No Deals with the Corporates

If you really want to change the world – and especially if you want to change the world’s agriculture — it’s best not to compromise, says Colin Tudge.  Above all, don’t accept hand-outs from big, commercial corporations.

In today’s world, all who would try to do just about anything that costs any money at all — which of course is just about anything at all — must ask themselves: “Should I try to do a deal with the corporates?”

The corporates, after all, in this modern, neoliberal economy, have more money than anybody – some have far more than most nation-states. Tesco, Monsanto, McDonalds, Cargill, Dow (just to name a few that are close to the immediate issues of food and agriculture) could pay for most of the things that most of us might want to do out of petty cash. I for example would love to establish the College for Enlightened Agriculture and Tesco could supply the money that’s needed to make a very good start without touching the sides. They haven’t actually offered me any money and are not likely to – but if they did, should I accept it? Should anyone ever accept such gilded hand-outs?

Some big and very respectable organizations – including just about all of Britain’s leading universities, and especially their departments of science and the remnants of their agriculture – think that such hand-outs should and must be accepted. Indeed, grants and sponsorship are actively solicited. Prospective vice-chancellors are required to demonstrate a history of fund-raising, preferably from the people with the most money. As things are, as Mrs Thatcher said some decades ago in a roughly similar context, there is no alternative – or so at least it may seem.

Yet the chalice is surely poisoned. Whatever the short-term advantages, corporate largesse should generally be refused. Even so, it’s a big decision to turn funds down. The reasons must be carefully examined. This essay is an attempt to begin the examination.

So to begin at the beginning – why is this an issue? What are the corporates, and what is so bad about them that anyone should refuse their money?

What are “corporates”, and what is supposed to be wrong with them?

Corporates are strange beings. They are not just big, private companies. They are big, private companies with their own special legal standing which only corporate lawyers claim to understand. But the key points seem to be as follows:

Corporates are owned by and beholden to their shareholders and are run by boards. The shareholders can lose their investment if the corporate goes bust and the employees can lose their jobs but – importantly – if the corporate does go bust the shareholders and employees are not liable for its debts. The corporate is not owned by any particular individual — but it does, for strange historical reasons, have the kind of rights that are generally accorded to individuals. So corporates in effect are treated not simply as commercial companies but as respectable citizens in their own right, albeit with far more muscle than any ordinary citizen. (All these mysteries are explained in Thom Hartman’s Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became “People” – And How You Can Fight Back. Second edition, Berrett-Koehler, 2010).

Typically, corporates tend to be transnational, with no particular allegiance to any one country. Taken all in all, then, although they have no guns or soldiers (as the old East India Company had in British India) they operate in effect as private armies. In the modern world you do not need to shoot anybody in order to exercize power. You merely have to pull the appropriate economic and legal levers – which the corporates do most adeptly.

Does any of this make them bad? Well, history suggests that too much power in the hands of any one group is intrinsically dangerous – and some modern corporates are very powerful indeed. Suppose, though, big organizations used their power expressly to do good? Would they then be objectionable? Would we protest if, say, the Salvation Army became more powerful, dedicated as it is to helping people to get back on their feet?

This is a tricky issue – but in the case of the corporates, it does not arise. For the purpose of corporates, and their mandate, is not expressly to do good, but to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. To be sure, many people these days, including many politicians and academics, argue that making lots of money is intrinsically good, provided that whatever is done along the way is not obviously illegal. Indeed, Mrs Thatcher suggested that for those who aspire to do good, getting rich is a necessary precondition. She once told the elders of the Church of Scotland that this is the central message of the parable of the Good Samaritan – for, she said, the Samaritan could not have helped the stranger unless he had been well-heeled. As shown very clearly on the newsreel, the Scottish elders were not convinced. They, and most moral philosophers worthy of the name and indeed most of us, retain the lurking feeling that the Thatcher version of Christian theology does not bear close scrutiny. Wealth per se is not intrinsically good, and you don’t need money to do good, and you don’t necessarily do good even if you do have money – and so on and so on.

But we can’t properly assess the corporates in isolation. The corporates are as they are because the law is as it is, and the economic structure of the world favours them, and because the world’s most powerful governments support the laws and the economic structure that allow them to flourish, and the rest of us, Ordinary Joes, elect and generally put up with the governments that make the laws and have provided the economic framework. The corporates indeed can say, “We are only doing what is expected of us”; or indeed “We are only obeying orders”. So let us look at the economic philosophy that has given the corporates such power.

The underlying economics

The corporates have been around in recognizably modern form since the start of the 20th century but they came fully into their own after Milton Friedman in Chicago in 1968 spelled out the virtues of the unfettered, the “free” market. Mrs Thatcher’s government, powered not least by Keith Joseph, and the United States under Ronald Reagan, made Friedman’s teaching the centre of their political philosophy, and so was born the age of the global, free market, known as “neoliberalism”.

Neoliberalism is based in the teaching of Adam Smith – or so at least its adherents claim. For Smith, pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, argued in The Wealth of Nations of 1776 (the year that America declared its independence from Britain) that if we left our affairs to the free market, all would be well. Traders, he said, could stay in business only by supplying what the customers wanted. Naturally the customers would gravitate towards the best, and the worse would have to smarten up their act or go to the wall. Hence the well-oiled market is a model of democracy: traders can survive only by doing what the people want. Dishonest traders will soon be found out and boycotted. The whole thing of course depends on competition. Each trader is obliged to try to do better than all the others – where “better” means meeting public demands more precisely and reliably. So the free market should be self-regulating; or rather, as Smith famously suggested, in a completely free market a “hidden hand” ensures that everything works out for the best. Charles Darwin, in his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, written 80 years after The Wealth of Nations, does not mention Adam Smith but many claim nonetheless that Smith’s philosophy is very Darwinian. All the traders are obliged to compete, and the weakest of them – the worst — go to the wall. A whole swathe of “neodarwinians” of late have been earning a living by telling business executives that the neoliberal economy in which they operate is rooted in science — with the implication that the neoliberal economy is therefore “natural” and therefore good. It is a spurious argument on many counts, but it can be made to sound plausible.

