What the Oxford Real Farming Conference is really all about

The absolute importance of being radical

By Colin Tudge

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) has become more popular than anyone could reasonably have expected, or indeed hoped. Eight-hundred-and-fifty different delegates, about half of them farmers, came to this year’s version – the eighth — over two days in early January.

The ORFC is different from most other farming conferences. First, it has a very broad agenda. And secondly, it is radical — in the proper sense. Radicals don’t necessary wear torn jeans or cloaks with big black hats – some of them even wear suits with collars and ties. But “radical” means “root” and whatever radicals may look like and whatever they wear, they are united by a true desire to get to the roots of things. They seek to find the real reasons why the world is not as we would like it to be, and what we really need to do to put things right, and how we can go about it.

Our thinking must be broad because farming sits right at the heart of all the world’s affairs, human and otherwise. Like everything else, only more so, it affects everything else and is affected by everything else – and clearly, right now, in most countries worldwide and in the world as a whole, it leaves a great deal to be desired. In Britain, our soils are collapsing, at least a third of all wild species are in decline and many are disappearing, a million people at any one time must resort to food banks, and most farmers are poorly rewarded, seriously under siege and going out of business by the hour. Indeed, as Felicity Lawrence pointed out at the 2016 ORFC, British farming now depends to a large extent on labour gangs bussed in from the world’s most beleaguered countries and controlled by international crime. In the world as a whole a billion go hungry and half our fellow creatures are in imminent danger of extinction. It’s a horrendous litany of disaster wherever we look although it would be  technically easy (relatively speaking) to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has control over their own food supply and is well fed (to the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy).

But to put things right is not just a matter of husbandry. A mass transition into organic farming, as some are advocating, is necessary but not sufficient – and it cannot come about at all if we simply talk about organic farming. We must also explore the underlying economic structure which, at present, forces farmers down the industrial route, even though the industrial route can be so obviously destructive and can be so cruel and unjust. Then we must ask what kind of government is needed to install the necessary economy; and what kind of law is needed to help ensure that the right things are done (and does not, as is so often the case at present, encourage bad practice and prevent good things from happening); and what kind of science is really needed and who should control it; and what kind of moral principles we are seeking to uphold.

But to tackle any of these issues in ways that might actually bring about permanent and worthwhile change we need to probe as deeply as we can: never reaching a bedrock of truth and certainty, because there is no bedrock, but at least to provide an account that is “robust”, and stands up to scrutiny, and could, if its conclusions were applied, bring worthwhile change.

The economics of organic farming provide a key example. Of course it’s extremely hard to make a living as a working farmer these days whatever you do, and usually even harder to earn a decent crust if you stray ever so slightly from the tramlines laid down by government and big business; in particular, if you fail to focus all your efforts on short-term profit, with maximum production and minimum labour. So no farmer can be blamed, organic or otherwise, if he or she is content (more or less) to cling to whatever life-raft may come their way: an offer from Tesco, say, to stock some of their produce. Farmers have enough to think about without stopping to ask if Tesco is really a good thing.

Out of such expediency grows moral justification: that if Tesco starts to support local (organic) farmers and if this proves profitable then Tesco might perceive – for financial reasons alone – that they should change their whole ethos; and if the really powerful players in the commercial world did change their ethos, then perhaps the world’s problems would be solved. Macdonalds, bete noire of the green left, have smartened up their act considerably of late, with free-range chickens and saladings and all kinds of cheerful things. Other organic or otherwise out-of-the-mainstream farmers find niche markets, and heave a sigh of relief, and leave it at that, and who can blame them? Certainly not me, aloft in my cozy room-with-a-view.

So it is that many an advocate of organic farming feels that the principal task before us is to show “mainstream” (which in reality tends to mean industrial, high-input) farmers how they can make a living by being more eco-friendly – which, in the short term, can sometimes be achieved by selling to Tesco or establishing niche markets. Do that, they are wont to suggest, and the job is done.

Beyond doubt, this approach is worthwhile, and as things are, may often be necessary. The more farmers turn away from industrial inputs and adopt the methods of agroecology (with organic farming at its core), the stronger the agroecological lobby will become and the better it should be for the world.

Yet this is not enough. To persuade industrial, “mainstream” farmers to become organic – or, more to the point, to show that it is possible to make a living if they do so – is necessary, but taken alone will not do the trick. The tension will remain. Industrial farming goes hand in hand with an economy that is geared to short-term profit, achieved by competition on the global market, and if we probe beneath the surface (the odd shelf of organic produce in Tesco’s) we soon find that the perceived need to maximize short term profit is at odds with what should be the grand goal: to create systems of farming that can supply everyone in the country and in the world with good food, and to keep the biosphere in good heart, for many thousands of years to come. So however convenient and even agreeable it may seem in the short term to do a deal with the status quo, the present powers-that-be, we still need to ask what kind of marketing strategy, and what kind of economic structure, do we really need if we are to put farming, and the whole world, on to a secure basis? Almost certainly, the corporate-driven oligarchy we have now, won’t do. The point is not that the people who run Tesco or Macdonald or Cargill or any of the rest are nasty people (some are, but that’s true of all walks of life). In my experience, some of them are very nice. The point is rather that by getting involved in corporate farming the nice people have simply backed the wrong horse. But then, in the modern world, in which education too is mainstream, that simply means they have gone with the flow (and it’s very hard to do otherwise).

In short, although the desperate need in the immediate term must be to make a living in a harsh and largely hostile world; and although that in itself is exhausting; yet we must, if we really care about our children and grandchildren, and about the world as a whole, dig deeper, and ask what kind of economy we really need, and how we can bring it into being. That is what it really means to be radical.

So the task for people who really want to make the world a better place is twofold. First, obviously, they have to make a living. That is the sine qua non. If they don’t then they fall by wayside which is bad for them and their families – and also bad for the world because it means there is one less right-thinking person to show what ought to be done.

But secondly, and in the long term just as importantly, they must if they really care about the world, help to define and to create a different kind of economy, one that really could provide the basis for an agreeable and stable world: good jobs, reasonable incomes, good food, and a flourishing biosphere. The kind of approach that is already well-known seems well up to the task – an agriculture based primarily on small-to-medium-sized, low input (primarily organic), polycultural (mixed) farms that deliver mainly (though not necessarily exclusively) to markets that are as local as possible, all supported by government intervention of a sensible kind (the free market won’t do but neither will crude, one-size-fits-all subsidies). Some farmers and communities the world over are already showing that such systems can work and although some new thinking is always needed, the prime task right now seems to be to identify those who are doing good things, and emulate.

