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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Tudge, December 12 2016.

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