picked up on the thesis of Kenneth Mellanby’s book of 1975 – Can Britain Feed Itself? Sir Kenneth too emphasised that his book was only a preliminary sketch – and yet, more than 30 years later, it is still the most thorough assessment.

How many we can feed, and how easily, depends on what we are trying to do, says Fairley. The most difficult course would be to farm organically by which he calls “permaculture” (with rotation of crops and livestock) and to provide a diet relatively high in meat. But we could still be self-reliant even then, although we would have to use just over 15 million hectares of the current 18 million available.

If the entire nation were to become vegan then, says Fairley, we would need only just over 11 million of the 18 million hectares to feed ourselves. This, of course, is not likely to happen – and on agricultural grounds alone I reckon that this isn’t actually desirable. An all-plant agriculture is less efficient biologically than one that makes judicious use of livestock. The mistake at present is not meat per se but meat produced at the expense of crops that could feed people. Thus in Britain as in the world over about half the wheat is used to fatten pigs and even cattle – and so the animals are actually competing with us for food. This is profitable – but also illustrates why profitability per se is the enemy of sound farming. Clearly, however, as Fairley points out, a vegan diet is easier to provide than the high-meat diets that we now regard as the norm. We should also of course, he says, produce more timber, both for fuel and construction. Wheat, too, might be conceived as it commonly was in the past as a source of thatch (for which we would need some long-strawed varieties and not just the semi-dwarf kinds that are now the norm).

So in some details Fairley’s conclusions seem very different from my own – but still he says, “It is patently obvious that Britain can feed itself”. Now, surely, we need further study to reconcile and extend these two approaches: on the one hand starting with basic nutritional requirements and average production figures and working outwards, as I have done; and on the other, working through the different scenarios, as Simon Fairley has done. Surely the question is too important just to abandon for another three decades or so.

What’s going to happen?

Times are changing beyond any doubt but what is really going on and how will things turn out? Observers steeped purely in economic theory – particularly that of the past 30 years – take it to be self-evident that in the end, markets will solve all and that what we see now is just a blip. Those of biological background see inexorable decline. At the Said Business School Hardin Tibbs is seeking to bring order to these wildly diverse opinions – to ask which is most likely and what might be done.

In his research Tibbs has floated four possible scenarios. The first is optimistic – it says that the present economic decline is  “just a blip”. But, says Hardin Tibbs, this would be be justified only if the market behaves as standard theory says markets do behave, and only if physical conditions – notably the weather – remain favourable. Then, the economy would and recover and again would “grow”. Then, farmers would respond to the high food prices by producing more. Oil prices would fall – perhaps to around $65 a barrel — so there would be less investment in biofuels, which would free more land for food. Indeed, in the way these cycles go, the world would move back into overproduction – when prices would fall again, and farmers would contain their efforts, and so on.

In the second scenario the global demand for food continues to increase, partly because there will be more people and also because, in particular, Asians are consuming more meat. Indeed, demand could slightly outpace supply. Perhaps the weather will not be favourable, and losses will mount. Fuel prices could stay high, too – oil at $90-100 per barrel – and then demand for biofuels would increase, and the price of fertilizer would also be high. All this ensures that food would remain expensive. This would contribute to inflation and lead us again towards recession.  Food stocks would be reduced as attempts were made to reduce the price. The general state of the economy would be that of “stagflation”.  This outcome is eminently plausible, says Hardin Tibbs – and indeed is already with us. But its stability depends on a critical balance between the contributing factors. So if, for example, oil prices rose too much above $100 then the whole structure would begin to rock.

The third scenario envisages more fundamental change. We hit peak oil – where demand begins clearly to outstrip supply. The price reaches around $150. But then, use would be restricted as climate change became obvious, international carbon prices would be agreed, and environmental regulations would be toughened up.  But as the weather continues to change, crops would begin to fail. As time went on it would seem less and less possible simply to go on producing more and more, however clamorous the market became. In the light of all this, the world would start to adopt a more “eco-technological” approach  (though if it did this too slowly we could still be overtaken by events. Farming cannot change course overnight). Yet in this scenario Tibbs is again envisaging economic recovery. Thus, after an initial rise, food prices would start to fall again.

In the fourth scenario, the most nightmarish of all conceivable chickens truly come home to roost. Crops and livestock fall foul of new diseases. The shortage of water becomes obvious, and critical. This leads to political disturbance, and oil prices zoom to unprecedented levels — $200 or more. Food gets dearer as inputs become dearer. To reduce the price, the grain stocks are released, which means they are run down. Governments control the price of food and ban exports. The weather remains bad and harvests are below expectation. In many poor regions there are serious famines. All this leads to civil unrest and war, leading to even higher fuel prices, and so on and so on. The economy collapses. In short, scenario four looks very like tailspin.

But although this fourth scenario is the most extreme it is not, says Hardin Tibbs, the least likely. The least likely, it seems, is scenario 1 – the one that says the present troubles are “just a blip” and all can soon return to “normal”. Perhaps, says Tibbs, our ambition should not be to strive for more and more productivity, by means that are more and more “efficient”, which is now the norm.  Rather, we should to learn to stay in the same place.

What does this imply in practice?

The structure of farming to come: “the New Agrarianism”

Hardin Tibbs’s suggestion that instead of trying to “grow” our economy we should perhaps try simply to reach a satisfactory point and stay there, is precisely what nature contrives to do. Wild ecosystems do change over time and they tend to become more complex if left to themselves but their overall productivity does not increase, and there is nothing in nature quite like the “efficiency” that is deemed so vital in engineering and in modern economies. Indeed, nature achieves its remarkable resilience by being extraordinarily inefficient by the criteria of engineering and the modern economy. For engineers and business managers are anxious above all to eliminate what they call “redundancy” — any suggestion that any particular part of the operation might be repeated. All vital functions are performed by one section only, and only once, with no slack in the system at all. Nature, in absolute contrast, is modular, and it repeats each functional module a thousand, a million, or many billions of times. So it is that an ecosystem can lose 90 per cent of its species and still re-emerge in some new form – as clearly has happened many times in the Earth’s history. A human being may lose a limb or even half a brain and still function perfectly well. But a highly integrated, highly “efficient” machine or an economy will fail if any one part of it fails – which is why, once one of the world’s banks had collapsed in 2008, the rest followed like a row of dominoes.

Enlightened Agriculture does imitate the broad structure of nature. As in a wild ecosystem it is modular: based on small to medium-sized units. In detail, each of the units is unique, different from all the others. But all are similar in principle. All achieve productivity and sustainability by matching many different crops and classes of livestock against each other.