We must, if we really care about the future, apply the same kind of approach across the board: to governance, the law, science, and so on. This is what the ORFC aspires to do – and, as far as we are able, is indeed doing. We collaborate with some specialist groups who obviously know a thing or two but absolutely not will we allow any particular lobby to call the shots. Most don’t try, but some do, and need to be kept at arm’s length.  Our new College for Real Farming and Food Culture (http://collegeforrealfarming.org/) has the same broad agenda, but aspires to probe all the key questions at greater depth and length, in extended seminars throughout the year, carried out in partnership with academic and other institutions.

A great many people, including a great many farmers, some of them new to the game and some very well established, some in torn jeans and some in collars and ties, support our general approach. In the end, all big ideas – including or especially those of science and morality – end in unknowns; and so they find their denouement in the much-neglected, virtually abandoned discipline of metaphysics. We held a session at the 2017 ORFC on this very issue — “Farming and Metaphysics”, with a rabbi, a priest, and a sufi. It proved to be one of the most popular, a lock-out indeed. Very encouraging!

Colin Tudge, May 30 2017

Let’s start the world all over again

Colin’s first weekly blog about the College for Real Farming and Food Culture

It’s obvious from all that’s happening that the world has lost its bearings. Not only is it in perpetual conflict. It’s built on conflict. The prevailing, neoliberal economy is designed to be maximally competitive (give or take the odd cartel) and competitions produce many more losers than winners. The people in charge from Kim Jong-un to Donald Trump beggar belief while at home we have the sad distractions of Brexit and UKIP with Theresa May in the guise of Boudicca, and horrendous inequalities, and all public services on the brink, and a housing policy that’s designed to keep the prices high by limiting the supply (just as De Beer’s limits the supply of diamonds).

Worse-placed of all though – because so few seem to have noticed – is agriculture. There’s much talk of “progress” with huge machines and smart little robots and dazzling biotech, yet the whole sorry bandwagon is heading for the buffers, with farmers on their beam ends, soils rendered unfarmable, wildlife dying, and research in the hands of corporates, with busloads of itinerant workers of conveniently uncertain legal status to fill in the cracks. Plenty of farmers worldwide can see that things are dire and many are showing as far as circumstances allow how to do things better (a lot of whom attend the Oxford Real Farming Conference) while many more (also evident at the ORFC) are looking for the chance to get involved and do things differently; and we surely have the know-how to put things right, rooted in 40,000 years’ agricultural experience underpinned by science of the kind that can properly be called “appropriate”. But the science that prevails is of the gung-ho kind, plugged into a crude economy and overseen by opportunist governments obsessed by party politics, with a near-absence of common sense and common humanity.

We need nothing less than a Renaissance – a re-birth: metamorphosis. It won’t happen if we leave it to the powers-that-be for they are looking the wrong way. We – all of us – need to take matters into our own hands. Agriculture is the thing we absolutely must get right and although it is apparently the most disastrously placed and the most sewn-up of all human pursuits it is also the most susceptible to democratically-inspired transformation. The Grand Renaissance can begin with Agrarian Renaissance.

To help things along we’ve started The College for Real Farming and Food Culture. Please tune in to the website and join the conversation. I will remind you with (roughly) weekly blogs, of which this is the first.

Colin Tudge, May 6 2017

Farming is far too important to leave to governments

As we build towards yet another election Colin Tudge suggests that it’s time for a little honesty

I think I’d vote for any party in the coming election that took agriculture seriously – which unfortunately excludes all the major parties and, of course, UKIP. The Green Party has the most appropriate policies but it does not focus on farming as much as it should and must if it is truly to be green. Agriculture after all is right at the heart of all the world’s affairs, human and non-human, and if we don’t get it right then we, the world, have had our chips.

We could get it right. It would not be technically difficult (or certainly not beyond our wit) to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has good food, forever, and that the biosphere as a whole stays in good heart far into  the future  — all of which is what the much-worn term “sustainable” ought to mean. Yet in practice, Britain’s and the World’s agriculture is dire. It certainly does not provide everyone with good food and it is wrecking the world at large, possibly terminally. Furthermore, the neoliberal-industrial brand of farming that is now called “conventional” is rapidly making things worse. Governments like Britain’s and the rest of the EU spend millions (literally) of person-hours and billions of pounds and euros on agriculture and this looks serious enough, but they are not thinking along the right lines. The task they have set themselves is not to meet the real needs of human beings and our fellow creatures but to squeeze the square peg of agriculture – essentially a social and ecological exercise – into the round hole of neoliberal dogma, with as much high-tech as possible to make it look progressive (and also because high-tech is profitable). This is not what’s needed. As Barrack Obama said in a very similar context: “Guess what. It doesn’t work”. But it does keep well-paid people busy for years and years and years, and can do small wonders for GDP, which is the main thing, even if it puts millions more out of work, and makes a horrible mess.

Crucially, most of the people who have the most influence in agriculture don’t know anything about it, or about the biosphere at large (the living world), or they don’t care, or both. Britain’s governments take agriculture seriously only in times of crisis and for a few years afterwards until the memory fades – as they did briefly after the virtual siege of the Napoleonic wars and the two World Wars. Then they revert to “business as usual”, and in “normal” times agriculture in Britain is never designed primarily to provide good food for everyone or to ensure food security (which is not quite the same thing) or to look after farmers or (still less) the biosphere, but to placate whatever lobby happens to be dominant at the time. It used to be the Feudal aristocracy. Now it’s big business and international banking. On the whole the Feudal aristocracy were and are less destructive but neither they nor the corporates met or meets the real needs of humankind or of the biosphere. This was not and is not their agenda.

British governments have demonstrated their indifference to agriculture and their level of appreciation of it first by dropping the words “agriculture” or “farming” from the name of the department that runs it (the F in Defra means “food”; the A “affairs”) and from the body in charge of research (BBSRC? What’s that?); and secondly, by appointing secretaries of state who either are young Turks on the way up (David Miliband was in charge for about a year or so, just passing through) or, more usually, are a “safe pair of hands” (the code-name for “hack”). The latest incumbent, Angela Leadsom, has told spellbound audiences that we should use the lowlands for intensive farming and leave the uplands to the butterflies. Jolly bad luck on lowland butterflies (which is most of them) and indeed on upland farmers.

