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!

Brexit and after: that was the revolution that was

Colin Tudge proposes a way forward which is, of course, a million miles from what our new government has in mind

Brexit is potentially and very probably a disaster but it is also in theory an opportunity for Britain to install a form of farming that is actually intended to provide us all with good food — rooted in the principles of agroecology, food sovereignty, and economic democracy.

Among other things:

  • We – like almost all countries in the world! – should pursue a policy of self-reliance in food – raising 100% of the kind of food that we are able to grow in our temperate climate (which we could easily do). Trade would then be confined to desirable things we can’t sensibly grow at home (which in Britain include coffee, bananas etc), and it would also be good/ necessary to keep some other trade routes open for reasons of diplomacy and insurance. All trade, of course, like all our dealings, should be conducted with justice and humanity. We really should not use our commercial and military clout to screw and cheat those least able to resist, as is the norm, and still less to make a virtue of this (for compassion and good sense are for wimps).

  • Above all, whatever the party politics, we need to install a government that (a) is on the side of the British people, humanity, and the biosphere as a whole and (b) is not afraid to govern. Over the past 35 or so years, since neoliberalism (“the free market”) became the global norm, neither of these requirements has been met.  Successive governments have regarded agriculture not as an essential service (the most essential of all) but as “a business like any other” with a mandate to maximize short-term wealth by whatever means. With minimal and somewhat arbitrary concession to “food standards”, corporates and the super-rich in general have been invited to fill their boots. To these ends, in all spheres, successive governments of all parties have seen themselves as extensions of the corporate boardroom. The results have been disastrous across the board and are particularly obvious in agriculture and all that goes with it.

  • Farmers need to create a union or equivalent body that truly represents their interests, and which acknowledges its responsibility to society and the world at large. The current representative body, the NFU, has instead bought in to a strategy of neoliberal-industrial farming which among other things is designed to reduce the number of farmers in the name of “efficiency” (surely the opposite of what trade unions are supposed to do?) and in practice ensures that the rich grow richer (big grants to big farmers etc) while the poor grow poorer (the very opposite of social justice). At the same time the biosphere is wrecked (eg the feeling seems to be that global warming will happen only in distant countries of which we know little, and care less, at some time in the future, if it happens at all).

Particular requirements include:

  1. A million new farmers to farm along agroecological lines
  2. Housing/planning reforms so the new farmers and their families have somewhere to live
  3. A corresponding marketing network
  4. Food culture based on traditional cooking (ie reverse the trend of the past half-century).

Many excellent people around the world are working on aspects of what is necessary, and some are showing how new (which in truth often means traditional) approaches can work very well even in the present, hostile, and obviously dysfunctional economic climate. These excellent people include young and old men and women from all parts of the world, and include farmers, growers, shopkeepers, cooks, schoolteachers, thinking scientists and economists, community leaders,  activists, clerics, and policy-makers. It would be a very good use of public money (perhaps a few £million) to convene a grouping of such people (I would happily nominate 20 or so to kick things off) to hammer out a strategy for Britain that really could work for the general good.

Is any of this likely to happen? Is it thump! (as they used to say in Lancashire). Our new Prime Minister has installed another standard line-up of neoliberals brought up to believe that if only we (or some people) can make enough money then everything will turn out OK, and problems that the government-corporate axis doesn’t care to think about will go away. Already our new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom, has declared ex cathedra that “The lowlands are for sheep and the uplands are for butterflies”. Well, take away the grazing and you get trees (almost all of Britain is below the tree-line) which in itself may be no bad thing; but although many butterflies do live in woods, we may reasonably assume that Ms Leadsom was thinking rather of flowery meadows – which of course, without sheep or cattle (or a multi-species Pleistocene fauna of wild cattle and horses, deer and elephants) would be no more. Ideally, probably, we should follow the Tyrolean model, and pay farmers to manage sheep and cattle to that they in turn create meadows of wondrous diversity with trees on the tops and swales on the slopes, to stop the erosion. But that would require a cross-the-board, properly thought-out strategy (whoever heard of such a thing in living memory?), not compatible with the sacred principle of the free market into which, after Brexit, we will be bound ever more inextricably.

In truth the only way ahead for farming and hence for the biosphere and the human race is to re-think agriculture from first principles, and all that goes with it: the ecology, the sociology, the morality, the economics, the governance. We cannot simply throw it to the wolves of inadequately educated technophiles and businesspeople. As a matter of urgency we need the Agrarian Renaissance and, since governments like ours which are still seen to be among the world’s leaders have in effect abdicated, morally and intellectually, we, people at large, Ordinary Joes, have to take matters into our own hands. Many individuals and organizations worldwide are on the case, trying to make things happen despite the status quo, and among them is our own College for Real Farming and Food Culture which is now attempting to do all the necessary thinking in a coherent fashion. (Please do click in to the college website).

As they say in Yorkshire, The Royal Society should think on

The Royal Society has issued a new report supporting GMOs. But does the Roy Soc really understand the issues?

The Royal Society no less, the most august of all scientific academies, has just issued a report guide to tell us that GMOs pose no threat to health, and that they will be needed to feed 10 billion people who will be with us by 2050. The new Society President, Professor Venki Ramkrishnanan has proposed that the UK should lift its ban on growing GM crops for commercial purposes. More: the Roy Soc has taken it upon itself to run a series of public panels across the UK throughout the Summer and Autumn. Yet many excellent scientists, not least the members of GM Watch, suggest that we should not be as confident of GM safety as the Royal Society appears to be — and some have asked, why does the Roy Soc seem so keen to promote GM? Should it not play the dispassionate scholar and simply present the facts, and weigh the scientific evidence, con as well as pro?

But there are three other “meta-arguments” too that are rarely given a proper airing. To whit:

1: Are the world’s experts really as expert as we are led to believe? Are their assumptions really founded on fact?

In its latest report the Royal Society, fountain of truth, quotes the World Bank, pinnacle of power, who tell us (in line with Sir John Beddington’s “Foresight” report for the British government in 2011 on The Future of Food and Farming) that the world needs to produce 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising numbers and people’s aspirations. In other words, agricultural strategy must above all be productionist. But according to Professor Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute, Washington DC, the world already produces enough to feed 14 billion people – twice the present population and 40% more than we should ever need, given that the UN tells us that numbers are on course to level out at around 10 billion. This figure of 14 billion is easily checked. Thus Google tells us that the world produces 2.5 billion tonnes of cereal per year which provides enough macronutrient for 7.5 billion people; and cereal provides only half the world’s food (and the other 50 per cent includes vegetables, meat, fish etc which provide all the micronutrients that cereals may lack). As I discuss in Six Steps Back to the Land (Green Books, 2016) the idea that our aspirations are rising, and in particular that we are “demanding” more and more meat, is deeply suspect. True, people are eating more meat but that does not imply an innate yearning, which is what the word “demand” implies in common parlance, as opposed to commercial newspeak. The commercial and social pressures to eat more meat (including the fact that it is the ultimate fast food) are enormous.

In short, we need not be productionist, as the mantra has it. We should be focusing on quality and provenance. Why then does the World Bank, the British government, and the Royal Society tell us what is not so? Do those who claim we need 50% more really believe what they are saying?

2: Is science all it is cracked up to be?

Science is presented to us as the royal road to certainty and truth. We are given to understand that science proves things, and that once proved, they stay proven. Philosophers of science have been pointing out the nonsense of this for the better part of 100 years as I discuss in our new College for Real Farming and Food Culture website ( (in the section on Metaphysics). But still the myth persists. Many practicing scientists including many in high places really do believe that they are party to unequivocal truth.