But this in turn has huge logistic, social, and economic implications. Enlightened farming systems are necessarily complex. This means they must be labour-intensive – they require a great many farmers of high expertise. This means, too, that although enlightened farming may be technically highly advanced (there is nothing Luddite about it), the structure of farming overall is far closer to tradition than is the “conventional”, industrial kind. With lots of people on board in highly complex systems there is no obvious advantage in scale up. The default position, then, for enlightened farms, is to be small to medium-sized, and labour-intensive (and as high-tech as necessary – neither more, nor less). Because many different crops are grown in any one place, and to ensure the best possible quality and to minimize transport, as much food as possible should be produced locally.

In absolute contrast, today’s industrial farming is designed expressly to be “efficient” – where efficiency is defined in terms of cash. Modern farming is required like every business to maximize returns while minimizing costs. But these requirements militate against the obvious need for global justice and long-term sustainability.  Maximizing returns means maximizing productivity and added value – and these are often achieved at the expense of sustainability, for example as tropical forests are felled to make pasture, which then declines into desert; and deserts are irrigated to make them yield but hence become salinated and so become barren.

Mimimizing costs means, above all, reducing labour – because labour, in traditional systems, is the most expensive input. Now, in Britain and the US, less than one per cent of the total workforce is working on the land – and in Britain the average age of farmers is approaching 60. Labour is replaced with heavy machinery, industrial chemistry, and biotech. Capital outlay is heavy – but within the debt economy the necessary cash could be borrowed. The result is a treadmill — the farmer must then maximize output while minimizing costs in order to service the debts; but so long as the cash economy holds up, the balance sheet can be made to look convincing. But since such systems must keep labour to a minimum so as to minimize costs, the husbandry must be as simple as possible. So the industrialized, high-capital, debt-economy approach leads naturally to monoculture. In addition, since machinery operates most economically on the largest possible scale – there are big advantages in scale-up. Thus in Lincolnshire, nowadays, we may find just one full time worker on a 1000 hectare arable farm. In such systems there is little or no scope for local production. Typically, different crops and classes of livestock are produced in different regions or even in different countries and transported across country or from one side of the world to the other. When oil is cheap, and with suitable tax breaks and subsidies, the figures add up, and that is all that is deemed to count.

World politics, the law, logistics, and the whole, global, integrated industrial and financial system with all its banks and corporates now favours industrial farming. Countries that are still primarily agrarian – in the Third World as a whole and in India in particular 60 per cent of people work on the land – are urged to follow the western lead – primarily that of Britain and the US. The countries that are still agrarian should surely be encouraged and helped to stay that way at least until there is any convincing alternative employment – which, as oil dwindles, will not be any time soon. The task is not to destroy traditional systems but to build on them and to make them work. Britain and the US, perceived as global brand leaders, in truth have gone way out on a limb. Both countries, probably, need at least 20 times as many expert people on the land as they have now. If Britain is to be self-reliant in food and to go on being so then it certainly needs, as a matter of urgency, to increase the number of farmers. This, perhaps, would be the greatest social and economic shift that could now be conceived in Britain. But it makes perfect sense, and indeed is necessary, and urgent.

Yet such a suggestion goes completely against the received wisdom of the past half century, and the cards are stacked firmly against it. Legal problems include those of planning permission and of tenure. The new generation of farmers will need somewhere to live, and the traditional houses have been knocked down or bought up by city people as second homes. It is hard these days to rent land on the long term because landowners fear that they will lose out – but sound agriculture needs the long term. Logistic problems include the lack of expertise. Farming in its traditional forms has been run down partly as a matter of policy and partly through simple neglect. Small fields need to be re-created out of large and infra-structure installed for the small-scale. But above all there’s finance. Farmland is now ludicrously expensive, to buy or to rent. The problem that does not seem to arise is the one that governments and economists insist is overwhelming. For received wisdom has it that country people have fled to the towns because they want to – because they hate the countryside. In truth, life on traditional farms has been made impossible, economically and logistically. People are leaving the land worldwide largely because they will starve if they do not. Many people now in cities, given half a chance, would love to return to the country. Not everyone — but enough to make agriculture work as it should.

Despite the odds, there are moves throughout Britain and in other countries to make the changes that are needed. Almost invariably these are people’s movements: governments, big industry, and most banks have their minds on other things. The transition town movement is a general, growing trend. The Slow Food Movement has become a serious political force and is vital because the shift in farming cannot work without a commensurate recovery of food culture: consumers have to appreciate what local farmers produce and pay for quality and provenance as well as for bulk. There are many individual initiatives of many kinds, too, moving in the same, enlightened direction. The specific purpose of LandShare, co-sponsors of Oxford meeting, is to identify, coordinate, and encourage such initiatives. Here are some of them.

Paths to self-reliance

On his 60-acre farm in Suffolk, Professor Martin Wolfe on his farm in Suffolk has developed a method of agro-forestry that could surely be adopted with suitable modifications the world over. He has divided the flat, otherwise prairie-like fields with rows of trees of various kinds: hazels and willows for short term use (not least for biofuel); hardwoods such as walnut and hornbeam for long-term investment – growing and increasing in value while the cash market fluctuates; and fruit trees. Particularly in an organic system, and perhaps surprisingly, rows of trees judiciously placed do not reduce the yield of crops grown in between. But they do provide wind-shelters, and “beetle banks” – predatory insects to reduce pests – while steadily increasing the capital value of the farm. The strips of land between lend themselves beautifully to rotations.

The logistic, legal, and financial problems of helping people back on to the land are being tackled in many ways but they generally have two outstanding features in common. First, partly to spread the costs and for other reasons too, the land is owned or controlled communally: either by communities as forms of social enterprise; or by cooperatives. Secondly, many of what might be called the new generation of farmers are part-timers. This should not be despised.  Many of the most important farmers worldwide have traditionally been part-timers – including the crofters of Scotland who commonly combined farming with fishing. To a significant extent, communal ownership and part-time farming go hand in hand. Individuals can invest just part of their money and their time in farming while keeping their other interests intact – as writers, accountants, plumbers, town councillors, what you will. Among other things, it’s a good way of spreading options in uncertain times.