In passing too, in 1994 the incumbent government shut down the Agricultural and Food Research Council. AFRC had evolved over 150 years or so from John Bennet Lawes’ experiments with superphosphate at his Rothamsted estate in the 1830s, and by the late 20th century it was running about 30 publicly owned research stations all over Britain, with strong links overseas, on all aspects of farming, that truly and rightly were the envy of the world. But through the ’90s and beyond the stations were sold off or privatised. This surely was the greatest act of state-sponsored vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries, but in this urbanised society of ours, who noticed? (It’s a pity farming doesn’t have the same profile as the NHS, or even that of education. At least people at large know that these things matter.)

The fashion / dogma/ prevailing doctrine right now is that of Neoliberalism. The point is not that neoliberalism is “capitalist”. Capitalism in practice is a catch-all term for a whole range of financial mechanisms most of which can be used for good purposes – meaning socially and environmentally responsible – provided those mechanisms are guided by common sense and common morality (a feeling that compassion, justice, and the state of the biosphere actually matter). But neoliberalism as a matter of strategy! – rejects the constraints of common sense and common morality. The machinations of the “free” market – Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – are supposed to ensure that all will be well. The market is left to decide what is morally good: what people will pay for is deemed to be OK (barring child pornography. Even neolibs have kids, after all). But in truth as has been abundantly demonstrated these past 25 years the invisible hand does not work. The market in practice is not democratic and it does not and cannot deliver social justice.

Farming is now deemed to be “a business like any other” (a chill phrase that I first heard in the 1970s, even before the dead hand of neoliberalism came down on us) and “business” is now conceived not as the natural underpinning of a mixed economy in a democratic society but as an all-out, no-holds-barred competition to generate the greatest wealth (measured in money) in the shortest time. In practice of course the no-holds-barred market is not open to all but is dominated by the strongest players, who are the corporates, which are designed expressly for the fray, and are now so powerful that they can override governments (even those like Theresa May’s which promise to be “strong and stable”— meaning they can shove us around (though they can’t out-face the corporates) and will stick to their dogma come what might).

Maximally profitable farming – in the short term! – is not good farming. There is much talk of “sustainable intensification” and other such vacuous slogans from on high but so long as oil is affordable (which it always will be – just! — because the producers need to sell it) it is more profitable to replace people with machines, and good husbandry with industrial chemistry, and farm with minimum to zero labour on the largest possible scale (although sometimes gangs of serfs imported from afar are cheaper than chemistry). All this – despite GM and lightweight robots and other much-vaunted nonsenses – will at best be “sustainable” for the next 30 years or so (by which time the present crop of politicians and tycoons will be safely tucked up in their graves, or in the House of Lords).

As Snoopy would say, Eeeaaagh!

So what’s to be done? At the coming election I don’t know. Regrettably, the result does make a difference. Governments rarely do lasting good (women’s suffrage and the great health and education reforms after World War II are rare one-offs) but they can and often do wreck lives in the short term and do a great deal of lasting harm. But, as is generally the case these days, in England at least, the most attractive party or parties are the least likely to win.  The nasty ones are better organised.

In the longer term, though, if we really care about the future – if indeed we want to enjoy a long-term future at all – then we have to start again from first principles.

To begin with, we must, as a nation and a world, start again to take agriculture seriously. We can’t just throw it to the wolves of the global money market – or seek to curb the worst excesses of the market with one-size-fits-all subsidies. Our lives depend on agriculture and agriculture more than anything else determines whether other creatures can live at all. The mechanisms and pressures of the “free” market are far too crude to attend to all its subtleties, and the goals of the market, its raison d’etre, are quite distinct from what should be the true goals of agriculture. In absolute contrast to what is now perceived as the norm we need “Enlightened Agriculture”, sometimes abbreviated to “Real Farming” – farming that is designed expressly to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest of the world, and without injustice or cruelty. This ought to be eminently possible. The three essential principles of Enlightened Agriculture are Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Economic Democracy, all of which have been well demonstrated and shown to work. Enlightened Agriculture with all that it entails needs to become the global norm. Agriculture needs to be transformed – metamorphosis. We need nothing less than an Agrarian Renaissance: “re-birth”.

But we cannot bring about the Agrarian Renaissance ad hoc. Agriculture affects everything else that we do, and is affected by everything else, and to bring about the necessary transformation we need to re-think everything from first principles. We need an economy that is not simply intended to maximise short-term wealth, and to transfer wealth and power from the many to the few, but to serve all humanity (it can be done). We need to re-think politics, so that we don’t simply elect short-termists, promising endless material growth and rattling sabres at the world at large. We need perhaps above all to make democracy work (it’s the worse form of government, said Winston Churchill, “apart from all the others”). We need to re-think science – who controls it, and for whose benefit; and, much more than that, we need to ask seriously what science really is, and what it can do and what it can’t – the much neglected discipline of the philosophy of science. Science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements and ought to be among our greatest assets but as things are it is, in some of its manifestations, among our greatest threats. We need to re-think our moral principles – what do we really think is good, and why? And finally, we need to acknowledge, as has not to my knowledge been acknowledged for some centuries, that all the most interesting ideas, including or especially those of science and morality, are rooted in unknowns and unknowables, which can be sensibly discussed only in the context of metaphysics. Metaphysics needs to be disinterred, dusted down, and placed centre-stage. The point of The College for Real Farming and Food Culture is to do the necessary re-thinking, or at least to set the balls rolling.

But at the same time as the great re-think we need to start doing: setting up the kinds of farms and markets and other enterprises of the kind we really do want, which really could help to bring about the Agrarian Renaissance. Many such initiatives are already in train, though the cards are stacked against them. Our own Funding Enlightened Agriculture initiative (FEA) is helping things along, and so too are various excellent groups at home and abroad.

Above all, since the present government does not take agriculture seriously, and no government of any party has taken it seriously since post-war years, if we seriously want farming that does the job that’s needed then we, people at large, need to take matters into our own hands. In the immediate term, farmers and their surrounding communities need to work together to push things in the right direction. In the longer term – though as quickly as possible – we need to rescue agriculture from government. It needs its own agency, run by people who understand it and care about it, and care about humanity and the biosphere at large, and are also answerable to people at large; an organisation with power that is also democratic and, perhaps above all, competent. The BBC was run like this in its early days – not perfect, but admirable nonetheless. I am told the Dutch dikes also have their own agency, with the power to do what needs doing, because if they did not they would drown. Some things are just too important to leave to governments and farming, beyond doubt, is one of them.

