We can’t control floods – or drought! – unless we involve the farmers

— and that needs a government that governs

By Colin Tudge
Simple arithmetic tells us that a few tweaks in farming could make a huge difference to Britain’s ability to cope with flood – and with the droughts we could be facing in a few months’ time. Thus, the catchment area that picks up the rain is likely to be at least a thousand times larger than the area on which all that water is finally dumped. So one inch of rain on the surrounding hills becomes 1000 inches – more than 80 feet — in the river, or in the high street if the river can’t cope.

Catastrophes are rare only because the rain doesn’t fall all at once, and by the time the last drop has fallen the water that fell first has already been safely drained away. So the total amount is obviously important – six inches of rain over the catchment is harder to cope with than one inch. But timing matters just as much: how quickly, or slowly, the water flows from the hills to the drains to the river and so to the sea. If the water that falls on the hills takes a day to drain away, as opposed to one hour – or a week rather than a day – then the rivers would probably cope.

Much of the catchment that funnels the water into the rivers is likely to be farmland – and farmers can do a very great deal to stem the flow, and to buy time. In fact they, rather than civil engineers (or the inexhaustible sand-bags that David Cameron has offered, or the emergency services and the army whom he has cause to praise so fulsomely) could almost certainly make the greatest contribution of all. By far. They can do this in four main ways:

1: Planting. Deep-rooting perennial plants in general hold more water for longer than annuals, so here is another good reason to follow the lead of Britain’s Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and raise animals on home-grown pasture rather than on home-grown cereal or (still less!) on imported cereal and soya. PFLA members are showing that this can be done – cattle and sheep on 100% pasture, and pigs and poultry on more than is generally supposed. The best water-catchers of all, though, are trees. Once (and in some countries, still) it was standard practice to plant trees at the tops of hills to stem the flow of water from the top and to prevent erosion. Trees stop at least some of the rain from reaching the ground at all: they catch it on their leaves and some of it then evaporates away. The rain that does reach the ground is in part transpired away. In any case, they certainly slow the run-off. Trees (and hedgerows) are even more helpful when planted in rows or in narrow copses along the contours. Ideally they should then be integrated into the farming system as a whole to become a true exercize in agroforestry. This all seems obvious. But while much of the world including the EU has been promoting agroforestry, Defra has not.

2: Cultivation: ground-cover and contours. It helps, too, a lot, if fields are never left bare, and if the land is ploughed at all it should be around the contours rather than up and down.  I seem to remember learning that in O-level geography. But in much of Britain, this is not the norm.

3: Topography. Chinese and South East Asian farmers hold millions of tonnes of monsoon rain on hillsides and mountain sides by terracing – paddy fields in the sky. We don’t grow rice in Britain but the principle can still be applied. Swales (barriers) can be made along the contours with straw-bales or logs or stones covered in earth. It may be possible to create ponds, sometimes permanent ponds, on the upward side – good for wildlife, and a reserve against future drought.

4: Soil structure. Last but certainly not least, the soil can be made more spongy, able to hold far more water, just by increasing the organic content – which of course has many other advantages too.

So should we blame the farmers for the floods? Occasionally, perhaps, but in general, absolutely not. Like all working people they are hard-pressed to make a living and often cannot afford the kinds of changes that are needed. It costs a lot to introduce significant agroforestry, and to convert to organic. If farms are to do what needs doing, society as a whole must bear at least some of the cost.

Here indeed is yet another instance where governments are required to govern: to do what obviously needs doing on behalf of the society they were elected to serve, and on behalf of humanity and the biosphere as a whole. But the general strategy of all British governments of all parties since about 1980 has been to leave the country’s affairs to the market which means that power is ceded to the corporates, especially the transnationals, who play the market most adroitly; and to the banks, who lend the money (or, to be accurate, have been given the right to deem that the money has been lent, and to demand pay-back with interest). Government strategy in agriculture as in all things has been to offer the corporates and banks the opportunity to fill their boots. Corporates have little or nothing to gain from agroforestry or organic farming, but big engineering companies can make a killing by building dams and ramparts. So if anything at all is done, that is what will be done.

To control floods we need a different approach to farming – and a different approach to governance. Sir John Beddington in his Foresight report of 2011 on The Future of Food and Farming said “we cannot continue with business as usual”. More to the point, we cannot continue with governance as usual. Truly the world’s affairs need re-thinking from first principles.
Colin Tudge,

December 31 2015

How farming can lead the world out of its present mess

How do we solve the dilemma – that machines make life easier, which is good, but also put people out of work, which isn’t? Colin Tudge suggests that farming at least can resolve the issue – which surely has relevance for everything else that we do.
Yesterday Ruth and I went to Blackwells to see Paul Mason launch his new book on the post-capitalist economy: Postcapitalism: a Guide to our Future (Penguin Books, 2015, £16.99).
He described an economic sequence that is still unfolding before our eyes:
1: In pre-technological societies we have labour-intensive industry and agriculture: hand-looms and small farms. The labour is skilled.
2: Technology replaces the labour. The technology in practice is owned by a minority (an elite).
3: As the technology grows and becomes smarter (more and more able to anything that human beings can do, up to a point) the traditional skills (crafts) become obsolete (or so it is assumed!).  Since income is related to skill, more and more people are downgraded: either unemployed, or forced into unskilled roles.
4: Before long, all societies are awash with people who are desperate for any kind of income, willing or forced to take on jobs, for very little money, that their skilled parents and grandparents would have scorned. Then it becomes cheaper for the elite to employ desperate people than to build smart machines.
We can see this happening now in car-wash depots. Eight men with buckets of soapy water that need no capital outlay are replacing big, automatic, capital-intensive car-wash machines. Plenty of people are employed and so contribute to the government’s stats which show how cleverly they are bringing down unemployment, but it is not good to see people who could do much better, spending their lives washing cars.
5: In general, barring the odd workers’ cooperative, the elite continue to own and take the profit from the new gangs of workers just as they did from the machines.  So order is maintained.
Here in a nutshell is the dilemma that the Luddites faced up to – and was most famously addressed among others by John Ruskin, William Morris, Tolstoy, and Gandhi: how to strike a balance between the human need to work, and to develop valued skills, and to be properly paid, against the fact that big and sometimes nasty machines can often do the job better and quicker. (Karl Marx approached the issue from a different angle).
But also, we see writ large around us the political/ social problem that all societies have faced at least since the beginning of civilization: how to create/ ensure social justice. Do we really want a massive disproportion of wealth and privilege? Do we really want a world in which the richest 10% own 80% of the world’s wealth and the bottom 20% have less than one per cent? Or one in which the world’s top 0.1% form a super-elite,  and have a huge influence over all our lives?
Some people obviously do. But most surely do not — including at least some of those who currently are very rich.
The problem of inequality is huge and has many ramifications, including moral (or course), metaphysical, and religious. But an aspect of it is the one addressed by the Luddites, Ruskin, Morris, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and now by Paul Mason; which is in effect is how to keep skills and crafts alive, and the dignity and status that goes with them, when technologies are available that can do at least a passable job (and sometimes a better job) at a 100th of the cost. How, too – given that hands-on labour even when skilled is generally pretty physical (as any chef or potter will attest) –can we devise/ provide technologies to serve the needs of craftspeople without putting them out of work? How can and why should society as a whole support traditional skills if they are more expensive than machines? And so on.
Agriculture raises all these issues in spades. But, I suggest, agriculture – and cooking and baking etc – have one huge card to play. Demonstrably, traditional, skilled farming and cooking and baking etc at its best does a far better job than its industrial replacement. It can and does produce more pleasing food with a higher nutritional value with far less damage to the biosphere and (when very well done) can be just as productive, or more productive, in terms of food per unit area, than the industrial kind. Indeed it’s clear that if we continue to farm along obsessively industrial lines, marching to the drum of neoliberalism, then the prospects for the world as a whole are grim.
Thus there is an a priori argument for protecting skilled traditional farming which, perhaps, cannot be made so readily on behalf of any other form of production. That is, we may well favour hand-crafted pots or tiles or whatever over the industrial kind but we cannot deny that the industrial kind does a very good job, remarkably cheaply (and also of course requires considerable skill). But we can readily show that a traditional food chain – small mixed farms, local marketing, traditional cooking – at its best is superior to the high-tech kind; and although we are constantly told otherwise, such short traditional food chains need not be niche and could be available to everyone. That is, the conventional defence of neoliberal-industrial agriculture – that most people would starve without it – is a straightforward untruth, at least if the alternative was given half a chance to show what it can do.
So while the government urges farmers to shed labour while pursuing the dream of profit and “growth”, and the NFU rushes to fall into line (was ever the word “union” so misapplied?) the rest of us should, as they say in Yorkshire, think on, and build the alternative.  The necessary skills and general know-how are still out there, waiting to be re-discovered and built upon; and so, too, are the economic models that could wrest control of the whole shebang from a very small minority and restore it to society at large. But we need as always to re-think from first principles and get stuck in.
Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, November 13 2015

Britain’s Milk, India’s Cotton, and a World Economy Disastrously Off-Course

Colin Tudge argues that to solve the problems of Britain’s dairy farmers – indeed of all farmers – we must dig deep and go on digging; and must not rely on the world’s present-day leaders

On Monday August 10 farmers’ leaders met with supermarket bosses and Defra representatives to resolve the crisis in Britain’s dairy farming that had led to weeks of noisy if peaceful protest – a crisis that sees milk sold in supermarkets for less than the price of bottle water, fluctuating farm-gate prices that often are less than the cost of production, and a continuing exodus, not quite a deluge but a decades-long haemorrhage, of farmers out of farming. After frank and full exchanges the farmers’ leaders said this can’t go on; the supermarket bosses said it wasn’t their fault; and the government representatives said everything is on course. Frankly and fearlessly, the delegates agreed to hold another meeting.

So that’s all right then. Everything is in hand.

Well actually, no. The dispassionate observer cannot but conclude that if the present negotiators talked along the same kind of lines from now until doomsday, plus 10 minutes each way extra time, nothing worthwhile would emerge. Cows will become more and more productive, the technology will become more and more gung-ho, dairy farms will grow bigger and bigger and more capital intensive, milk will continue to be undersold, dairy farmers will continue to go bust, and power will be concentrated more and more into the hands of an irreducible number of transnational corporates. Governments like the present one will continue to insist that they are firmly in control, though they will also point out that whatever happens to be going wrong at the time is out of their hands. But they will assure us that whatever the short-term pain, it all represents progress: part of Britain’s and Mankind’s continuing march to, er, somewhere or other.

For it is very hard to imagine that anyone in a position of real influence will ever get round to discussing, or even acknowledging, the deep malaise that lies behind the present plight of dairy farming – and indeed is blighting all agriculture, and the whole human race, and our fellow creatures. It is the more or less absolute loss of all values, apart from the perceived value of money; the subjugation of all human aspiration to the obsessive compulsion to maximize and concentrate wealth into the hands of those who play the money game the hardest. The earnest and sometimes fierce discussions over the price of milk will lead to tight-lipped ultimata but, like the deliberations of, say, the CAP, they will not in any worthwhile sense be what John McEnroe used to call serious.

If we were serious, we would approach the problems of Britain’s dairy farmers at many different levels. Of course, as a matter of urgency, we must indeed address the farm-gate price of milk. The dairy farmers’ ills could largely be alleviated in the short term by adding a few pence per litre. But low prices are only a symptom of more general dysfunction. Truly to put things right we need to dig far deeper.

We need to ask whether dairy farming itself in Britain (or any kind of farming, anywhere in the world) is now being run on the right lines. Are British dairy farms as they stand truly fit for purpose? Are they the right size? Is the husbandry appropriate – not just in the short term, but far into the future? Is it kind to livestock? Is it kind to farmers? Does it provide milk of the highest quality? How does it interact with the rest of the biosphere? Is it damaging – and if so, how could the damage be reduced? Might it even bring net benefit to our fellow species? (to which the answer surely is yes, or at least it could be).

Then we must ask: if we are not farming in the best possible way, why not? How can we support the kind of farming we really need, and is desirable? In particular, does the present economic and political structure favour the kind of farming we need, or is it forcing farmers, and all the rest of us, down paths that are unpleasant and are leading us to a dead end? What kind of economy would meet our needs, and how can we introduce it?
Then if we really wanted to get to the bottom of things we should dig down to the metaphysical sub-basement and ask what we, as individuals and as the human race, are really trying to achieve on this Earth, and why, and whether our aspirations are morally acceptable and realistic in the long term. That’s a discussion that should never end, and should involve everybody, with a good sprinkling of clerics. Right now, though, among the people who most directly determine how the rest of us live, it is not happening at all.

If the past is anything to go by, the appointed negotiators – the farmers’ leaders and supermarket delegates and whoever Defra sends – will not get beyond stage one. They may perhaps negotiate a farm-gate price for milk that will keep some farmers happy, or at least slow the rate of bankruptcy, but they seem unlikely to ask whether dairy farming as a whole needs re-thinking; and they surely will not venture into the deep waters of the world economy. Deep, radical thinking is needed but few among the leaders of agriculture and big business and government do think deeply and none is truly radical for if they were they would not have risen to positions of influence. However disastrous the status quo may be, they see it as their duty to work within it. Change that could truly be called serious is deemed to be “unrealistic”.

