Brexit, re-wilding, vegans, GMOs, and the meaning of “progress”: why we need to get back to basics


With Brexit looming and the world in general falling about our ears, farmers, governments, academics, people at large, and a fair sprinkling of journalists are asking, among other things:

In the light of recent reports not least re global warming — should we give up on livestock altogether and become vegan?

As Brexit looms — should Britain bother to farm at all or should we use our trading muscle and our imperial past to buy what we need as cheaply as possible from countries with more sunshine and cheaper labour?

Should we then “re-wild” – dedicate our erstwhile farmland to moose, wolves, and lynx?

Or should we just assume that ours is the superior species and that the rest are for our benefit, and simply get on and do whatever is expedient, or most profitable?

On a point of detail, should we embrace GMOs? More broadly, should the craft of farming give way to the precision of agricultural science? Isn’t that what progress means?

How we respond to these questions matters: our decisions at any one time affect all life forever after – most obviously if they lead us to wipe out entire species and hence to change the biosphere beyond recovery. But although the details change with circumstance people have been asking the same kind of questions for 200 years (free trade vs protectionism was the issue behind the Corn Laws and the Potato Famine) with roots that extend far deeper (Plato drew attention to environmental degradation) – and in all that time we don’t seem to have come up with any convincing answers. Le plus ca change, le plus c’est le meme chose, only more so.

To break the impasse, I suggest, we need to do as John Major advised, although he and his government never quite managed it: get back to basics.  Some people have told me that to dwell on basics – grand principles – is a waste of time, an exercize for idlers and wool-gatherers. We need instead, these hard-heads insist, to address all cases on their merits, making lists of pros and cons, and come to conclusions based on logic and facts. Well, we certainly need all the facts we can summon and think as clearly as possible and attend to the details wherein the Devil lies but if we just do that we’ll just finish up with an endless list of ad hoc recommendations with no coherence. Contrariwise, if we get the principles right – the basics —  then a lot of the answers to what seem like the knottiest of life’s problems become obvious, or at least we’ll be provided with a clear agenda.

So what are the “basics”? What can we say about life in general and farming in particular that is really true, that we can usefully act upon? Here is my own shortlist:

1: The point of farming is to provide good food for everyone, without wrecking the rest of the world

We need agriculture that provides good food for everyone, everywhere, and looks after the biosphere. Technically, this is eminently possible. Those who say it can’t be done – “utopian”, “unrealistic” — are either misinformed or else have a vested interest in the status quo, or indeed in obfuscation, To achieve the desired goal we need “Enlightened Agriculture” (aka Real Farming), rooted in the principles of Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Economic Democracy. What this entails is the subject of a huge and growing literature (and is the ongoing discussion in the College for Real Farming and Food Culture website).

In particular, although farms can properly be conceived as business enterprises, we cannot simply declare as became the fashion in the 1970s, that “farming is just a business like any other”. Still less should we re-conceive business as an all-out struggle to maximize and concentrate wealth as the modern neoliberals take it to be. Margaret Thatcher famously averred that “There is no alternative” to the neoliberal global market but there are — plenty – and they need to be explored and invoked.

2: We will not solve the world’s problems – or our own – if we are exclusively anthropocentric. We need a morality and a metaphysic that embraces all life.

There’s a terrible tendency to define morality exclusively in human terms – as if we are the only species that matters; as if we have the right (and the know-how) to manipulate and administer the world at large exclusively for our own convenience. If other creatures are good to eat – then it follows (doesn’t it?) that we should breed varieties that grow as fast as possible. If other creatures get in our way then we should wipe them out. “The world”, to misquote a somewhat infamous ditty that rose to prominence in the 1930s, “belongs to us”. Alas!, such anthropocentricity seems particularly strong in Christian countries where we’ve been told (in Genesis (1:26)) that God gave us “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”; and “dominion” has all too often been taken to mean carte blanche.

But this view of life is surely not what the authors of Genesis intended, and is foul, and must be proclaimed as such. It is also of course self-destructive, for if we destroy the biosphere then we will destroy ourselves, as many a society has demonstrated in the past and is happening now on the grand scale. We need, post-haste, and with all possible energy, to proclaim the alternative view, reflected not least in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism, and by all manner of pagans: that “All life is one” – and that we need truly to treat all other species as fellow creatures. In other words, we need to adopt a morality and a metaphysic that are biocentric (or ecocentric or gaiacentric).

The cause of wildlife conservation is dead in the water if our attitudes are purely anthropocentric. Concepts that now are seen to be avant garde and the answer to all our prayers, like “natural capital” and “ecosystem services” just will not do. They may be necessary for administrative purposes but they are not sufficient. If nature is not cherished for its own sake then, inexorably, it will be degraded, increment by increment. Very few if any “sustainable” technologies so far on the stocks or even envisaged are truly sustainable. Most at best just slow the decay. Excellent science and smarter technology are vital if we’re to stop the rot but what the world really needs is a change of mindset.