By giving the traders their head in a free market, said Smith, we get a better outcome than we would if some overriding authority – a government, or some international agency – imposed their own vision of what the traders should be selling, and imposed their own rules from above. The market in turn, he said, operates best if all the participants are allowed simply to pull on their own ropes, in their own interests. For as he famously declared in The Wealth of Nations:

“ … man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only…. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.

Two hundred years later, in Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas in the guise of Gordon Gekko put the matter the other way around:

“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that “greed” – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit”.

Of course this is parody, but I have seen quite a few articles in for example The Economist and The Daily Telegraph this past few years that say exactly the same thing: that we can best serve our fellows by striving to grow rich ourselves. Indeed this is the basis of the entire modern economy – for the chief preoccupation of western governments and particularly Britain’s these past few decades, and especially now when the economy has clearly collapsed, is “economic growth”. Economic growth means increase in GDP, meaning Gross Domestic Product; and GDP is the sum total of all the money earned by the country in a given year by whatever means. On this measure, disasters such as Hurricane Katrina emerge as positives because they stimulate the building industry and so enhance “growth”.

For this and other reasons, above a certain very low baseline, there is almost no relationship whatever between GDP and human wellbeing and still less between GDP and the general condition of the world. In fact, one very quick way to grow very rich indeed and to boost GDP like mad is to fell rainforests to grow cattle feed, or to drain mangroves to make way for marinas – and so on and so on. Whatever the means, such wealth as is created tends to accrue to the people who are already rich and who control the economy. Never fear, said Mrs Thatcher, because this wealth will “trickle down” to the people at large. But “Guess what!”, said President Obama in a recent speech (around Christmas 2011), “Trickle-down doesn’t work!” Indeed it doesn’t. All the statistics of the past 40 years show the rich growing richer while the poor grow poorer – the gap has increased alarmingly both between countries and within countries. Emphatically, greed is not good; and neoliberalism as a whole, rooted in the greed-is-good philosophy, doesn’t work – or at least, it doesn’t deliver a good life to the majority of the world’s people, and it does not operate in the best interests of our fellow creatures or of the fabric of the Earth. Or rather: if the intention really is to make the rich richer, and to demonstrate the virtues of greed, then the neoliberal economy works very well. But if we really want a better world, with old-fashioned virtues like justice and general well-being, then it’s a disaster.

Would Adam Smith have approved the kind of economy and the political philosophy that have grown up in his name? Would he have suggested that “greed is good?” Surely not. He was a moral philosopher before he was an economist and in his first major book of 1759, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he argues:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it”.

Clearly Smith feels that human beings are basically nice, even though it was customary in the 18th century to insist that we are not; and clearly he favours niceness. So how was it that in The Wealth of Nations he presents us with an economic theory that led us to Gordon Gekko?  The trouble, I reckon, is that Smith’s “free market” is really an ideal – a Platonic abstraction. The “hidden hand” might well operate as he said it should, and the market might well be self-regulating, if there is an infinite number of traders and if all the customers have perfect information about all of the traders and if they have endless time in which to shop around. But in real life, with a finite number of traders, and without appropriate rules to regulate their behaviour, one or a few traders are bound to grow bigger than the rest; and then the big ones can start to influence the buying habits of the customers, and to control the information that’s available to them. Once one or a few traders start to dominate, the smaller ones inevitably disappear, and then – in the absence of regulation – the market is bound to head pell-mell towards monopoly or cartel — a cozy arrangement between the few that are left.

In the present world – certainly in food – we can already see how this has panned out. As many an author has catalogued, the entire food chain worldwide is now dominated by a large handful of very large traders – which in practice is an oligopoly of corporates. We can still argue, as indeed the corporates do argue, that democracy still prevails. For instance, if we all decided not to go to Tesco’s, say, then Tesco would go out of business. So Tesco survives, as they claim to do, primarily by doing what we want; and that looks like democracy. By the same token, Rupert Murdoch has grown rich on specious and sometimes mendacious newspapers only because people buy them. But then again, for many people, as things have turned out, Tesco in one form or another may well be the only shop left standing within half a mile, or even within several miles – so the customer “choice” is purely theoretical.  In practice, overall, a few big companies have become incomparably rich and powerful over the past few years. Some apologists may still choose to argue that this is “democratic” – but we are surely a very long way from Smith’s original conception of what a free market really is. The hidden hand that is supposed to ensure justice, if it ever worked at all, certainly cannot work when there is only a handful of traders who control the sources of information and who, for good measure, work hand in hand with the government that is supposed to operate in the public interest.

Neoliberalism, in short, has serious shortcomings. Freed from outside controls the market itself becomes the maker of rules and indeed the maker of morals. What is considered “good” becomes in effect what people are prepared to pay for. Surely there is more to moral philosophy than this! It’s clear, too, even without any serious philosophical musing, that since the rich have more buying power than the poor, they also have a far greater influence on what is considered to be acceptable. Is this right? All in all, Smith’s hidden hand never gets a chance to operate and so, in the absence of other controls, there is nothing to ensure justice and equity – so the lack of either in the modern economy is entirely unsurprising. The corporates cannot be equated with neoliberalism – they existed for many decades before neoliberalism came on board – but they are the principal exponents and beneficiaries of neoliberalism; the organizations that are best equipped to play the global trading game. In practice, then, we cannot judge the corporates simply on an ad hoc basis – asking whether any particular corporate has done net good or net harm. We have to ask whether the economic philosophy of which the corporates are such prime exemplars is good for humanity as a whole and for the Earth. The facts of the past 40 years suggest that it is not; and the theory provides no reason to suppose it ever could be.