At the immediate level, the issues are obvious enough. The farm gate price of milk goes up and down with the global market price and at present leaves virtually no margin for profit and often is less than the cost of production. The solution proposed by those with the most power including the government is to reduce the cost of production, and then reduce it again, basically by high tech and scaling up – which may work for a time in the short term so long as the price of oil is suitably adjusted so that it is just about affordable, and there are suitable tax breaks and creative accountancy, and no-one counts the social cost or the damage to the biosphere, or thinks beyond the next five years.

But it is ludicrous to gear the entire strategy of any industry, let alone an industry as important as dairy – or indeed as agriculture as a whole – to short-term prices. For as everyone knows (you don’t have to be a farmer or an economist to get the point) farm gate prices are subject to all kinds of pressures that really are to a large extent beyond control. One present threat to milk producers, apparently, is the reduced demand from China which is depressing world prices; but next week it could be some other bolt from the blue, from some other part of the world. Much hangs on unfolding events in the Ukraine. The supermarkets who determine the retail price (up to a point) see themselves in to-the-death competition with their suppliers, in this case the farmers, and each competes with all the others for customers and investors, and for all these reasons they must keep their prices as low as possible. You can’t blame the supermarkets for low prices (of course not), any more than you can blame the government for anything at all. But something has to give.
The big questions, though, begin at the next level of discussion. British dairy farming as a whole has been in virtual free-fall for some decades. Government stats tell us that the UK still had nearly 32,000 registered dairy units in 1998 and now is down to around 11,000. According to a report in 2011 from WSPA (now called World Animal Protection or WAP) we are losing one dairy farm every day. If a small factory closed in Scotland, say, or Solihull or Slough, with the loss of a few hundred jobs, it would be on national news, but the decline of dairy farmers or indeed of the agricultural community as a whole has gone almost unremarked. The loss of farms and farmers can, after all, be presented as progress of a kind – compensated to some extent by an increase in the average size of dairy herds, from a UK average of 95 in 2003 to 123 in 2013 (the average in England is somewhat larger than in the UK as a whole).

Total cow numbers fell too by 45% between 1980 and 2013: from 3.2 million to 1.8 million in 2013 – yet the total milk output in the UK has fallen only modestly over the past 17 years or so. We produced 14.2 billion litres in 1998, and, with far fewer cows, 13.5 billion litres in 2013. For the yield per cow has been steadily increased from 5775 litres (1272 gallons) per lactation in 1998 to 7735 litres (1710 gallons) in 2013.

In short, since the 1990s, milk output from the UK has remained much the same while farmers and cows have been lost and herd size and yield have gone up – and overall control has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Recent plans for an 8000-head dairy unit at Nocton in Lincolnshire have mercifully been warded off but many in high places still think that the future must lie with mega-units —  for as long as oil is still affordable and the world as a whole behaves itself and we don’t count the social and environmental cost or think too deeply about the long term, and keep our fingers crossed, it pays to scale up.

But we should be asking, too, whether this technical transformation and the shift of power and income is a good thing. Is it good to reduce the number of units and of farmers, and increase the size of herds, and the productivity of beasts?

According to the neoliberal theory of economics that governments of all parties have subscribed to over the past 35 years the shift from a lot of small farms to a few big ones is exactly what’s needed. The same amount of milk from fewer animals means more output per animal, and the same output from fewer farmers means more output per worker – and in both cases this is seen to represent an increase in “efficiency”. Efficiency is taken self-evidently to be good. Ipso facto, it is progress. Every year at the Oxford Farming Conference government and NFU leaders queue up to tell the world that British agriculture is “vibrant” and “exciting” and the loss of dairy cows and farmers without significant loss of overall output is taken to be a proof of this. After all, nobody wants to be inefficient, and those who are not efficient cannot hope to compete with those who are; and the modern world is, above all, competitive; so the less efficient go to the wall, and quite rightly. QED.  Done and dusted.

But such “progress” comes at a price, as the WSPA (WAP) report went some way to pointing out. Grass and its accompanying herbs, which wet, cool, hilly Britain grows very well and is cheap, must be supplemented more and more by expensive concentrate that is largely imported.  The higher the milk-yield the greater the stress to the animals, which is unkind and sometimes downright cruel; and greater stress means higher vet bills and reduces the cows’ productive life, from eight or more lactations which once was common, down to a national average of less than three. Farmers are stressed too as their herds grow bigger and their capital investment and day-to-day outgoings increase. With costs out of all proportion to the size of a sensible farming unit, and with prices that go up and down with the wind, the debts continue to mount. As more and more farmers fall by the wayside, the life of those who remain becomes less and less convivial. As small local farms with cows in the fields, and real farmers and farm workers, are replaced by farm factories in big sheds, rural economies lose their focus, and most of their reason for being, and people as a whole lose contact with their own food supply, all of which has endless social and nutritional drawbacks.

Yet although the motive for the structural shift is economic it isn’t obvious that there is any net economic gain either – or not at least to people at large.  As the herds have grown bigger so too has the capital investment and the amount that needs to be borrowed. Many farmers have quit through bankruptcy but many more have seen the writing on the wall and de-camped before they do. As power has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, a few (including some farmers, but mostly financiers of one kind or another) have grown rich, and some have become very rich indeed. It still isn’t obvious, though, why it is better to have a few very rich people and a lot who must find new ways to earn a living, rather than to ensure that everyone has a worthwhile job and can pay their way.

So what has really gone wrong? How have we managed to bring agriculture, and indeed the whole world, to such a pass? The answers are long and complex, infinitely so, but the reason things have got so bad so quickly surely lies with neoliberalism. The objection to neoliberalism is not that it is capitalist. Some economists define capitalism in narrow, technical terms but in practice it’s a broad church which takes many forms, and some of them are perfectly acceptable. Harold Macmillan was a good capitalist – a commercial publisher – and also an archetypal Tory Prime Minister.  Yet his government built many thousands of council houses and jealously guarded the NHS and my generation benefited from free education up to and including post-graduate. In his policies, as opposed to his rhetoric, Macmillan showed a stronger sense of society than Ed Miliband – meaning that he was further to the left. Yet the country has drifted so far to the right since Macmillan’s day that Miliband was known even within his own party as Ed the Red (showing singular ignorance both of British history and of what it means to be Communist). By the same token, in practice if not in conviction, Democrat Barack Obama is to the right of Republican Richard Nixon, and far to the right of the Republican Dwight D Eisenhower (who for example warned the world against “the industrial-military complex”, which is very close to the corporate rule that now prevails).

For capitalism in many of its traditional forms was constrained by a broadly accepted, common morality, rooted in compassion. Traditional businesses of a kind that can reasonably be called capitalist were often underpinned by a strong social conscience. Many great companies were founded by Quakers (even though some of them, alas, subsequently became less great, at least from a moral point of view). But the moral underpinning was by no means exclusively Christian. Traditional Jewish and Muslim societies since ancient times condemned usury, charging excessive interest on loans, or any interest at all come to that. Clearly they were not modern capitalists, but lending with interest remains a key component of capitalism, although the word “usury” seems to have dropped out of currency. The proto-capitalist merchants of Mandarin China were of low social standing, even though they were rich. The scholars stood far higher.

As a matter of doctrine, neoliberalism has shaken off such moral qualms. The motive for this, to be fair, is not evil. It is born simply of a huge mistake. The mistake is to suppose that the economy is morally neutral (and some scientists have fallen into the same error). Its only task, the neoliberals argue, is to generate wealth. Wealth is good, the doctrine has it – the more we can generate, the happier and more secure we will be. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher famously argued in a sermon to the elders of the Scottish churches (much to their bemusement) the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that you need to be rich to do good, because if the Samaritan had been poor he could not have afforded the ointment to heal the wounded Jew, or employed a servant to apply it. Of course the neoliberals concede that rich people may do bad things too – but, they argue, this has nothing to do with the economy per se. The generation of wealth cannot be bad in itself. There is no good or bad about it. The morality is applied post hoc. It has purely to do with what people do with their wealth.

But of course the economy is not morally neutral, and cannot be (any more than science can be, in practice). All actions that affect third parties, whether other human beings or other species (or we might say, the fabric of the Earth) have moral connotations; and nothing affects people and the world at large more than the economy. It matters very much, morally, how the wealth is generated – whether in ways that benefit a lot of people, for example by supplying a great many jobs and looking after the biosphere, or in ways that do short-term damage, for example by reducing the work force, without regard for the natural world. It matters enormously who finishes up with the wealth: whether the economic structure is designed to spread the wealth widely (as the cooperative structure for example of John Lewis may be said to do) or whether it is inclined to concentrate the booty in the hands of a few (as modern banking does). It matters too how the various participants in the economy treat each other. Are they content with friendly rivalry, helping each other out in difficult times, or do they fight to the death, intent on seeing off rivals?

As many have pointed out (including some biologists) the neoliberal economy is in a general way “Darwinian”; or, as they tend to say, “neodarwininan”. Yet this is an insult to Darwin, who was a far more subtle thinker than most of the neoliberal apologists. The brand of Darwinian that is wheeled out for economic purposes is best called “Brute Darwinism”: a crude version of the original that began in the late 19th century with Herbert Spencer, who reduced the whole thesis to “survival of the fittest”, and was further simplified along similar lines throughout the 20th century.

Anyway, neoliberalism demands that everything in the world, including the fabric of the world itself and all cultural pursuits, should be given a cash price. Everything that exists and everything that everybody does is then put up for sale in an all-embracing, “global” market. There are no rules imposed from outside, or at least as few as possible. The neoliberals demand that the market should be “deregulated”. The external moral restraints of yesteryear are shaken off. The market itself decides what is good or what is bad. Admittedly, there are a few taboos. Child pornography in most circles is a no-no but otherwise, anything that anyone will pay for is OK. On my one appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos I heard human cloning defended on the grounds that there is a market for it. Whatever people will pay most for is best. The moral case is bolstered by reference to Adam Smith’s observation in the 18th century that if everyone in a market or indeed in a society simply operated in their own best interests, then an “invisible hand” would ensure that everything worked out for the best, because people who did things badly or were dishonest would be weeded out. In some ways this is a pre-echo of Darwin. But as President Obama observed, in the real world, for all kinds of reasons, the invisible hand does not work.

But the market does work to its own cardinal rule: that of brute Darwinism. Everyone is required to compete as hard as they can with everyone else. Those who make most money most quickly, and attract the biggest market share, and the most investors, thrive. Those who do less well go to the wall, and good riddance. Darwin never argued that evolution by natural selection would necessarily lead to long-term improvement, or represented “progress”. He simply argued that it improved short-term adaptation. But there is, in much neoliberal thinking, a sense that the all-out competition between ruthless competitors will somehow produce a better world. Other neoliberals, however, prefer not to think of the future at all. They simply see the “free” market as a kind of natural phenomenon, and brute Darwinism as a kind of natural law, like gravity, to which we are all subject, and however things turn out, that’s just the way the world is. They exhibit a weird kind of fatalism.

In truth, the neoliberals do recognize, up to a point, that whatever they do ought to be legal. Most of them are not, after all, gangsters, or they don’t set out to be; unlike, say, Mario Puzo’s Godfather, Vito Corleone, who freely acknowledged that a gangster was what he was, albeit a gangster with honour, who looked after his own people. But if there is no moral restraint, imposed by society or as many would say by God, the boundaries between the respectable and the gangster are blurred. As Vandana Shiva describes in a recent, excellent article on Bt cotton in India (reference), Monsanto has used its commercial power and its armies of lawyers to subvert the laws of Indian states. Dedicated neolibs argue that suppression or circumscription of other people’s laws is simply part of the competitive commercial process, and is therefore legitimate.

Alas, Britain’s governments since the time of Margaret Thatcher, including the strangely conceived “New Labour” of Blair and Brown, have been overt neoliberals, boasting of their commitment to the global free market, determined at all costs to “compete” with everyone else for dominance and wealth. They have all argued as Mrs Thatcher did that this was for the general good, though the evidence on many fronts is otherwise. All British governments since at least 1980 have been inveterately urban. None has had a feel for agriculture, or for the biosphere, or has made any serious attempt to come to grips with either. Agriculture has been treated as “a business like any other”, to be thrown to the wolves of the global market; senior civil servants under Blair even argued that British farming should be encouraged to go the way of its coalmining, since other people had more sunshine and could do what was needed more cheaply. The biosphere is called “the environment” and treated as real estate, or as “natural resource”. David Cameron’s promise that his Conservative government would be the greenest of all time never rang true and is now exposed as the most blatant of untruths. No-one in high places seems to think that the loss of fellow species or the decay of wild places is of any consequence, except insofar as it may affect tourism or the price of houses. Yet destruction of the natural world should rank alongside the most serious of crimes. Indeed, like the worst of crimes, it has the weight of sin. But although the hard-heads may pray for guidance in the White House, and look solemn at public festivals of the kind overseen by bishops, for them such notions have no meaning.