Thus there is “great and growing” enthusiasm for Stroud Common Wealth Ltd, based in the Gloucestershire town of Stroud with its 24,000 inhabitants, and chaired by Martin Large. The overall set-up is quite complicated, with several different strands to it, but in essence it is a form of “community assisted agriculture”, or CSA. Among its initiatives is Gloucestershire Land for People, a land trust that specializes in acquiring land for community farming. Gloucesterhire County Council owns around 9000 hectares (many county councils have a great deal of land) including many pockets that are doing nothing, although the council has not been keen to lease spare land to the community. Crucial to the development, then, has been to learn to lease and rent land, from landowners in general. Stroud now has its own Community Farms, and hopes at some point to deliver food at reduced costs.  “Stroud ‘food-co’ — not Tesco!” should be the hub of local food supply, says Martin Large.  But the Common Wealth is talking to the five supermarkets in the area – and 80 per cent of their apples now come from local suppliers. There is a thriving weekly award winning farmers’ market, and a veg-share scheme with 189 members, and even a bursary veg-share scheme worth £33 a month to qualifying members. Allotments flourish, too. Stroud overall is a vibrant Transition Town with a social enterprise centre, social enterprise workspace, and re-skilling classes in traditional skills from bottling fruit to hedge laying. The Common Wealth has links and works with many other associations.  “In short”, says Martin Large, “it was a complete overhaul of the way we conventionally lived – and already it’s a thriving, and mutually supportive community”.

But Stroud is a small town surrounded by countryside. Surely such schemes have nothing to offer to big cities? But they do – as is abundantly demonstrated these days in Havana, in the siege economy of Cuba; and indeed in Hackney, one of London’s most urbanized of boroughs. There, Julie Brown and her associates have set up “Growing Communities”, a social enterprise group to grow food for Londoners in a sustainable, independent, localized system.

Julie Brown and her colleagues have approached their task formally. They first identified organic farmers and growers who were already within reasonable distance – and found about 40, including some urban organic market gardens. Then they set up a buying scheme, exclusively for produce that was seasonal, fresh, and minimally processed. The produce is distributed through a weekly organic farmers’ market, an apprentice scheme, a volunteer programme, a box scheme, a collection scheme, a community pick-up, with a community-led food trading system complete with management committee, staff, customers, members and volunteers. The whole operation is zoned with military efficiency as shown on the Growing Communities Food Zone Diagram; salad and perishables are grown closest to the centre of distribution, while potatoes and vegetables, which can be stored for longer, can come from further afield. In the spirit of enlightened agriculture (and indeed of traditional, commonsense husbandry) livestock is fitted in as and when. As is traditional (and commonsensical) acceptable waste is fed to pigs and chickens. The overall structure is patchwork – making use of what land there is. Starter farms have apprentice schemes. Now, farms and holdings within a radius of around 56 miles supply about 1500 customers week with an annual turnover of around £600,000.

Overall, the Hackney people in the scheme have a strong voice with direct influence over their own food supply – what there is, and how it is produced. As in Stroud, as in any place where such schemes have been tried, the community as a whole has discovered a new spirit, a new communal vigour. “We wanted to turn the present system on its head”, says Julie Brown. “We believe that a human-scale, low-carbon, mixed-farming food system, in and around urban areas, is the way forward. Growing Communities produces good food, good friends, good work, and enriches our lives,”

Some, of course, will see all these schemes merely as eccentricities; pleasant enough hobbies, but quite unable to make any serious contribution to the world’s all too pressing food problems. They are not, the sceptics will say, realistic. But, this means only that they do not conform with present norms — and it’s clear that present norms have already failed. The world needs something that really is new. When we apply a little biological and social reality we see that what the world needs is precisely what these schemes provide: food produced as locally as possible, with maximal community involvement. People should know what they are eating.

It’s also clear that governments and the corporates are not going to take the necessary initiatives. Whatever is done to make the necessary changes, must be done by private or community initiatives. That the schemes do not fit easily with the economic status quo is obvious – but it’s the economic status quo that is unrealistic, producing an ever-growing pile of money that has no anchorage, either in moral or social aspiration or in the realities of biology and physics, which is the realest reality of all. Clearly, too, anyone who tries to do anything that is not immediately in line with the economic status quo, has to be prepared to work for less than the market price. So the changes that really matter have to be pursued as hobbies, or subsidized by various social and other schemes. Indeed, farming can never be as instantly profitable as simple, urban, industrial pursuits – not unless it is itself turned into a simple industrial pursuit, as has been the ambition of the past 40 years. If we want good farming then we have to insulate the economy of agriculture by whatever means are necessary from the ups and downs of mere cash – again, the very opposite of current dogma, which sees the market as the arbiter of all. In short, today’s eccentrics and hobbyists are pioneers – bringing about the transition that the world now so desperately needs.

So what can we conclude? Where do we go from here?

Pointers to the future

The answer to the specific “Can Britain Feed Itself?” seems to be a resounding “Yes”. My own arithmetic says that this is easy and even when Simon Fairley and others stir in the complications there are still no insuperable difficulties. “Should we?” is more controversial – although once we distinguish “self-reliance” from “self-sufficiency” it is less obvious why it should be. The advantages seem obvious. Security is surely desirable. Besides, the kinds of changes that would be needed to make Britain self-reliant – or any country – are the kind that the world needs anyway. Thy all lead towards greater sustainability – a shift from mere productivity and profit into systems that are firmly rooted in biological and physical reality. A strategy of national self-reliance would also help to define the kinds of changes that are needed globally in agriculture as a whole – agrarian, economic, political, and social.

But at present there are some alarming gaps in information, and in the efforts made at official levels to plug those gaps. The question, “Can Britain Feed Itself?” is obvious, and is obviously heuristic; by addressing it, we clearly must address a great many other related and equally cogent issues as well. Yet it seems that this question has never been formally addressed by people with the resources to do the job thoroughly. All the calculations so far have been back-of-the-envelope, even including Kenneth Mellanby’s and Simon Fairley’s.

There are even bigger and grander questions that again have been neglected. One of the biggest is – “How many people should be working on the land? What is the best ratio of agrarian people to urban?” Adam Smith asked this in the 18th century but since then it seems to have been sidelined. In Britain and US the assumption of the past 40 years has been “The fewer the better” – since fewer means cheaper. As a result, farming worldwide is in dire straits. The former farmers and their families who have fled the countryside now swell the world’s urban slums which now, according to the United Nations, contain a billion people. I am more and more certain that all countries should have a strong agrarian base; that none – including Britain and the US – should have fewer than 20 per cent of its people on the land while the countries that are not already ultra-industrialized should realistically aim for around 50%. Farming is the world’s biggest employer by far and it is hard to see what else could usefully be done by about 2.5 billion people, especially in oil-strapped times. Again, this is back-of-the-envelope. But again — where are the formal studies?

