Lies, Misconceptions, and Global Agriculture

More or less everything that we are told about food and farming by the oligarchs who dominate our lives – the government, the corporates, big finance, and large but mercifully not all sections of academe — is untrue, or at least is seriously misleading.  This, says Colin Tudge, is why the world is in such a mess – and why we must take matters into our own hands.

To put the matter portentously, the misconceptions that underpin present-day agricultural strategy reflect the over-confident, ultra-“rational”, reductionist, materialist, positivist, imperialist mindset of the post-Enlightenment western world. The general, almost unquestioned assumption is that humanity’s task in life is to make ourselves more and more comfortable; that this this can be achieved only, or primarily, by producing more and more stuff, including food; that it is possible to go on producing more and more, even though the Earth is finite, because technology will always find a way; that, indeed, the pursuit of science will one day make us both omniscient and omnipotent, so we’ll soon understand everything and be able to control everything for our own purposes; that this – essentially western – way of thinking is superior to other ways of thinking (because those who think in the western way do become technically powerful and so are able to dominate the rest); and hence that the present world, led intellectually by the west, is on the right  lines (despite appearances) and we can safely put our trust in our present leaders.

All these beliefs must be re-examined – which of course is the point of this Campaign and of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture. Here, though, are six particular untruths that have come to dominate global agriculture and are leading the world hopelessly astray. They are:

(1): We must produce more and more food

In 2011 in a Foresight Report called The Future of Food and Farming the British government told us that we (humanity) need to produce 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising numbers and rising “demand” – especially for meat. Since then some politicians and others have raised the ante and suggested that we will need to double output by 2100. The emphasis, in short, must continue to be on production, production, and ever more production.

BUT: this simply isn’t true. According to Prof Hans Herren, President of the Millennium Institute, Washington DC, the world already produces enough food for 14 billion people. This is twice the present world population and, since the UN tells us that world numbers should level out around 2050 at about 10 billion, it is 40% more than we should ever need. The continued emphasis on production has nothing to do with real need, and everything to do with commerce.

Anyone who wants to can easily check these figures for themself.  Thus Google tells us that the world produces around 2.5 billion tonnes of cereal per year and since one tonne contains enough energy and protein for three people that’s enough macronutrient for 7.5 billion. But cereals account for only half our food – the other half comes from pulses, nuts, tubers, fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy, and fish. So the total is enough for 14 billion-plus.

At present, says the UN, a billion people still go hungry. But that has everything to do with economic and political inequality and general disruption (notably war) and nothing to do with total amount. In truth the emphasis must switch from production to sustainability and resilience, and to care of the biosphere, human and animal welfare, social justice, and general kindness. Industrial agriculture is anything but sustainable — it is a major cause of global warming and the prime cause of the mass extinction that now threatens 50% of the world’s species. It is certainly not kind, or just, and has little to do with human wellbeing. For while a billion go hungry a billion more suffer “diseases of excess”. Among other things, the world population of people with diet-related diabetes now exceeds the total population of the United States (by some margin).

(2): As people grow richer, they “demand” more meat.

This is obvious from the fact that as societies are “lifted out of poverty” meat consumption rises prodigiously. In particular the US became hooked on steaks and burgers after World War II and the economic depression that preceded it; and the Chinese, for centuries sustained on bowls of rice with bits and pieces of whatever else was available, are now “demanding” all the pork, beef, and chicken that they can produce themselves and the rest of world can supply them with. Beijing and other big Chinese cities bristle with burger joints. In Britain, successive secretaries of state have told farmers that they should strive to produce more and more pork and beef for export to China.