All this is the kind of discussion we ought to be having if we truly care about the price of milk and the state of Britain’s dairy farming. Many people worldwide are talking along such lines. But not those in high places. Expressions involving fiddles and the burning of great cities come to mind. We keep coming back to the same point: if we want the world to be different then we, Ordinary Joes, have to take matters into our own hands. Our leaders, whether in government or the NFU, or bankers or corporate bosses, or the various intellectuals they employ as apologists, have lost the plot.

To return to the present context: small dairies that do make use of native pasture, and provide good jobs, and serve their local communities are surely the way forward. Nick Snelgar’s Maple Field, which he so engagingly describes in this website (under Farmers Talking) represents one of several fine models. Of course he receives little or no help from the powers-that-be, for they have their eyes fixed on high-tech mega-dairies run on high tech, producing mega-tonnes of powdered milk to be sold to India. This undermines India’s own, indigenous dairy industry but since it’s all done in the name of the free market which of course is morally neutral, that’s OK. As the Godfather would say, it’s just business. Nothing personal.

Them-in-charge are not going to change their minds. The only serious solution is to create a system of dairying and indeed of farming that is rooted in principles of sound ecology and common morality, despite our expensive and obstructive rulers.

Colin Tudge, Exeter, August 11 2017

Nutritional Science: Time for a Paradigm Shift

Colin Tudge suggests that nutrition science is alive and well but is in the throes of a paradigm shift

Apparently people are asking, “Has nutritional science run its course? Have we answered all the main questions and should we move on?”

Of course not, is the short answer. In similar vein, Lord Kelvin (allegedly!) suggested at the end of the 19th century that physics was all done and dusted, apart from polishing up the odd coefficient. Then Einstein came up with relativity and Max Planck made the observations that kicked off quantum theory, and physics, and indeed the whole world, were never the same again. There was still a lot to do even within the classical, Newtonian framework of the 19th century. More to the point, physics (and science, and all philosophy and art) were about to undergo what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn later called a “paradigm shift”: a complete change of perspective.

Within “conventional” nutrition too there is still a lot to be done but also, the perspective of the whole science – indeed of all biology — is shifting. What we have seen so far, as Winston Churchill said of World War II in 1941, is merely the end of the beginning.

First, the past few decades have seen at least three huge developments within nutritional science itself. The first is the rising interest in what the pharmaceutical industry calls nutraceuticals, and the food industry calls functional foods – though stripped of all their commercial baggage they are properly called “cryptonutrients”. These include what surely will prove to be many thousands of materials obtained from food in minute quantities that are not exactly essential to health, in the way that vitamins are, but which in some people at least are beneficial. Very obvious examples, already well commercialised, are the plant sterols that often seem to lower blood cholesterol. (Relative) lack of plant sterols will not incapacitate or kill people in the short to medium term, as a lack of vitamin C or A will do, but it might on average knock a year or two off a person’s life, and line them up for chronic arterial disease that they might otherwise have avoided, and generally reduce their vigour. Thus, in action, a cryptonutrient is somewhere between a vitamin and a tonic.

If there is such a thing as a cryptonutrient, and there surely is, there could be many thousands of them. Furthermore, they will not operate in isolation, any more than any other nutrient or drug can do. Always, therefore, we will be looking at cocktail effects; and then the number of possible combinations approaches infinity. The effects on health will be elusive (how can you tell if a person’s life has been lengthened or shortened by a small percentage? None of us come with doppelgangers to act as controls) and will vary from person to person, so it is very difficult to gauge the effect of any one cryptonutrient. Given that there are probably many thousands, and a virtual infinity of combinations, there is not enough time left in the universe to pin down with anything resembling certainty what they all do, even if we spent the global GDP on the research.

So some scientists of the hard-nosed type may be wont to give up on cryptonutrients (except perhaps for commercial purposes). But biologically speaking, their existence and their significance is perfectly plausible, and indeed is to be expected. Our physiology is much older than we are. Much of it is inherited from our pre-human ancestors, going back to our fishy days and before that to our protozoan and even to our prokaryote days. The evolutionary history of each and every one of us stretches back for nearly four billion years. Through all that time our ancestors have adapted to everything the world threw at them (either that, or endured and possibly died) and that would have included billions of recondite molecules produced not least by other organisms, many of them pharmacologically potent. Our ancestors must have evolved mechanisms to cope with whatever was potentially toxic, and – for evolution is marvellously opportunistic – in many cases would have turned whatever came their way to their own advantage. The classic example is oxygen: horrendously active, and the mother of all toxins for creatures not adapted to it, but now essential to all the forms of life that we presume to call “higher”. Without aerobic respiration we’d still be living in swamps. (But still we have to load our bodies with anti-oxidants).

So on such albeit arm-waving evolutionary grounds alone it seems that cryptonutrients must be a fact of life. God only know what, over time, our ancestors have been exposed to, and what they have become adapted to.

Yet for logistic reasons – there are too many of them, and their effects are very difficult to pin down and undoubtedly vary from person to person – our knowledge of cryptonutrients must always be broad brush; either that, or confined to a very short shortlist of the more conspicuous kinds that can be turned to commercial advantage. The best we can say in practice is that animals, including us, ought to seek out a diet that is as various as possible. Wild animals know this of course, and so it is that lions relish the guts of their prey and may leave the steaks for the vultures, while cattle and sheep given the chance eat a huge variety of herbs – and browse! – and when plied exclusively with custom-bred pasture and fed with nutrients and supplements measured to the nearest gram they still grow sick.  They miss the variety, though the variety is full of unknowns. (There is at least anecdotal evidence that cattle allowed access to wild vegetation are less susceptible to TB).

A second revelation has been the role that microbes play in human nutrition and in health in general. Dietary fibre turns out to be important largely because of its effects on the gut flora, which in turn among other things profoundly affect the nature of the various organic molecules, including bile-salts, that are resorbed from the gut and re-cycled. Nature these days is full of articles describing the response of the flora in the gut and on the skin, to changing diets and other circumstances, and the knock-on effects are only beginning to be glimpsed. That cattle and other ruminants – and indeed all herbivores – depend absolutely on their gut flora has long been appreciated (though far from exhaustively understood) but now it is obviously true of all species. By the same token, soil scientists now appreciate more and more that the organic farmers were right all along: the structure of the soil and the health of plants depends at least as much on the microbes that live in it as on the inorganic radicals that conventional agriculturalists take more seriously, and farmers are encouraged to add. Microbes, in short, are emerging as the universal intermediaries between macro-organisms like us and oak trees, and the physical world. They are key players in our personal ecospheres. Antisepsis has its place beyond doubt but the attempt to sterilise the whole world that pervaded both medicine and agriculture through much of the 20th century can now be seen to be counter-productive, or at least was taken much too far. My Granny used to say, “Eat a peck of dirt before you die” and she was surely right; advice reflected not least in the modern vogue for dosing patients on faecal extracts. Eating dirt can be risky, of course, if unsupervised, but so can too much cleanliness. All in all, the microbiology of nutrition is a huge and exciting area.

The streams of cryptonutrients and of microbiology converge in the endlessly complex realms of fermentation. Fermented foods include some of the most important and most delectable of all our provender (bread, cheese and all the other fermented milks, booze, pickles from chutney to sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, and so on and so on) and also some of the most toxic. The line between delectation and putrescence can be very narrow. Wild animals too benefit from fermented foods – from the many famous tales of drunken elephants (they raid palm wine factories and sorghum beer breweries), to Keats’s drowsy autumn wasps zonked on mouldering pears. I reckon too, teleologically speaking, that dogs bury bones not simply for storage but to increase their pharmacological value. Who knows what cryptonutrients and antibiotics and all the rest may reside in a stinky skeleton.

Thirdly, in all biology, I am struck by the rise of the idea of narrative, with its often anthropomorphic undertones, into respectable discourse. The biology I studied at university in the early 1960s was obsessively hard-nosed. It seemed to be assumed (as many still maintain) that science was leading us inexorably towards omniscience. Buoyed up by logical positivism it was taken to be obvious too that all other sources of knowledge were inveterately flaky, and were best ignored.  As Thomas Gradgrind insisted in Dickens’s Hard Times, “Now, what I want is, Facts… Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else”. A fact was perceived as whatever could be directly observed and measured. Mathematical extrapolation would take care of the rest. In biology, in this vein, the great enemy was anthropomorphism. We were not allowed to ascribe human-esque concepts to non-human beings. In the experimental psychology course the concepts of thought or emotion were banished. Animals were just machines that responded to stimuli, as Descartes said in the 17th century; and we, humans, were somewhat more complicated machines. “Stick to Facts, sir!”, as the redoubtable Thomas had put the matter.

Now the attitude has become more nuanced. What is a fact, exactly? (In a court of law it’s what the judge says it is. The rest is “inadmissible”). How can we be certain of anything? More broadly, it seems that everything we know or think we know is a story that we tell ourselves – a narrative; and what we take to be “true” is a story we happen to find convincing. More specifically, it becomes more and more obvious that the old Cartesian view of animals – just responsive machines – does not work. Like us – like all organisms in fact, conscious or not – they make sense of the world by telling themselves stories, and are in this crucial sense intelligent. Intelligent beings, whether human beings or oak trees, differ from mere machines because they do not simply react according to the Newtonian laws of physics, to the stimuli with which they are confronted. Their responses are highly selective. They ignore some stimuli altogether (just as high court judges do) – oak trees and mushrooms have a great sense of what is irrelevant and what really counts – and they infer far more from some stimuli than the stimulus itself seems to warrant. In other words they treat all incoming data as grist to their own internal narrative. Machines don’t.

This principle is very evident in the science of nutrition. Thus it has been clear for many decades (even when I was at university) that the feeling of hunger does not depend only on the amount of sugar in the blood. There are all kinds of other physiological and sensory cues, including extraneous sights and smells. But what perhaps matters most of all is expectation and attitude. Fasting provides an obvious example. Many aboriginal peoples are forced to fast for some weeks of each year, and to get through it they seem simply to decide that they don’t want to eat. Since there isn’t any food that may seem straightforward enough but dieting westerners can adopt the same technique though surrounded by petits fours and croquembouche.  The conscious mind tells the body that food is forbidden and the body obliges by not asking for any, or sometimes may decide for itself. Either way, something we may vaguely call “mind” mediates food intake and to an unknown extent determines our response to the food we do consume. “We are what we eat” is not quite true. The metaphor is altogether too mechanical. What we eat or decide not to eat can be seen as a sub-plot of our own internal narrative, or as part of our body’s grand dialogue with the world at large (in which our conscious minds may play very little part).

The concept of cryptonutrients and the renewed appreciation of microbes are internal shifts in the science of nutrition that present huge challenges and possibilities. The general realization that life is too complicated to analyze exhaustively, and that the future is innately unpredictable, is a true paradigm shift that affects all science: knocking on the head forever the 18th century Enlightenment conceit that we are edging inexorably towards omniscience. The idea that all our understanding in the end is narrative, a story that we tell ourselves, including the insights of science, is both chastening and exciting. Life remains mysterious, and always will be.

The paradigm shift extends, or should extend, to all of life. For these past 200 years or so westerners have tended to put science on a pedestal, to look to it as the source not only of remarkable insights, which it does provide, but also of wisdom, which it does not. Thus politicians and tycoons speak of “science-led policy” by which they mean for example that if some trial shows that some genetically engineered crop (GMO) grows better in some circumstances than “conventional” crops do, and is potentially profitable, then we should put all our political weight (and taxpayers’ money) behind it. But if they could only see that science itself deals in partial truths and innate uncertainties, and is itself a narrative, they surely would put it more into perspective. They surely would see that the people who have been living and coping with innate uncertainty for 10,000 years – traditional farmers – are telling a richer narrative, precisely because, however extensive their knowledge, in the end they know they must trust their intuitions. Cooks do the same – and physicians too. They know they must work with uncertainty.  They are guided by science but in the end they rely on intuition.

So the science of nutrition stands where all sciences ought to stand. Not pretending to omniscience. Not seeking to override all other sources of knowledge. Simply accepting its own innate limitations and content to contribute its own special insights to the general wellbeing of humanity and the biosphere. That is a far more realistic agenda and much to be preferred. However, whether it can undergo the necessary metamorphosis so long as it is financed by giant corporations is, of course, another question.

This article was written for the September edition of World Nutrition, and will be on their website on August 25. WN is excellently edited by Geoffrey Cannon and has a significant influence on global food strategy.

Does Africa Really Need a Green Revolution?

The earlier version in India has not been the unequivocal success that we’re led to believe, says Vandana Shiva

The oligarchs who run the world – the loose but robust coalition of banks, corporates, governments like ours, and their chosen advisers – seem agreed that Africa in particular is in urgent need of a Green Revolution. After all, they argue, the first Green Revolution in Mexico and India and then in more of Asia in the late 1960s and ‘70s was a resounding success. It transformed India from a basket case to a net exporter of grains within a few years and helped to lift its entire economy to global status.