This raises an even wider question:

3: Are scientists properly educated?

Clearly many scientists know little or nothing of the philosophy of science, since they are taught none and do not care to read widely. I have heard some in high places express their contempt for philosophy. This means, though, that they do not understand the limitations of their own subject and indeed that they do not know what science really is, and what it is not. Still less do they appreciate the political, economic, and political context in which applied science must operate. As evident from the editorial columns of Nature, scientists and its mainstream commentators tend simply to be technophiles: to assume that all the world’s problems will yield to scientific, high-tech solutions, and that these solutions should be given preference over all others. High-tech, after all, is taken self-evidently to represent progress, and progress is taken self-evidently to be good. The wreckage left by ill-advised high-tech projects imposed the world over by various imperial and commercial powers over the past decades, passes them by. It hardly seems to occur to them that their interventions may have consequences that cannot be foreseen, and which could be detrimental; or that traditional “low-tech” solutions might be best, if only they were given a chance. In short, their self-confidence often seems to be well-nigh absolute, and so too, commensurately, their ignorance of what others people’s problems really are, and of the alternative solutions.

I suggest that science should never be taught without due reference to the philosophy of science, and without discussing its political, economic, social, and moral implications (with further discussion of what morality actually is). Science education is singularly unreflective – and so too, alas, is the Royal Society. Its latest pronouncements raise afresh Justinian’s question — “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” “Who will guard the guardians?” – or indeed will protect us from the excesses of those who presume to know better than the rest of us?

4: Specifically – do GMOs live up to the claims? Are they ever the best solution?

I wrote about this in the Colin’s Corner section of our Campaign for Real Farming website way back in 2012 in an article called “Seven obvious questions in search of straightforward questions”. The discussion is in the original article and I won’t repeat it here but the questions – with the answers reduced to one-liners – are as follows (and I challenge anyone to show otherwise):

1: After 30 years of intense effort and huge investment, can the GM advocates offer any examples of GM food crops that have brought unequivocal benefit to humanity or to the world at large?

The answer seems to be “No”.

2: Assuming that the advocates of GM food can demonstrate unequivocal benefits, can they also show that those benefits could not have been achieved – just as easily, at the same cost, in the same time, and without collateral damage — by traditional means?

Again, the answer is no.

3: Putting points 1 and 2 together, can the GM advocates demonstrate that the research on GM has been cost-effective? If the same amount of research effort and resource had been put into other approaches, could we not have achieved far more?

Decidedly not. GM has at times proved highly profitable, for those who control the technology, but that is not the same thing at all.

4: Can we really be sure that GM crops are safe — for our fellow creatures in the biosphere at large; or for consumers – whether livestock or people?

Despite the new Royal Society report, the answer again is no.

5: Taken all in all, do the advantages of GM really outweigh the perceived disadvantages and the conceivable risks?


6: Can we trust the GM advocates? Can we trust scientists who depend on commercial sponsorship?

Most scientists are very honest people but their lack of political nous, their innate technophilia, and their need to make a living in a world where commerce dominates, makes them very vulnerable.

7: What is the real motive behind GM?

Commerce, in turn fired up by the neoliberal imperative to make more money than anyone else in the shortest possible time.

The Food and Drug Administration of the US used to have a rule, and perhaps still does, that no new drug should even be considered for commercial release unless it can clearly be shown to have advantages over existing drugs.  The same principle can and should be applied to all new technologies. All new technologies are innately risky and as Donald Rumsfeld pointed out in his famous spiel on “unknown unknowns” we cannot always anticipate even the nature of the hazards that may arise. So if there is no proven advantage in GMOs, why are we even discussing whether are safe of not? Why are we discussing them at all? Commerce is again the answer – that and the belief of governments like Britain’s that increase in GDP, “economic growth” is what matters most, irrespective of the means by which wealth is achieved or who it finishes up with or who benefits or suffers along the way.

It may indeed be desirable that people at large should discuss GMOs, and we certainly should discuss the whole issue of food and farming far more seriously than we do, because nothing is more important and the general level of discussion not least in mainstream “media” is frankly dire. But whatever discussions are held must be properly informed, and the provenance and allegiances of those who take part must, as is the present buzzword, be “transparent”.

The Royal Society has shown with its latest display of GM zeal that it is not as well informed as it supposes itself to be, and it is not unbiased, and that the Society and science as a whole are not the objective seekers after truth that the mythology assures us is the case, but is hugely subject to outside pressures.

In fact, the main lesson to take from the new report is that the Royal Society should be far more aware than it is of the world’s realities, and far more self-critical. Otherwise (not for the first time) its influence is liable to be deeply pernicious. Science should be one of the greatest assets of humankind and for that reason alone, the Society’s lack of reflectiveness is to deeply regrettable.

Colin Tudge May 27 2016

The College for Real Farming and Food Culture is here at last

It’s been a long time in the making but now the CRFFC is up and running – in virtual and pop-up form

The CRFFC website is now up and running — which is the college in virtual form; and the first two residential seminars under the college banner are now in train (see below) – and these are the college in “pop-up” mode. If anyone ever gives us a stately home or indeed a barn then the CRFFC might finally become manifest in bricks and mortar, with its own multi-purpose farm. But virtual and pop-up will certainly do for the time being.

So what’s new? There are dozens of courses at all levels on almost all aspects of food and farming worldwide, many of them excellent, taught by farmers and growers with many years’ experience; and people can already take degrees in agricultural economics and biotech and all things culinary.

Yet there is one thing missing. Many now acknowledge that farming must be conceived as an exercize in ecology – “agroecology” is the increasingly accepted term. Many acknowledge that in a pursuit that involves the entire human race, and employs about a third of them one way or another, we should think seriously about social justice (even if this somewhat quaint notion has gone missing from Defra, which is concerned only with GDP). Many also recognize the need for excellent science and some realise that excellent science does not necessarily mean flashy technology.

A few perceive too that how we farm in any one society at any one time – how we do anything at all – largely depends on, and is limited by, the prevailing economy and the political system. Governments like Britain’s that are 100 per cent committed to the global market, the all-against-all competition for maximum wealth and market share, will not put their weight behind agroecology, though they may borrow the term for PR purposes and pretend, for example, that GM crops are good for the biosphere and for people. Milton Friedman himself, a co-founder of the neoliberal economy that now prevails worldwide, admitted that the “free” market does not deliver social justice – but what the hell? It makes some people rich, and the ones that are rich set the tone for the rest. But we won’t farm as if we really cared about our fellow creatures, or humanity as a whole, or the future, if we persist with the algorithm of the market and with the kind of political leaders who think that to replace human judgement and sensibility with an algorithm represents some kind of progress. So we need to re-think economics and governance too: or at least, trawl through the many existing and historical models and install the kinds that really could serve the world well.

Some perceive that we will never farm in wildlife-friendly ways, or without cruelty, or with justice, unless agriculture has a strong moral underpinning – that we must truly give a damn about wildlife and the plight of humanity; and that morality involves compassion, which involves empathy, and humility; and that humility questions our ability and our right to take the world by the scruff of the neck and beat it into whatever shape we choose (which these days means whatever is most profitable). Only a few perceive that the attitudes of compassion and humility need to be underpinned by a sense of one-ness with the biosphere at large, and that this is not just a moral but is a metaphysical concept: so a course of agriculture that is truly robust needs to take metaphysics seriously too.