All the above comments apply to commerce in general. What most concerns the Campaign for Real Farming and is of course of prime importance to the whole world and all its inhabitants, human and non-human, is food and agriculture. Unfortunately, the neoliberal economy and therefore the corporates which are its principal manifestation are more or less bound to provide us with a food chain that is absolutely at odds with the long-term needs (and most of the short-term desires) of humanity, and of our fellow creatures, and of the world as a whole. The agriculture that the present economy and the corporates are bound to provide is the industrial kind; and that, demonstrably, is selling humanity short, killing our fellow creatures, and destroying the fabric of the Earth – leading many serious thinkers to doubt if we and the world can survive in a recognizable state even until the end of this century. This needs to be explored.

The neoliberal economy, the corporates, and the world’s food supply

If we really cared about humanity, and especially the future of humanity, and of our fellow creatures and of the world as a whole, then we would root our economy and hence our entire modus operandi, in two grand principles: those of common morality – what is it right to do; and those of biology – what do human beings and other creatures really need, and how much is it possible to produce (and to go on producing).

Common morality (what Adam Smith called “human sympathy” and the Buddha called “compassion”) suggests that it is a good idea to try to provide everybody in the world with good food, since the alternative is to starve, and starvation is generally perceived to be bad. This means we must produce food for seven billion people right now, and an estimated 9.5 billion by 2050. The good news (from the United Nations demographers) is that 9.5 billion should be as high as numbers should rise. The percentage rate of increase is declining, and by 2050 (says the UN) the percentage rise should be zero – meaning that the human population should stabilize for the first time since large-scale agriculture first began, apparently around 10,000 years ago. Some decades or perhaps centuries after 2050, human numbers should again start to go down – not because of catastrophe, but simply because, it seems, people are choosing to have fewer children.

That leaves the biological question – can we feed seven billion now, and 9.5 billion by 2050, and go on feeding 9.5 billion for an indefinite period after 2050? Can we do this without wrecking the rest of the world?

Statistics from the United Nations – which surely are reliable, and must be taken seriously – tell us that one billion out of the current seven billion are chronically undernourished. Another one billion live in urban slums – which is almost one third of all the people who now live in cities. A billion or so live on a dollar a day or less and two billion live on two dollars a day or less. At the same time, conservation biologists estimate that about one half of all non-human species are in imminent danger of extinction.

The position looks desperate – and so it is. For about a third of humanity, and for most of our fellow creatures, it could hardly be worse. A rash of much-quoted papers in refereed journals have told us of late that we (humanity) will need to produce at least 50% more food before 2050 just to keep pace with rising population and rising “demand” or “expectations”. Fifty per cent seems outlandish enough – but as the figure is shuffled from report to report, it keeps growing, apparently by a form of Chinese whispers. So it is that in Nature recently, that most learned of learned journals, Jonathan Foley of the University of Minnesota and his colleagues quote “recent studies” which “suggest that production would need to roughly double to keep pace with projected demands” (20 October 2011, vol 478, pp 337-342. In most other respects, though, Foley et al’s paper is very good).

Yet for what might be called the powers-that-be – big governments, the corporates, big banks, and their entourage of experts and intellectuals – these alarming statistics are convenient; just what the doctor ordered; or perhaps, just what they ordered from their attendant doctors.  For if the task of feeding everyone without wrecking the rest looks difficult, then the powers-that-be have a built-in excuse for their obvious failure. Indeed, they can put the blame on humanity itself — for if a billion go hungry, we’re told, it’s because there are too many of us; and if we need to double supplies then it’s only because we will insist on breeding, and on eating more and more. The powers-that-be are doing their heroic best to cope – but well! What can anyone do in the face of such fecklessness?

At the same time, the powers-that-be are able to claim that we (humanity) cannot possibly get out of the present mess unless we do what we are told. Clearly, if the free market seems to be failing, it’s only because the market is not free enough. The theory shows that it must work – and quite a few people are doing very well out of it, which proves the theory. If high-tech solutions are not apparently bringing home the bacon, it’s because they have not been introduced with sufficient rigour – and there are too many backsliders: ignorant, self-seeking Luddites and mischief-makers.

But the one thing the powers-that-be are incapable of (which is characteristic of powers-that-be throughout the ages) is anything resembling self-examination or self-doubt. It clearly has not occurred to anyone in high places that they might actually be wrong; that the present disaster might largely result from the policies of the past few decades; that we don’t actually need twice as much food as we have now; that more of the same will make things worse; that we need a truly radical change of direction – to re-think food and farming from first principles, and from all angles. To be sure, in the government’s Foresight report of 2011, chief scientist Sir John Beddington declared that we are heading for “the perfect storm” and that we cannot simply continue with “business as usual” – but the core message of the Foresight report, insofar as there is a core message, is that the free market is a given, and that we cannot possibly hope to survive without more industrialization – bigger yields on bigger farms achieved by high tech, including GM crops and livestock and cloning of elite animals. The report does mention other approaches (one of its authors claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that it is “holistic”) — but only as parentheses.

Hans Herren, president of the Millenium Institute, based in Washington DC, offers a very different view. He has said that the world already produces enough food energy to supply all seven billion of us with 4800 kcalories per day – which is twice what most of us need. So we already produce enough for 14 billion people – not only twice the present number, but 50% more than the UN says the world will ever contain. Of course, “food energy” doesn’t mean total nutrition. If we produced that energy primarily in the form of oilseeds or sugar then we could still be very badly nourished. But if we produced food energy in traditional forms (cereals, pulses, and livestock) in normal systems of agriculture, then everything else (the protein, essential fats, vitamins, minerals, and the still mysterious spectrum of what the pharmaceutical industry likes to call “nutraceuticals” (though I prefer the term “cryptonutrients”)) would take care of itself.