Addendum

I coined the term “Enlightened Agriculture” in 2003 in a book called So Shall We Reap. At a meeting in 2008 with friends and my wife, Ruth (West) we decided that “Real Farming” would be catchier and so (with a generous grant from one of the assembled company) we set up “The Campaign for Real Farming”, including this website. At about that time too Graham Harvey suggested that the world needed an antidote to the establishment’s Oxford Farming Conference and so he, Ruth and I set up the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2010 (which is still going from strength to strength). Then Ruth and I felt we should establish a fund to help new enterprises of an enlightened kind, and so we started Funding Enlightened Agriculture, FEA. Then we gathered all these threads – the Campaign, ORFC, and FEA – together under the umbrella of a new charity, the Real Farming Trust, which has built up a truly outstanding board of trustees. Finally, out of all this came our College for Real Farming and Food Culture, designed formally to access and to carry out all the necessary thinking that governments and the NFU, the BBSRC, and most of academe are singularly failing to do. The College website is still building but it is well in train. The College is also building a programme of seminars – the next of which are in September and October of this year (more news to follow). In the fullness of time the College may have its own premises with an experimental farm attached. We’re working on it. Thus the Agrarian Renaissance might come about through a kind of co-evolution: the necessary thinking and the new enlightened enterprises developing in synergy.

Colin Tudge April 30 2017

Can Britain ever again be fit for farming?

Colin Tudge fears that Brexit could mean the end for agriculture that truly aspires to produce good food for everyone

Our excellent friend Nick Snelgar who writes regularly on these pages is among the relatively few who has shown that small farming really can work – and in particular, that there is an important place even in obsessively industrialized Britain for small dairy farms, aka micro-dairies. Over the past six years, with innovation, enormously hard work, some privation, and at huge financial risk, he has built up a herd of twenty cows near the village of Martin in Hampshire and – even more importantly – has established a plant to process milk from like-minded farms nearby. On the back of all this he has built up a more than viable business, supplying a regular beat of local shops with fresh milk from local pasture-fed cows of known provenance, very much appreciated by the villagers. He has had a timber house built on his own land for him and his wife and visiting family which, the planners said, had to be sawn in half (lengthwise) so the two halves could if required be stashed on a lorry and towed away. This was duly done.

Now Nick and his wife are being booted out. Neighbours have complained. They have fled to their country idylls but don’t, apparently, like the sounds or the smells of the countryside, and some of them don’t approve of livestock farming in any form. Nick appealed against the eviction but the appeal has now been turned down.

I was born in England – in South London, for what the information is worth, though with strong connections with Lancashire (through my father). I have been lucky enough to spend time in lots of wonderful places worldwide but England is home, where I feel I belong (in Oxfordshire now). I fear, though, that England in particular, among the countries of the British Isles, has become vile.  Neoliberalism has ruled these past 35 years and short term wealth is now the measure by which all things are judged. Justice is in serious danger since the country is dominated by whoever is richest and everything – including the countryside, and indeed all land, including the finer parts of London – is up for sale to the highest bidder, whomsoever they may, howsoever they came by their wealth (despots and oligarchs – bring ‘em on!).  I fear, too, that in these post-Brexit days, things are bound to get worse. We do in theory have a chance to re-group, to re-think our values, and to re-design England and indeed Britain for the benefit of people at large and of the biosphere. But we won’t.  We will be thrown with ever-rising desperation into ever-more speculative trade-deals, clinging to whatever economic lifelines are thrown our way, taking whatever we can from those who are even more desperate and can offer no resistance.

Every well informed person in the highest places, including various branches of the UN, and organizations like the Millennium Institute in Washington, now agrees that the world is best served by small farms of many kinds, with low inputs (minimum fossil fuels and their derivatives), and managed along organic lines with plenty of TLC (needing plenty of skill). Such farms can be more productive per unit area than the high-input industrial kind; they are more people-friendly (plenty of jobs, higher quality food); and are more wildlife friendly (and far more sustainable!) than the industrial kind. But such is the mind-set of those in power – neoliberal; urbanized – that all this is ignored. High-tech and industrialization are equated with “progress” and everyone knows that progress is good. Ergo, traditional practice must be an anachronism — an elitist, woolly-minded exercise in nostalgia. This – the unquestioned virtue and need for unfettered markets and high tech – is the modern mythology; and all societies, through all of human history, including those that have claimed to be “rational”, have lived primarily by their mythology.

It is part of the modern myth that our decisions are “evidence-based” – but evidence does not mean “fact”. Evidence in reality means facts that people with most influence choose to take seriously. The fact that small farms demonstrably work when they are not actively done down (they feed 70 per cent of the world’s people, even though they are actively done down) is ignored, or suppressed by those with influence. The non-fact – the lie, indeed – that high-tech industrial agriculture is needed to “feed the world” and that it can do so sustainably, is convenient to those with most influence, and so, in most “modern” countries, it is the basis of farming strategy. The “evidence” that supports the prevailing myth is copious but highly selective. The evidence that small, low-input farms are better, when well-managed, is left on one side or, when it does surface, is routinely derided. Smart, urbanized people, though they may live in the countryside and keep Labradors and make sloe gin, go along with the myth. The mythology is seen to be “responsible” even though it threatens to kill us all. And besides, smart modern people don’t like the sounds and smells of cattle (any more than the smart, refined people of the 18th century liked the view of mountains).

Nick may be seen just as one small farmer among – literally – hundreds of millions, worldwide, swept aside by the relentless march of modernity which, although it may not be picturesque, is taken to represent the only possible future for humanity. Or he may be seen as the victim, yet another, of a myth that suits a few people and others are prepared to go along with. Yet, if there is anyone around in the future to write the history of humankind, this myth will surely be seen as the greatest of all our follies. Humanity and indeed the living world as a whole are being sacrificed because of a few daft ideas – dogmas, algorithms — which some find convenient, and people who really should know better, including some who are called intellectuals, rush to support.

In practice, neoliberal-industrial farming – huge, high-input, high-tech, minimum-to-zero labour monocultural estates, dotted with pony-paddocks and helicopter pads – is the precise opposite of what humanity and the biosphere really need; yet this is what receives government support, meaning it is paid for by us, with the backing of the NFU and of course of industry and industry-dependent  academe. Meanwhile the kind of farms we really need, like Nick’s, are swept aside with equal zeal and somewhat sickening self-righteousness. So it is that in Britain and much or most of the world these days it is relatively easy to make a fat living by doing things that are obviously destructive; and very hard, going on impossible, to make a living by doing good, whether you’re a farmer or a nurse or a teacher or a social worker or what you will. All this sounds like a recipe for a seriously dysfunctional world, which indeed is what we have got.