Excellent though many are, no course of learning or think-tank that I know about thinks right across the board. Those well-endowed universities that are best equipped to teach cutting-edge science (as the expression is) rarely take time to discuss the limitations of science (it really cannot make us omniscient) or of the high technologies that emerge from it (we really cannot exercize the degree of control over nature that organizations like Defra seem to assume). There is too much tension and mistrust between people “trained” in science and those who pursue alternatives methods of husbandry that may seem “unscientific” and yet deliver results (like veterinary homeopathy or permaculture). More synergy between the two would surely be fruitful. (Incidentally, scientists should not be “trained”. Training is for sealions and shot-putters. Scientists should be educated. But “trained” is the oft-used and revealing expression).

No conventional colleges of agriculture that I know about teach moral philosophy, while metaphysics is a rare bird the world over and seems alas to mean different things to different people. Yet metaphysics and moral philosophy between them are the prime source of what has been called “the perennial wisdom”: ideas of huge import about the nature of the world and of reality which, in turns out, are similar in all cultures, and lie at the heart of all religions. All, for example, including those that are seen to be non-theistic, acknowledge the concept of transcendence – that there may be more to the universe than meets the eye; more than materialism takes account of.  On the moral front, all emphasize the centrality of compassion and humility.

Finally, though it seems an obvious enough requirement, very few institutions that I know about acknowledge that great farming, ecological and compassionate, is dead in the water unless the society of which it is a part takes an interest. “Enlightened” farmers flourish still wherever there is true food culture, as is still the case in much of Italy, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. In Britain, though, it is very hard indeed to make a living as a small, organic, mixed farmer, focused on quality, kindness, and wildlife-friendliness – the kind of farming the world really needs. Farming in Britain is perceived as a side-issue, a blast from the past, an anachronism that may nonetheless borrow the weeds of big business. None of the political parties, not even the Greens, place it high on their agendas. The world needs to reinstate food cultures based on traditional cooking. Traditional cooking really could solve the world’s food problems. GM maize emphatically will not.

So the College for Real Farming and Food Culture is different because it sets out as very few others do to think across the board. In the true meaning of “college”, too, we will not seek to dispense wisdom de haute on bas but must serve as a forum for everyone with good ideas to share them. It is an exercize in democracy which, in the end, for all its obvious shortcomings, is the only political system that is truly acceptable. Indeed, the transformation the world now so obviously needs can be brought about only by a democratic movement – by people at large, Ordinary Joes, working together, coherently. The present powers-that-be, the oligarchy of corporates, banks, governments like Britain’s, and their attendant intellectuals and experts, seem content with the status quo. To them the kind of change we need if we are to survive in tolerable form beyond the present century are “unrealistic”. I have often been told as much.

So the college seeks both to provide the necessary, intellectual coherence and also to translate the thinking into action, to help to underpin and to bring about a people-led Agrarian Renaissance. Nothing less will do. The grand aim of the CRFFC, portentously put, is to bring the perennial wisdom into everyday life. That, I very humbly suggest, should be the grand agenda of the whole world in all contexts.

Please do take a look at the college website and offer a point of view.

The College for Real Farming and Food Culture – about to roll

For years we’ve been planning to launch


— and now it’s about to happen.

No-one so far has given us a country estate to work from, or a barn (which perhaps would be more manageable and certainly more replicable) but soon we will be launching the college in virtual form – as a brand-new website – and in pop-up form – running meetings in collaboration with like-minded institutions of many different kinds.

The website should be up and running by May, and the first pop-up meeting is a three-day seminar on April 29 on the Scottish border as follows:

— and the 2nd College meeting is:




From Friday May 13 to Sunday May 15 2016

Enquiries to

Join Colin Tudge in Scotland over the May Bank Holiday (April 29 – May 2 2016)

Join Colin to discuss the future of food and farming in the glorious house and grounds of Chisholme House on the Scottish Borders

Future Food: Future Farming

Thinking differently, seeing afresh, farming wisely
How can we farm wisely? We will need to think differently: think differently
about economics, politics, science and technology. We will need to see the
land as more than a simple resource, learning from the visions the great
spiritual traditions have passed down.

Bank holiday weekend
April 29 – May 2, 2016

More details to be found here

Six Steps Back to the Land

In his latest book Colin Tudge argues that we need to re-think farming from first principles – nothing less than an Agrarian Renaissance; and that to achieve this, we need to re-think everything else as well. But the Renaissance must be led by us, people at large, Ordinary Joes.

The world is in a disastrous state, but there’s still hope. Our descendants could still be here in a million years’ time, feeling far more secure and fulfilled than most of us do now and still enjoying the abundant and diverse company of what Robert Burns called our “Earth-born companions”. To achieve all this, though, we need to do just about everything differently.

We should start with farming – which in the end is the most important thing that we do, and right now is at the heart of all our troubles. A billion people out of seven billion are chronically undernourished; a half of all other species are judged to be in imminent danger of extinction; all the world’s great ecosystems are seriously compromised; and global warming has destabilized the climate.  For good measure, global poverty is as bad as ever, the gap continues to grow between rich and poor, and there is discontent everywhere with dozens, literally, of wars and uprisings at any one time – too many for the standard news media even to mention. Farming as now practiced is both a prime cause of all of this, and a prime victim. Above all then we need to re-think and re-design agriculture — what amounts to an Agrarian Renaissance.

The task is huge, but there is worse. For the world is now dominated as never before by a self-reinforcing oligarchy of powerful governments, like Britain’s, in partnership with the transnational corporates, banks, and their chosen intellectual and expert advisers. The oligarchy clings together and inexorably tightens its grip on the world not through design or conspiracy but through natural selection: those who think in the way the oligarchs do can join their ranks and make them stronger, while those who do not fall by the wayside. The kind of agriculture that the oligarchs now advocate – industrialized, centralized, high-input, high-capital, high tech with minimum or zero labour, organized from the top down – and the kind of ideas that lie behind that strategy, must be, by its nature, oligarch-led. But it is almost precisely opposite in almost every respect from the kind of farming that we really need if we truly care about the future of the human race and of the biosphere. So the Agrarian Renaissance that is so necessary must be brought about despite the people who now dominate the world. In other words, the Agrarian Renaissance must be led by us, people at large, the Honourable Company of Ordinary Joes. In my latest book, Six Steps Back to the Land, I aspire to show what needs to be done and how we can go about it. It’s a long shot, to be sure, but it’s the best chance we have.

To begin with, everything the powers-that-be tell us about the state of food and farming is wrong, or highly questionable. Thus the current mantra, echoed not least in Sir John Beddington’s government report of 2011 The Future of Food and Farming (1), is that the world must produce 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising numbers and expectations. Some opportunist politicians have upped the ante since Beddington’s report – demanding 100% or more by 2100. Worse, say the powers-that-be, we must now produce biofuel as well as food and, of course, more and more land is needed for airports and the rest. Thus the talk from on high is productionist: more and more of everything, on less and less space.

At first sight the stats seem to support the official analysis. A billion people out of the current seven billion are now hungry — and the UN tells us that by 2050 numbers will rise to 9.5 to 10 billion. At the same time, as (some) people grow richer, they “demand” more meat – and meat production is innately profligate. The world’s livestock now consume at least a third of the world’s grain and by 2050, the projection has it, they will be eating enough to feed another 4 billion people. In the long term, but starting asap, we need draconian policies to reduce population. But for the immediate future we must produce as much as possible, by whatever it takes. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?