IN TRUTH: Nutritionists have been telling us for decades that we, human beings, don’t need a great deal of meat, and of course, many people live long and agreeable lives on a vegetarian or even a vegan diet. Most people it seems do like meat, but there is very little evidence for active “demand”. No-one to my knowledge has ever taken to the streets with placards demanding more meat, in the way that they have often demanded fairer wages or more jobs or rights for various minorities. The evidence, when looked at objectively, is that people eat what’s available and what – for whatever reason – is deemed “smart”, and fashionable. We need not assume that the observed correlation between rising wealth and meat consumption is any more than a tautology. Meat in general is expensive and as people grow richer they can eat more expensive things – not just meat but also chocolate and cream cakes and a better class of booze. People who are really rich don’t need to demonstrate their wealth by eating 32-ounce steaks, as are still available in Texas. California and Germany are the world’s epicentres of vegetarianism. More generally, all the world’s greatest cuisines from Italy to China via the Middle East and India make only sparing use of meat – as garnish, stock, and for occasional feasts. Thus a low-meat diet doesn’t mean austerity. We just need to re-learn how to cook.

The real reason for promoting meat so vigorously is not to meet the needs or satisfy the deepest desires of the human race. It is to dispose of arable surpluses. On industrial farms which western governments now put their weight and our money behind more and more livestock is raised largely or exclusively on cereal and soya (not least in what the Americans call “CAFOS” – “concentrated animal feeding operations”). The greatest problem for world agriculture is not to produce enough food (see point 1) but to avoid producing too much, for surpluses tend to be sold unprofitably or even at a loss. If agricultural output was truly geared to need – or indeed to true “demand” – then it would be all too easy to produce far more grain and other staples than the world really needs, as indeed we already do. Industrial farmers all too easily bump up against the “market ceiling” which of course restricts their profits. But animals can consume all the cereal (and soya) that arable farmers can produce – provided producers and processors can hype up the demand for meat. This they do; and a lot of academics are content to put their critical faculties on hold and help them to do this.

If even the livestock market is glutted (perhaps because farmers don’t have enough animals to gobble up all that’s going) then these days the surplus can be turned into alcohol and called “biofuel”, of which modern governments like those of Britain and the US make a virtue, and support with public money. That is, industrial farmers solve the problem of surplus cereal by burning it — profitably. This is economically ingenious, but it does humanity little or no good and does the biosphere a great deal of unnecessary harm.

(3): We need ever more productive crops and livestock

We are further assured that the huge increase in food that we allegedly need can be provided only by raising, yet further, the already prodigious output of our cereals and livestock, to be achieved by ever more intensive breeding and nutrition (as in CAFOs). Thus we need wheat that yields at least 10 tonnes per hectare on average, about three times the yield of 100 years ago (the British average is already eight tonnes per hectare). We need cattle that give at least 10,000 litres (2000 gallons) per lactation, which basically means per year – which many do already: about six times as much as a wild cow would produce for her calf, and three times more than would have satisfied most farmers of the early 20th century. Broiler chickens are already expected to reach supermarket weight at six weeks and we need to make them even faster, and/or bigger – and cheaper. Sows in Australia produce an average of 22.3 live piglets a year in two litters, while those in the USA now manage 27.8 — about four times the typical output of wild boars.

BUT: Given that we already produce twice as much food as we need, and we don’t really need a lot of animal protein, the rapid-growth chicken and the prodigiously fecund sow, are simply unnecessary. So too is the 2000-gallon-plus cow, which commonly suffers mightily from mastitis and lameness and is usually slaughtered after two or three lactations (traditional dairy cows commonly managed 10 or more). So too are 10-tonne per hectare cereals which in large part are grown to feed these beasts. Such crop yields year after year produced with the aid of artificial fertilizers rapidly exhaust the soil and destroy its structure so it’s now reckoned that many fields in East Anglia will not be farmable, at least for cereals, for more than another 30 years or so. Indeed, according to UN’s Global Land Output of September 2017 about a third of all the world’s agricultural soils are now seriously degraded, largely and to some extent entirely because of such intensive, industrial farming,

(4): Only high-tech can save us now

We are also given to understand that to go on feeding ourselves we need the highest of high tech.  Meat substitutes, made from soya or fungi are already commonplace but we could, we are told, by-pass the need to raise whole organisms and simply culture animal cells en masse in the laboratory. The food industry is working on it.