The intent behind the first Green Revolution was surely honourable, or mostly so, and the technique involved – not “genetic engineering” but chromosome manipulation – was unquestionably brilliant. But physicist-turned-agriculturalist and activist Vandana Shiva has watched events unfold from close at hand over the past 40 years, and as she describes in her latest book, The Vandana Shiva Reader (University Press of Kentucky 2014), the social and political fall-out for many thousands and perhaps for millions of farmers has been a disaster. A slavish repetition in Africa could be just what Africa doesn’t need.

See my review of Vandana’s excellent book on The Ecologist website

Do we need a “New Agrarian” Party?

The day after the 2015 General Election, while the votes are still being counted, Colin Tudge asks how to bring about the much needed transformation of Britain’s and the World’s farming.

It struck me during the recent shenanigans that we should found a new political party – the New Agrarian Party, aka NAP. For, as has been obvious at least since the 1960s, none of the standard, mainstream parties has ever come properly to grips with agriculture – defined what we want it to do, and how to achieve what’s needed; and very obviously, right now, Britain and the rest of the world have got it horribly wrong. Huge sections of humanity are already suffering mightily and half of all species are said to be endangered —  and farming both in its neglected traditional forms and in its high tech industrial forms is implicated in all that’s going wrong, and in some cases is the principal or the sole cause.

The chief plank (as they say) in the NAP platform would be to make sure that we and the world establish the kind of farming the world really needs;  yet this wouldn’t be a narrow-focus party like all the many that routinely lose their deposits. For farming stands right at the heart of all the world’s affairs. It affects everything else and is affected by everything else, and to get it right we have to think very broadly indeed. If we do get it right then all the other good things that most people care about like justice, and peace, and good health for all, and a secure and diverse and beautiful “environment”, become possible. If we get it wrong, as we are doing, then all those aspirations become well-nigh impossible, which surely is one good reason why they still seem so remote.

Thinking broadly, and deeply, means that we have to start from first principles, and the following is a shortlist of what I reckon those principles ought to be – the beginnings of the NAP manifesto. So:


What kind of society do we really want? – is the first question. What do we really feel is important? These in the end are moral issues – so what should be the basis of our morality?

Morality need not be led exclusively by religions (there are many excellent humanist-atheist moralists in the history of the world) but religion is a great driver; and it is at least interesting, as the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna pointed out, that all the world’s great religions have at their heart the same three, grand moral principles: compassion, humility, and a sense of reverence for the biosphere (a far better term than “environment”). Compassion implies of course that we give a damn about other people and other creatures. It implies too that we need to emphasize cooperation for the common good, rather than competition, which requires that we should all strive to outstrip the rest, and then enjoy our supremacy.

Yet all the mainstream parties throughout their campaigns urged us above all to compete: each of us, individually, against everybody else; and Britain as a whole against the rest of the world.

Reverence for the biosphere implies that we should not be exclusively anthropocentric. We should not treat the Earth as our personal fiefdom, and its fabric and it creatures as resources, to be turned into commodities to be sold to the highest bidder. We need to look after our own species, of course. But even in anthropocentric vein we need at least to acknowledge that we will serve the human race best by looking after the whole, and we will look after the whole most effectively if we actually care. Out-and-out anthropocentricity will not do. We need to add the biocentric, or ecocentric, dimension.

The economy

The economy isn’t just about money.  All the great economists have been moralists first and economists second: Adam Smith, J S Mill, Karl Marx, Henry George, J M Keynes, J K Galbraith, Amartya Sen – the list goes on. All recognize that the economy should be our servant: its purpose is to help us to create the kind of society and the kind of world that we really want. We must shape it to our needs and aspirations. We should not, emphatically, allow it to shape us. As Keynes put the matter:

“ … the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs … and the arena of heart and head will be occupied where it belongs, or reoccupied by our real problems, the problems of life and human relations, of creation, and of behaviour and religion.”

But now we are ruled by the economy: specifically, by the dogma (it is no more than that) of the extreme and aberrant form of capitalism known as neoliberalism. We are all meant to take part in the great global market to gain the greatest market share and maximize short-term wealth. This is what all the mainstream parties have been urging us to do. To compete and maximize profit is seen as the sine qua non.

There are a few obvious snags in this but none of the mainstream parties have seen fit to discuss them. First, the means by which short-term wealth is maximized may be extremely damaging, to individual societies and to the biosphere; and damage to individual societies (it could be any of us) and to the fabric of the world itself compromises all of us. Actually, this does seem to be dimly recognized: certainly all the mainstream parties have been wont to insist that all our endeavours should be “sustainable”, although none in practice have done enough or are promising enough to make that remotely possible.

Secondly, none of the mainstream parties seems to have any very convincing idea of what we should actually do with the wealth that we achieve through our ruthless competitiveness. Should we spread it around for the common good of humanity and our fellow creatures? Or should we leave it in the hands of whichever minority manages by one means or another to get their hands on it? To judge from what has actually been happening, the mainstream parties are content with the latter. Even under the party that for historical reasons is still called Labour, the countryside was being taken over by helicopter pads and pony paddocks, as if these were the proper reward for the efforts of all society. Globally and within each nation, the rich have grown richer under neoliberalism and the poor have grown poorer, and there is nothing within the neoliberal canon that could correct that trend. Yet all the mainstream parties have embraced the neoliberal dogma.

The market has a place of course but it cannot serve the needs of humanity or of the world unless it is tailored to do so: but under the present dogma, any attempt to regulate the market for purposes that are merely moral or social is now perceived as blasphemy.  This particular blasphemy has name — “socialism” – which even the Labour Party has placed on its index expurgatorius.  Gordon Brown ranted to the Scots about “social justice” with the zeal of Keir Hardie but the term “socialism” never passed his lips. It has become equated with Stalinism. The freedom of the market — the right to grow rich — is equated with freedom in general. Regulation is seen as oppression, even when it is to the general benefit. Yet there is a clear alternative to the deregulated, neoliberal market which emphatically is not Stalinist and indeed was the accepted form in Britain and other western countries through most of the 20th century: the mixed economy, otherwise known as social democracy. Social democracy combines free enterprise with public ownership. The market is powered primarily by free enterprise but is nonetheless controlled for the common good.

That principle was embraced before 1980 both by traditional Labour and by the Tories – who differed only in the balance they sought to strike between private and public enterprise. There was far less difference between Nye Bevan, the traditional Labour archetype who proudly proclaimed himself a socialist, and Harold Macmillan, the Tory archetype, than there was between Bevan and the Soviet Communists, or indeed between Macmillan and the neoliberal Mrs Thatcher. Social democracy is still alive and well and in its modern form is called Economic Democracy, which adds the essential element of community ownership to the traditional public (meaning government) and private ownership. Of course, too, the economy needs to be “green”; to respect the biosphere, and operate within its limits.

But no mainstream party in the last election spoke of economic democracy, or indeed of the mixed economy. They all talked about competing in the global market. They are all neoliberals now.


Above all we want a government that is on our side. As I recall, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband were anxious to assure us that they are; but perhaps they would not have protested quite so much if there wasn’t so much room for doubt. It is hard to improve on Abraham Lincoln’s observation that “government should be of the people and for the people” but for the past 30 years or so, in Britain, it hasn’t looked that way no matter who was in power. But then, in the modern US, or at least in some of its most influential circles, Lincoln would doubtless be written off as a Commie.

Back to farming

Agriculture really is at the centre of things. All human life is built around it, even if more and more people have lost sight of that fact – including most of the majority who now live in cities, and most politicians and intellectuals. It is also the principal meeting ground of humanity as a whole with the rest of nature. Certainly, the cause of wildlife conservation is more or less dead in the water if we don’t farm in ways that are wildlife friendly, on the micro and the macro-scale.

The kind of farming that embraces all of the general principles – morality based on compassion that also takes the biosphere seriously; an economy and governance that are designed to help us create a convivial society and a flourishing biosphere – is what we are calling “Enlightened Agriculture”, aka “Real Farming”, designed expressly to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest of the world. Enlightened Agriculture is in turn compounded of a few key ideas that directly reflect the general principles of morality, economics, and governance: those of Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Economic Democracy.

In practice, though, farming that follows the principles of Enlightened Agriculture is totally at odds, is diametrically opposite, to the kind that emerges when we simply apply the neoliberal dogma, as all the major parties do. For 10,000 years of experience, basic biology, and an increasing archive of hard data tell us that the goals of enlightened agriculture are best achieved in farms that are highly diverse and low input – maximally mixed and organic. This means they must be complex and so must be skills intensive (plenty of farmers) and so in general should be small to medium sized. Such farms require markets geared to their capabilities – which mainly means local markets.

But farms that are designed to maximize short-term wealth and so compete for market share in the global market should be high input with zero labour, which means they must be highly simplified (reduced to monoculture) and (to achieve economies of scale, including machines as big as a row of cottages) should be as large as possible. All this, of course, requires that oil should be available and affordable (which it should be for some time to come), and the whole system relies absolutely on high tech. Such farms require centralized markets, preferably operating on a global scale. This system of farming and marketing ensures that power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands – the hands of giant corporates. This means too that all the wealth produced by farming is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.  In practice, short-term maximization of wealth and concentration of wealth go hand in hand. Thus, the deadly duo of high tech and the global market have created an oligarchy of unprecedented power. This seems neither wise nor just? Besides, high tech industrial farming by undermining the biosphere is threatening to kill us all off.

But do we really need a new political party?

Clearly, if we are ever to introduce the kind of farming the world really needs – and most people would surely welcome if it was done properly – we need a quite different economy and a quite different approach to government; and since the present mainstream parties have spectacularly failed to grasp the agricultural nettle, it seems we need a new party, to start the whole process from scratch.

But do we really? In practice, in politics, the ratio of faffing about – meetings, rallies, door-stepping and all the rest – to real thought and action is far too high. Fundamental principles get lost in the melee. Besides, even cursory experience of Westminster reveals that the parliamentary democracy which young people are sent to war to defend doesn’t really work in the way it is supposed to. Individual MPs have almost zero influence on overall government strategy (and in most cases there is no “almost”) and government itself cannot properly be said to be in charge. As things are governments have subjected themselves to the World Trade Organization, defender of the global market. The EU too, bete noire of UKIP and of many a Tory, is in thrall to the WTO. So even if the hypothetical NAP did contrive after huge and heroic effort to install one MP and to chalk it up as a famous victory, it would make no palpable difference at all, except perhaps as PR.

Besides, although Ed Miliband and others insisted in their recent campaigns that change does not happen except through parliament, that does not seem to be true. Governments in practice follow, rather than lead. All the truly momentous changes of the past few centuries – at least those that are for the general good – have come from movements outside government, pushing the government into line. I have in mind the Trade Union movement which arose in the 19th century, and the Suffragette movement of the early 20th. Even the Beveridge report in World War II, which among other things kicked off the NHS, was inspired by pre-war social movements.

So let’s kill off the NAP before it starts and focus instead on the Agrarian Renaissance: just doing the things that need doing despite the caprices and the idiocies of government. If some future government sees the light and comes on board, that will be all to the good. But we can surely get a very long way even if that doesn’t happen.

Colin Tudge, May 8 2015: the day after the General Election in the UK.

The Key Ideas of Enlightened Agriculture (with a passing reference to Ancient China)

Colin Tudge asks why we fail to adopt the simple and established ideas that could solve all the world’s food problems – starting with the need to raise the status of farming and farmers

Farmers ranked high in the social hierarchy of ancient China, second only to the scholars (and of course the royal family). Next in line were the other craftspeople and the artisans. Bottom of the pile were the merchants. They were rich, right enough, but their standing was low. Knowledge, skill, and usefulness were seen to matter far more than money.

The contrast with our own times is more or less absolute. Now the merchants – meaning the wealthy – are at the top, at least as powerful as the mightiest rulers and often, not least in societies like Britain, seeming to enjoy carte blanche. Scholarship still exists but scholars, including scientists, are prepared more and more to gear their learning and their intellect to the service of big-time commerce. Craft has largely been replaced by manufacture – again controlled by commerce – while farming has slipped so far down the reckoning that it’s considered a sign of modernity, not least in Britain (indeed we are the ring-leaders), to reduce it virtually to vanishing point. Inside sources tell me that the Blair government in the early 2000s seriously considered getting rid of agriculture altogether, just as Thatcher disposed of the miners. The farming that does remain is dominated by the neoliberal conceit that “agriculture is just a business like any other” and that all businesses of whatever kind must be maximally profitable.

We need more than ad hoc changes in policy to reverse all this. We need a change of mind-set. Indeed we need to go back to first principles and re-think what work itself is actually for. At present, according to the rhetoric of all the mainstream political parties, the point of working is to make ourselves rich, or richer, and thereby gain status and dominance over everybody else (for it is now taken for granted that wealth and dominance should go together). But the true purpose of work, taken all in all, should surely be – should it not? — to contribute to what should be the principal ambitions of humankind — to create convivial societies within a flourishing biosphere; that, and for each working individual to achieve personal fulfilment.