Furthermore, say the powers-that-be, to produce all this extra food we need high tech, which means high capital, practiced on the largest possible scale to achieve economies of scale: megatonnes of fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide, applied to monocultural fields that stretch to the horizon (there are arable farms in the Ukraine bigger than Kent). All, though, is ameliorated these days by GM, crops genetically engineered to resist pests without pesticides and to grow in the most hostile conditions. GM came on line in the nick of time, like the US cavalry in the 5th reel. Labour must be kept to a minimum and preferably down to zero (this is the age of the robot). All who oppose these vital developments are backsliding Luddites, or middle-class airy-fairy elitist do-gooders, steeped in superstition and/or nostalgia; anti-science and anti-progress; the enemies both of humankind and of the biosphere.

Yet once you look beneath the surface – as we might hope our leaders and their expert advisers would do – you see that the official analysis, acted on by governments worldwide and the driving force behind modern research, is the grossest nonsense, threatening if we continue with it to kill us all, and most of our fellow creatures too, and helping to poison all the world’s ecosystems and screw up the climate for good measure.

For the real reason that a billion are hungry has very little to do with total numbers and everything to do with waste and the misallocation of resources, with the wrong crops in the wrong places, and with government (tax-payers’) support for what doesn’t matter and little or no support for what does. Behind all this lies a highly extrapolated version of ideas that date from the Scottish economist Adam Smith, and the early 19th century English economist David Ricardo. (It’s surprising how so much modern lore, not to say dogma, in science and economics, derives from the musings of 200 years ago).

For Smith seemed to argue in his seminal Wealth of Nations that if markets are left to themselves everything will turn out OK because no traders can survive in a truly “free” market unless they do what their customers want, and crooked or otherwise defective traders are weeded out because they lose custom. So the free market is both democratic and efficient.  This is the thinking behind the “deregulated”, “free” global market economics that is called “neoliberal”, and now dominates the world.  Ricardo argued that every nation should concentrate on producing those goods that it can produce better than anyone else (its “comparative advantage”), and then sell them to the highest bidder (through, nowadays, the global market). Thus the producing country grows as rich as it is possible for it to do and it can use its surplus cash to buy all the ordinary stuff that anyone can grow. Thus the world’s traditional “banana republics” grew, well, bananas and then imported, say, surplus American corn. Makes perfect sense, eh? I have heard modern sages on television assuring the world that poor countries should go on selling their produce on the world market even in times of famine.

The trouble is, as President Obama recently pointed out and as the past 40 years have shown abundantly “Guess what. The neoliberal market does not work”. In practice the “free” market is inevitably dominated by a handful of corporates, supported by the world’s richest governments, which depend on the corporates’ good offices, and the whole works are thrown off course by the mega-banks on which everyone depends but which have their own agenda; and nobody in high places seems to know or care what effect their machinations are having on the world at large. The prime virtue, for a true oligarch, is loyalty to their employer or their political party, come what may. Probably, though, ironically, the market does not work in the best interests of humanity precisely because it is supposed to be maximally and indeed ruthlessly competitive. It is the nature of competitions to produce losers as well as winners. The billion malnourished and the billion in slums are the losers. The oligarchs are among the winners. In truth, too, cooperativeness is more efficient and productive than competition. The losers also of course include the biosphere, which doesn’t get a look in, except as an afterthought. There’s another irony, too. Modern politicians, taking their lead from scientists, claim to be “evidence led”. All the evidence suggests that the extrapolated ideas of Smith and Ricardo don’t work, as Obama said. But our leaders cling to them despite the evidence, as zealously as any religious fundamentalist ever did.

If we shook off the ancient economic theorising, applied a little common sense and compassion, and did things properly, no-one need go hungry. The UN demographers tell us that although the human population could rise to 10 billion it should not grow larger than this, because the percentage rate of increase is falling and by 2050 the increase should be down to 0% — meaning that numbers should then be stable. After that, if the trend continues, the population should fall. The reasons for this are all benign: decreasing infant mortality, so people don’t need extra children as insurance; more choice for women, and women everywhere, it seems, given the choice, commonly choose to have fewer children. So if we can feed 10 billion people for a few decades or centuries without doing terminal damage to the rest we’ll have cracked the problem. Forever.

But can we really feed 10 billion? Well, as Millennium Institute President Professor Hans Herren has pointed out many a time and oft, the world already produces enough food to support 14 billion people – twice what we should need now and 40% more than we should ever need. For the world now grows 2.5 billion tonnes or so of cereal per year, mostly wheat, rice, and maize, which is enough to supply 7 billion people with 3000 kcals a day (comfortably more than the required average intake, given that most people are either children or old and consume less than adult males), and with all the protein they need. But we also raise many millions of tonnes of pulses, tubers, fruit and vegetables, plus meat, fish, eggs, and dairy – which supply enough macronutrient for another 7 billion, and also the bulk of our micronutrients (vitamins and the rest).

The alleged “demand” for meat is specious – at best a careless misreading, at worst a commercial scam. True, people newly emerging from poverty as in the US after World War II and the Depression, or in modern-day China, eat more meat, but does this really reflect an innate craving for meat as the official folklore has it? Or does it merely reflect what people will buy, if it’s on offer? Modern research and common observation show above all that human beings are adaptable – we eat what’s available and what is fashionable. Meat for newly-rich people symbolises the end of hard times and commerce rushes to cash in, as in all those burger and fried chicken joints in modern Beijing. Besides, meat is the ultimate fast food. Bung it under the grill and throw on some onions and ketchup and Bob’s your uncle. An instant national cuisine. No skill needed. Minimum wages all round, or preferably less.

But people who have no need to show their wealth do not eat conspicuous quantities of meat. In some of the richest corners of the world (California, New York, Germany) it is fashionable to be vegetarian. The great cuisines of the world from Italy via Turkey and Persia to India and China all use meat sparingly – as garnish, stock, and for occasional feasts. Traditionally sheep and cattle were raised on pasture in places where cultivation is difficult – too wet, too dry, too high, too steep – and pigs and poultry were kept as fillers-in, to eat surpluses and leftovers, plus weeds and pests. In these capacities they do not compete with us.  They either live in remote places or else are integrated into rotations that include horticulture and arable, which they help to fertilize and cultivate. By such traditional means we could easily produce enough meat to support all the world’s great cuisines. That doesn’t sound frightening at all. Such husbandry is not profligate. It is prudent. We should stop producing more and more of everything, meat included, and focus instead on quality and on justice and kindness and ways of life – and on sustainability and resilience. We need to support farmers who farm accordingly, and the rest of us need above all to re-learn how to cook, to make best use of what good farmers provide. It is very sad that so many scientists have bought in to the idea that humanity is “demanding” more and more meat without ever apparently reflecting that “demand” in this context is merely a measure of what can be sold. Science, one feels, should be more questioning. That is its raison d’etre.

The kind of farms we really do need are the complete opposite of what the powers-that-be recommend. To be truly sustainable farms need to be low-input; organic becomes the default position. Fertilizers, herbicides and the rest are entirely oil-dependent. To be resilient against pests and weather, farms need above all to be diverse. Organic (or quasi-organic) diverse systems are necessarily complex – which means we need plenty of skilled farmers: not armies of slaves doing the work of tractors, but people who know what they are doing, and care. When enterprises of any kind (not just farms) are low-input, complex and skills-intensive there are very few advantages in scale-up, so the default position of farms that could really feed us all well and go on doing so is to be small to medium-size; though they may grow larger by various forms of cooperative.