This brings us perhaps to the most disgraceful feature of all – that decisions of huge magnitude that affect the whole world are currently taken by default. The most far-reaching strategies are based on nothing more than dogma. One current dogma simply tells us that cheap is good. Another tells us that agrarian life is necessarily intolerable and that agrarian economies must be “backward” – and, contrariwise, that people flock to the cities because people really like cities. In truth city life can be foul, not just for the slum-dwellers, while agrarian life can be very satisfying and indeed enviable – but it has not been because the countryside worldwide has been neglected or systematically undermined, or handed over to the rich for their own purposes. If only we saw that an agrarian base for all is necessary, and set out to make agrarian living agreeable, then the dogma would surely fall away. The point is not to be nostalgic, and luddite, and seek to restore the agrarian past, but to create a new agrarianism, using the ingenuity of modern science and technology to make it work. Enlightened agriculture is an exercise in “science-assisted craft”.

Beyond any doubt, these are exciting times. The world’s troubles are of many kinds and all too obvious. They won’t be put right by more of the same, or by ad hoc tinkering. We need to re-think everything from first principles. Agriculture is a very good place to start. National self-reliance in food for Britain and most other countries is not the complete answer of course but it does concentrate the mind wonderfully. As things are, though, it seems that the serious initiatives that the world needs must come from private individuals. I helped to put together the symposium that inspired this essay at the personal invitation of Sir Crispin Tickell, as director of the James Martin Policy Foresight Programme. There are many more questions to be addressed – formally, thoroughly, and urgently. I suggested long ago that Britain (and the world) needs a College for Enlightened Agriculture, to focus attention where it now so obviously needed. This seems the ideal time to get it started.

Author’s acknowledgements

** This article is a personal account of a symposium held in Oxford on October 15 2008 that brought together delegates form government, with academics, farmers, and policy makers from business and civil society . The meeting was hosted by the Policy Foresight Programme at the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization and chaired by the Programme’s director, Sir Crispin Tickell. It was organised principally by Colin Tudge, Ruth West, and Tom Curtis, all representing the LandShare organization. A formal, complete account of the proceedings by Sue Lee can be found on (ref).

This essay was commissioned by LandShare. I am very grateful to Alasdair Crosby, agricultural journalist from Jersey who also represented the Slow Food Movement; Sue Lee, PA to Sir Crispin Tickell; and Ruth West, fellow director of LandShare. Without their help this essay would not and could not have seen the light of day.

*** See, for example, Feeding People is Easy, Pari Publishing, 2007.

New, shortened version is 6720 words


** [[[But while opinion seems to be veering towards organic farming, some organic farmers are contemplating the next stage. None has been more closely involved than Patrick Holden, organic farmer and for a long time Director of the Soil Association. In 2006, says Holden, he first became aware of “peak oil”, at a meeting convened by Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement. For Holden, this was an epiphany.

“Peak oil” is conceived in different ways. Some take it to mean simply that oil is running out – which of course it is, as a fossil fuel must. But not immediately, the zealots assure us. There seems to be oodles left under Alaska, for example. But peak oil has two other, far more pressing implications. First, there’s a limit on how quickly oil can be extracted, no matter now much there may be in the ground. From now on, output is bound to fall short of demand – and the gap must grow as India and China in particular build their industries (and industrialize their farming). But even if we could pull the oil out as fast as many would like, this would merely accelerate global warming – perhaps the biggest threat of all. So oil is “peaking” too in this quite different sense.

Holden carried out an energy audit on his own farm in Wales – and was appalled to realize how hugely dependent he was on an uninterrupted flow of oil. The task is not simply to create individual organic farms, demanding though that is. We need to create a total food system that is low-carbon and indefinitely sustainable. Holden himself farms in West Wales and sells most of his produce in big cities to the east – with huge, oil-dependent transport costs. Organic farming is surely part of the answer – but we also seem to need more and more focus on local supply. Local supply also implies local control and so is within the spirit of transition towns – bottom up, rather than top-down. The future of agriculture depends on re-localisation, and re-engaging people with food production and farming – and organic farming seems likely to be the default method of agriculture in the future, simply because the present “conventional” farming is liable to be less economically viable. So the Soil Assocation itself is “about transition”. To counter the manifold threats of the future we need a “war plan”. But the plan should not be not be “de haut en bas”. The initiative must come from people at large. Holden started the ball rolling in his own corner of Britain by calling a meeting of his neighbours. A lot of them came. The zeitgeist is surely shifting.

I have argued that the agricultural policies of British governments this past few decades – or indeed since the start of the 19th century – has been hopeless, and that there is little sign of improvement. As Britain’s only Professor of Food Policy Tim Lang, at City University, is closer to government and is somewhat less harsh in his judgment. After all, he says, in the 19th century Britain ruled top dog and saw no reason not to bring in as much or as little food from abroad as seemed expeditious. Indeed, governments avoided any particular tendency to self-reliance. But the two world wars showed the dangers of this and for a time after each world war governments focused on home production; yet in both cases they soon shifted back to a policy based on trade. Successive governments in recent decades have not seen self-reliance per se as a desirable aim – a feeling spelled out in recent years in reports and official papers from the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and DEFRA.

There are arguments against self-reliance, says Professor Lang – not least that it can be much dearer to produce at home than to import. We have consistently grown far less fruit and vegetables than many of our European neighbours. In the British countryside, too, farming must compete with many other demands. In any case, overall, the British food system is fairly resilient. We do seem able to withstand bad weather and limited water, and the high cost of energy and distribution.

Yet we remain vulnerable – because the supplies of foreign foods cannot be guaranteed, for all kinds of reasons, and people now rely heavily on supermarkets that can be emptied in days by the smallest interruptions in supply, including strikes by lorry drivers, and of course the whole system depends absolutely on oil which in general can only get dearer and eventually scarcer. All such threats, says Professor Lang, have “started to bring the issues of food supply to the top of many government agendas”.

There is a lot to sort out. Tim  Lang suggests that Britain’s farmland has often been used for the wrong purposes. Local communities have been dying out and their skills have largely died with them. CAP directives have encouraged frank neglect of land. But the weaknesses are gradually being identified and addressed. The Government is poised to re-shape the food system and strengthen food security. The current financial crisis is an opportunity to rethink policy as a whole. Globally, many fear that Thomas Malthus’s prophecy from the turn of the 19th century is now coming true – that human numbers must soon out-strip the available food. But Malthus has proved consistently wrong, he says — ‘So let’s not over-egg the Armageddon!”]]]

** [[[In Lincolnshire, Karen and Nigel Lowthrop have re-created the ancient, sadly neglected Hill Holt Wood as an active centre for the local community – and in particular they run an apprentice scheme for 16-19-year-olds who have been thrown out of mainstream schools. “Our old woodlands are still there because they had a real value”, says Nigel. “They were worth more than the surrounding farmland. But we have lost that. These days ancient woods are valued if at all only for their aesthetic value.”