3: We cannot allow ourselves to be led by economics, or by science, or by the intellectuals who embrace these disciplines. In particular, neoliberal technophilia will not do.

John Maynard Keynes, one of the greatest economists of all, put economics in perspective. If and when we get ourselves straight, he said, “… the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs … and the arena of heart and head will be occupied where it belongs, or reoccupied by our real problems, the problems of life and human relations, of creation, and of behaviour and religion.”

But that is not what’s happening. Instead, economic theory dominates; and the most dominant form is the particularly crude form of capitalism known as “neoliberalism”, in which, among other things, the value of everything is judged more or less exclusively in terms of money. (I once took part in a debate on human cloning at the World Economic Forum in Davos where one neoliberal zealot argued that cloning should be encouraged because there is a “demand” for it and so it’s potentially big business). In this neoliberal world whatever is most profitable is likely to come about, however unjust it may seem and however horrendous the collateral damage — personal, social, political, ecological, moral. But because so many people in high places are wedded to economic theory (whether it’s neoliberalism or Marxism or some other ism), the collateral damage is taken to be inevitable, the way of the world, like natural law – and we cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs. (Warning: isms should not be mistaken for principles).

Science, too, is being horribly corrupted. Very few people take the philosophy of science seriously, so most people – including many or most scientists! – don’t really know what science is, and what it isn’t. Few recognize that although science is wonderful and vital it is also limited – for as Sir Peter Medawar observed, it is and can only ever be “the art of the soluble”. In general our attitude to science is ambivalent. On the one hand it’s treated in logical positivist mode as the only reliable source of knowledge — leading politicians to advocate “science-led policy”, at least when it suits them.   On the other hand, with corporates increasingly in charge of research, science to a large extent has become the handmaiden of big business.

Science and the “high” technologies it gives rise to are among the greatest achievements of humankind and should be among our greatest assets. Sound economic theory is needed at least to help us to keep our affairs in order. But as things are, the grisly, unthinking alliance of technophilia with neoliberal free market economics is, perhaps, the greatest threat of all to humanity and the biosphere, sweeping all before it like an epidemic, or a mudslide.  We need, as they say in Yorkshire, to think on.

4: We don’t need to give up meat. We simply need to re-learn how to cook.

Now to a particularity, but one with huge ramifications: moral, metaphysical, political, economic, ecological, practical. Should we give up eating meat? Should we become vegan?

On the moral front many say we must stop farming livestock because it is innately cruel. In metaphysical vein many point out that we simply have no right to subjugate other creatures for our own purposes. Indeed, as serious Muslims point out, rights in general is a very dubious concept, for, they say, life is a gift and good things come to us not through our innate entitlement but only by the grace of God. Those archetypal Christians, Augustine, Luther, and John Calvin, would surely have agreed. Some argue on ecological grounds that livestock are too profligate. At least as a broad rule of thumb we can argue that a field of wheat, say, provides about 10 times as much protein as the same area devoted to livestock; and as things are we feed at least half of all the world’s grain (and more than 90% of soya) to animals. So farming that emphasizes livestock takes up far more room than arable or horticulture would do – leaving less for other creatures. For good measure, livestock accounts for most of the fresh water used in farming; its effluent can be highly polluting (a million-head intensive piggery of the kind now found in the US produces as much ordure, or at least as much BOD, as London); and the methane exhaled by cattle is a potent greenhouse gas. All in all, some say, livestock farming is a disaster. Finally, many argue that meat is bad for us. In particular, saturated animal fat apparently predisposes to heart disease and various cancers.

Yet all these caveats can be answered. Farming is often cruel – but it needn’t be; certainly no more harsh than the wild. Indeed we have no right to subjugate animals but we do, we might argue, have some obligation to do so. At least, all mainstream religions argue that we should strive to stay alive (gratuitously to spurn God’s gift of life is a blasphemy) and although we can live on a vegan diet, humanity as a whole in general fares better and is safer with some meat (and fish and eggs) than with none at all. Beyond doubt, livestock farming can be horribly profligate (by 2050 if we persist with present methods our farm animals will be consuming enough grain and soya to sustain four billion people – roughly equal to the world population of the 1970s). But again, it needn’t be. Pigs and poultry were traditionally raised on surpluses and leftovers that would otherwise we wasted, with sheep and cattle (and camels and horses and rabbits etc) grazed and browsed on land too steep or high or cold or hot or wet or dry for easy or even sensible cultivation – and in such modes they add to our food supply. Indeed, farming that includes some livestock should be more productive overall per unit area than all-plant arable or horticulture, and so take up less space than would otherwise be necessary, and so leave more room for wildlife.