The world falls short, apparently, not because we don’t produce enough, but because we don’t spread what we do produce evenly around the globe (most of it, obviously, is consumed by the rich minority) – and because we waste such a lot. About 50 per cent of the world’s wheat and most of the barley and maize are fed to livestock to be sold to westerners who on the whole don’t need it; and we can and should raise cattle and sheep on grass and pigs and poultry on surpluses and leftovers. About 40% of America’s huge crop of maize (corn) is now used for biofuel – although maize, traditionally, has been the world’s third most important staple food after wheat and rice. In much of the Third World, about a third of all crops are wasted post-harvest – simply for lack of adequate storage, including rat-proof silos. People in rich countries apparently waste about a third of their food after it gets to the kitchen. They just throw it away. Current laws in Europe prevent the simple economies that traditional peoples took for granted – like feeding household scraps to pigs and poultry. It looks, indeed, as if the whole system is designed to ensure waste: and so, as we will see, to a significant extent, it is.

Professor Herren also points out that although the present-day powers-that-be recommend more industrialization of agriculture, with the emphasis necessarily on high tech; and although industrialized agriculture has received the lion’s share of European and US agricultural subsidy, and swallows up more than the lion’s share of all research budgets; in fact it still provides only 30 per cent of the world’s food. Fifty per cent of our food comes from traditional small farms; 12.5 per cent from hunting and gathering; and 7.5 per cent is produced in situ, in cities. So the systems that in official circles tend to be sidelined and sometimes derided and are widely seen as a political and economic embarrassment, provide 70 per cent of the world’s food.

Furthermore, the most productive present-day industrial farms are already close to the maximum that any sane person would want to get out of them. Many of today’s Holstein cows are producing 10,000 litres (2000 gallons) of milk a year, which is more than twice what a traditional grass-fed Ayrshire or Shorthorn would produce, and about eight times what a wild cow would produce. Still the industrial scientists dream of even more – 20,000 litres is on the cards. These super-productive animals have udders like dustbins and can hardly stand and they need more or less continuous milking – but still the mania for more goes on; all with the pious, self-righteous, but very definitely mistaken, not to say mendacious, claim that all this is necessary if the world is to be fed. Britain’s wheat yield now averages around 8 tonnes per hectare which is two or three times greater than the yields of a century ago but still the technocrats dream of more – for some existing fields produce 12 tonnes per hectare or more, and the average, they feel, should push ever closer to the maximum. Some at least of the fields that produce high yields are deteriorating fast, and some are already devoid of organic content, and so are prime candidates for erosion. The whole operation is an exercize in industrial chemistry, a large-scale form of hydroponics, absolutely dependent on good weather and on oil-based agrochemicals.

Since the industrial farms are already close to the maximum, it would be very difficult – heroic indeed – to increase their output by a further 50 per cent. Yet if this were achieved, the total world output would be increased by only 15 per cent. Yet most research, and almost all of the money – including public money — that supports that research, focuses on this extra, hypothetical 15 per cent; and the methods recommended are those of yet more high tech.

In starkest contrast, those who know the Third World well – including both the farmers themselves and a wide range of true experts from all around the world – generally agree that the world’s traditional farms could generally double their output, usually quite easily, without any recourse to the fanciest forms of high tech. Many could readily triple their output. The reasons they currently fall so far short have little or nothing to do with “ignorance”, as western observers and politicians have often found it convenient to suppose. Generally it has everything to do with infrastructure, logistics, and the economic framework. Thus Indian dairy farmers may fail to realize the full potential of their cows because in the rainy season, when the cows are at their milkiest, the roads are impassable so the milk cannot leave the village. Professor Bob Orskov of the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen points out that Third World farmers are reluctant to invest what’s needed to increase their crops because there are no guaranteed prices these days, so if they did invest in more intensive husbandry, and double their yields, they might find at the end of the season that the price has halved – and then they would be out of pocket. So they don’t invest. They work on the ultra-precautionary principle of least risked, least lost. At least they survive that way. Then there’s the constant and growing burden of cheap imported subsidized US surpluses. Then of course there’s the matter of silos. And so on. Nothing to do with a lack of GM or western expertise. Everything to do with policy.

Since the world’s traditional farms produce 50 per cent of the world’s food, then if their output was doubled or tripled then we would come close to the 50% increase in total food that so many people in positions of influence are now demanding; and – much more to the point — the extra food would be produced in the places where it is most needed.

So why do official reports tell us that we need more food when apparently we do not? And why do they recommend more high-tech industrial farming when common sense, common humanity, and simple arithmetic tells us that the world would gain far more by helping the world’s traditional farmers to realize their potential? And why do poor countries go along with agricultural policies that are imposed by outsiders instead of supporting their own, artisinal farming?

The answer lies entirely with the modern, neoliberal economy in which the market is all, and the corporates dominate the market, and governments are beholden to corporates which most obviously generate “GDP” and so give the illusion of economic “growth”, and all the world’s countries (and particularly the poorest ones) in practice are obliged to conform to rules that are imposed globally and are designed to ensure that the market is as free as possible.

Farming that feeds people: “Enlightened Agriculture”

Present-day agriculture already in theory produces enough food to feed the biggest population we are ever liable to see – the 9.5 billion who will be with us by 2050. But the collateral damage from today’s agriculture – to the soil; to our fellow creatures, both domestic and wild; to all wild ecosystems including the oceans; to the climate; to traditional societies, economies, cultures, and ways of life – is horrendous. It also uses or squanders unconscionable quantities of non-renewable resources, including oil, phosphorus, and fresh water. Despite all this, we still manage to leave a fair slice of humanity out in the cold – the UN tells us that one billion people worldwide are chronically undernourished. If we go on producing food in the present ways then — as pointed out of late by sober commentators who include Martin (Lord) Rees, former President of the Royal Society; Archbishop Rowan Williams; and former US presidential candidate Al Gore – humanity will be lucky to come through the 21st century in a tolerable state. For at least a billion people worldwide — although it’s probably nearer two billion, about one in three — life is already intolerable.