Truly, we need a Renaissance. Certainly we need to do all that’s possible to defend individual small farmers and others like them. But even more to the point, we need as a matter of urgency to re-think everything that we do and take for granted. Nick in truth is the victim of a world that is seriously off-course.

I and others are now trying to do kick off the Renaissance through the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, which has sprung out of the Campaign for Real Farming and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. Please do take a peek at progress so far

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.

The NFU, glyphosate, and statistics

The NFU is telling its members that the herbicide glyphosate is “vital”, and that all protests are fatuous. But, says Colin Tudge, the NFU’s thinking is highly suspect.

In the December edition of its own British Farmer and Grower the NFU is urging its readers to lobby their MPs and MEPs to ensure the long-term future of glyphosate, the central ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Round-Up. In June 2016 the EU extended the license to market glyphosate for another 18 months, which means it’s up for review by the end of 2017 – when, theoretically, the European Chemical Agency by could ban it. But, says the NFU’s senior health plant health adviser Emma Hamer, glyphosate is “a vital tool for weed control” which allows “a number of conservation tillage techniques such as min-till”. The anti-glyphosate lobby argues among other things that glyphosate is carcinogenic but such “scare stories promoted by NGOs have no factual basis”.

Many farmers and growers have indeed found Round-Up to be useful in all kinds of situations although it always dangerous to argue as Ms Hamer does that there is “no factual basis” for alarm. Such claims have been made in medicine as well as agriculture and all too often have proved hubristic.

More to the point, the statistics that the NFU offers in support of glyphosate are deeply suspect – and if these are the best it can do, then we must at least declare their case “not proven”.

So they tell us that min or zero tillage, made possible with glyphosate, increases the earthworm population by 53%. To control weeds by cultivation rather than with herbicide would require 49% more labour. Its use “allows 15% more rapeseed and 17% more wheat to be produced”. Losing glyphosate would mean we would need 546,000 ha more land to produce the same amount of food – which is 3.4 times bigger than London. If weeds were controlled mechanically then greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the production of arable crops would increase by 25%. This would include 12 million tonnes of extra CO2 per year – the equivalent of 2.5 million cars.  QED, the busy reader might conclude.

But what’s lacking in all such polemics is context. Increase in earthworms and reduction in CO2 – compared with what? No-one over the age of 40 or so can doubt that there were far more earthworms in the past, well before glyphosate came on the scene. It surely isn’t a lack of glyphosate that’s killed them off but the rise and rise of industrial agriculture in general – including the over-use of fertilizers and the decline of rotations which has (demonstrably) reduced the soil organic content and so robbed worms of their food supply. What, in short, is the baseline, from which the hypothetical 53% increase is judged?

Twenty-five per cent less GHGs with glyphosate – but again, compared to what? Glyphosate may well improve on the hyper-industrialized status quo which depends on machines and agrochemicals which all depend on oil, which eventually, by one route or another, is reduced to GHGs. But well-managed low-input farming, exemplified by organic farming, already produces far less GHG than the industrial kind. Does industrial-plus-glyphosate farming improve on that?

More broadly, to what extent do modern high technologies of all kinds – including glyphosate – serve primarily to make good the damage done by earlier technologies that in their day were introduced with similar hype and razzmatazz?

Increase in labour of 49% – but is that necessarily a bad thing? More and more evidence shows that small mixed farms which perforce are skills-intensive can be far more productive per hectare than the vast monocultures of industrial farming, which in the interests of centralizing profit veer towards zero-labour (with ultra-cheap immigrant labour in the interim). Even more to the point, as more and more people in all areas worldwide are displaced by high tech, unemployment and all the misery and discontent that go with it have become prime concerns for all humankind. Farming worldwide is still the biggest employer so far, offering billons of real jobs (as opposed to car-cleaning and call-centres). Even if – and it’s a big “if” — the industrial kind is “efficient” in financial terms, it is also, beyond all doubt, a social disaster.

To make a sensible judgment on glyphosate, or on agrichemicals in general, or on any aspect of agriculture, requires broad and integrated, “holistic” thinking, taking everything into account; with a proper sense of history and indeed of science, and an educated feel for what “evidence” really means. That is not what we get from the NFU or, in general, from Defra.

You will certainly find such thinking at next year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference to be held in Oxford Town Hall on January 4th and 5th (and throughout the year on the website of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture). For the antidote to the shoot-from-the-hip stereotyped polemic that rains down on us from high, the ORFC and the CRFFC are the best places to be.

Colin Tudge, December 4, 2016.

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

Invitation to join Colin for a weekend seminar in Scotland

The seminar will be held from Friday September 30 – Sunday October 2 at the Chisholme Institute near Hawick in Scotland.  Details can be found here

A weekend that promises rewards for the body and the mind: fine food, walks around a beautiful estate and plenty of stimulation for the mind. But the greater purpose is to take a real step toward a happier future.

Each day will combine lectures by Colin Tudge with presentations from the Chisholme staff. There will be plenty of time given for discussions both in the meeting room as well as outside it, for example while enjoying the good food for which Chisholme is noted.

Cost:  £130

A 17-Point Plan for Post Brexit Farming

Colin Tudge proposes a strategy to rescue Britain’s (and the world’s) agriculture when we leave the EU (or even if we don’t)

Leaving the EU gives Britain the opportunity to put its agriculture on a sound footing: to create a strategy that acknowledges the physical and ecological limits of the world, matches our real needs, and is morally acceptable.

Such a strategy would be opposite in almost every respect from what we have now. Thus:

1: We need to recognize that the prime function of farming is to provide sufficient quantities of good food and to keep the biosphere (“the environment”) in good heart.

Farming that is designed expressly to provide everyone with good food without wrecking the rest has been called Enlightened Agriculture (EA), aka Real Farming”. The three essential principles of EA are those of agroecology, food sovereignty, and economic democracy.

2: Agriculture should be run on business lines but must be conceived primarily as a service. In short: individual farms and farming as a whole should be conceived as social enterprises within a mixed economy (see also point 13).

Farming should not simply be conceived as “a business like any other”, and designed primarily or simply to contribute maximally to GDP.

3: Clearly farming must be productive (70 million-plus Brits: 9 billion-plus overall) but we must recognize the principle of enough’s enough.