This implies, when you think it through, that at least half and probably nearer three quarters of all human activity should be in the service of other people, and/or of the biosphere. True scholars – the seekers after truth – should certainly be honoured and kept in good heart, as in ancient Chinese society. But they too, insofar as their cogitations are applicable at all, should apply their learning and their intellect in the service of humanity at large and of our fellow creatures (as Plato suggested, although we wasn’t too interested in our fellow creatures). But among the most highly rated too should be the caring industries: medicine, social work, teaching — and farming. Other crafts, such as building and engineering, should be respected and rewarded primarily insofar as they contribute to human wellbeing without collateral damage – good, eco-friendly houses and neighbourhoods for ordinary people to live in, should surely be valued more highly than shards and gherkins (jolly though they are in moderation), and gated pseudo-palaces for the super-rich.

In all this, the role of agriculture (including horticulture) is pivotal. It is the sine qua non. Obviously it is the prime source of all our food (though we still get about 20% from fishing and hunting (which thus has become a major cause of extinction). It occupies a third of all the land on Earth and by far the majority of all the most fertile land (the National Parks of which we are often rightly proud are confined mostly to marginal land – which most wild creatures find marginal too). Indeed, all in all, agriculture is the thing we absolutely have to get right, or else we will starve and will wreck the planet. If we farmed well we could all eat well for many thousands of years to come, and achieve harmony with the rest of nature. Yet as things are a billion remain undernourished – while overnourishment has produced a world population of diabetics that is twice the size of all of Russia’s. The collateral damage could prove terminal – the mass extinction of species, the destruction of rainforest, the pollution of oceans, the destruction of fertile soil, the waste of fresh water (which accounts for a mere one per cent of all the water on Earth), the burning of fossil fuels, and global warming; and still it leaves a billion people hungry.

For good measure, worldwide, agriculture is by far the biggest employer – indeed it engages about half the people on Earth. By contrast, in Britain right now, agriculture employs only about one per cent of the workforce, and most of our farmers are of retirement age. In many countries both rich and poor – from Britain and New Zealand to India — suicide is now an appreciable occupational hazard. In short: the metier that is of most direct importance to our future, and in wiser societies than ours was highly ranked, is now the most neglected, or rather is the most misdirected.

What’s the reason? Why did the Chinese get the principles right and we have got them so wrong? And what can be done to put the world back on course?

The two models of Agriculture

Traditional agriculture worldwide is mostly under-supported, not to say abused, and hence, unsurprisingly, performs far less well than it could and should. The rest, the kind that the modern world does take seriously, falls into two main categories. The minority endeavour, as things are, I and others are calling “Enlightened Agriculture” (EA), also known as “Real Farming”, which is loosely but adequately defined as:

“Farming that is designed expressly to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality, nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the rest of the biosphere”.

There is plenty of evidence to show that Enlightened Agriculture given half a chance really could ensure that everyone is well fed, and the implications of this for health and general wellbeing and for world peace and justice are obvious.

But the kind of farming that is supported big-time by governments like Britain’s at our expense, and by big-time commerce, is not designed primarily to provide good food for all, but to maximize the profits of the minority who control it, in line with the tenets of the neoliberal, market economy. This second kind can properly be called Neoliberal-Industrial, or “NI” agriculture. Supporters of NI farming insist that theirs is the only “realistic” model, yet despite extraordinary levels of investment in NI agriculture over the past 35 years the world’s nutritional status remains disastrous while the biosphere teeters on the edge of collapse.

So what does Enlightened Agriculture entail, and how does it differ from the NI kind?

The nuts and bolts of Enlightened Agriculture

In practice, EA is founded on three widely-recognized principles:


Food Sovereignty

Economic Democracy.

To take these one by one:


Whatever the system, we require agriculture as a whole to be:

Productive: our farming must supply enough food for 9.5 – 10 billion people by 2050, and to go on doing so for some time after that. But that is as much as we should ever need to provide because according to the UN the human population should level out at about 10 billion. According to the IAASTD report of 2008 (1), the world already produces enough protein and food energy (macronutrients) to support 14 billion, so the present, continuing emphasis on productivity (“50% more by 2050” has become the slogan) is not justified. The extra is purely for commercial purposes — and in fact the present surplus is either wasted or else grown for livestock, which is not necessary, since we could raise plenty of animals without growing vast quantities of food expressly for them, or else is burnt as “biofuel”; criminal waste of which governments make a virtue. We need instead to acknowledge the principle of “enough’s enough”.

Sustainable. Sustainability does not mean we should go on farming in the same ways forever and ever. It does mean we should keep the soil in good heart (and the climate!) so that we can maintain output in whatever forms are most appropriate.

Resilient. This means that our agriculture should be able to change direction as conditions change (and conditions are changing fast). The key to resilience is diversity. Whatever we do we must always keep more shots in the locker, as nature does.

NI agriculture can be extremely productive (though it does not necessarily achieve the highest possible yields!) but it is neither sustainable (most obviously, it is oil-dependent) nor (since it is based on monoculture) is it resilient. Indeed it is frighteningly vulnerable to sudden changes.

Agroecology demonstrably is productive enough. The best farms run along agroecological lines are among the most productive of all; and even in their present, neglected form, the world’s traditional farms which have the structure of agroecological farms provide half the world’s food. With support – commonly just logistic support, including better roads and more appropriate banking – the world’s traditional farms could readily double their output. By contrast, many of today’s NI farms are already hard up against physiological possibility and way beyond what is morally acceptable. “Enough’s enough” is a key principle.

In practice, agroecology seeks to emulate nature. This does not mean slavish imitation, for nature does a great deal that is highly undesirable (as time goes by in various ways it wipes out entire mountain ranges and indeed continents), but it does seek to follow the strategies that have enabled nature to remain commendably productive for the past 3.8 billion years, though global conditions have changed spectacularly throughout that time. Nature has achieved this because it is:

Maximally diverse

Integrated (all the species interacting with net synergy)

Low input (in particular, no fossil fuels!)

In agroecological farming:

Maximally diverse means mixed farming with genetic variation within each variety (of crop) and breed (of livestock).

Integrated means integrated – synergy between different enterprises on the same farm

Low input in practice largely means organic. At least; organic husbandry should be the default position; what farmers do unless they have very good reason to deviate.

In practice: diverse, integrated, organic or quasi-organic systems are complex – complex by design. So they must be skills-intensive – plenty of hands-on farmers.  With complex, skills-intensive enterprises of any kind, there is little or no advantage is scale-up. So the farming enterprises that Britain and the rest of the world really needs should in general be small to medium-sized.

In summary: the model EA farm would be maximally diverse (mixed), integrated, low-input (organic or quasi-organic), skills intensive (plenty of farmers) and each enterprise should be small to medium sized.

Note that small, mixed, low-input farms can be and often are among the most productive all in terms of food calories and protein per hectare, while providing food of the highest gastronomic as well as the highest nutritional standards. Emphatically, Enlightened Agriculture does not require us to eat austerely. Notably, it does not require us to be vegan. We can raise plenty of livestock on grass (and browse) as is traditional, and (pigs and poultry) on surpluses and leftovers. Indeed, EA produces –

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

— and these nine words summarise all the best of nutritional theory of the past 30 years and describe the basic structure of all the world’s greatest cuisines (as in Italy, Provence, India, Turkey, China, Lebanon, and so on). In other words, far from austerity,

“The future belongs to the gourmet”.

But it is essential in a country like Britain that has lost so much of its heritage not simply to restore agriculture, but to restore food culture.

The implications of EA farming

To replace NI farming with EA, Britain would need about eight times as many farmers as it now has – about a million more. Furthermore, since most of our farmers are now at or approaching retirement age, it needs them fast.

Clearly, if we truly acknowledged that farming as the sine qua non and designed it accordingly, it would again become a major employer – providing at least enough jobs to provide all the Britons aged 25 or less who now are unemployed or seriously underemployed with satisfying careers (as opposed to the nonsensical zero-hour contracts that now pass as “jobs” and contribute to the horrible statistic which says that the main cause of death among young British men is suicide).

Small-scale farming needs a commensurate, appropriate market structure; and appropriately scaled processors – bakers, butchers, brewers, etc. So the million re-employed in farming should ideally be matched with at least an equivalent number in the ancillary industries; and again, we are talking about good, satisfying careers – not filling supermarket shelves on less than subsistence wages.

Overall, the economic emphasis must be on small businesses.

NI agriculture flies in the face of all of the above. It does not recognize the principle of enough’s enough. To maximize the potential for profit it seeks to maximize output at all cost – nowadays burning the surpluses and calling it biofuel. It is steered only by short-term accountancy and by the ambitions of the most powerful people and right now – since the price of oil is carefully adjusted to what the market will stand and the cost of collateral damage is discounted (including the cost of mass unemployment) — it is cheaper to farm by industrial chemistry and heavy machinery than to employ skilled farmers. So NI agriculture is high-input and aspires to employ as few people as possible – which is deemed to be “efficient”.  Zero labour – farming by robots – is seen to be the ideal, and is already with us.

Farming of this kind must be as simple as possible – which means goodbye to diversity, though diversity is the key to resilience. Farms are reduced to monocultures and single-species livestock factories, with the crops and animals genetically homogeneous (often indeed reduced to clones). When enterprises are capital-intensive and simplified it is most profitable to make them as large as possible; so the small-to-medium sized enterprises that can truly be efficient in biological terms, and are skills-intensive and form the basis of convivial societies, are systematically squeezed out while NI agriculture is boosted at vast public expense. In Europe, NI agriculture soaks up 80% of the subsidies and 90% of the research budget.

Hence the kind of agriculture that is now supported by corporates, banks, and governments like Britain’s, supported by chosen intellectuals with specious argument of which they should be ashamed, and by massive public subsidies, is high input, ultra-simplified, low to zero labour, and practiced on the largest possible scale. It is the precise opposite of the kind required by sound biology, common sense, common humanity, 10,000 years of experience, and a mountain pile of evidence including simple statistics that illustrate beyond doubt the failure of the status quo.

Food Sovereignty

The concept of “food sovereignty” was coined by the global peasants’ movement, Via Campesina, in the mid 1990s. Several groups in Britain have allied themselves to it including the Scottish Crofting Federation and the Land Workers’ Alliance. It means what its name implies: that people should have control of their own food supply – a common-sense and moral principle that could not be more distant from the status quo in Britain, or from the government’s own position (despite its rhetoric).

Economic Democracy

All the mainstream political parties now take the neoliberal de-regulated market to be the norm, the “given”, “the end of history”. But if we continue to gear our lives to it then, frankly, we are heading for Armageddon (as many a sober-sided intellectual from archbishops to leading scientists to former US presidential candidates have been telling us of late). In particular, it is entirely unsuited to Enlightened Agriculture and indeed, as we have seen, results in farming that is precisely the opposite of what the world really needs.

So why have so many people – including the leading political parties – bought into it? One obvious reason is that neoliberalism does benefit some people – notably the corporates – and in societies like ours, as opposed to dynastic China, the richest people call the shots. Governments like Britain’s support the corporates as the easy, short-term route to wealth (increase in GDP; “economic growth”) and the two, in effect, form a coalition. Indeed, governments like ours have become extensions of the corporate boardroom. They are in turn supported by intellectuals and experts who either believe in the neoliberal model or else are prepared to sacrifice their scholastic purity in return for material reward. Those who protest, remain find it hard to make a living. Thus the three power-groups – corporates, government, and their chosen intellectuals – form an oligarchy. They have the power to determine who does what and also – crucially – they largely control the principal means of communication and of formal education.

Among other things, over the past 35 years, people have been persuaded that the only alternative to the deregulated market is some kind of centralized – essentially Stalinist – economy; and that seems worse than we have now. Right-wing commentators such as Matt (Viscount) Ridley, chairman of Northern Rock in the build-up to its collapse but now increasingly influential (for disasters need not interrupt careers) is wont to imply that socialism and Stalinism are the same. In fact, of course (as Ridley well knows) the prevailing political/ economic model in Britain (and the US) until 1980, espoused by both the major parties (Tory and Labour) was that of social democracy. This is underpinned by the mixed economy: some public ownership (big-scale, primary industries controlled by the state; local swimming baths ad a great deal of social housing controlled by councils). Most of the economy, though, in social democracies, is in private ownership. The difference between traditional Tory and traditional Labour was only one of degree, the former emphasising private ownership, the latter putting more store by public ownership. Harold Macmillan, the archetypal, modern Tory Prime Minister (an upper middle class Scots publisher) would never have dreamt of privatising the National Health Service, and oversaw a huge programme of social housing. Nye Bevan, archetypal left-wing Labour, was a great supporter of small businesses. Bevan was indeed a socialist but he was further from the centralist Stalin than he was from Macmillan or his predecessors, Churchill and Eden; and Macmillan was further from the neoliberal Thatcher than he was from Bevan. Both Bevan and Macmillan were political moderates by modern standards. Ed Miliband, in practice (as opposed to rhetoric) is to the right of Macmillan. Yet the Daily Mail calls Miliband “Red Ed”. So the propaganda continues.