Above all, we are told, we need GMOs: “genetically modified organisms”, tailor-made by genetic engineering. GM soya, maize, and rape (what the Americans call “canola”) is already sweeping the world. GM crops are not yet grown commercially in Britain and mainland Europe but are freely imported from the US and elsewhere and the biotech lobby worldwide is tremendously strong and its arguments are seductive and many politicians are taken in by them. Especially amenable are those with no scientific background who want to appear avant garde: up to date, modern, “progressive”. Tony Blair, who read law at St John’s Oxford, was a positive GMO zealot and so too is Lord Dick Taverne who studied ancient history at Balliol and became a QC and founded “Sense about Science” in 2002. They, in common alas with most scientists, seem to know very little about the philosophy of science. They do not apparently realize that it has severe limitations, and does not and cannot lead us to omniscience, and that exciting ideas do not necessarily lead to good strategies. In truth it is very hard to find any clear examples of GM crops that have been of unequivocal benefit to humankind. Almost always they serve mainly or entirely to make rich people richer (the biotech companies and big industrial farmers) but they solve no problems that really need solving, and (despite denials) are causing enormous collateral damage.

But then, modern western agriculture is entirely profit-driven and it’s the rich who make the rules, so GMs are becoming de rigueur. Although there are plenty of protestors, Americans in general seem already to have accepted GM – mainly maize, soya, “canola”, and cotton – as the normal way of things.

We are told, of course, that GM crops can be and are bred specifically to be pest- and disease-resistant and so can out-yield conventional types without the protection of pesticides. But most popular are the GM crops that are herbicide resistant – enabling farmers to spray their fields not exactly with abandon but without too much restraint, to kill the weeds without killing the crops. The GM seeds and the herbicide are sold as a package. (See below, the article called “GMOs: Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward answers”. The piece is more than five years old – it was posted on 28/12/2012 – but the answers I and others were calling for are still not forthcoming).

IN FACT: Appropriate technology that truly makes life easier is certainly worthwhile, and some appropriate technology is indeed high-tech – like the mobile ‘phone or solar panels. But much of today’s agricultural high tech – including the much vaunted GMOs as outlined above – is not appropriate at all: not needed, and often very damaging. There is a huge and growing literature on this not only in polemical articles but in scientific journals (not all scientists are on the side of big business). This literature, though, in the most influential circles, is simply ignored: or else answered with statistical quibbling, mostly of the kind that could be applied to almost any scientific study, if anyone cared to do so. The quibbling does not answer the objections, but it can hold things up and wear the opposition down which is what it is intended for.

The biggest point perhaps is that big high-tech monocultural farms are not the most productive – certainly not over time. A growing literature shows that small mixed farms, well-managed, can be at least as productive in any one year as the big monocultures, and generally are more productive when measured over decades precisely because the mixture of crops and animals leads to resilience, so the mixed farms are better able to resist set-backs – droughts, late frosts, etc. Mixed crops and livestock also are far more resistant to disease, and simply don’t need mega-inputs of pesticides and antibiotics.

(5): Fewer workers means greater efficiency – and efficiency is all

Then, we’re told, we need to reduce the farm labour force worldwide to make it more “efficient”. Efficiency, after all, is measured in money: as output per worker. If the workforce is reduced and the remaining workers produce as much or more than before, then that must be efficient, mustn’t it? And efficiency is good, is it not?  The antithesis, after all, is inefficiency, which means waste – which is obviously bad, is it not? Who can doubt that?

Therefore, we are told – it has been official policy for at least 100 years – the whole world should strive to industrialize its farming. As far as possible we must replace farm labour (stroppy; inefficient; gets sick) with machines, industrial chemistry (fertilizers, antibiotics, insecticides, acaricides, nematicides, fungicides, herbicides), and of course biotech. Machines don’t deal easily with mixtures of crops and livestock and so farming must as far as possible be monocultural – just one crop, or beast, at a time. All should be increased to achieve economies of scale: combine harvesters as big as a small house; trucks the size of small war-ships; small fields merged into bigger and bigger fields and small farms merged into vast estates. So it is that there are farms in East Anglia of 1000 hectares-plus (more than 2500 acres) with just one full-time employee (though many rely on seasonal gangs of East European and Asian immigrants of conveniently dubious legal status, bussed in to do the fiddly bits). There are farms in the Ukraine bigger than Kent. This too is modernity.