The oligarchs’ selected experts argue that small, mixed, organic farms could not possibly “feed the world”. Yet in 2008 a group of 900 experts brought together under a UN organised inter-governmental process called IAASTD, co-chaired by Professor Herren (2), pointed out that small, mostly low-input traditional farms already supply at least half of the world’s food despite the lack of support, and indeed in the face of official hostility, and a great many studies already show that small mixed units with plenty of TLC can be more productive per unit area than the high-tech monocultural kind (although more formal studies are still needed to pin this down). Farming is also the world’s biggest employer by far and since the great or not-so-great age of fuel-hungry heavy industries is now past, no other industry could conceivably employ so many. Unemployment is the royal road to the poverty on which governments have ostentatiously declared war (or at least they did before their own economies collapsed). Right now a billion people live in urban slums – almost a third of all city-dwellers; and most are refugees from the countryside, with their dependents and immediate descendants.

For the kind of low-input, mixed, skills-intensive, small-to-medium sized farms that the world really needs are now being swept aside wholesale by the oligarchs the world over. In Britain, we are currently losing one dairy farm every day, edged out by high-tech industrialization, with corporate takeover encouraged by the government and the anomalously named National Farmers’ Union, the NFU, both of which in truth are extensions of the corporate boardroom.  Demonstrably, milk quality suffers and rural societies are shattered — and the same pattern is repeated in all branches of farming. British governments urge others to follow our lead for we are “developed”. But Britain’s farms right now are dangerously understaffed, and as Felicity Lawrence told this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference (3), Britain’s agriculture now relies absolutely on immigrant labour of conveniently dubious legal status. To be secure we need about eight times as many farmers as we now have: a million more for starters. The oligarchs claim that if we employed more farmers food would be dearer but this too is spurious. 80% of what we now spend on food in supermarkets goes to the supermarket itself and to the ludicrously complex food chain. Only 20% goes to the farmers and probably only 10% to the workers. Small mixed farms feeding in to local markets would reduce the food chain markedly, attacking that portion of the cost that really matters. Yet the oligarchs think that it’s “efficient” to lose the work-force, not least because their accountancy is highly selective and the real cost, not least to human wellbeing, is not counted. Indeed the loss of farmers is called progress.

Finally, contra Ricardo, all countries should strive as far as possible to be self-reliant in food – and most could readily achieve it. Self-reliant does not mean self-sufficient. It just means growing enough to get by, and using trade to fill in the gaps, provide insurance (all crops fail from time to time and it’s good to spread the options) and to keep open the lines of communication (the European “Common Market” was originally designed to make war too difficult). Britain could easily be self-reliant in temperate crops, and we could live well enough on temperate crops, though in normal times we would import coffee and bananas just as we do now (and pay a proper price for them). At the moment, with all our high tech and vast investment, we grow only 60%.

So we need a complete re-think. We need to introduce, or rather to re-introduce, what I am calling “Enlightened Agriculture”, aka “Real Farming”: informally but adequately defined as “farming that is expressly intended to provide everyone, everywhere, with good food without cruelty or injustice and without wrecking the rest of the world”. That sounds a reasonable ambition, I hope, and should be eminently achievable, but it’s the precise opposite of oligarch thinking. Right now, agriculture like everything else is treated as “a business like any other” and since the rise of the neoliberal “free” market economy in the 1980s business itself has been re-conceived, not as the natural component of democratic society but as the means by which the people who compete most vigorously can grow richer. Behind all the rhetoric and selected stats that tell us we must industrialize and embrace GM lies the perceived imperative to maximize wealth, measured in cash. That is what the present government and the NFU and the oligarchs in general call “realistic”. The realities of hunger and environmental degradation are incidentals which will, miraculously, clear themselves up when the world is rich enough.

Clearly, then, it isn’t enough just to re-think farming. We need to re-design the economy, to support the kind of farming we need. The economic model that seems most benign and workable is “economic democracy”, one key aspect of which is ownership and control by communities, in addition to state and private ownership; a variation on the theme of social democracy. Martin Large expands this idea in Common Wealth (4). Yet we can’t install a new economy unless we have a government that sees the need for it. Given that we are supposed to be a democracy we ought to be able to do this, but apparently not. Britain’s present government is one of the most obsessively neoliberal of all times and apart from its subservience to international finance it seems to have unlimited power. It also claims to be democratic, and indeed sends young men and women to war in the name of democracy. Yet at the last election it gained scarcely a quarter of the available vote. That doesn’t look like democracy.

But we need to dig even deeper than politics, down to the Zeitgeist, the largely unexamined ideas that lie deep in our psyche and in the collective mind of all society. We need to look again at science – what it really is: what it really can do for us and what it can’t. The open-mouthed technophilia that now prevails in political circles with their calls for “science-led policy” is naïve in the extreme, and yoked as it now is to the service of neoliberal economics it is threatening to kill us all. Science is among the supreme achievements of human kind and the high technologies that arise from it can be among our greatest assets, but science and high tech used primarily to make the rich richer and the powerful more powerful are among our greatest threats. This is tragedy writ large.

We need to re-think morality, too. Neoliberals make a virtue of their ruthlessness – it’s all about getting ahead: seizing a bigger “market share”. In truth we need not compete to the death but to cooperate, and cooperation must be underpinned by trust and rooted in compassion, the cardinal principle embraced by all the world’s great religions. I suggest in Six Steps that science and morality in turn are rooted in metaphysics, with its contemplation of transcendence – the proposition that there is more to the world than meets the eye. But people who reject metaphysical musing can still do all that’s needed.

So what in practice is required? Well, as outlined, we all need to take food seriously and re-learn how to cook. It would be good too if about 10 per cent of us in Britain became farmers – the book outlines a plausible route, even in these hostile times, and many have already shown what can be done. For starters we need to form communities of people who care about food and farming and start to take over the entire shooting match – make the Renaissance happen. People in groups can provide markets for farmers brave enough to farm in enlightened ways. People in groups can buy significant amounts of land even though land in Britain like everything else has been left to the speculators and is ludicrously overpriced. Even at present prices, the people of Britain could buy out all of Britain’s farmland for about £8000 a head – not a lot, stretched over a lifetime.

I belong to several groups that are pulling in the right direction. In particular I am involved with the Real Farming Trust which supports the Oxford Real Farming Conference, where farmers and other interested parties gather each January to share ideas on what needs to be done; with Funding Enlightened Agriculture (FEA) which aims to help new farmers and small farms generally; and – my own pet project – the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, intended to develop and promulgate the key ideas that the Agrarian Renaissance requires, and bring the many various interested parties together. There are already enough people out there who hate what’s going on and are seeking the alternative to form a critical mass, but they don’t sufficiently cohere. The CRFFC website will be up and running soon.

Meanwhile, Six Steps Back to the Land outlines the main ideas and describes what others are doing to push things ahead and asks, why not you?

Colin Tudge, March 24 2016

Six Steps Back to the Land by Colin Tudge was launched in March this year by Green Books, Cambridge, at £17.99

Main references:

(1): The Future of Food and Farming. A Foresight report for The Government Office for Science, 2011.

(2): Agriculture at a Crossroads, produced in 2008 by an ad hoc international body known as IAASTD, co-chaired by Hans Herren and sponsored by the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, The World Bank and WHO, and published by Island Press, Washington, in 2009.

(3): Felicity Lawrence writes mostly for The Guardian, and especially these days for the on-line version, and has written some highly cogent books including Not on the Label. She has explored working conditions of farm workers all over the world.

(4): Martin Large. Common Wealth. Hawthorn Press, Stroud, 2010.