If we seriously want to provide everybody who is likely to be born into this world with good food without wrecking the rest – which surely should be the goal – then we have to design agriculture expressly for that purpose. I call such agriculture “Enlightened Agriculture”; which we have shortened to “Real Farming” because “Enlightened Agriculture” has too many syllables.

Agriculture that really can feed us all and go on doing so has to have three prime features. First, it has to be very productive: no more productive than much of today’s agriculture, but productive nonetheless. Secondly, it needs to be “sustainable”; which doesn’t mean it has to stay the same forever and ever but does mean that we must, as farmers traditionally say, “keep the soil in good heart”. Thirdly, we need farming that is “resilient”. We know that the world constantly changes – and now, thanks primarily to global warming, it is changing more rapidly and radically than ever. We need farming that can flourish under widely different conditions and/or can change direction quickly.

So how do we achieve productivity, sustainability, and resilience?

In general, we need to emulate nature. Of course we need to be more productive than nature generally is – certainly in terms of human food per unit area. Even so, nature has been commendably productive for at least 3.8 billion years, and has survived the most spectacular changes along the way from pole-to-pole ice (some say) to pole-to-pole tropics, with athletic shifts in the position of continents. Nature has achieved this wondrous feat by being extraordinarily diverse; tightly integrated – nothing is wasted, everything circulates; and low input. All wild ecosystems borrow from other ecosystems (a lot of the oxygen we breathe is produced by marine diatoms) but on the whole they use what’s there. Certainly wild nature does not burn fossil fuels to make fertilizers to boost its output.

So how do diversity, integration, and low-input translate into farming terms?

Well, diversity in farming terms means polyculture – combinations of various crops and livestock, each as genetically various as possible; what is commonly called “mixed farming” (but with genetically diverse crops and animals). Diversity should be further increased by including trees as part of the system; one of the few bright spots on the otherwise dismal horizon is the growing interest in agroforestry.

Integration means integration: the farm conceived not as a factory, but as an ecosystem, with pigs clearing up after the arable crops and drinking the surplus whey from dairy cows and so on. This is what we see par excellence in the traditional farms of South-East Asia – rice, carp, ducks, chickens, pigs, water buffalo all working together, with horticulture on the higher ground, and human manure regarded as a key resource. In Britain, mixed, integrated farming probably reached its height in the 1950s and ‘60s when successive governments, with the blockade of World War II fresh in their minds, still took agriculture seriously.

Low-input in farming terms means organic. This does not mean that everyone worldwide should immediately start to follow all the rules of the Soil Association. It does mean that organic farming ought to be seen as the default position: what farmers do as a matter of course unless there is very good reason to do anything else.

So Enlightened Agriculture, aka Real Farming, is integrated, low-input polyculture.

All this follows from simple principles of morality – a true desire to provide good food for everybody – and of biology – asking how the ambition can be fulfilled. But it obviously has huge social, economic, and political implications. For integrated, low-input polyculture is complicated; in fact, the more complicated, the better. So it has to be labour-intensive – or, more to the point, skills intensive. The point is not to fill the farm with coolies or slaves to do the work of tractors, but to employ skilled husbandmen and women who know how to make the system work. If the farm is labour-intensive, then there is little advantage in scale-up, and there can be many disadvantages. So in general the Enlightened farm is likely to be small to medium-sized.

So we finish up with the generalization that the farms that can really feed the world and go on doing so forever and ever, should be very mixed, integrated, quasi-organic, skills-intensive, and small to medium-sized.

In general, this is the typical structure of traditional farms worldwide. Structurally, traditional farms are often spot on. But they are under-equipped and under-supported – and of course, like every human endeavour, they could benefit from good science and appropriate technology, where “appropriate” could well include high-tech (including, say, the mobile phones that are a boon for Third World farmers).  The point is not, as the industrialists are wont to suggest, to “wind the clock back”. It is simply to recognize the obvious – that today’s industrial farming is falling far short of what is required, and is threatening to kill us all – and that we need to re-think the world’s agriculture from first principles; and the necessary principles are not to be found in the economic musing of the University of Chicago or the London School of Economics or the Harvard Business School, but in common morality, common sense, and basic biology.

So why don’t the world, or the powers-that-be, or for example the authors of the Foresight report, simply do what common humanity, common sense, and basic biology dictate? Why don’t they set out to design systems of agriculture that are expressly designed to feed people without wrecking the rest?

The answer lies entirely with their slavish adherence to the dogma of neoliberalism: their absolute dedication to the global free market. There is an irony here: that those who advocate organic farming, or small mixed farms, are commonly written off in high places as ideologues – dreamers (aka  “greenies” or “reds”). The high-tech neoliberals in contrast claim to be hard-headed — no-nonsense realists; not pretty, but effective. The truth, as so often is the case in this field, is entirely opposite. The idea of Enlightened Agriculture is rooted in fundamental principles of morality, good sense, and basic biology. Neoliberalism is pure ideology. Milton Friedman has the status of a guru. Sociologically speaking, he is not too far removed from the Reverend Moon.

But why is neoliberalism so damaging?