To return to the point: all we need to support Enlightened Agriculture is social democracy – or, rather, a variation of social democracy which I call “the tripartite mixed economy” (although Martin Large, with whom I credit the idea, calls it “tripartite common wealth”).

This says that ownership of industry and property should be split between three sectors: public ownership and private ownership (as in traditional social democracy) – but also community ownership. Community ownership – where communities may be defined by district (village, neighbourhood, city) or by shared interest (football fans, teachers, bricklayers – or indeed supporters of Enlightened Agriculture).

Public ownership should reflect the EU principle of subsidiarity: ie, governance should always be conducted at the lowest practicable level – regional rather than state (if possible); district in preference to regional (if districts can manage the task in hand).

Private ownership should be focused on the small business – qualitatively different from the corporate and far more socially accountable. The traditional Tory Party (like traditional Labour) supported small businesses while now it has emerged as the champion and partner of the corporates (as did “New Labour” under Blair and Brown).

The various enterprises of the private sector should all be conceived as social enterprises: required to pay their way, of course, but are required primarily to further the wellbeing of society and/or of the biosphere. They are not intended, like the modern corporates, simply to maximize returns to their own shareholders, without serious regard for the wellbeing of society as a whole or of the biosphere – shuffling off the collateral damage as externalities, to be paid for by somebody else.

Finally, a principle method of financial stress support for these private enterprises, or indeed for community enterprises, should be that of ethical investment: ordinary people buying shares but only in enterprises they feel are fulfilling some necessary social or environmental purpose, or are otherwise socially desirable.

In summary: the key ingredients of Economic Democracy as I see it are:

The tripartite mixed economy with

Special emphasis on community ownership and small businesses and

All businesses conceived as social enterprises

Ethical investment

One final, potential sticking point:

The price of food

Despite the obvious drawbacks and enormities, the neoliberals seek to claim the moral high ground by arguing that NI farming produces cheap food. They argue both that people “demand” cheap food, and that if food was not as cheap as possible, many more people would suffer. Thus, according to the Trussell Trust’s Network Foodbank,  nearly a million people in the UK (913,138 to be precise) resorted to food banks in 2013-2014. Unless food prices are brought even lower, the argument has it, this number can never come down.

But, like most of the arguments in favour of NI farming, this one is almost entirely specious.  We should be asking, why is it that in a country like Britain – the 4th largest economy in the world – so many people cannot apparently afford food? The prime reason lies surely in Britain’s innate and growing inequality: so while the richest tenth have 31% of the country’s wealth the poorest tenth have 1.3%; and 13 million Britons are below the poverty line.  The income of the richest tenth is more than the income of the poorest 50%. Clearly, with fairer distribution, everyone could afford food.

We should ask, too, what people spend their money on. Nowadays Brits spend a mere 11% on food – but, thanks to the way the market is organized (which really means rigged), and with council housing scrapped, many are obliged to spend 50% on housing. So food in practice is very cheap – ridiculously so – but the real cost, relative to disposable income, is twice what it seems.

Clearly, then, the best way to make food affordable is not to reduce the price of it still further – in many cases it is already too cheap, which leads to injustice, cruelty, and collateral damage – but to re-think the economy. An economy that is designed to be maximally competitive and to make the rich richer is bound to leave a great many in poverty, however rich the country may become on paper.

But although food is already so cheap, we should also ask why it is as dear as it is. Governments piously pretending to bring food prices down attack the farmers – urging them to cut even closer to the bone. Yet of the money spent on food in a supermarket, only 20% at most goes to the farmer. Governments and commerce are forever urging farmers to cut labour so reduce costs – though the labour is replaced by high-capital high tech. Yet it’s doubtful if the cost of farm labour now accounts for more than 10% of the total food cost.

In stark contrast, 80% of the cost of food goes to support the food chain itself, including the supermarket itself and the transport and the vast superstructure of management, and the shareholders. Yet most of this is unnecessary. The real task, then, is to shorten the food chains, and so to ensure that the farmers who actually do the work get a far higher proportion of the retail price. If farmers sell through the standard retail chain of small shops they commonly get at least a third of the retail price and if they sell through farmers’ markets they can expect at least two thirds. Farmers’ markets per se are not the answer – they require too much work – but the nature of the task is clear: to create a retail chain that really can support the kind of enlightened farms that we need without raising the cost. One very promising answer – there are more and more – is the community owned supermarket. It would be a great step forward if communities nationwide were to buy the Tesco stores that are now being closed. Governments that truly cared about the state of the people would encourage this (as they have the power to do).

We might note too that the low price of food in supermarkets is more apparent than real. Notably, milk and bread, the essentials, are sold as loss leaders but overall aim is to take as much money off the customer as possible. The emphasis is on processed food in which the unit cost of food energy and protein, or of micronutrients, commonly is several times higher than in fresh food.

Finally, in this vein, it would not be unreasonable for governments to subsidize food essentials, like bread and milk (but only if the bread and milk reached required nutritional standards). Doubtless there are trade laws that forbid this – but the supermarket loss leader is itself a form of subsidy, and why should it be legal for commercial companies to do what governments cannot?

There are many other ways to make food affordable – with community enterprise, cooperatives of producers and consumers high on the list. Pious defence of the status quo – gross inequality, destructive farming, and injustice – is certainly not among them.  What emphatically is not needed are the gung-ho high tech instant cure-alls of the kind now favoured by governments and their chosen advisers – of which GMOs are a prime example.

The politics of Enlightened Agriculture

Many people for all kind of reasons seem afraid of the ideas of Enlightened Agriculture. They seem to fear – or, for rhetorical purposes, they pretend to fear – that to reject GMOs, say, is to reject all science. Or to question the zeal of the neolibs, the ruthless pursuit of short-term wealth, is to throw out all capitalism, in all its manifestations; and that to throw out capitalism is to open the door to soviet-style Communism, the centralist politics of Stalin.

We need to show the lie of all this – and/or, more importantly, to make the positive points. Which are that:

Agriculture that can feed everybody well, however homely it may look to the casual observer, is progress. For the progress that really counts is not the theoretical accumulation of material wealth, or the rise of flash technologies, but the kind that enhances human wellbeing — peace, justice, personal fulfilment – and the wellbeing of the biosphere as a whole.

The science that can underpin such agriculture – “enlightened agriculture”—is of the subtlest kind, and it truly modern. The gung-ho commercial kind that is bringing us GMOs belongs conceptually to an altogether earlier and less sophisticated age. Absolutely not are we required to “turn back the clock” – except to rediscover the social, moral, and spiritual values that of late have been swept aside by the perceived need to compete for material wealth.

The economics of enlightened agriculture is “economic democracy” — very similar to the social democracy that until 1980 was the norm for both Tory and Labour – based on the mixed economy, with the private sector based primarily on small businesses. There are just a few tweaks: the new emphasis on social enterprise and on community ownership; the rise of ethical investment; and the overall realization that the economy must be “green” – always seeking to work within the limits of the biosphere and of our fellow creatures, and including the ideas of the circular economy.

In short, to establish Enlightened Agriculture as the norm, we need to re-think across the board: what we want to achieve and why; the details of enlightened agriculture itself; the underlying economic system that can support it, and the system of government that will provide such an economy; the moral principles on which the whole endeavour is based; the kind of science we need; and the metaphysical assumptions that underpin all our ideas. To this end I want to establish the College of Enlightened Agriculture. But that’s another story.

Colin Tudge, February 2 2015

A National Agricultural Policy

An open letter to all political parties to start taking farming seriously before the next election



In the 2015 General Election I would vote for any party that wasn’t obviously Fascist that takes agriculture seriously. For agriculture isn’t just about food and the countryside, though that is its principal brief. It sits right at the heart of all human affairs and is the key player in the biosphere, the living world, as a whole. It occupies a third of all land including all the most fertile regions. It is still the world’s greatest employer by far.  It affects everything else and is affected by everything else. If we get it right then everything else we might aspire to becomes possible, from good health for all to world peace to the conservation of wildlife. If we get it wrong then all our finer ambitions must be forever compromised and indeed, in large part, are dead in the water. Nothing is more is more important, in short, and it is hard to see how any Earthly pursuit could be more important. Yet all the major parties treat agriculture as an also ran. All seem anxious above all to show how rigorously they plan to plug it into what is now the standard, universal economic model; the neoliberal, deregulated global market.

Yet the past 30 years have shown how disastrously inappropriate that economic model is. In Britain and the US in particular successive governments have treated agriculture as “a business like any other” and have reconceived business not as the natural underpinning of a democratic society, as it could and should be, but as a global competition between corporate giants, albeit stage-managed, to maximize wealth in the form of money. Governments like ours have thrown farming to the commercial wolves, the more commercial the better. Best practice, based on 10,000 years of evolved craft, has been abandoned and indeed derided and actively done down, in favour of whatever technologies, however unnecessary or destructive, promise to maximize short-term wealth – and that wealth, the way things are, is concentrated in very few hands: the rich growing ever richer, and the poor poorer. Worldwide, the UN tells us, a billion people out of seven billion are chronically undernourished, while the world population of diabetics – people essentially overnourished – is now twice as big as the total population of Russia. About a billion live in urban slums – roughly one in three of all the people who live in cities — and most of them are dispossessed farmers, with their families and immediate descendants. We are told that the slums are “vibrant communities” and indeed they may show the human spirit at its most triumphant but still, surely, they cannot be what the world should be aiming for. At the same time, half our fellow species are in danger of extinction and global warming may already be out of control, and today’s hyper-industrial, neoliberal agriculture, focused on short-term wealth and dominance, is a prime cause of both.

Yet the world doesn’t have to be like that. It would easily be possible to provide everyone everywhere with food of the highest quality – the seven billion who are with us now and the 9.5 to 10 billion who may be with us by the end of the century – if only we farmed as if that was our intention. Serendipitously, though not merely by chance, farming that is seriously intended to provide us all with good food is also both people-friendly and wildlife-friendly.

The powers-that-be – the dominant oligarchy of corporates, governments, and their chosen intellectual and expert advisers – tell us that the present disasters are our own fault; that we, humanity, have bred too fast; that the people who are now hungry are “backward”, or some such, and have simply failed to adopt the latest technologies. All this is the most dreadful nonsense. In truth we, and the world at large, are in serious danger of total collapse almost entirely because of ill-conceived strategy, not only in agriculture but largely so, that imposed from on high and springs not from a sense of morality and justice, or from good science, but from economic dogma and political expediency. Clearly, this strategy does not serve the best interests of humankind, or our fellow creatures, or the Earth as a whole. It does maintain and reinforce the oligarchy, making the rich ever richer and the centres of power more powerful.

The world as a whole needs a sea-change, right across the board, but particularly in agriculture. We just have to start doing things differently and to do this we have to think differently and adopt different attitudes, towards other people, other creatures, and the Earth as a whole. It isn’t enough to think good and noble thoughts. We must translate those thoughts into policy and into action.

In principle, the sea-change could come about in three ways. The first is by Reform, the way that most people intuitively favour: tweaking the status quo, step by step, edging ever closer to desired endpoints. But step-by-step reform takes too long and in any case, there is no plausible, step-by-step route from where we are to where we need to be. There have to be discontinuities along the way, including the dispossession and demise of some of the world’s most powerful commercial companies. Reform is necessary, and can be very useful, but it is not sufficient.

The second is by Revolution: wholesale obliteration of the status quo, and a new beginning. But Revolutions cause huge collateral damage to people and the fabric of the Earth, and never lead to the outcomes their initiators intended and in any case are not what most people want. In general, people rise up in anger only when disaster is already upon them and by then it’s often too late.

But there is a third route: Renaissance. We just have to re-build the alternative world we want in situ; taking what we need from the status quo (and there is a great deal) but leaving what we don’t need to wither on the vine. Surplus to requirements and positively pernicious are many of the world’s most powerful companies and most pervasive ideas. But we don’t necessarily have to attack those centres of power and their ideas. We simply have to work round them, and remove their support.

As things stand, the required Renaissance can be brought about only by people at large. The reigning oligarchs including most politicians and certainly the NFU think they are doing a good job already, or don’t mind whether they are or not, and in either case have no intention of changing direction. They talk of the need to change but always offer more of the same. So whatever is done must be done by us, all of us, despite the status quo.

If this is so, why care about the General Election at all – or any kind of election, national or local? Well, perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps elections should be boycotted.

Yet that cannot be ideal. It would be very difficult to run any society, even a local chess club, without some form of governance, which in general requires some kind of government, at whatever level. The task is to ensure that the government is on our side, and on the side of the biosphere, and adopts policies that really are designed to improve the human lot and make the world a better place.

The following outlines a strategy, a series of policies, for agriculture and the food chain in general, offered gratis to all political parties. Since agriculture affects everything else this strategy would also provide a basis for policy in general.

Agriculture: the kind we have and the kind we need

In broadest terms, there are two ways of conceiving agriculture.