Micro-dairies: Today – eccentric. Tomorrow – the norm

The following is a general intro to the idea of micro-dairies, written for the excellent soon-to-be-launched on-line magazine/website Nourish, based in Brazil (of which more later). But it was prompted by a two-day meeting at Monkton Wyld in Dorset, organized by Simon Fairlie, micro-dairy farmer and editor of The Land (which for everyone interested in farming, or trying to make sense of the state of the world, is essential reading).

The talk in Britain these days among champions of Agrarian Renaissance is of micro-dairies: herds of half a dozen to perhaps 40 cows (top whack), designed to serve local communities. Units with fewer than half a dozen cows are being called “nano-dairies”. The British government, wedded to the neoliberal agenda and equating progress with industrialization, tells us that no dairy with fewer than 100 cows and preferably 200 is worth considering, and favours US-style high-tech, all-housed megadairies, with several thousand cows apiece – up to 30,000 or perhaps even more. They are known in appropriately hideous new-speak as “Concentrated Animal Feed Operations”, or “CAFOs”. Anything smaller than that the government says is economically “non-viable”, and indeed it does its best to ensure that this is so (for example with subsidies for big farms only, and planning laws that make it impossible for small farmers to live on their own farms, which livestock farmers of almost all kinds generally need to do). The last five British governments of all parties have regarded all farm produce of the kind formerly known as food, as commodities, to be sold on the global market to the highest bidder. In line with this idee fixe the present government is urging our dairy farmers to produce huge surpluses of milk, the more the merrier, then reduce it to powder and sell it to India. That this would put 30 million Indian farmers and their families out of work is not considered important, or indeed is not considered at all. The British government is still officially waging a “war against poverty” but the siren call of the market, like Jack London’s call of the wild, must be answered at all costs. From governments like ours, a mishmash of accountants and “professional politicians” with a singular absence of thinkers and moralists, we cannot expect coherence. It is taken to be self-evident, of course, that all commodities must be produced as cheaply as possibly, where cost is assessed entirely in cash terms and “externalities” are not costed at all. High tech is deemed to be essential at every turn, and all this – maximum output at minimum cost (with selective accountancy) is called “progress”.

British farmers – like most farmers the world over — are suffering horribly from this mind-set – and especially, right now, the dairy farmers. Thus in 2011 WSPA (now known as WAP: World Animal Protection) reported that Britain had lost two thirds of its dairy farmers in the previous decade – from about 30,000 in 2000, down to around 11,000. We continue to lose one more dairy farm every day – each, presumably, with several workers. If a factory closes with the loss of a few hundred jobs it rightly makes the national news, but the loss of several thousand jobs a year from Britain’s dairy farms alone goes unremarked – except insofar as it is seen as “progress”: the demise of an obsolete industry. The National Farmers Union (NFU) goes along this mythology. Never was the term “union” applied so inappropriately.

As WSPA (WAP) points out, the collateral damage from mega-dairies, to the biosphere as well as to communities, is horrendous (a theme to be returned to). It’s claimed too that welfare standards are high but the cows are required to produce up to 10,000 litres (2000 gallons) per lactation, or preferably more, which is roughly six times as much as a wild cow and twice what would have been very acceptable a generation ago. Modern dairy cows, Holsteins, are udders on legs with a metabolic rate equivalent to that of a Tour de France cyclist (according to Professor John Webster, in Animal Husbandry Regained, Routledge 2013). They are beset by lameness, mastitis, and general metabolic breakdown and rarely last beyond three lactations, although traditional dairy cows commonly stayed in good fettle for 10 lactations or more. Yet still the cry from on high is for more and more production (output per cow, like output per worker, is the principal criterion of excellence) and industrial farmers, obliged above all to “compete”, must answer it. The milk in the end is pooled and homogenized – the more anonymous the better – and, since the cow has been fed to the gills on high-energy concentrates, it is high in saturated fats and commensurately lower in omega-3 polyunsaturates.  The farmer is typically paid less than the cost of production (British farmers in these ostensibly free market days must live on EU subsidies) and the milk is sold in supermarkets as a loss leader, for less than half the total production cost. That is progress. Or at least it is the market unfettered, which is what progress is taken to mean.

The micro-dairy reverses all that. The milk is anything but anonymous. It is delivered locally and the customers know which herd if not which individual cow it comes from. At such a level, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” really can work: if any small farmer steps out of line (though why would they?) the customers know and react accordingly. Sometimes, though not necessarily, the local community actually own the cows, or at least have shares in them. The cows are from traditional breeds, bred for the small-scale: Ayrshire, Jersey, Dairy Shorthorn, and the much neglected but altogether delightful Gloucester (black with a white stripe down the back, very sweet-natured, and the source of Single Gloucester cheese, now rare but one of England’s finest).

Micro does not necessarily imply pasture-fed, but in practice the animals are usually fed on fresh grass and accompanying herbs (and browse) as far as possible. This is good for welfare (cows are built to graze and browse) and for the biosphere: a pasture managed with sympathy is rich in invertebrates and hence in birds, while fears of global warming are much exaggerated since it seems that in well-managed pasture more carbon is sequestered than is released. Pasture-feeding is good for the consumer, too: Carlo Leifert and his colleagues at Newcastle University have recently shown that milk from cows fed on pasture rather than concentrate has a far better ratio of omega-3 to saturated fatty acids (See British Journal of Nutrition: “Higher PUFA and omega-3 PUFA, CLA, a-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic bovine milk: A systematic literature review and meta- and redundancy analysis”; and “Composition differences between organic and conventional meat; a systematic literature review and meta-analysis”).  As a very considerable bonus, milk from pasture-fed cows tastes good. We get our milk from a local micro-herd of Ayrshires, and it’s brilliant. It’s delivered to the door (a rare service these days) and the farmer and his mates are friends of ours. That is a bonus too. We have shares in a cow – a “cow bond”.

To be sure, our local Ayrshires average only around 5000 litres a year – far less than the national average which is now around 7500, and about half the output of the “elite” industrial animals. But the farmer and his assistant, with their 20 cows (around 17 in milk at any one time) make a living (and are absolutely absorbed by their work). They sell it to us, delivered, for £1.20 per litre for whole milk (semi-skimmed is paradoxically dearer). That is far more than the loss-leader supermarket variety but is not dearer than supermarket organic. So the income per cow per year is around £5000. Twenty cows provide a gross return per year of £100,000 (around US $140,000). Costs are irreducibly low (very little bought-in feed, no high-tech revolving milking parlour, and so on).

Many still argue, of course, that the micro-dairy is just an exercize in nostalgia, for the effete middle classes. The masses need the mega-outputs of industrial farms and cannot afford to pay £1 or more per litre for milk when supermarkets may sell it for less than half of that. Besides, it’s said, half the world’s population now live in cities and in Britain and other “developed” countries it’s nearer 90% and city-dwellers cannot possibly be supplied from small farms, dairy or otherwise.