Agriculture at present is intended to produce as much as possible of everything (or at least, of the things that are most profitable) with reasons invented post hoc for doing so. In truth the world as a whole already produces more food than we will ever need and the priority must be to improve food quality and make farming as a whole more humane, more wildlife-friendly, and more socially benign.

4: Britain and almost all countries in the world need to pursue a strategy of self-reliance and fair trade. Britain could easily produce enough temperate crops and livestock to provide us all with an excellent diet, both nutritionally and gastronomically, and then use trade to provide what we can’t sensibly grow, like coffee; as an insurance against short-fall; to keep trade-routes open for diplomatic purposes; and for some export. But trade should always be seen as a back-up. Self-reliance should be the aim.

This is in sharp contrast to the strategy of successive governments these past few decades, who have followed the early 19th century economic theory of David Ricardo: to treat all produce as commodities, for export; focus on what we grow best, which represents our “comparative advantage”; and import what we really need at the cheapest possible price. This is a politically precarious policy and leads us towards high-input monocultures which are ecologically disastrous. The exhortations of the present and previous Secretaries of State to raise more beef and pigs for export to the Chinese, and dried milk for India, and to promote biotech for export, are about as far from being sensible as can be conceived.

5: The method of Enlightened Agriculture is that of agroecology: all farms treated as ecosystems (“closed ecosystems with leaky borders” as Devonshire farmer Rebecca Hosking puts it) and agriculture as a whole designed as far as possible to make a positive contribution to the biosphere (whereas, at present, it is a prime cause of mass extinction and a major contributor to global warming).

The essence of agroecology is to emulate nature (or at least to emulate those qualities that have enabled natural ecosystems to endure without interruption for the past four billion years, even though conditions on Earth have fluctuated spectacularly).

In particular this implies that farming – like most of nature most of the time – should be:

5a: Low input which in practice means as organic as possible

5b: Diverse. Farms should ideally be mixed, and individual populations of livestock and crops should be genetically diverse. The trend towards monoculture must be reversed. Some crops, such as varieties of apples, or potatoes, are natural clones but otherwise cloning should be for research purposes only. Cloning of livestock for commercial purposes is a misuse of science.

5c: Integrated. A mixed farm should not be conceived as a menagerie or as a botanic garden. The different species and classes should work together synergistically – as in mixed cropping and rotations.

5d: There should be special emphasis on Agroforestry. Britain needs more trees for all kinds of reasons (not least to ameliorate drought and flood); and agroforestry in its various forms is the ultimate exercize in diversity and agroecology. There should be no overall loss of value or yield. An area of crops and trees together can be more valuable than the same area would be if devoted to crops or trees alone (the principle of land-equivalent ratio).

5e: Methods to restore soil structure and fertility must be pursued with all possible vigour, with particular emphasis on soil carbon and the microbiota. Again this flies absolutely in the face of the all-out industrial strategies of the past half century (and more).

Farming organized along agroecological lines has obvious political/ economic/ social implications which lead us to the following:

6: Enlightened Agriculture based on agroecology is complex – in principle, the more complex the better. Therefore it must be skills-intensive. Since Britain’s farmers are ageing and the overall farm force is dwindling we need a concerted strategy to train and recruit a new generation of farmers: perhaps eight times as many as we have now; perhaps a million more to begin with. Farming should again be seen as a normal pursuit, a truly satisfying profession, on a par with medicine or teaching, which anyone with an aptitude, whether country or city-based,  ought to feel able to contemplate. (We need far more flow of a positive kind between town and country. The present urban dominance with the countryside treated as a dormitory will not do).

Britain should welcome the immigrant workers on which our farming now relies, but we surely must take immediate steps to put a stop to what in effect has become slave labour. Rather, skilled immigrants could and probably should become bona fide members of the new farming generation.

7: Enterprises that are complex and skills-intensive do not in general benefit from scale-up, so farms in general – the default size – should be small to medium-sized. Such enterprises do, however, lend themselves very well to various forms of cooperation so we should encourage cooperatives.

8: The new generation of farmers and their families will need somewhere to live so we must re-think planning laws to allow them to build reasonable dwellings on their land.

This in turn requires a re-think of conservation policy: seeking ways not simply to conserve wilderness but to integrate the needs of farming, wildlife, and human living.

In the long term we need to think about serious land reform but for the time being we should seek to create tenancy agreements that offer both farmers and landowners a fair deal, within the overall strategy of self-reliance and agroecology.

9: A return to small-mixed farms with plenty of farmers does not imply a return to the pre-industrial days when men, women, and children did the work of tractors. We also need to develop technologies, both “high” (science-based) and “low” (craft-based), appropriate to small complex farms.

10: Small mixed farms are best suited to local markets so we need to encourage the re-creation of local delivery and marketing. Also, however, the idea that small farms cannot serve the needs of big cities (the common excuse for developing large-scale industrial monocultures) is false. We need also to provide systems that will enable small-scale farmers to serve the needs of big cities.

11: However, all these ideas are dead in the water unless people give a damn. We need to re-build true food culture so that people are no longer fixated on convenience and price, but also care about quality and provenance. This requires serious education in growing and cooking at school level, and support for small restaurants and related initiatives that focus on local growing and cuisine.

(It is perceived to be socially responsible to reduce food prices but in truth the cheapness is more apparent than real; and the reason that many people cannot afford good food is that the price of houses has been artificially inflated, and because of huge and growing inequality of income. These issues need to be addressed separately)

Overall:

12: Agriculture cannot be left to the free market! The governments of Britain, Europe, and the US must abandon the fiction that it can. No market outside the domain of gangsters can be entirely free, and agriculture in particular needs protecting at various turns not least to ameliorate the ups and downs of weather. But present interventions by the governments of the EU and the US, in their attempt to be minimalist, have been reduced to crude subsidies which, as played out in Britain,  serve mainly to reward the rich while abandoning the small farmers who in truth are what the world needs.

Therefore, governments must bite the bullet: accept that they have to take control of agriculture just as they must take control of defence; and re-explore the gamut of interventions that were in place until the 1970s – grants, quotas, intervention buying, guaranteed prices, tariffs, and all the restThe incentives should be directed in particular at the farms (and subsidiary services) that contribute to the cause of Enlightened Agriculture (and not, as now, doled out according to land area).