But the Lowthrops aim to show that even in the 21st century, ancient woods can still have economic and social value in a community. They began work on Hill Holt in 1995 and formed the Hill Holt Management Committee in 1997 to buy the woodland – as a local scheme in which the community shares the wealth and the control. Local people and in particular the apprentices are helping to clear the woodland, look after needy peoples’ gardens, tend public and woodland footpaths, and organize a rubbish pickup. With the community on board, the scheme’s committee found it remarkably easy to get planning permission for five staff houses in the middle of the wood – the plans were agreed first time round. It helped that the houses were architecturally interesting — eco-built from innovative materials. The wood has thus become a true living environment — “It is quite simply a better way to live”, says Nigel. If such schemes could spread – if legislation were eased to help them do so – then surely they would help to bring people back to the land.” And the people who were drawn back would “really want to be there”. ]]]

The Seriously Bad Ideas that are Killing us all

In Britain just a few years ago it was the smart thing in high circles to suggest that British farming should go the way of its mining. Farming was surplus to requirements. It was cheaper and therefore more “rational” to buy food in from foreigners with more sunshine and cheaper labour.

Now the mood seems to have changed. “Food security” has become a big issue. Just a few weeks ago the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee produced a two-volume report with more than 600 pages on Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges faced by the UK. All were invited to contribute (and there is even a piece by me on Enlightened Agriculture. Volume II p 275 et seq).

There is no need to doubt the government’s sincerity in all this. The present government really is a disaster on all fronts and no-one hates it more vehemently than I do but it does include some good and intelligent people and the same is true, despite appearances, for big industry and the banks.

But all of the present-day powers-that-be, and all the economists and scientists who advise them – or at least the ones who are listened to – have crammed their heads with the most appalling nonsense: a series of political, economic, and quasi-scientific dogmas that are obviously highly damaging and yet have the force of revealed truth. So long as the present-day powers-that-be continue to cling to these dogmas, they can never solve the world’s food problems, or the world’s problems as a whole, no matter how good their intentions may be or how many earnest reports they may commission.

In truth, we should not dwell on negatives – the task for those of us who give a damn is not to complain about the status quo but to bring about Renaissance: to take over the food chain and do the job ourselves. But as Napoleon said, we need to know our enemies – not individual people, but unexamined and deeply pernicious ideas. So what are these dogmas that are ruining the world?

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Underlying all government policy in all contexts, at the root of all the government reports that have emerged of late on agriculture, lies a set of dogmas. These are not proper, respectable dogmas, in the sense that the Catholic Church uses the term: summaries of ideas that have been thrashed out over decades or centuries by the best scholars in the field. They are for the most part assumptions, arbitrary statements dreamed up by economists and scientists. They have been taken up by politicians not because they are true, and good, and tried and tested, but because they are of the kind that reinforces their power; and they are taken up by industry because they are of a kind that tends to generate wealth, and to concentrate that wealth in the hands of a few. The governments, industrialists, and experts who espouse these dogmas invariably claim above all to be “rational”, but unlike true rationalists (and unlike serious theologians) they do not examine their dogmas. The status quo is taken to be modern, by definition; and, more or less self-evidently, to be good. In truth, almost none of these dogmas is truly modern in the sense of being novel. But all of them are deeply pernicious.

Different observers might summarize these underlying dogmas in different ways. I have reduced them to the following eight:

1: That the political system and way of life that we have in Britain and the Western world as a whole is fundamentally good, or in some Hegelian sense is inevitable.

The state that now prevails is assumed to represent “progress”. The west is said to be “developed”; we are the “First World”; we are rich and we are democratic. In all respects therefore we have the kind of society that (a) is innately desirable; (b) is envied by the rest of the world; and (c) provides the model for the rest to follow.

All these assumptions are highly questionable and I would say, if we take terms like “progress” or “democracy” seriously, then they are obviously wrong. They can be justified only if we define the terms tautologically – for example if we define democracy as “that form of government that Britain claims to possess”.

2: That the economy of the day should be taken as a given, and everything else must be built around it.

All governments, of whatever kind, tend to believe this. They take their favoured form of economy as a given, and take it to be self-evident that everything else – technology, social structure, way of life – must adjust to it. So it was that Stalin created his collective farms, as a rural imitation of the urban factories which he felt must form the economic core of a communist state.

We recognize the mistake in Stalin. We don’t seem to recognize exactly the same mistake in ourselves. In truth if we want agriculture that works – farming that feeds people without wrecking the rest of the world — we have to acknowledge that what really counts – what are most fundamental – are physical reality and morality. We have to work with the bedrock principles of biology, and we have to have a very clear idea of what we think is desirable – concepts such as justice, peace, human fulfillment, and the wellbeing of our fellow creatures. The economy must then be adjusted to suit these realities. To begin with economic dogma and then expect humanity and the physical world to adjust accordingly is to invite disaster. And disaster is precisely what we have.

3: That the particular economy we have now – the neoliberal, exclusively money-based, allegedly “free” global market – represents some kind of denouement: inevitable, immutable, and desirable.

The ground-rules of the neoliberal economy were first laid down by Milton Friedman in Chicago in the early 1960s. The “Chicago School” economic model was taken up with huge enthusiasm in the late 1970s by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and by Ronald Regan in the US, and has become the norm. A whole litany of assumptions is embedded within it, all of them highly questionable, though not necessarily questioned by the powers-that-be. Over the past 30 years, as the neoliberal philosophy has spread around the world, it has brought havoc in its wake.

Thus, to begin with, neoliberal economics assumes the supremacy of money. Without money we can do nothing, or so the dogma has it. With enough money we can do anything. Therefore the point of government is to encourage industries to generate as much money as possible. In earliest times, money was a symbol, a token of real things that could be bought and exchanged, a device to iron out the problems inherent in barter. Increasingly it has become a commodity in its own right. Nowadays, too, money is not so much generated, as deemed to exist. People and companies have been encouraged to borrow money that does not exist on the basis that they will, in the fullness of time, pay it back – a “debt economy”.  The debtors pay compound interest on whatever they are deemed to have borrowed. Compound interest increases exponentially so long as the debt remains unpaid — which means that debts can rise rapidly towards infinity. This is a strange state of affairs in a finite world.