Monocultural farms that produce vast quantities of just one thing at a time cannot of course feed local populations who do not live by chickens or maize or rapeseed alone. Instead they must treat all their crops and animals as commodities to be produced on the largest scale and sold into the global market where they are processed, packaged, and distributed by evermore labyrinthine routes (with plenty of scope for chicanery, profiteereing, and general malpractice) to the far corners of the Earth.

So it is, among other things, that according to the University of Reading, Britain’s farm labour force has dropped from around 700,000 in 1984 (when industrialization was already well advanced) to 526,000 in 2009 – 1.7% of the total workforce; and numbers continue to drop. In the 10 years between 2006 and 2016 the number of dairy farmers in Britain fell by 50% from 21,000 to 10,500 – and again, the decline continues. Worldwide, the UN tells us, one billion people now live in urban slums and it’s a fair bet that most of them are dispossessed farmers or their erstwhile dependents.

All this is necessary, we are told. It keeps costs down and people above all “demand” cheap food. Already in Britain one million people a year must resort to food banks and if we farmed any differently, the figure would be higher.

The continuing attack on farm labour has left Britain desperately short of skilled farmers and growers. We might conservatively suggest that we need at least a million more asap – a whole new generation. Urgent and radical land reform is needed too to provide them with farmland to work on.

IN REALITY: “Efficiency” is a horribly abused concept. Cash-efficiency depends entirely on economic context which in truth is highly contrived (although we are told that prices are determined by the dispassionate forces of the “free” market). Thus industrial farming is entirely dependent on oil and is cheaper than the traditional kind only because oil is still available, for the time being, and prices are regulated to make sure it is still affordable (just). Perhaps even more to the point: industrial farming seems cheap because the collateral damage is largely uncosted – including the cost of mass unemployment, in money (including Aid) and human misery, as the countryside worldwide is depopulated. The cost is not attributed to industrial farming. Neither is the cost in non-cash terms (or even in cash terms) of mass extinction. The collateral damage is written off as “externalities”. Nothing to do with me, Guv.

Neither, when you analyse it, is the industrially produced food sold in supermarkets anything like as cheap as it may seem to me; and neither can the cost be laid at the feet of the farmer. In truth with the industrialized food chain the farmer gets less than 20% of the retail price and his poor benighted employees who are regularly thrown out in the name of “efficiency” probably account for only 10% of the retail price (at most). The 80% that goes on big machines and fancy forecourts and packaging and razzmatazz and layers and layers of managers and shareholders and bankers who lend the money to make it all possible, is OK. It contributes to GDP even if it doesn’t contribute to human wellbeing and does enormous harm to the biosphere, and increased GDP means economic growth and what else matters?

(6): Organic farming is a middle-class indulgence — strictly niche. It cannot possibly feed the world.

As for organic farming – don’t be ridiculous! If all the world farmed organically food would cost a fortune and half the world would starve.  Either that or we would all have to be vegans, and austere vegans at that, living on fibrous bread and lentil soup. Sales of organic produce are going up in the UK but in 2016 sales of organic accounted for only 1.5% of the total spent on food and drink.  Organic is elitist; strictly for the well-heeled, elite middle class. To recommend it for the world at large is simply to be irresponsible. Only high-tech/ industrial farming can deliver, on the largest possible scale, driven by the competition of the neoliberal, global “free” market.

IN TRUTH: organic farming, so despised by the powers that be, dismissed as an elitist myth, ticks all the boxes that really matter. Well managed organic farms can be at least as productive as “conventional” farms that do use artificial fertilizers and pesticides and the rest. The produce is of course free of pesticide residues and generally is high in essential vitamins and minerals. Organic farms employ more people – which in this populous world should be seen as a good thing; and with appropriate technology, the jobs they provide can be highly agreeable, and sociable – the basis of truly fulfilling careers.