13: We also need a quite different attitude to the biosphere and a different approach to wildlife conservation. At present wildlife and its habitats are still seen as a luxury, an add-on, to be attended to when we are rich enough; or as the source of “ecosystem services” which are expected to pay their way, like any commercial business. We need instead to see ourselves as part of the biosphere. Our connections to it are ecological, psychological, and spiritual.

14: Governments of all parties over the past 40 years (at least) have demonstrated that agriculture is far too important to be left in their hands. We need to establish a semi-independent, non-governmental specialist agency to look after food and farming, comparable with the agency that looks after the Dutch dikes.

15: We need to take all possible steps to restore the erstwhile Agricultural and Food Research Council and the network of Experimental Husbandry Farms. Their systematic destruction and sell-off since the 1980s may properly be seen as state-sponsored vandalism comparable with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s and ‘40s.

16: Not only do we need a great deal more education and training in farming and its ancillary industries, we also need a very different kind of agricultural education: one that looks beyond the details of husbandry (and in particular of industrialized husbandry) to encompass the broad ecological, political, social, moral, and spiritual dimensions (as currently demonstrated by the College for Real Farming and Food Culture).

17: Overall we need to develop the tripartite mixed economy – combining government, community, and private ownership, with accent on community. Specifically, ideally, we would establish a network of community banking, and all land would be community owned and held in trust: leased to private or community enterprises and then returned.

Some of the above proposals could be put in place immediately on an ad hoc basis while others that are more far-reaching and long-term should at least be initiated. The whole 17-point proposal adds up to a “paradigm shift”; what has been called the Agrarian Renaissance.

Nothing less will do.

Colin Tudge, August 20 2016

Please note: from now on, Colin’s Corner pieces will also be posted on the College for Real Farming website. In the fullness of time the Campaign for Real Farming website – this one – will take on a slightly different role (but Rome wasn’t built in a day).

How much should food cost?

Colin Tudge suggests that it’s impossible to decide on a price for food that is sensible and just, as long as incomes remain so unequal and governments are in thrall to the market

Nothing illustrates the weirdness, injustice, and unpleasantness of the present economy more clearly than the misdirected attempts of government to reduce the price of food – and the apparent acquiescence in this of all in power, including the NFU. All seem to accept that to reduce food prices is good and necessary, and that it represents “progress”. Certainly it is necessary to ensure that everyone can afford good food but this does not necessarily mean that we should seek to make it cheaper, and if we really do need to make it cheaper then, right now, our leaders are going the wrong way about it. Cool analysis and possibly radical action are needed and what we have instead, I am inclined to say “as always”, is a knee-jerk response to the problems created by the status quo.

For starters, governments (and industry and the NFU and the various scientists and other intellectuals who travel in their wake) are obsessed with “efficiency” – which, like everything else in the present world, is measured entirely in terms of money. On many farms worldwide the biggest single expenditure is on labour so the mantra has it that above all, the efficiency of labour must be increased. This is achieved by sacking people, and getting more work out of those that are left. Workers are replaced by bigger and smarter machines and by industrial chemistry — but also, as the numbers of unemployed increases and they become more desperate, more and more are re-employed for less money, in casual gangs. That must bring the price of food down, mustn’t it?

Yet all is not so simple. Many a statistic shows that of all the money spent on food in British supermarkets, only about 20% goes to the farmer. Eighty per cent finances the rest of the food chain. This means that even if a farmer spends half the farm income on labour, only 10% of the entire food bill goes to the workers. Yet the makers of agricultural policy (government, industry, the NFU, and their attendant intellectuals) focus on the 10%, and seem to accept the 80% as a given.

It is obvious, too, as Ed Hamer has analysed in The Land, that with other systems of retail the farmer could receive from 35% to well-nigh 100% of the retail price – a huge increase in income without increasing output. Yet the policy-makers continue to insist that farmers can increase their income only by increasing production, and most farmers seem to accept this. Curiouser and curiouser.

As Simon Fairlie recently pointed out too in The Land (everyone should read The Land) the average Brit in the 1950s (my parents’ generation) spent about 30% of their income on food, and just 11% on housing (rent or mortgage). Now it’s the other way around: 11% on food and 30% on housing. The difference is that much of the 30% spent on food in the ‘50s went to farmers and their workers who actually produce things that are worth having, while most of the 30% spent on today’s housing goes to various kinds of financier, including speculators and bankers, who merely shuffle other people’s money. I can’t help thinking that a government that was truly on the side of the people and which actually thought its job was to govern would do something to correct this. But present-day governments like ours favour the economic status quo. Money is GDP is “growth”, and growth is the measure of all.

In fact, a little top-of-the head analysis shows that most of what we spend in general, on all things, finishes up in the hands of bankers and other kinds of financiers. Thus for some decades we have been living – and encouraged to live – in a “debt economy”. When I was a lad we were told not to get into debt. Our elders and betters advised us to “pay your way”.  Hire purchase seemed to catch on big-time in circles like mine in the motor-bike craze of the 1950s, while young couples were encouraged to invest their hard-won earnings on three-piece suites. But HP – the never-never — was not felt to be quite respectable.

Borrowing for constructive purposes isn’t all bad, or course. If gratification is delayed for too long then we may be dead before we are gratified at all, and all businesses need to borrow money to get started. But borrowing can be taken much too far and in the build-up to the great crash of 2008 people at large and indeed entire nations were encouraged to borrow as much as we, and they, could afford, and more. The banks fell over themselves to oblige, with the blessing of governments like ours. The size of our debts did not matter, we were all told, so long as we could pay the interest. It was only after the 2008 crash that politicians of all parties rediscovered the principles of good housekeeping, and pretended that the erstwhile profligacy was all our fault.

The architect-turned-economist Margrit Kennedy pointed out some years ago that in the debt economy we are all paying interest on loans even though we ourselves may not feel that we are in debt. All the people we buy from, and all the people that they buy from, all the way along the chain, are in debt; and all of them must pass on the charges on their own debts to their customers; and in the end all the interest paid on the great chain of debts finishes up in the hands of banks and other financiers. In a society like ours about 10% are net lenders, and they pocket the interest from other people’s debts. Another 10% also receive a fair income from interest on money that they have lent but they are also in debt, so their position remains roughly neutral. But most of us, 80%, are net debtors; and the interest we pay all on our own and other people’s debts makes its way back to the 10% who are net lenders. Thus in the debt economy, so carefully managed and protected by governments like ours, the rich grow steadily and inexorably richer and the poor grow poorer, as has been demonstrably the case over the past few decades, since the present (neoliberal) economy became the norm. This alone is enough to explain the widening gap between rich and poor. I don’t understand why Margrit Kennedy’s work is not more widely appreciated (her books are listed on Google).