At present the total amount of money that is deemed to exist exceeds the amount of stuff that could theoretically be bought with it by about 20 times. This is why bankers talk of the need for “confidence”. People now routinely borrow vast sums of money which they spend their lives paying back and for a few brief decades may harbour the illusion of genuine affluence. But it really is an illusion, which depends absolutely on everyone being prepared to go along with the game. Indeed, Sir Charles Stamp, President of the Bank of England in the 1920s, remarked even then that “The modern banking system … is perhaps the most astounding piece of sleight-of-hand that was ever invented”. The system requires people’s confidence because it is, quite simply, a confidence trick. If people get cold feet and decide that they would rather have real stuff than hypothetical loot, then the whole house of cards comes crashing down. Which, recently, it did.

Behind the belief in money, to be fair to the powers that be, lies the idea that money makes people happy, and that the more they have, the happier they will be. So the declared aim of all modern governments is to increase Gross Domestic Product, GDP, which is the sum total of all the wealth generated in a given country in a given year, by whatever means. “Economic growth” – year-by-year increase in GDP — is the yardstick by which governments like Britain’s measure their success. Of course it’s obvious that increase in national wealth does not necessarily increase personal wealth. John Ruskin pointed this out in the 19th century: “It is impossible to conclude, of any given mass of acquired wealth, merely by the fact of its existence, whether it signifies good or evil to the nation in the midst of which it exists”. This is obvious today in countries such as Nigeria, with oil pouring out of its ears, generating pots of money, and huge and unprecedented misery. The same will surely come about too in Poland, as the traditional agriculture that serves people so well is trashed to make way for big business – as reported in this blog by Sir Julian Rose.

Even when the newly generated money does get to the people,  common sense and many a formal study show that happiness does not correlate with wealth, once people have enough to keep a roof over their heads, raise their children, know where the next meal is coming from, and can afford to have a drink with their friends. In short, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out the better part of a century ago when the concept of GDP was still new, GDP is not a measure of human wellbeing, and never was intended as such, and in truth has almost nothing to do with it. We might also point out as any six-year-old could do, that indefinite material growth in a finite world is just not possible.

Thus, simple theory and common sense reveal the fatuousness of the neoliberal model, at least as it has been applied. The experience of the past 30 years, when neoliberal economics has been given virtually free rein, have shown its shortcomings beyond all doubt. The rich have grown incomparably richer while the poor have grown steadily poorer, with more and more tipping over the edge, and this applies both between nations and within nations. In countries like Britain, the middle class are now increasingly to be numbered among “the poor” – and so it is that people in good jobs, including plumbers and shopkeepers and schoolteachers and architects and university dons, can no longer afford to live in the cities where they work, and farm workers cannot afford to live in their villages, and all are clustering in ex- Council houses that once were intended to serve the less well-off.  Neoliberal apologists claim that the wealth of the few “trickles down” to the many but in practice it does not — or at least, only under special circumstances. The newly disenfranchised might get a job in Macdonald’s, for example.

“The market” is supposed to solve all our problems. Adam Smith in the 18th century said that in a free market everyone should simply do their own thing – and if they did, then justice and honesty would prevail because the bad and dishonest traders would be weeded out as the consumers took their custom elsewhere. But common sense and the simplest computer models show that this principle works only if there is an infinite number of traders and customers, and if the customers have perfect information and perfect access to all the competing trades people. Such an ideal is clearly impossible. Interestingly, Adam Smith saw the corporates as the enemies of the free market because they represented oligopoly which is one step away from monopoly. But the laws of complexity show that it is impossible to prevent the rise of corporates unless we regulate expressly to prevent this (as was the case in the early decades of the United States). But regulation is the very thing that the advocates of the free market abhor, and now the corporates hold the whip hand.

In short, whatever way you look at it, neoliberalism cannot work and demonstrably does not work. Such is its hold, however, that the market nowadays is seen as the arbiter not simply of the economy, but of morality itself. What is deemed to be “good” is whatever people with money are prepared to pay for. Only a few taboos are now holding out. Child pornography is still verboten, even though some people will pay a great deal for it. But increasingly, whatever you can pay for is deemed to be OK.

Oddly, although common sense, some formal studies, and decades of experience are against them, the governments and intellectuals who subscribe to neoliberal economics invariably claim to be “rationalists”. Well, if we equate rationalism with short-term materialism, they are right. But if so, then we must conclude that in the running of human affairs, mere rationality just won’t do.

4. That competition is the vital spur to all action

The market that dominates the world’s prevailing economy and hence our entire lives is supposed, above all, to be “competitive”. When prime ministers and presidents are not talking about “economic growth” they talk about the need to be “competitive”. Put the two together and the market becomes a global dogfight in which the notional winner is the one with the biggest pile of money, at least as measured by the computer. What does it matter if you throw most of your farmers out of work, or wreck the countryside, or drive your fellow creatures to extinction, or reduce the quality of food, so long as you are “competitive”? We can drive ourselves to the brink of disaster, as indeed we have, so long as our pile of money is bigger than anybody else’s. (In truth, present-day Britain is deemed to be rich even though it owes about trillion. It gets weirder and weirder).

Even in fields that were not conceived originally simply as a source of cash, “competition” is supposed nowadays to provide the vital spur. Education, medicine, farming – all are supposed to be ruthlessly “competitive”. I even heard one of Britain’s most senior scientists solemnly assert of late that his fellow scientists do better research because they have to compete for private funding (although I am not sure, considering his age, that he would ever have needed to).

So what is the supposed virtue of all this competition? Why do the modern powers that be attach such importance to it? Apparently competition leads to “efficiency”, and “efficiency” vies only with “growth” and “competitive” as the buzz-word of the day. But does competition really make us more efficient? Would Mendel have got to his laws of heredity more quickly if he’d had to apply to Monsanto for funds? Should Bohr have spent his days writing grant applications to Toshiba? Ernest Rutherford positively refused to cash in on his own, early contributions to radio, and left the spoils to Marconi instead. Think what he might have achieved if only he had been more competitive! It is all so obviously crass. But it is the modern mantra nonetheless.

There is irony, here, too. Game theory shows that if you want to concentrate all the community’s wealth in the hands of one individual or of an elite then indeed you should be maximally competitive. But if your aim is truly to create maximum wealth, and to ensure that everyone gets fair shares, and that no-one misses out, then game theory tells us that cooperation must be the name of the game. It’s good to have game theory on side because maths does have a certain rigour about it, and it does impress people. Yet we don’t need game theory to tell us that cooperation is more “efficient” than competition – if your aim is to spread sweetness and light to all, and not to create misery and wreck the world. Common sense tells us that those who compete need above all to fight and fighting needs time and energy and makes a mess and kills people. The same time and energy could be spent doing the things that you originally thought were worth doing.

There is worse. Darwin did indeed emphasise competition as the spur to natural selection and hence to evolution. No competition, no biodiversity; no oak trees no cows no human beings. In truth, nature is more cooperative than it is competitive – if it weren’t it would not work at all – but competition is in there too. Darwin certainly had a point.