How the neoliberal economy is killing the world

Neoliberalism puts a price on everything – the value of everything is quantified in terms of money. The market is intended to be maximally competitive (although of course the big players, like Europe and the US, feel free to bend the rules – not least with their massive farm subsidies). The competition is all against all – which means, since the market is global, that everyone everywhere is pitted against everyone else: the uplands of Ethiopia against Suffolk. The biggest traders, supported by shareholders,  compete for investment – which they attract by being more profitable than anyone else. Defenders of the system like to argue that “there is nothing wrong with profit”. Well of course, profit is at least a useful measure of success, and the profit from any one enterprise can underwrite another. But when profit becomes the be-all and end-all, the driver, the sine qua non, the raison d’etre, there is a great deal wrong with it. In the context of agriculture, the all-out obsession with profit is threatening to kill us all.

For if you seek to maximize profit – not just in farming, but in any kind of business – there are three, inescapable, golden rules: maximize output (“pile ’em high”); “add value” (make cheap things more expensive); and cut costs. These golden rules are almost entirely at odds with the requirements of Enlightened Agriculture. Thus:

In farming, on finite land, maximizing output means maximizing yield per unit area. If we are seriously concerned with long-term survival in a tolerable world then we ought to be content with enough. But if profit is the sole driver, then enough is never enough. “Enough” becomes the maximum possible – the most, that is, that can be produced before the system starts to break down and further inputs cease to be cost-effective or even positively destructive; when the crops cease to respond to any more fertilizer or the cows grow sick and die. But the greatest problem for the profit-driven, ultra-competitive trader, in farming or in anything else, is the loss of market elasticity: the ceiling on what people are prepared to buy. The trouble with farming is that it would be too easy to feed everyone well – if feeding everyone well was truly the intention. Once people have enough – why would they want to buy more? So how can the farmer go on getting richer?

This is the real reason for the huge emphasis on livestock these past few decades. It has little to do with nutrition and far less than might be supposed to do with human tastes, and everything to do with the perceived need to remove the ceiling on the production of staples, by feeding the surplus to cattle, pigs, and poultry, who obligingly waste most of it. Biofuel is potentially the biggest bonanza of all. Output of crops can be pushed beyond all precedent – just to be burnt in SUVs and fire the Jacuzzi. Then the experts who advise the powers-that-be can make sanctimonious noises about satisfying public demand while reducing global warming, etc etc, while their employers watch the coffers swell.  But this is what “the market” requires. This is what now passes as realism.

Yet still there is worse – for the maximization of output to maximize profit does not only require an increase in yield. It also encourages producers to occupy as much land as possible. It is often remarked that most of the world’s most fertile and accessible land is already cultivated. Of course it is. Industrial agriculture, designed expressly to maximize income, will expand to fill the land available. It is a variation of Parkinson’s Law.

“Value-adding” can be good, of course – when raw wheat is turned into brilliant bread and pastries; when every fragment of the pig is beautifully prepared by charcutiers, and tripes become delicacies; and so on. But value-adding in its modern high-tech form means cut flowers from Kenya – more wealth for the already wealthy with little or no benefit to the local people and huge collateral damage to the environment. Value adding also means endless packaging and marketing — and so on and so on.

But the perceived need to cut costs, and then cut them again, is the most damaging demand of all. Above all it means that labour must be cut because, in traditional systems, labour is the most expensive input. It’s not just a matter of wages: even slaves are expensive. People must be replaced by machines and by industrial chemistry – oil-based pesticides and so on – which are far cheaper so long as the price of oil is not too high (and so long as there is any oil to sell, prices are geared to what people are prepared to pay).  Complexity of husbandry – absolutely vital for sustainability and resilience – goes right out of the window. Low-labour agriculture is simple agriculture – monoculture, as far as the eye can see; factory farms, a million pigs or upwards of 3000 cows at a time. Machines do the work and here there are huge economies of scale, so the combines are as big as a small cottage and the fields can and should be as big as the land allows. Arable “farms” of 300,000 hectares are commonplace in the Ukraine.

For livestock, minimum-to-zero labour husbandry is very dangerous. It is not good for welfare – little time for tender loving care. It is at least a reasonable hypothesis, too, that all the major epidemics that have beset British livestock more or less continuously since the 1970s (BSE, foot-and-mouth, swine fever, swine flu, and the brush with bird flu) have been caused by cut-price husbandry, including lack of veterinary surveillance. All this has been in the name of cost-cutting and particularly of reducing labour and the overriding imperative to “compete” in the global market with Wisconsin and Brazil and Thailand.

Worst of all, though, is that cutting labour puts people out of work. Of course it does. That’s what cutting labour means. If Britain were to farm in an enlightened fashion we would need at least three times as many farmers as we have now – which means at least another million, to bring the total to 1.5 million; and truly to do the job well and safely we could do with a total of three million – about 10 per cent of the total workforce. Perhaps it is just a coincidence that a million young Britons are now out of work and the total unemployed is around three million. Perhaps the unemployed represent the profession that has gone missing. Perhaps the needs of agriculture and the needs of Britain’s working people could be matched up. This would be a relatively simple exercize in what Tony Blair boldly called “joined-up government”. But it would offend the market dogma and is not going to happen — or not, at least, if we leave our affairs to governments.

But the worst of the worst, as ever, is seen in the Third World. In the Third World as a whole more than 50 per cent of people live on the land. Fifty percent is perhaps the most that ought to work on the land. When we get up to 90 per cent, as it is in Rwanda, that is surely too many, for then there is no home market for the farmers to sell to, and too few builders and teachers and medics and lorry drivers and all the other kind of people that societies also need.  But 50 per cent is surely OK: it means that each farmer must support two families.