The hyper-industrial neoliberal model says that “agriculture is just a business like any other” and reconceives business as the maximization of wealth. All businesses worldwide of whatever kind are required to compete with all other businesses of whatever kind (though there are many cartels) to produce the most wealth, measured in money, in the shortest time; and the devil takes the hindmost. There is an obvious parallel with natural selection: the neoliberal economy is perceived to be neodarwinian. Inevitably, as if by the laws of physics, such free-for-all systems quickly become dominated by whoever has the initial advantage, and they grow stronger and stronger at the expense of the rest; and so the unregulated global market in practice is dominated by a few giant corporates.

Thus, according to Corporate Watch, the big four supermarkets – Tesco, Asda/Wal-Mart, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s – now command 75% of UK food retail; and as discussed later, for every pound spent farmers receive only 9p. Just 10 companies now control 80% of the global agrochemical market and 31% of the global seed market, while four agribusinesses (Syngenta, Dupont, Monsanto, and Bayer) control almost 100% of GM seed (though the world would be better off without GM altogether; a technology which, contrary to the hype, is seriously anachronistic). In the US, four beef processors slaughter 81% of the cattle and four companies control 50% of broiler chicken production. The biggest beef processors in the US are also the dominant processors in Canada and Australia. Six processors (Arla/Express, Dairy Crest, Robert Wiseman, Glanbia, Associated Co-operative Creameries and Nestle) control 93% of UK dairy processing. We are saved from out-and-out monopoly only because this is not in anyone’s interests, even governments’. Instead we have next best thing – or the next worst: an oligopoly of corporates working hand in glove with governments like Britain’s, with the anomalously titled NFU cheering them on.

The overall aim of the neoliberal economy is to achieve “economic growth”: more and more wealth each year, more or less irrespective of how it is produced or who takes control of it or what it is used for. In practice this means a year-by-year increase in Gross Domestic Product, GDP. “Growth” has become the obsession of all British governments ever since neoliberalism became the official creed, circa 1980. Growth is now taken as the sine qua non. The kinds of goal that governments used to talk about – such as social justice, compassion, and moderation – have gone by the board. At least, non-material values that do get a look in have to play second fiddle to the overarching imperative of growth. Anything that does not turn a tidy short-term profit, including traditional forms of agriculture, is written off as “unrealistic”.

But there is another way to look at agriculture – as what I have been calling Enlightened Agriculture, sometimes known as “Real Farming”. Enlightened Agriculture is informally but adequately defined as:

“Agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, now and forever, with food of the highest standard both nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the biosphere or the fabric of the Earth”.

Technically, it is eminently possible to feed everybody well, without destroying everything else, provided we really do farm as if good food and a flourishing biosphere were the point. The overall aim is to create societies that are convivial – agreeable and just – within a flourishing biosphere. The economy is treated not as a doctrine but as a functionary, a means to achieve our moral and social ends, as recommended by John Maynard Keynes.  In practice and in structure Enlightened Agriculture is almost the precise opposite of the neoliberal kind – the kind that governments like Britain’s support, using taxpayers’ money.

We should look at the two approaches in more detail.

Neoliberal Agriculture: the hyper-industrial kind

Neoliberal agriculture is expressly intended to be maximally profitable. “Efficiency” is its watchword, but efficiency is defined purely in financial terms: money invested versus money received. Social disruption, human misery, cruelty to animals and damage to the biosphere are largely or entirely left out of account. The laws are constantly tightened, at least here and there, but the misery continues. The urban slums grow bigger as people are driven off the land and although the big industrial concerns that control the modern food chain are occasionally fined for environmental pollution the punishment is far from commensurate with the social or biological damage. Fines and other brushes with the law are perceived as an acceptable commercial risk.

The trouble lies not primarily with the personal morality of corporate executives – there are good and bad in all organizations. It lies with the underlying economic imperative, which has acquired the force of a religious commandment. For all serious players in the ultra-competitive global market must seek to maximize profits. This isn’t a legal obligation – in principle companies could choose to be less profitable – but it is a fact of life. Companies that do not offer the best return to their shareholders lose out to those that do. At least they do so long as the trading remains anonymous, seen simply as a way of shuffling wealth. But there is an antidote to this, as discussed later.

The three grand rules of maximum profit

To maximize their profits, enterprises of all kinds, not just farms, must seek to do three things. They must maximize their output – the cake must be as big as possible. Then they must add value. They must also minimize costs.

All these guidelines sound eminently reasonable and, within bounds, they are. But when they are pursued single-mindedly, with no consideration apart from profit, they become foul – leading for example to the sweat-shop and to bonded labour. Applied simplistically to agriculture, these basic commercial principles become disastrous. Yet present-day politicians take these guidelines as their doctrine, justifying their policies by appeal to their appointed expert and intellectual advisers (and ignoring intellectuals who say the precise opposite, even though some of them have Nobel Prizes). But most of the apparently scholarly points raised in defence of the status quo are equivocal and largely untested, despite the constant appeal to “evidence”, and some are just plain wrong.

Thus: the case for maximizing output is justified by the idea that the world needs 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising numbers and with the ever rising “demand” for (allegedly) higher standards. This stat has induced a mild sense of panic, seeming to justify any measure that might enable us to grow two tonnes of corn where we grew one before. It is further taken to be more or less self-evident that such increase can be achieved only by high tech, such as genetic engineering (recombinant DNA technology) and in particular by GMOs (“genetically modified organisms”) produced by genetic engineering. This was the message that came across loud and clear from Sir John Beddington’s highly influential report of 2011 on The Future of Food and Farming (1). All opposition to GMOs or any other hyper-modern technology is seen to be rooted in “superstition”, “ignorance”, or irrational “fear of the unknown”, all of which must be overcome by public “education”.

In truth, as outlined in the IAASTD report of 2009 (2), compiled by more than 400 scientists and other experts and co-chaired by Professor Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute, Washington DC, the world already produces enough macronutrient (protein and energy) to support 14 billion people – twice the present global population. Furthermore, since the UN tells us that human numbers should level out at 9.5 or 10 million, it seems the world already produces 30 – 50% more food than we should ever need. So the panic that seems to justify all the high tech and all that goes with it does not seem to be justified. It is based on hype – commercially convenient hype for those who seek to maximize short-term wealth.

Furthermore, says the IAASTD, if the world really does need more food (and we do need more in some places) this could best be provided by supporting local farms, which tend to operate well below their potential not because the farmers are “ignorant” or incompetent but for logistic or simple economic reasons: for example the uncertainty of prices when pricing is left to the market, so that small farmers everywhere who lack safety nets must always err on the side of caution. It is widely agreed among those who know the Third World well that with their present crops and livestock, and with reasonable logistic support and minimal upgrading of present techniques, that traditional farmers could increase their output two or three times.

The attempt worldwide to maximize output at all costs and to do so by industrial means puts enormous strain on soils (degradation and loss of soils worldwide really is a cause for panic) and can impose horrendous cruelties on animals. Thus “elite” dairy cows these days are expected to produce 10,000 litres = 2000 gallons milk a year which more than twice the average output of a traditional grass-fed Jersey or Ayrshire and at least eight times the output of a wild cow. The metabolic strain is such that they commonly fail to last beyond two lactations though traditional animals commonly managed 10 or more; but still the agri-scientists, driven by neoliberal thinking, demand more.

All this has immediate implications for policy:

Policy 1: Find out what we really need

Agricultural output should be geared to the real needs of the world. We should not be seeking simply to maximize output so as to maximize short-term profit. A truly independent, dispassionate study is needed to assess in detail just what the world’s real needs actually are. Although this seems fundamental, the necessary research does not seem to have been done.

Despite the hype, too, not least from successive British governments (Blair was a great fan) there is no good evidence that after 30 years of huge public and corporate investment, genetic engineering has produced any new food crops of unequivocal value that could not have been produced in the same time by conventional means and at far less cost. There is also good theoretical reason to suppose that it never will – not least because genetic engineering deals only with single genes but most of the characters that really matter, such as rate of growth, depend on multiple genes. The opposition to GM has focused on the safety aspects but although the fears are real (though underplayed by governments like Britain’s) this is not the main objection. The main objection to GM is that it is not intended to increase the world’s food security (which it demonstrably does not do) but to transfer power from millions of small farmers and their communities to a handful of corporates that control the GM technology (which it certainly is doing). The rising wealth of the corporates is easily costed and is deemed to represent “growth” – increase in GDP. Besides, governments like ours and tidy-minded bureaucrats far prefer to deal with a few corporates and aggregations of agri-businesspeople as in the NFU than with small farmers and their communities (especially, though this may sound unduly cynical, in this age of the revolving door).

Emphatically, the point is not to be anti-science. For example, the molecular biology that has produced GMOs is wonderfully clever and instructive and is extremely useful for identifying genes in traditional varieties (landraces) and wild plants that can be incorporated into conventional breeding programmes. The trouble starts when the technology is used to produce GMOs that are planted en masse in the field at the expense of traditional crops and traditional growing methods that can be far superior, or would be if reasonably well supported; and that power inevitably passes from the many to the few. There is irony in here – and more hype. For the kind of science that has produced GMOs is seen to be ipso facto progressive but conceptually is old-fashioned –rooted in the 18th century Enlightenment conceit that we can understand nature well enough to bend it to our will and that we have a right to do so, and in the gung-ho 19th century technological zeal that brought us heavy engineering and industrial chemistry.

In this day and age and for forever more we need science that is altogether more subtle, acknowledging complexity and geared to ecological reality. That would be true modernity. Agroecology is a key example of this.

All this suggests many policy interventions. We will come to most of them later but in passing we should look at science itself. For the scientists who support GM technology and others like it and are seen faute de mieux to be the voices of authority for the most part are either employed by biotech corporates, or else work for universities that depend on soft money (ie corporate grants). The immediate policy implication is that:

Policy 2: Take science out of corporate control

Every effort must be made to liberate science and indeed all scholarship, meaning academe as a whole, from commercial control. In agriculture specifically, we should seek to reverse the policies of the past 30 years and restore the network of 30 or so government-sponsored but otherwise independent research stations that once formed the Agricultural and Food Research Council. Most of them – including such great institutions as Rothamsted, the John Innes Research Centre, the Plant Breeding Institute and Scotland’s Rowett and Roslyn – have either been privatized, entirely or in large part, or else closed down.

Agricultural science now is treated as a branch of biotech, and subsumed within the BBSRC.

The second way to maximize profit is to add value. This should be a good thing to do. In agriculture this means turning uneatable flour into excellent bread, milk into great cheeses, and bloodied corpses into delectable cuts, hugely enhancing our quality of life and providing what should be agreeable employment for many millions of people worldwide. Nowadays, though, it also means importing sugar peas and cut flowers from Kenya and Ecuador, which may bring profit to a few but usually damages the local environment and tends to put more local farmers out of work than it employs. It also, of course, reduces the autonomy of local populations – their food sovereignty. The policy implications are discussed later.

It seems sensible, too, to cut costs, and the most obvious way to do this is to reduce the workforce, because traditional farming tends to be labour intensive, and labour can be the principal cost. So people are sacked. This is called “increasing efficiency” but sacking people is what it amounts to. There are, though, enormous knock-on effects. All are bad and some are disastrous.

First, over-zealous cost-cutting is dangerous – particularly in livestock farming. Thus, Britain’s livestock has been beset by an almost uninterrupted succession of epidemics since the 1980s when BSE, “mad cow disease”, first came on the scene. That lingered for more than a decade to be succeeded by the worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) the world has ever seen. Along the way we had outbreaks of Newcastle disease (fowlpest) and swine fever; and brushes with bird ‘flu and swine ‘flu. Some of these (BSE, swine flu, and bird flu) can lead to human disease and indeed have caused deaths, and we were very lucky to get off as lightly as we seem to have done. But all of these outbreaks, or at least the scale of them, were caused largely or solely by cut-price husbandry. The industrial food chain, presided over by a series of neoliberal governments, takes tremendous risks with our health, while expressing (not least through the Food Standards Agency) pious concern for our safety.

Secondly, the work once done by people – skilled people; craftspeople –must be done instead by machinery and industrial chemistry. Of course this is not all bad. Agricultural workers have often been reduced to slaves, actual or virtual, employed only for their muscle power and appropriately-scaled and smart machinery, perhaps with at least some judicious industrial chemistry, can turn drudgery into satisfying employment. But when profit is the principal or the sole driver, as it has become, then, inevitably, things are taken too far. Neoliberal farming of the kind that is anomalously called “conventional”, has become a field exercize in heavy engineering and industrial chemistry.