It is a huge mistake, though, to extrapolate in any simple fashion from what is perceived to be “natural”, to what is perceived to be right. In practice to a huge extent our sense of what is “right” is informed by what we perceive to be “natural”. Certainly the Catholic Church comes down hard, as St Paul did, on whatever it perceives to be “unnatural”. But we cannot extrapolate simplistically from “natural” to “good”. Nature does bad things too, including rape, infanticide, cannibalism – you name it, it happens. Nonetheless, the idea that competition is good and can and should be pursued to the death because that is what Darwin said and therefore that is how nature works, has crept in to modern morality and informs a great deal of modern business practice. I recall with some chill a director of Enron who had walked off with a billion dollars or so of other people’s loot before the crash he knew was imminent, telling a TV interviewer that he knew this was OK because he had read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and concluded that selfishness is the way of the world. This is not what Dawkins intended but you can see how the Enron director made the mistake, and others are making it all the time.

There is competition in everyday life, of course. Farmers and growers love competitions: the biggest marrow, the shapeliest cow, the straightest furrow. But in well-tempered societies the competition is just a friendly rivalry – competitive in the way that club cricket is competitive. It is a spur to action and self-improvement but nobody is meant to get hurt. In traditional societies, farmers or shopkeepers or publicans who are ostensibly in competition help each other out when the chips are down, or indeed do so all the time. Everybody recognizes that no-one can survive in the end unless everyone is basically on the same side, and they all pull together.

In a real, gloves-off competition, as American sports movies are forever assuring us, there is only one winner, and a great many losers. The billion people who are now undernourished and the billion who live in urban slums, and the billion who are obese and marginally diabetic and permanently ill-tempered, are the losers in an economy that is designed to produce losers. “Over-population” is often blamed for the mass deprivation. If a billion people are hungry it’s because there are a billion too many. QED. As Ebenezer Scrooge remarked in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, if the paupers die “It will only lower the surplus population”. But if you have an economy designed to be competitive then there will always be losers, however big or small the population may be. If the competition is intended to be ruthless then the losers will die, as indeed is happening before our eyes. But even if world numbers were reduced to three billion, by whatever draconian means, then an economy like ours would ensure that hundreds of millions would die in any case.

In truth, if we truly want agriculture to feed people, then we need to design it expressly for that purpose. The present notion, that if we set out with maximal competitiveness to produce the biggest possible pile of money by whatever means we will somehow produce a just and tolerable world, including good farming, is the crassest conceivable nonsense. Yet this is the modern mantra, boomed to us daily from on high.

5: That technology, and particularly science-based “high” technology, can always dig us out of whatever holes we may have dug ourselves into.

This is the mentality that lies behind the current government zeal for GMOs. In thirty years genetic engineering has produced no new crops or livestock that truly help to improve the food security of the world as a whole or to supply good food to poor people in particular — but that in no way stems government enthusiasm. Whatever problems we are confronted with, high tech must find a way. That too is the dogma.

High tech by definition is science-based tech – gmos and electronics as opposed to oxcarts and windmills which people devised long before there was formal science. Science is widely assumed at least by some scientists (by no means all) and many non-philosophers of science (including most politicians and industrialists) to offer us a royal road to unequivocal truth. In effect, it is seen as the royal road to omniscience. If the underlying science is omniscient, then the high technologies that emerge from it should make us omnipotent. (That doesn’t quite follow of course, but it as good as the thinking gets). But of course, as all serious philosophers of science have been emphasizing for a very long time (J S Mill in the mid 19th century more or less said it), science tells us only what science tells us. As Sir Peter Medawar put the matter in the mid 20th century, science cannot be more than “the art of the soluble”. As for omnipotence – well: the same applies. We can do the things we can do, but there is a lot we can’t, and there is a whole string of obvious reasons to show why that will always be so.

The notion that we can understand life exhaustively and manipulate it how we will is particularly dangerous when we try to control nature for our own purposes, which in essence is what farmers aspire to do. Every serious ecologist knows that nature is way beyond our ken, and always must be. The idea that we can re-shape nature at will in any form we choose is not only hubristic but ludicrous.  But that is the conceit that lies behind modern biotech – or at least behind the megabucks that are invested in it. Good farmers approach their task humbly. They are keen to experiment, but they do not take liberties. Excellent science is vital of course, in agriculture as in all modern life. But it must be seen as an aide to good practice; not as the means to supplant good practice with systems that are intended primarily to generate cash.

6: That we can always provide the kind of technologies we need if we spend enough on R & D.

This was the assumption that lay behind the American dream to get to the moon in the 1960s – which in that context seemed to be vindicated. The same assumption lay behind Richard Nixon’s campaign to “lick cancer in the ‘70s” – and there it clearly wasn’t. It might seem unjust to suggest that Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of global warming rests on the same assumption – that we have the means to do what needs doing, and with enough cash we can buy our way out. Yet to me this seems uncomfortably true – although Stern is among the more enlightened ones. Common sense suggests that we are likely to succeed in a predictable period and with a finite budget only if we undertake tasks that are highly  specific (like getting to the moon) and which partake of scientific principles that are simple and seem well understood (like Newtonian physics). But  we are likely to fail if the problem is full of unknowns and possible unknowables – including the many biological quirks that underlie cancer, or the likely the behaviour of the world in the face of unprecedented climate change. Some philosophers of science like to tell us that the task of science is to improve on common sense but in truth, in real life, we dispense with common sense at our peril.

But governments believe in the power of high tech just as the inhabitants of Tanna island believed in the beneficence of John Frum. They further believe that we can always devise the high tech that we need if we spend enough on it. This in turn reinforces their most fundamental, neoliberal belief that it is their principal duty to maximize the nation’s wealth. If we are rich enough, the dogma has it, we can always buy our way out of trouble.

7: That “strong central government” is necessary; that the present governments of the western world are democratic; and that they are a good thing — doing more good than harm.

British politicians as ostensibly divergent as Lord Hattersley and Kenneth Clarke are wont to assure us in public debates that countries need “strong” government. The anti-terrorist laws that grow more draconian by the month in Britain and the US presumably reflect a belief that strength implies minute-by-minute interference. But if recent governments really have been strong, then we must conclude that strong government  is not obviously to the public good. We have disaster on almost every front. Societies and perhaps the world at large probably do need some kind of government. But present experience and all of history show that in practice governments rarely work in the best interests of their people. History suggests that wars are made by governments, not by people at large. The governments that do benefit their people are not necessarily the “strong” ones, whether they are totalitarian or allegedly democratic.