It’s obvious, too, that in most Third World countries agriculture is the most realistic form of employment. Many people including many politicians seem to assume that the Third World will repeat the history of Europe and soak up its labour force in factories, just as Britain did from the 18th century through to the late 20th centuries. But those factories were very labour-intensive, which modern factories are not; and they used vast quantities of energy and other raw material, which is less and less of an option. The alternative to farming in much of the world is driving taxis or trishaws, cleaning hotels – or unemployment, and a life on the streets. If India farmed the way the British now do, 500 million people would be jobless – more than the total population of the expanded EU. According to the United Nations, one billion people worldwide now live in urban slums – almost one in three of all the people who live in cities. It’s a fair bet that most of them are ex-farmers, or the families or immediate descendants of farmers. Yet western experts continue to promote western-style farming in poor countries, with more and more urbanization. Western governments in recent years conducted a fatuous “war against poverty” while at the same time promoting systems of industrial farming that would put most people of work. Brilliant.

The corporates are not responsible for the neoliberal dogma that fosters high-tech industrial farming. But they are the core players in neoliberalism –they are the chief beneficiaries and the only reason that the global market as it is now conceived can work at all. Those who support the corporates – and accepting their patronage is a form of support – are helping to perpetuate an economy and a modus operandi that are absolutely at odds with what the world really needs, and what it needs to be doing.

Muddied waters: neoliberalism and capitalism

The waters are muddied, however, because many people equate neoliberalism with capitalism itself. Capitalism in turn is commonly seen as the necessary guardian of liberty — free enterprise, free trade – and the liberty of people at large is rightly perceived as one of the great achievements of western civilization, and one that took 1000 years to bring about. The alternative to capitalism is perceived to be some kind of centralized economy which inevitably means some variation on a theme of Marxism – and although Marxism can look very attractive on paper, history suggests that it has many disadvantages. The American economist Robert Franks has pointed out that centralized economies have built-in inefficiencies as every decision has to be referred to some bureau. Mikhail Gorbachev, as he presided over the demise of the Soviet Union, simply observed that communism makes too many demands on the psychology of the people. In the best-known Marxist or quasi-Marxist societies, Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, personal liberty was noticeably absent.

But it’s a huge mistake to equate neoliberalism with capitalism. Neoliberalism is merely a particular – and many would say a particularly aberrant — form of capitalism. Many traditional capitalists, including many traditional US Republicans and British Tories, hate neoliberalism and the inevitable corporate dominance it brings with it as vehemently as any socialist, seeing it as a sad deviation and as a betrayal. They welcome market competition, to be sure, but not of the modern, to-the-death variety, with hostile takeovers and Machiavellian power-mongering and all the rest. Competition they feel should be friendly rivalry – the kind that keeps everyone on their toes but ensures that there are still plenty of players in the field; not an oligopoly of vast combines but a true marketplace of modestly-sized companies, run by managers whose values are not merely material. Traditional capitalists, Republican and Tory, don’t want the market to determine right and wrong. They would much prefer to operate within a moral framework that is agreed by society at large – which, among other things, would surely conclude, in line with Old Testament principles, that greed is anything but good. (For a very fine summary of the many guises of capitalism see John Lanchester’s “Marx at 193” in the London Review of Books, April 5 2012, pp 7-10).

In traditional – we might say primitive – capitalist societies the producers are traders are small and various. Adam Smith first spoke of Britain as “a nation of small shopkeepers” (Napoleon pinched the expression from him) and Thomas Jefferson envisaged the newly founded United States as “a nation of small farmers”.  An economy rooted in small shopkeepers and small farmers could serve the citizenry – any citizenry – very well. It would not generate the vast quantities of unrooted money that now splash around countries like ours but it would ensure that everyone has a job, an income, and a role in life, and that people at large have some control over their own lives (which is what liberty ought to mean). It would also fit very well with the demands of Enlightened Agriculture. As an advocate of Enlightened Agriculture and an enemy of neoliberalism I have often been written off as a “commie” (and it is taken for granted that commies deserve to be written off). But in truth, as a proponent of small farms and shops I place myself proudly in the category that true commies despise most of all – the petit-bourgeoisie. Most people are petit-bourgeois, when you boil them down, and why not? As John Maynard Keynes observed, economics should not be an ideology. It is a functional thing. When it works well it fades into the background and enables us to get on with our lives. In-your-face economic ideology is bad wherever it comes from. The small shopkeeper, small farmer approach is pragmatic, human-sized, and flexible. It will do the job.

In short, if you want to change the world, it really is not a good idea to accept the corporate shilling, however shiny and tempting it may be. The point is not that the executives of corporates are bad people (the default position for most human beings is to be nice, whoever they work for) or that individual corporates sometimes do bad things (and sometimes do good things). It is that the corporates are the principal players and in the end the raison d’etre of an economic system that is bound, by its own principles, to provide systems of agriculture (and other things too, but agriculture is the chief example) that are bad for humanity and for the world.

But if the corporates have the most money, and sometimes seem to be the only people who have any money at all, what’s the alternative?

How do we change the world without corporate help?

In principle, there are three ways to bring about radical political and economic change, and they all begin with “R”: Reform, Revolution, and — the third and often neglected possibility – Renaissance. So:

Reform won’t do. Some who are happy to take the corporate shilling quite simply see nothing much wrong with the corporates – and if that is the case, then of course it makes sense to accept their largesse. But others apparently want the world to be different – yet still feel that it is sensible to work with corporates. These are the would-be reformers. Typically they say, “By working with the corporates we can change them from the inside”. Or else, even without effecting great changes, they hope to persuade the corporates to act for the public good.

But at least in the case of agriculture, this hope is forlorn. As discussed above, an organization that is obliged by its mandate to maximize the wealth of its shareholders cannot encourage the kind of farming that is intended primarily to provide everyone in the world with good food, without wrecking the rest. The two ambitions are absolutely at odds. They are bound to produce two quite different outcomes that are absolutely incompatible.