The real problem is not meat (or milk or eggs) per se, but a food industry rooted in neoliberalism that seeks above all to maximize profit, which it contrives to achieve primarily by maximizing output, which in turn requires the rest of us to maximize consumption. The food industry tells us that it seeks simply to satisfy public demand for meat; and, it argues sanctimoniously, the satisfaction of public demand is a fundamental requirement of democracy. But this is cant: tendentious nonsense. People clearly do like meat but in general we adapt to and grow to expect whatever is most available – and meat these days is super-available not because people need it or “demand” it but, primarily, because it is profitable, and sold and sold again with all possible vigour, with McDonald’s and KFCs in every high street from Beijing to Bulawayo (actually I don’t know about Bulawayo). In truth the so-called “demand” for meat is a retrospective measure of what people can be persuaded to buy.

Indeed, if it is truly our aim to provide ourselves with good food and look after the biosphere then we should raise at least some animals. But we should also of course ensure that we keep them kindly, and only in accord with the principles of agroecology – which in practice means they should eat only the things that we can’t, or strongly prefer not to, like grass, surpluses, and leftovers. This would produce

“plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”

— and this is exactly what’s needed.  For these nine words —

“plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”

— summarize beautifully the most plausible ideas that have emerged from nutritional science these past 50 years, and also capture, in outline, the basic structure of all the world’s greatest traditional cuisines: Turkish, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Italian, French, and much of those of Eastern and Northern Europe. For all the best traditional cooking is built around grains, pulses, tubers, and sometimes coconuts; all make free with whatever vegetables, fruit, and herbs are in season; all import spices from wherever they grow (the energy costs of transport are very low); and all use meat sparingly – as garnish, stock,  and in bulk only for occasional feasts. Traditional cooking and indeed the haute cuisine to which it gave rise do not require vast quantities of meat, as the modern industry and all its attendant scientists are geared up to provide. It requires small quantities of meat of the highest quality – as raised on hills and in meadows and savannahs and marshes and barnyards the world over.

Taken all in all, there is a perfect, virtually one-to-one correspondence between agroecological farming that respects the biosphere at large; sound nutrition; and great cooking. In other words, we don’t need the industrial food industry – any of it. We just need to promulgate the principles of agroecology and re-learn how to cook. Indeed, once we start to apply the fundamental principles of farming and cooking we see that most of the high-fallutin’ and earnest chat in high places that occupies governments and intellectuals is entirely superfluous, not to say spurious, and that taxing and austere extremes of diet, including veganism, are unnecessary.

However, again in pious vein, defenders of the status quo are wont to tell us that appeals to agroecology and wildlife-friendliness and even kindness to animals are self-indulgent, not to say elitist. In particular, they say, industrialized food production is necessary to keep the price of food down. But this is sanctimoniousness writ large; a sublime exercize in self-deception which, unfortunately, deceives others too. As follows:

5: We need cross-the-board land reform – and radical change in housing policy and planning laws.

Defenders of the status quo argue that without industrial farming we couldn’t produce enough food to feed everybody; that food would be too dear for poor people to buy, even in rich Britain; and that although we all love “the environment” we can’t allow touchy-feely appeals to the joys and intrinsic value of wildlife to interfere with the serious business of “feeding the world”. Politicians go along with this (some of them undoubtedly believe it) and there are academics a-plenty willing to provide supporting arguments (and even to demonstrate, for example, that climate change is just a blip, and even if it isn’t it’s none of our doing, and we’d best not to meddle, even though we need apparently to meddle with everything else).

But it is all the most terrible, pernicious nonsense.

First, the world doesn’t simply need more food: not the “50% more by 2050” demanded by a recent British government report. We already produce enough for 14 billion people, twice the present population and 40% more than are ever likely to occupy this planet at any one time, according to the UN demographers.

Secondly, if the world does need more food, is doesn’t primarily need industrialization. An estimated 70% of the world’s food is still produced by low-tech, small, traditional farmers who in general receive no support and commonly experience a great deal of hindrance from governments and big-time commerce. So industrialized farms in the forms now advocated produce only a third of the world’s food though they gobble up huge quantities of oil (the biggest share is for fertilizer) and the lion’s share of the world’s fresh water and are clearly unsustainable.