What’s to be done?

Though obviously based on untruth and misconception, these six points are a fair summary of official Defra policy and are what you will hear from most of the important-looking people who appear on public platforms and on TV to tell us what’s what. Whether the policy makers and those who inform public opinion are themselves ill-informed, or are deliberately concealing what they know to be the truth, I do not know. I suspect it is a mixture of both. Either way it is deeply reprehensible.

All in all is has long been obvious to me and a great many other people that the oligarchs who dominate our lives have lost the plot and, quite simply, are not on our side. Successive American and British governments in particular over the past 35 years have seen it as their role in life not directly to meet the needs of the people but to support the corporates (and banks) that are perceived to provide the wealth that is perceived to be vital for our wellbeing – the sine qua non. If and when there is any money left over we can spend some of it on the biosphere but we cannot afford to that until, well, we are richer than we are now (or indeed are ever likely to be). Agriculture is run on this assumption – perceived somewhat chillingly as “a business like any other”. In Britain, housing, education, transport, health, are all now subject to the same mentality. Enterprises that do not yield maximum measurable wealth in the shortest time – and concentrate that wealth so that it benefits those who do the measuring – are not considered “realistic”. Apparently it is more important to maximize wealth, expressed as “GDP”, than it to promote human wellbeing and to keep the biosphere in good heart.

Nothing matters more than agriculture and we simply can’t afford to leave it to the present oligarchy, driven as it is by this post-Enlightenment mindset. In Britain, this means that we can’t afford to leave agriculture to the Defra, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Indeed the word “agriculture” has been air-brushed out of the department’s title – I suspect in anticipation of a time when British agriculture itself will be air-brushed out, like coal-mining, because Brazil and Africa have more sunshine and cheaper labour and at least for the time being and can grow what we need more cheaply than we can grow it ourselves. Neither can we afford to leave agricultural science to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council – the title of which again makes no reference to agriculture, which is now officially conceived, apparently, as a branch of biotech.

We, people at large, Ordinary Joes, need to take matters into our own hands. I have summarized some of the things we need to do and can do (and here are there are already being done!) in Six Steps Back to the Land (Green Books 2016) To coordinate all our efforts we need a new, quasi-independent agency, or series of agencies to run food and farming – similar to the community-organized agencies that plan and run the dikes of Holland, without which the country would be submerged. The Dutch long since acknowledged that the dikes were too important to be run by governments, subject to political ambition and whim.  A quasi-independent organization is of course a quango, and quangos in Britain have an ambivalent reputation. The quango for food and farming that we need must be run, not as quangos often have been, by the great and the good and their spouses, but by people who really know what needs doing, which mainly means farmers, cooks, and conservationists, with input from scientists, sociologists, and people at large who give a damn.

Our Campaign for Real Farming and our College for Real Farming and Food Culture are intended to contribute not only to better food and farming but to grass-roots control. Six Steps Back to the Land discusses ways in which people who may have never thought much about farming can get involved, and communities can start to run things for themselves. A new book edited by Michel Pimbert of the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, called Food Sovereignty, Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity: Constructing and Contesting knowledge (Routledge, London, 2018), argues that people everywhere must get more involved not simply in on-the-ground farming but in shaping policy. The book is truly radical and right now, radical thinking is vital.

However, farmers can’t farm in the way the world really needs unless people at large buy their produce; sound farming depends on a sound food culture. People at large need to give a damn, and although we can’t all be farmers and don’t want to be, we can all take a serious interest in food. This means, as far as possible, buying only from growers and farmers who are doing the job in the right way. Vitally, too, we must re-learn out to cook. Governments that encouraged this really would be doing something useful.

It’s not quite too late to bring the world out of its tailspin but only we can do it. Governments and big industry and the world’s most powerful financiers are looking the other way.

February 19 2018

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