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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Tudge. October 30 2016

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