Specifically, it used to be the perceived job of government to control big business in the interests of the people. But Britain’s present government, and that of the US, have in effect become extensions of the corporate board room, and make a virtue of this. In short, our allegedly strong government interferes with our lives at every conceivable turn. But it does not truly govern, in any worthwhile sense of the word.

In short, the whole issue of governance needs to be re-thought from first principles. The prevailing conceit, that Britain should be ruled by one or other of two of three political parties is too crude by half.

In truth, most human enterprises that are of most direct relevance to human beings, including education and agriculture, are best run by communities of people who know something about them and give a damn. The prime task for central government is to ensure that the communities under its jurisdiction have fair shares; that at least as much is spent on educating poor kids, as on rich kids; and that farmers in difficult areas are at least as well rewarded as those who can simply run their combines through the fertile lowlands. It is not the government’s job to tell teachers what to teach, minute by minute, or to turn farming into a branch of industrial chemistry, just to swell the coffers.

8: That the development of the western world this past few hundred years represents “progress”, and is a model for all the rest to follow.

By most objective measures of human wellbeing, Britain and the United States come out badly. Yet we achieve our mediocrity by gobbling up far more resources than the world can possibly sustain. Indeed we would need the resources of three to five planets Earth to raise everyone to our level of material consumption. We cannot possibly sustain what we have without perpetuating the enormous injustices that now prevail, and accepting that billions must go the wall. Actually, of course, we cannot sustain even that which we have for more than a few more decades, however unjust we allow the world to be.  It is not even remotely logical, let alone morally desirable, to regard ourselves as a model for the rest. Such progress as we may have made has been down a blind alley; or, to shift the metaphor somewhat, we have climbed further and further out along a limb that grows thinner and thinner, with an ever more precipitous drop beneath, held aloft by nothing more substantial than hype and wishful thinking.

In sum: all this is a long-winded way of backing up the notion that we really do need the Campaign for Real Farming. With the help of people who really do know something about agriculture, those of us who give a damn just have to do what needs doing ourselves. The minds of the powers that be are not on the job at all.

In truth, the fight is not between left wing and right wing, or capitalism against socialism, or East against West, or atheism against religion. It is between people who take it to be self-evident that the economy comes first and we must work outwards from there, and people like me who acknowledge that the physical world, not money, is the only tangible reality;  and that human action must be moral, and it is vital to spell out, and never stop trying to spell out, what morality ought to mean. Then “the economy” must be re-thought from first principles to match what is physically possible in this world, with what it is right to do. This task involves all human enterprise, of course. But for all kinds of reasons, most of them obvious, agriculture is a very good place to start.

Colin Tudge, August 6 2009

The Age of Biology

We should give credit where it’s due. The Defra Food Policy Unit has launched a campaign to discuss “The Future of Our Food System”, intended to improve our diet and our ways of producing food, and this is a great deal more than Defra would have done two years ago. To this end the unit has sent an online circular to all “stakeholders” (that’s us!) to ask our opinion.

But, as we might have feared, the introductory blurb makes it clear that Defra and the British government in general will never solve the world’s food problems — because they don’t really put food, and human beings, and the fabric of the Earth itself, at the top of their agenda. For governments, the economic dogma comes first.

Thus Defra states its basic ambition clearly and unexceptionably enough — to provide “reliable access to affordable healthy and safe food”. (They could have added “food that is actually good to eat”, but you can’t have everything.) In truth, this should be fairly straightforward. It is well within our scope to provide everybody who is ever liable to be born on to this Earth with food of the highest standards, both nutritionally and gastronomically. There is still enough good land left, and we have the necessary techniques — ideally an amalgam of ancient and modern.

But the condition that Defra imposes — that “companies [must be] internationally competitive and develop strong and diverse trade links with EU and global partners” — immediately puts the solutions out of reach. It is easy to farm well, in just about any country where people actually live. But farming in ways that routinely undercut other farmers in other countries working in quite different conditions against a quite different historical and economic background is, as the world has been proving this past 30 years, more or less impossible. If you add the further condition — that whatever we do in Britain must be in line with what we agreed with the French and German governments some time ago for whatever reasons we had at the time — then we can be sure that in a decade’s time, if we are here at all, governments will still be wringing their hands and telling us that farmers are going bust because they are not “competitive” and people are hungry because they are too greedy, and “demanded” too many Kentucky Frieds.

The present, prevailing economy — the neoliberal, allegedly “free” global market — is particularly pernicious. It turns all world trade into a global dogfight, in which the rich are bound to get richer and the poor are bound to get poorer, which indeed is what happens. Yet even that is not the point. The point is that we — humanity — can never solve our real problems so long as we allow ourselves to be led by economic dogma, whether the dogma is that of neoliberalism or Marxism or any other ism. What must come first is biological reality; and equal first, although taking its lead from biological reality, comes “common morality” — the bedrock principles of compassion and justice that are shared by all religions and cultures (though not always by religious leaders and governments). The principles of biology tell us what it is possible to do; and the agreed principles of morality tell us what we ought to do: what it is right to do.

The economy, whatever form it may take, then becomes a purely pragmatic device that enables us to translate what is possible into what we want to do. It should not (as in the neoliberal western world or the Russia of Stalin) be allowed to determine what is actually good and worth doing. Neither (as in the neoliberal west with Monsanto, and Stalin’s Russia with Lysenko) should the science be twisted to fit the ideology.

In short, the world now needs a truly radical shift: not from New Labour to Conservative (goodness me!); nor from capitalism to some form of socialism; but away from a mind-set that puts economic dogma first, and then expects human beings and the Earth itself to adjust accordingly. That is the most grotesque nonsense. That, more than anything else, is what is killing us all. One of the greatest of all economists, John Maynard Keynes, said much the same thing. Above all, Keynes was a pragmatist.

So we need new economic thinking — and that, to a large extent, is happening.

More broadly that that, however, I suggest that we need to move into what might be called “The Age of Biology”; an age in which we recognise (as many other cultures in the history of the world have done) that we are a biological species, and the taks of feeding ourselves is a problem of biology (including physiology and ecology), and then plan accordingly. We also need to recognise that all human beings matter equally, and other species matter too. No government that I know of anywhere in the world, comes close to any of this.

That is why we, humanity, — or at least, people who give a damn — have to take matters into our own hands; why we need a “people’s takeover of the world’s food supply”. This is what the Campaign for Real Farming is all about.

The implications of “The Age of Biology” are huge. The grand concept of Enlightened Agriculture, which lies behind the Campaign for Real Farming, is one example of it in action (perhaps the main example). We will return to the whole idea as this blog unfolds.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, August 28 2009.