(It occurs to me in passing too that if at least some of the banks were owned by the nation or by communities then all the money paid on interest on loans would feed into the exchequer, and would in effect become a form of tax. This should reduce the tax-burden on the non-borrowers while also enabling more public spending, on schools and social care and that kind of thing, which should appeal to all political persuasions. But British governments of the modern kind, Labour and Tory, have subscribed to the neoliberal dogma which says that money is best handled by private companies that are driven exclusively by profit. That, apparently, is more efficient. Whether or not this is the case (where’s the evidence in this evidence-obsessed age?) it creates a caste of super-rich who do their best not to pay taxes at all. Hmm).

Specifically, it would be very good to work out how much of what most of us spend on food is simply siphoned off to pay bankers, as interest on the debts of all the people along the food chain. The supermarkets which drive the whole chain these days have a great deal tied up in real estate, with commensurate mortgages, and huge fleets of trucks, depreciating by the day, and also paid for on tick. At the source of the food chain is the modern, “progressive” farmer who, with his 250 HP combines and/ or his 1000 Holsteins with all the technological trimmings, is likely to owe the better part of a £million, with unpaid debts rising by compound interest, all wending its way to the financier. In the end, the consumers must pay all the debts all the way along the food chain. What proportion of the spend on frozen pizzas or grass-fed butter from our local, friendly Tesco goes straight to bankers, hardly touching the sides? I can’t work it out in detail myself but I would guess that at least 50% of what most people spend on food goes more or less directly to the bankers, and probably nearer 80%. But those in positions of influence seek to reduce the price of food by sacking even more farmers and wringing even more milk out of cows.

There is much talk too, in high places, about the virtues of the “free” market. It is hard to see why an economic system that overrides all other virtues – such as compassion, honesty, and common sense – should be considered virtuous, but that is the way things are. Yet of course the food market is not “free”, and cannot be. British and US farmers rely on subsidies, paid by taxpayers – with the rich getting the lion’s share. Everything in an industrialized system depends on the price of oil which of course is made apparent through the market but behind the scenes emerges from the machinations and fluctuating fortunes of the oil-producing countries and particularly the Saudis. The idea that the free market flourishes by meeting general needs and wants is an obvious fiction, albeit a convenient one for those who are doing well out of it. In the end the price of food is not determined by free-floating economic forces with net benefit for all as we are supposed to believe, but becomes a matter of policy: what those-in-power decide people will put up with. But when some people earn 1000 times more than others (Britons’ incomes range from around £5000 p.a. to £5 million-plus) it is impossible to judge what’s reasonable. The average Brits may spend 11% of their income on food but some can hardly afford food at all – certainly not fresh, even if they had somewhere to cook it. For the very rich, the ordinary food that most people eat would be too cheap to register. Yet there is much pious talk in high places of the need to keep food prices down for the sake of the poor (while slipping in a puff for GM and other such wizardry which is supposed in the long run to save us all money). Thus are the deckchairs re-arranged on the foundering Titanic.

Yet so far I haven’t even mentioned the cost of land, which again is key in all spheres and obviously has a huge effect on the cost and the price of food. In the history of humankind the spectrum of attitudes towards land has ranged from the idea common among indigenous people that all land is sacred, and at best we may borrow it from Nature or from God; through the pragmatic Feudal notion that all land belongs to the monarch, who may choose to grant the use of it to the rest of us (a system that can work well if the people involved acknowledge the principle of noblesse oblige); through many forms of community ownership; to the modern, neoliberal idea, now the norm in countries like Britain, which says in effect that land is a commodity like everything else and unless otherwise stated is or indeed must be on sale to the highest bidder.

The neoliberal approach has caused land prices to rise into a fantasy world of finance that may cripple ordinary citizens who dare to enter into it – although we are all encouraged to pretend that we are financiers too and to treat our homes and farms as assets that can eventually be cashed in lieu of a pension, assuming house prices remain high, which governments are anxious to ensure they do even though this means that many people can’t afford a house at all. As for food: it is obvious now from all points of view except those of short-term profit that Britain desperately needs more farmers, and quick, and that they need to be young. But young farmers cannot even get started because financiers, albeit based in Asia or the Middle East or the US or Russia or wherever, hold the whip hand and they find it more profitable to hang on to what they have got, while successive governments have looked the other way. Britain’s agriculture is flourishing, so the last Secretary of State assured us, but, she said, its future lies not with growing good food but with flogging biotech.

Neither have I mentioned the biosphere, the living world, tendentiously known as “the environment”, which merely means “surroundings”, ie scenery, aka real estate. But every ecologist knows that the industrial farming that is supposed to bring down the price of food and in practice siphons wealth from the many to the few is the main cause, in Britain and worldwide, of the mass extinction in which we now find ourselves, and is a prime cause of global warming.

Of course, there are those who would write all this off as the rantings of a loonie leftie, but you don’t have to be a paid-up socialist to see the idiocy and the barely concealed wickedness of the present economy. The fault lies not with capitalism in general, the mechanisms of which can be used for good purposes, but with the modern extrapolation of it known as neoliberalism. Harold Macmillan, businessman and archetypal Tory, railed against neoliberalism as vehemently as the Labour front bench when Thatcher and her advisers introduced it to Britain circa 1980, hotfoot from the University of Chicago. For old-fashioned business, of the kind espoused by old-fashioned Tories, had a moral as well as a commercial agenda. Noblesse continued to oblige. In practice, for all his impeccable commercial and Tory credentials, Macmillan was considerably to the left of Blair or Brown. The plea for a more rational and humane economy is not a matter of ideology but of common humanity and common sense.

All in all it is absurd to keep adjusting farming – and life in general! — to fit the economic status quo when it is obvious that it’s the economic status quo is grotesquely off beam. Yet those with most power in agriculture including the NFU seem to think it is “realistic” to try to squeeze our lives into this economy and “unrealistic” to try to break out of it. It is all very sad, and very strange.

I would be especially pleased to receive comments on this piece to help me to polish the arguments and make the whole thesis more scholarly (which, emphatically, does not mean more academic!). Then it can be transferred to our new website for the College for Real Farming and Food Culture . The college website is designed truly to get truly to the bottom of things and so (to put the matter portentously) to provide the intellectual and moral underpinning of the Agrarian Renaissance, without which we will all have had our chips. Please do click in!