Like much – most? — of modern food-lore, this is nonsense. When I was a lad my home town of London was about the biggest in the world with 8 million plus yet our food was very largely supplied by mostly small farms in the surrounding “home” counties. Small well-managed farms can be far more productive per unit area than big ones. We just need a lot more of them. Urban and peri-urban farms can be among the most productive and profitable of all, and dairy lends itself very well to the peri-urban farm. It’s just a question of priorities. Land doesn’t have to be sold to the highest bidder.  If supermarkets as a whole seem cheap it’s partly because the economy is tipped so heavily in their favour, and partly sleight of hand. Ultra-cheap milk is a marketing lure, bait for the impulse purchase of the TV dinner and the cook-in sauce. Supermarkets seem cheap too because they drive very hard bargains, playing off the farmers the world over, one against another. They are not so cheap as they seem, either, since 80% of money spent in supermarkets goes to support the food chain itself, including the supermarket. The farmer gets only 20% of the retail price. With traditional food chains farmers receive anything from 35 – 100 % of the retail price, depending on how far they care to double up as processors and retailers. Besides, in Britain, a million people in Britain must now resort to food banks, where they may pick up free tins of bottom-of-the range reconstituted pork and dubious own-brand biscuits. To be sure, many of the people who work in food banks are heroes who strive very hard to raise the standards but even so, the fact that such hand-outs are needed in one of the world’s richest countries is a disgrace. Britain could easily ensure that everyone has access to excellent food, and most of it – all but the exotica – could and should be grown at home. The problem does not lie with agriculture, but with an economic system that seems designed to produce inequality, and succeeds in this to a spectacular extent. The mystery is why we put up with all this, and why the opposition parties don’t more effectively oppose. It seems that farming is not on their radar.

Again, it seems, the most realistic way forward is through Agrarian Renaissance – not merely to protest, but to build the alternative despite the status quo, and allow and encourage the status quo to wither on the vine.  Micro-dairies are a prime example of what’s required.

Colin Tudge, March 7 2017

Inequality and the Price of Food

Oxfam told the World Economic Forum in Davos that tax havens are largely to blame for the vast gap between rich and poor. But the problem runs deeper, says Colin Tudge. We have to think again from first principles.

It’s been known for a few years that just one per cent of the world’s population now own as much as the rest of us combined; and now, an Oxfam report written for the 2016 annual World Economic Forum in Davos tells us that 62 individual people — 53 men and nine women; scarcely enough to fill one tourist bus — own as much as the poorest 50%. The bottom 50% have lost a trillion dollars since 2010 while the wealth of “the 62” has increased by half a trillion.

One reason for this, says Oxfam, is tax havens. The super-rich have stashed an estimated $7.6tr in offshore accounts. If they paid tax on the income that this wealth generates, that would add an extra $190b to the world’s governments – which, at least in theory, they could spend on the wellbeing of humanity and the biosphere. About 30% of Africa’s wealth is held off-shore, or so it’s estimated — worth $14 billion a year in lost tax revenues. That’s enough, says Oxfam, “to save 4 million children’s lives a year and employ enough teachers to get every African child into school”. In 2013 David Cameron promised the WEF and hence the world that he would lead a global effort against aggressive tax avoidance in the UK and in poor countries. But, says Oxfam, “promised measures to increase transparency in British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, such as the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands, have not yet been implemented”.

Absolutely equal shares for all as some moralists have advocated is surely not sensible or even just (some people need more than others, and for various reasons may be said to deserve more) but most people even at the WEF would agree that inequality on the present scale is seriously unfair. It is clearly damaging, too, since the extreme wealth of the few does far more harm than good to the rest of us, and to the biosphere at large, even if a few of the super-rich aspire to be philanthropists. The unfairness and the damage between them may reasonably be said to be seriously wicked. Yet this is a central fact of the world economy. No wonder the world is in a mess.

But are tax havens really central to the issue? They may or may not be legal (non-lawyers must fear to tread) but they are obviously unsocial and could reasonably be said, in practice if not in theory, to be corrupt.

Yet to blame tax havens for our present plight, or to blame corruption in general, is seriously to miss the point. It implies that the economy as a whole would be OK if it weren’t for tax havens or for corruption, perpetrated by a few bad hats. In truth the economy as a whole, the kind that David Cameron’s government wholeheartedly supports, and the Coalition before that, and the strangely conceived “New Labour” of Brown and Blair before that, inexorably creates inequality. The inequality of the present global economy is not an anomaly, caused by a few dubious people breaking the rules. It is systemic. If the present economy was working absolutely as intended, with everyone obeying the rules with squeaky cleanliness, it would still create gross inequality, not significantly different from what we have now.

One good reason for this was spelled out at a meeting on Holistic Economics, held at Schumacher College, Devon, in November 2007, by the German environmentalist Margrit Kennedy. The prime cause of ever-growing inequality, she said, is the debt economy, made worse by compound interest. We all of us in practice spend a significant proportion of our income paying interest on debts, which get steadily larger, exponentially, if we don’t pay them off immediately.  This is true even if we don’t feel that we personally are in debt. For even if we ourselves have no HP and have paid off our mortgages, other people have not: and when we buy stuff from a trader, or get our hair cut or our car fixed, a fair slice of the bill goes to pay off the traders’ debts – the interest that they are paying on their mortgages and hired machinery.

Of course, there must be lenders as well as borrowers. We are all perforce borrowers – or at least are paying other people’s interest on what they have borrowed. But anyone who has invested their money in someone else’s enterprise is also a lender, and they receive at least some of the money that other people are paying to service their own debts. In the end, then, the loans must balance out the debts and if we all lent as much as we borrowed and received interest at the same rate as we pay it out then presumably the lending and borrowing would not lead to inequality.

In practice, though, things don’t work like that. In any one society some people are net lenders, receiving more money in interest than they must pay out, to service their own or other people’s debts. Some are in a neutral position, receiving roughly the same as they pay out. Some are net debtors, paying out more than they get back.

In real societies, the net debtors far outweigh the net lenders. Germany has an economy fairly typical of western countries, though healthier than most, and there, according to Margrit, about 80% of the people, the ordinary kind who make their living by working, pay out about twice as much in interest each year as they receive from their various investments. About 10 per cent of the people are in balance; they are receiving roughly as much in interest from their various investments as they are paying out in interest on their own and other people’s debts. The remaining 10 per cent are net beneficiaries – receiving all the interest paid out by the 80 per cent who are the net payers.

So it is that money floats inexorably from the bottom to the top. In Germany in 2004 about one billion euros every day found their way from the 80 per cent who work for a living to the 10 per cent who sit at the top of the financial tree. The equivalent rate of transfer in Britain seems likely to be even higher since most people here have a mortgage and mortgages on average account for half our disposable income.

In short, the present economy seems expressly designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  If it is not expressly designed so to do, this is at least an unintended consequence of huge proportion; and if this was not easily foreseeable, it is at least obvious in retrospect, since global inequality has been growing steadily and rapidly both between countries and within countries since the neoliberal global economy and its various intricacies became the norm circa 1980.

On the face of things, it seems that the ill-effects of the debt economy could be mitigated if the banks, the principal lenders, were owned by society as a whole or by communities. Then, the money that now has fallen into the hands of the few and created the super-rich elite would be owned by us all and – in theory at least — could be used for the general good. It is not obvious why there seems to be so little enthusiasm in high places, or indeed in society at large, for national or local banks. Presumably it’s because the few who have reached super-rich status tend also to control the lines of communication and influence public information and opinion to a significant degree.

The inequality, and the systematic flow of wealth from poor to rich, affects everyone at all levels – and farmers as always are in the firing line. They are prime victims of the modern economy, fiercely though some of them strive to defend it. For farmers are constantly encouraged to stay afloat by taking out more and more heroic loans – an aspect of the “bold” farming that was a prime theme of this year’s Oxford Farming Conference (not to be confused with the Oxford Real Farming Conference).