Still, some say, we have to do deals with the corporates because, as things are, they have the power – and, as the expression has it, because “the corporates are here to stay”. But history tells us that nothing is here to stay. No-one in 400 AD would seriously have doubted that the Roman Empire would last for ever – but within half a century Rome itself was virtually wiped out. In 1911 the British Empire ruled and George V held the biggest ever durbar in Delhi – yet the British were out of India less than 40 years later. Intellectuals agreed that the Soviet Union with its quasi-Marxist economy was a permanent fixture – but it lasted just 70 years. The thousand year Reich endured for barely a decade. The neoliberal world of the corporates has now had three decades or so – and the disaffection worldwide is tremendous, in rich countries and poor, across the political spectrum. It cannot last forever. The fashionable expression, “tipping point”, seems highly pertinent.

In short, Reform in this context does not work, and cannot work beyond a very limited point. Corporates may make concessions, and change some practices, but they cannot change their overall strategy without ceasing to exist.

So some try Revolution. On the small scale, here and there, direct action which in spirit is revolutionary may bring about desired ends – and sometimes the ad hoc revolutionaries may even find that the law is on their side, because some of the activities of very big organizations prove not to be lawful when put to the test. Very big organizations sometimes feel they are beyond the law – which sometimes seems to be true but sometimes, as perhaps the present phone-hacking trials are illustrating, isn’t.

But large-scale revolution of the kind that brings about a total economic shift, of the kind that gave rise to the Soviet Union, is not going to happen – and neither, at least in this context, is it desirable. In general, Revolutions cause so much disturbance that no-one can have any real idea of how they will turn out. All that’s certain is that a lot of people get hurt along the way. But perhaps more to the point, Revolution in the present context is not necessary. Neoliberal capitalism cannot achieve what is needed but petit-bourgeois capitalism surely could. The shift from one to the other does not require the taking up of arms.

That leaves Renaissance. The point is not to try to shift the status quo, increment by increment, as the reformers do; nor to pick a fight, as the revolutionaries do; but to build the alternative system in situ. Right now in Britain and in many other countries too we need a new generation of small farmers with a corresponding market to buy their wares and on-side local communities to create the necessary food culture and provide general support. As underpinning, we surely need the College for Enlightened Agriculture – conceived as part of the Campaign for Real Farming: a forum and a research centre to explore and develop all the many ideas of science, technology, husbandry, economics, sociology and all the rest that are needed to make enlightened farming work to its best ability but at present are being neglected.

The necessary funds for all this can be supplied by the mechanisms of capitalism itself. Money can be raised by ethical investment or for example by “crowd funding”– telling people at large via the various manifestations of “social networking” what you are up to, and asking them for money. We (the Campaign for Real Farming) haven’t yet seriously tried either but we certainly know people who have, and it works, and is growing. Community Supported Agriculture in many forms is growing apace the world over and has tremendous potential (“Incredible Edible Todmorden” is an outstanding example). The Transition Town movement in many areas is extending its sphere of interest to include food and farming.

So don’t take corporate money. You may solve your short-term problems but you’ll also be propping up a system that in the long term is bad for all of us. It may take longer to solve immediate problems if you rely on people at large to help you but this is necessary, and it is possible. Vive the Agrarian Renaissance.

Colin Tudge April 3 2012

2 thoughts on “No Deals with the Corporates

  1. By all means, boycott the greedy, evil multi-national corporation SOBs and plant a garden.

    Now, can we really have an ‘Agrarian Renaissance’ using ‘low imput farming’ that’s ‘more productive than Nature generally is’ without corporations, a command-control economy, and/or a massive die-off of the population? I’m not so sure. There’s probably a good argument to be made that the Black Death in Europe created the social and political upheaval required for the last Renaissance to occur. Careful what we wish for.

    The author states: “Certainly wild nature does not burn fossil fuels to make fertilizers to boost its output.”

    So, how do we convert our industrial economy / farming to an agrarian model without fossil fuels? How do we do this with declining fossil fuel resources? How do we abolish our old debts and access new credit? Overhaul property rights? What about the changing climate that will wreak havoc on crops, organic or otherwise? Rising sea levels displacing millions of people? Hmmm?

    There is no mention of this in the article. With all due respect, I don’t think the Renaissance was planned in advance, and the next one won’t be either.

  2. Colin replies:

    The general points raised in this comment are covered in my book, “Good Food for Everyone Forever”.

    More specifically: it is a common and grievous mistake to suppose that there is no middle ground between corporate control and a Mao-style “command economy”. All British governments before Thatcher took it to be obvious that Britain should have a mixed economy. All Conservative governments (including those of Neville Chamberlain before WWII, and Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Heath after it) took it to be obvious that it was their task to control trade and private companies in the interests of people at large, and especially of their own electorate. By the same token, even the most radical of Labour politicians in the days when Labour was Labour took it to be obvious that free enterprise and some degree of private ownership were necessary and desirable. Nye Bevan, the most articulate of all the radicals, was explicit about this. He was certainly a socialist – but he was not an advocate of “command economy”. In his discussions with Kruschev they were very obviously on opposite sides, with contrasting philosophies. In fact, both of Britain’s major political parties in effect had a common sense, praqmatic approach to the economy (Wilson of course explicitly advocated “pragmatism”) — and it was this that Thatcher and Joseph et al abandoned in favour of neoliberal “free trade”. Thus, in effect, they handed over the people’s affairs, including agriculture, to the corporates (and for this they were roundly attacked both by MacMillan and Heath – as well as by the Labour government of the time). Good agricultural science and excellent technologies both traditional and “high” are necessary of course – and both flourished wonderfully before the Thatcher-inspired corporate takeover. I used to write a great deal about the research at the old Agricultural and Food Research Council centres, and very fine it was: much more broadly based than it is now, when the research centres are mostly financed by Monsanto et al; and it was truly intended to provide farmers with good techniques and people at large with good food.

    Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, May 16 2012

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