Thirdly, food in Britain accounts for only 10% of average expenditure and the main reason so many Brits can’t afford it (a million now resort to food banks) is that incomes are so unequal, so that 10% to the average earner would be 50% or more to the poorest, and too little to register in the household budget of the very rich (if they ate the kind of food that most people eat). Food prices are highly manipulated despite much talk of the “free market” and it is impossible to fix a sensible price when the richest are 1000 times richer than the poorest. Perhaps even more to the point: houses are now so dear that they gobble up a third or more of the average income, and on top of that there’s taxes, so again the notionally average 10% becomes nearer 30% of what most people actually have to spend. But houses don’t have to be so dear. They weren’t in the past. They are expensive for the same reason as diamonds; because it is more profitable to restrict the supply. Overall, the price of food has very little to do with the cost of producing it and everything to do with the structure of the economy as a whole.

However – fourthly – for social, economic, and social reasons we clearly need many more people on the land – an eightfold increase in Britain would probably be about right – but this cannot be achieved so long as farmland costs £25K a hectare or thereabouts. Massive reform is needed. Ideally, we would take all land out of the market altogether, in the manner advocated in particular by Henry George at the end of the 19th century. (George was hugely popular for a time and then forgotten). In practice, the nearest we can get to George’s ideal, probably, is through community ownership, where communities are defined geographically — by village or by neighbourhood — or by common interest as with the National Trust or the RSPB. Of course the issue is not simple. For instance, some private landowners including some of the remaining Feudal kind manage their land beautifully and benignly, inviting new farmers onto their land and offering security of tenure. So we can’t just assume that change is better. But whatever the particularities, we have to put a stop to land speculation, which means removing it from the market.

By the same token, we have to ensure that rents or mortgages cost 10% of income rather than 30%, as was the case 60 years ago. Then people will be free to spend a great deal more on good food, which would be good for everybody.  Among other things, the money would go to the people who do the work – the farmers and their workforce and not, as now, largely to bankers. Support for good, agroecological farming is win-win-win.

Finally, we need more sensible planning laws, or laws less rigidly applied, to ensure that the new farmers we need can live on the land that we need them to manage.

All this of course requires massive structural change which is economic and political in nature – not for the most part technical at all.

6: We need to re-think education

The standard academic disciplines from science and economics to moral philosophy and music and theology, and the world’s many crafts and trades, between them cover most of what we need to know to live well and harmoniously and to keep the biosphere in good heart. But – a huge but! – as things are they are usually taught in isolation, one from another: in silos, as the jargon has it. Scientists are given no proper insight into the philosophy of science, or moral philosophy, and are commonly told that religion is bunk instead of exploring the rich dialogue between religion and science that has taken place these past few thousand years; and economists learn that economics is a game of money with no worthwhile reference to moral principle; and so on. So the world is dominated by extreme specialists – some of them very clever but very few who can properly be called wise.

We need instead to teach everything in the light of everything else, “holistically” – which is the agenda of the College for Real Farming Food Culture.

Once everything is re-thought in the light of everything else; once farming is seen as an exercize in ecology, and linked to health and cooking, and economics is embedded in moral philosophy, and everything is traced as all subjects can be to their metaphysical roots; then a lot of the day-to-day problems that now seem so intractable simply disappear. The answers become obvious. Of course we don’t need to be vegans – but we don’t need CAFOs either! Of course we need to take care of skylarks and choughs, and mosses and solitary bees, without stopping to ask, “What do they do for us?” The principles of agroecology and of food sovereignty tell us that of course we need to become more self-reliant in food – as all  countries should – so as to make best use of land the world over, and to ensure that no one country ever becomes too reliant on another. Of course we need trade, and banking – but we should seem them only as devices, to help us to get organized and generally to keep track. They cannot be allowed to determine how we live, and how we treat the rest of the world.

Then, when the broad principles are in place and acted upon, we can get down seriously to the details.

Colin Tudge October 5 2017

4 thoughts on “Brexit, re-wilding, vegans, GMOs, and the meaning of “progress”: why we need to get back to basics

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this Colin – right on the money, one might say. Agree with every word. How do we go about bringing common sense back to our neo-liberal technocracy? The insanity of the Age of Reason, epitomised by logical positivism, is taking us down (or has taken us rather) an obviously disastrous route. But of course, it must be the correct route because it’s the logical one right?!

    Our ignorance of religion just means it plays an ever-increasing role in our lives, albeit from the shadows. The technocrats are the new high priests, except they’re naked beneath their white coats…

    What we must rebuild is an agrarian culture.

  2. Good article Colin. I do love an outline of the basics. I want to use my head, heart and hands to do good in the world and live a good life. I wanted to feel like what I do is important and that’s what lead me to farming (which I began doing 18 months ago).
    I decided I don’t have time to wait for the world to change, I have to work with what is. I can’t do much about education or land reform, but producing food, embracing life and cooking I can do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.