Less obviously, but crucially, the huge inequalities in income affect the price of food. Governments strive piously to keep down the price of food, ostensibly for the benefit of us all. In practice in recent years they have contrived to do this primarily by attacking the farm labour force, though this in practice accounts for only a small proportion of the total food bill. Unemployment is the result, of course – and unemployment is the royal road to deprivation. Governments like ours also support industrialization to achieve economies of scale – which seriously compromises the biosphere (though intellectuals can be found to argue that it does not), and ultimately threatens us all. In truth, food could be made cheaper than it is, without gross injustice and without damaging the Earth, but only by a radical re-think of farming methods and the economy and moral attitudes that lie behind present practice, and re-thinking is not what governments do. Certain it is, though, that within the present economy and Zeitgeist, food prices cannot be brought down any further except by perpetrating serious injustice and by wrecking the fabric of the world. Ad hoc fiddling of the kind undertaken by the CAP and discussed every year at length by government and the NFU at the Oxford Farming Conference and sometimes at the WEF, just will not do.

Specifically, if some people earn 100 or a 1000 times more than others, and if government intervention is considered taboo (we mustn’t interfere with the “free market” or increase public spending!) it is impossible to fix a sensible price for food. Food for the very rich is now too cheap for them to notice although in Britain, still among the world’s richest countries, we’re told, a million must resort to food banks, sometimes for good stuff (local groups do their heroic best) but typically for packets of own-brand biscuits and past-sell-by tins of Spam.

Governments like ours, of all parties, have presided over all this, and they fetch up at Davos once a year at huge expense to wring their hands (I gave a talk there once, in fact several, and the wringing was audible at 100 paces) and do everything except get to the heart of the matter. In this as in all things they – but more importantly we — have to think again from first principles.

Colin Tudge’s latest book, Six Steps Back to the Land, is now available from Green Books at £16.99.

Margrit Kennedy (1939-2013) was primarily an architect and environmentalist but she also made very significant contributions to economic thinking. In 2011 she initiated the movement, Occupy Money. Her books include: Occupy Money: Creating an Economy Where Everybody Wins; and  Building Community Schools: An Analysis of Experiences.

Farming needs entrepreneurs – but beware!

Colin Tudge questions the wisdom of a new report on entrepreneurship

This year the Oxford Farming Conference (the “official” one, which has now been going for 70 years) launched an 84-page report on Entrepreneurship: a kiss of life for the UK farming sector – and in many ways the report is very sound.

Its authors, Graham Redman of The Andersons Centre and Dr Muhammad Azam Roomi of Cranfield University, point out that “Farms are remarkably strong places from which to develop entrepreneurial businesses. They have valuable resources, most of which have been relatively inefficiently deployed, and often have a strong capital base”.

They add – very encouragingly – that “the business must remain true to its agricultural roots, and respect the land and home farm”. Historically, says Redman, “farming demonstrates a lower level of entrepreneurialism than other sectors”, at least in part because farmers have been “more concerned with subsistence and survival”.

All this is fine. Farms can very properly be conceived as businesses, and businesses do need to make money – at least enough to provide all concerned with a reasonable living – and in a changing world it is necessary to innovate, and most farms probably do exploit their assets far less imaginatively than they might; and attempts to address all these issues must, by definition, be entrepreneurial. This applies to all farmers in a non-centralized economy, including those who seek to follow the path of “Enlightened Agriculture”, aka “Real Farming”. Indeed, those committed to Enlightened Agriculture perhaps need to be more entrepreneurial than most – because, at least for the time being, they must swim against the economic and political tide. Redman’s and Roomi’s report surely contains some excellent tips for all.

Yet there is a caveat. At least to judge from the accompanying press release, the new report lacks any serious reference to what in the end matters most of all: human values. Thus we are told, “those farmers who are budding Bransons or Dysons make more profit”. Farmers are indeed advised to look after the “home farm” – but primarily because it is “the golden goose which lays the golden egg of entrepreneurialism.” Successful businesspeople, we are told, “go out of their way to question the established order of things and look for ways to create competitive advantage.”

In other words, this report is designed to accord with the economic and political thinking that now dominates the world. As a matter of policy, indeed of strategy, in line with the economic theory known colloquially as neoliberalism, all the world’s economies are conceived as parts of one great global market. The aim of the market is not expressly to make the world a better place, more secure and more convivial, but to generate wealth. To be fair, some supporters of the neoliberal market (including, apparently, one of its founding fathers, Milton Friedman) and including many modern politicians from all the main parties, apparently believe or believed that the creation of wealth per se must be good. Margaret Thatcher, who first introduced neoliberalism to Britain and thence to the world at large, argued that it is impossible to do good things in this world unless we get rich first, and the richer we become the more good we can do. This, she once told a gathering of Scottish clerics, is the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan (her sermon is on film).

Other supporters of the neoliberal market, though, have no such morality. They simply argue – at least in private – along what might be called “Brute Darwinian” lines: the idea of natural selection, but in a corrupted form. For them the greatest virtue is to be competitive – a perpetual struggle for more wealth and a bigger “market share”. All producers and traders must seek “competitive advantage”. This leads to the post-Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest” with its corollary, “the devil takes the hindmost”. Competition is of course tempered by judicious cartels between the biggest players, and the devil is not allowed to take the hindmost if the hindmost happens to be a transnational bank. But that is the general idea.

Neither does any devotee of the neoliberal market care too much, apparently, about how the wealth is generated in the first place. If it’s legal, it’s OK: and if it’s not legal, then the lawyers and accountants set to work to balance the profits to be gained by wrongdoing against the possible fines if they are caught. The fines are rarely commensurate with the gain and the cost of the collateral damage.

It’s clear, too – theory suggests that it must be so, and experience shows that it is so – that although the global market is supposed to be a “level playing field”, in fact it must favour the strongest competitors; and the strongest at one time tend to be the biggest, not least because they can afford to employ very clever people, from the world’s most expensive universities, to out-manoeuvre everybody else. In short, the global market favours the corporates. Small businesses who throw themselves into the global market may do well in the short term but in the longer term they are supporting an economic system that favours giant companies who can buy them out or otherwise overtake them. Margaret Thatcher began as the champion of small businesses (her hero was her father, Alfred Roberts, alderman, lay preacher, and local grocer) but the economic system she favoured did more than anyone to kill them off.

So yes: the general idea behind the new report is sound enough. Farmers have to make money and many and perhaps most of them could make far more of their assets that they do. But the underlying philosophy – the reasons for doing things; the goal of the whole endeavour – is deeply suspect.  Farmers, and all of us, have to ask what kind of world we really want. We have to ask, as the literary critic F R Leavis put the matter, “By what do we stand?” Making money per se does not necessarily lead to a better world. Demonstrably, in many different ways, it can lead to a far worse one – not the least being that the maximization of wealth by all-out competition leads to the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. Entrepreneurship and indeed all business, and technology, have to be contained within a moral, aesthetic and spiritual framework or they are all too apt to become highly destructive. Alderman Roberts would certainly have agreed with this and so would almost all the greatest economists. Almost all, from Adam Smith to Amartya Sen, talk about moral and social principles as much as they talk about money.

In practice, the task for everyone who wants the world to be a better place is two-fold. In the short term we all need to make a living – which indeed can mean being entrepreneurial. But at the same time, everyone who gives a damn has to help to lay the foundations for a better world – and that cannot be one that is run, as the world is now, along simple market lines. The market itself must be contained within a moral and social framework.

All this is the point of the Campaign for Real Farming and the College for Real Farming and Food Culture. It also shows very clearly the difference between the Oxford Farming Conference, which has launched the Anderson’s-Cranfield report, and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. The OFC seeks above all to fit in with the status quo and calls that “realistic”. The ORFC observes that the status quo is not working and seeks, by Renaissance rather than by Revolution, to help create something that will.

Colin Tudge January 5 2016