One result is that husbandry has been horribly simplified, because machines and industrial chemistry are not good at complexity. The result is monoculture and the factory farm – the bigger the better, to achieve economies of scale. So on 1000 hectares of present-day East Anglia you are likely to see nothing but wheat or barley overseen by just one full-time worker – though the mixed farms that occupied the space even half a century ago might have supported 50 family farms or more. In the Ukraine there are monocultural wheat-fields of 300,000 hectares, bigger than Kent. There are multi-story factories in the US with a million pigs, and these are spreading to Europe – the pigs fed on cereal from the monocultural prairies and from soya grown in part in Brazil at the expense of rainforest and the dry forest the Cerrado. Yet as we will see, the kind of agriculture that really could provide us all with good food and go on doing so must be complex – “polycultural”. The perceived imperative to cut farm labour is horribly eroding our long-term security. We are told that cutting labour to cut costs reduces the price of food – but even this is largely spurious, as we will see.

More immediately, cutting farm labour comes with a huge social cost. For agriculture and all that goes with it is by far the world’s biggest employer. In Third World countries, which include most of the world’s population, an average of 60% of people work on the land. In Britain and the US it’s around one percent. In India, 600 million people (60% of the whole) are on the land. If the Indians farmed the way we do then most of them – more than the total population of the expanded EU – would be out of work. Britain and some other rich countries vigorously promote industrial agriculture in the name of progress; and in Britain’s case, because the high tech that goes with it is a profitable export. Industrialization of other people’s agriculture also provides an excuse for land-grabbing as the small farms are amalgamated into great estates in the name of progress. In truth, by creating unemployment on an unprecedented scale this version of “progress” is the greatest single cause of the global poverty on which, just a few years ago, before their own economies collapsed, the western countries piously declared war.

All these problems are avoided once we go down the road of Enlightened Agriculture.

Enlightened Agricuture

Enlightened Agriculture, “expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, now and forever, with food of the highest standard both nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the rest”, is rooted in three grand ideas: Agroecology; Food Sovereignty; and Economic Democracy, embracing the keyt concept of Social Enterprise. Each of them suggests a whole phalanx of desirable policies. So:


Like all big ideas Agroecology has been variously defined and, as always, has sometimes been hi-jacked by vested interests to mean the precise opposite of what was intended. Even GM technology has been defended on the grounds that it reduces the amount of pesticide needed and so protects the environment. But this is true (if at all) only if crops are grown as industrial monocultures and so rely entirely on specific resistance genes to keep parasites at bay.  Generations of organic farmers and growers have shown that if crops are judiciously mixed then parasites pose far less of a problem in the first place, and often too little to worry about. With proper surveillance, pesticides can be applied (if at all) only when infection/ infestation is evident and not, as is common industrial practice, as a prophylactic.

But as I see agroecology, it should mean that

“Individual farms are conceived as ecosystems, and agriculture as a whole is seen as a key player and contributor within the global biosphere”.

The rationale is as follows.

We, humanity, need farming that is productive, sustainable, and resilient.

Productive means just that: the human population is big and will get bigger and we need enough. But enough should simply mean enough. “Enough’s enough” must be the watchword. So how much is “enough”? Well, we need to cater for 7 billion people now and perhaps for 10 billion by the end of the century. But then, according to the UN demographers, who are the most credible around, human numbers should level out. They are on course to do so. For the percentage rate of rise has been going down for the past 30 years and by 2050 the percentage rise should be close zero – meaning little further increase. After that, perhaps within a few decades or centuries, numbers will start to go down  — and could in principle go as low as we think is desirable. The way to achieve this is not through wars or famines or epidemics for besides being unspeakable such events are also ineffective. Numbers bounce back after disaster. What matters, and seems to be happening, is that people are choosing to have fewer children. The factors that contribute to this change of heart are all benign: better education and career opportunities for women so they are not obliged simply to raise families; lower infant mortality, so people expect all the babies they do have to survive; more security in old age, so people don’t need children to support them.

As we have seen, the world already produces enough macronutrient for 14 billion. The continuing emphasis on more and more output is little more than commercial hype. For those who seek only to maximize profit there can never be too much. Already there are massive surpluses which are disguised – by feeding half the world’s grain to livestock and by burning it: that is, using cereal, especially maize, for “biofuel”, and piously making a virtue of this.

Here is another obvious implication for policy. We should:

Policy 3: Focus on quality and provenance

By all possible means encourage farmers to raise the quality of their produce and to improve the methods of production: to farm in ways that are friendly to wildlife, are kind to livestock, and establish a close and benign relationship with their local communities.

This of course is just a general statement of intent. The means to achieve this depend on a host of details that must be worked out. What’s important is the shift of emphasis away from short-term commerce to long-term value.

Sustainable – another fashionable word that has been hi-jacked for various nefarious purposes! – should mean, in essence, that we should keep the biosphere in general and the soil in particular in good heart. The point is not that we should go on doing the same things forever and ever, because conditions (including climate) will change. It does mean that we retain the ability to farm well whatever the conditions.

Resilient may seem to mean the same thing as sustainable and there is certainly overlap but it should imply the ability to change direction quickly – because conditions (notably climate) can change rapidly.

So how do we achieve the productivity we need (but enough’s enough), sustainably and with resilience?

The general answer is to learn from nature. We should not of course follow nature slavishly, for nature can be horribly destructive. But nature has also been tolerably productive for the past 3.8 billion years even though the climate has swung spectacularly throughout that time and the continents have broken up and re-convened and so on and so on; and it is reasonable to ask how all this has been achieved. The general answer is that nature seems to employ three main tricks.

First, nature as a whole and almost all individual ecosystems are astonishingly diverse. Even when there seem to be few species, as in boreal forest, there are many thousands more in the soil beneath. Inter alia, diversity demonstrably is a prime protection against epidemic because no one parasite can get a foothold on the whole population if all the potential hosts are different.

Secondly, and again demonstrably, established diverse ecosystems are tightly integrated. The component species develop synergies, and make far better use of the available nutrients than any monoculture can do.

Thirdly, although there are hotspots in nature, such as estuaries and reefs that cause up-currents, wild ecosystems are low input. In particular, they make no use of fossil fuels.

How do these features translate into agriculture?

Well, diversity means diversity. Agroecological farms, the kind that emulate nature, should be maximally mixed – polycultural: many different crops and classes of livestock raised together. Within each population of crop plants and animals too there should be as much genetic diversity as is compatible with reasonable predictability. Some crops such as potatoes and Cox’s Orange are bound to be clones, but otherwise cloning should be avoided. Cloning of animals, already tried commercially, is a biological no-no.

Polycultural farms are not just collections, however, like menageries or botanic gardens. The different plants and animals must interact, synergistically.  Integration is the key, achieved by a host of techniques including intercropping and, above all, by rotations.

With judicious mixtures, too, properly integrated, farmers increase the “land equivalent ratio” and so achieve “yield advantage”, which means that the mixture is more productive than any of the individual crops would be if grown on the same area as a monoculture. Here is productivity for free.

“Low input” in general means organic, or as near to organic as may sensibly be achieved. About a third of the oil for industrial agriculture is used to make nitrogen fertilizer. Clearly, the more we can move away from artificial fertilizers the more world-friendly and climate-friendly farming will be.

Farms that are maximally diverse, integrated, and organic perforce are complex. Therefore they must be skills intensive – lots of farmers. Vast-scale industrial chemistry just cannot do what’s needed. Modern technology takes out much of the drudgery; what’s left is the craft.

When farms, or any enterprises, are complex and skills-intensive there is usually no advantage in scale-up, and a lot of disadvantages. Therefore the kinds of agroecological farms that the world really needs should in general be small to medium sized: the SME – “small to medium-sized enterprise” – becomes the norm. There is plenty of scope, though, for cooperation between different SMEs. Economies that work best are always primarily cooperative. The competitiveness that is now seen to be crucial is reduced to friendly rivalry.

Thus we seem to have reinvented the traditional small, mixed farm of the kind that is still common in rural communities worldwide (Eastern Europe and SE Asia contain some of the finest examples) and were once the norm in Britain. Up to a point, that is so. But this is not in pursuit of some nostalgic, elitist dream as defenders of the status quo like to suggest. The idea of the small mixed farm is founded in sound biology and in a true desire to achieve the outputs we need sustainably and resiliently. It’s the industrial high-tech monoculture that’s driven by ideology – though it is the crudest possible ideology; purely materialistic; purely commercial; conceptually anachronistic and yet called “progress”.

On a considerable point of detail, too, the small mixed farms in their modern form may be very high tech, very different from their predecessors. One of the most appropriate technologies for present purposes is polythene, for polytunnels and for tubing for micro-irrigation. The poorest Third World farmers make tremendous use of their mobile phones. Molecular biology does us no favours when used simply to produce GM crops but is of great value in refining conventional breeding programmes. We could always do with better vaccines. And so on. The trick is not to be afraid of high tech, but not to be in thrall to it either. It is merely a toolkit, helping us to create the kind of society we want. We have though, alas, allowed it to be hi-jacked by the majority who simply want to be on top.

Finally, defenders of the status quo argue that small mixed, low-input farms can never “feed the world”. For this we need high-tech, high-input, mega-estates. In fact, because of the tender loving care they achieve and the yield advantage conferred by diversity, small mixed holdings when well run can be far more productive per unit area than large, simplified monocultures. Furthermore, the IAASTD report of 2009 pointed out that small farms, though for the most part horribly under-supported if not actively done down, currently produce half the world’s food. Another 20% comes from hunting, fishing, and people’s back gardens, so the industrial agriculture that soaks up 80% of the subsidies and 90% of the research budget, supplies only 30%. Furthermore, while the small farms that are underfinanced could generally double their output, often quite easily, many industrial farms are already hard up against biological possibility and sometimes, like the “elite” dairy cows, are well beyond what is morally acceptable. A further 10% increase would be heroic. Yet the world’s governments and corporates would rather invest in the 30% that is already over-stretched than in the 50% that has so much spare capacity. Yet they claim to be “feeding the world”.

All this has enormous policy implications.

It’s obvious, first of all, that Britain and other countries with highly industrialized farming need many more farmers than we have now. Britain’s own farming workforce would sensibly be increased ten-fold. It would be reasonable to aim for a million new farmers – and the same number, roughly, to run the markets that must serve those farmers (see below). Furthermore, since the average British farmer is now approaching retirement age, we need a whole new generation and we need them fast.  So:

Policy 4: A million new farmers

By whatever means, Britain should seek to re-establish the network of agricultural colleges that have been shut down over the past few decades, and generally smooth the path for all the existing ones including or especially those that are not within the mainstream. New curricula are needed too – towards the ideas of agroecology and all that goes with it, and away from the “conventional” narrow focus on industrialized farming and high technologies designed primarily to maximize short-term profit.

The educational effort must begin with schools. All endeavours to introduce teaching of gardening and farming into schools at all levels must be encouraged. Michael Gove’s recent edict that the BTEC in horticulture and agriculture should no longer be recognized as a GCSE illustrates the level of government misunderstanding of what farming is and what it entails. This particular nonsense should be reversed immediately.

Policy 5: Land reform

It’s clear, too, that today’s big industrial estates should be re-configured as groups of small farms or as multi-enterprise co-operatives or quasi-cooperatives. Government should explore the many initiatives in Britain and abroad that are designed to achieve this, and put its weight behind them.

Policy 6: Planning and rural housing

Many people, particularly young people, coming into farming are prevented by lack of housing. It is always advantageous for farmers to live on the premises, but existing houses if any are too expensive and planning laws commonly prevent new builds, even of the most eco-friendly temporary nature. Again there are many initiatives afoot in the community at large to reverse this anomaly and government should first explore the possibilities that they present, and then, again, puts its weight behind them.

Policy 8: Farms and gardens in communities

Government should also encourage the many initiatives nationwide to establish community farms and gardens, urban and otherwise. These bring huge social benefits and are a nursery for the next generation of farmers. Institutions of all kinds, especially hospitals and prisons, should be encouraged and helped to create their own gardens and farms.

Food Sovereignty

The expression “food sovereignty” was coined in the 1990s by the world-wide peasant movement, Via Campesina, who define it according to a shortlist of very specific criteria. It is often used less formally, however – as I am using it here – simply to mean that communities everywhere should have control over their own food supply.

Food sovereignty is not to be confused with food security. For example, a society or an individual may have all the control that’s possible over their own food supply and yet be insecure – if for example, they live on the slopes of an active volcano (as some do). Or it may be as secure as anyone can be and yet have no control at all – like a baby with well-heeled, loving parents.

Yet the two concepts do overlap: in general a society’s security increases as its control increases. So in the interests of food security as well as for the sake of food sovereignty it pays all countries to be as self-reliant as possible. Self-reliance does not mean self-sufficiency. Self-sufficiency means that a country should contrive to produce all the food it needs within its own boundaries which only a few could do unless they were satisfied with an austere diet. Those that could grow everything for themselves and yet enjoy the finest gastronomy might include Australia, the US, China, and India, each with an enormous range of native climates.  Most of us, though, have to make do with self-reliance: growing everything that we need to stay alive, but importing the luxuries.

Britain could easily be self-reliant, raising all the cereal, pulses, vegetables, fruit, meat, milk, and eggs we need to keep everyone healthy – without being too austere. We could grow coffee and bananas in greenhouses but that would be profligate in the extreme. It is better by far to buy such exotics from the people who grow them best. This is not, however, an endorsement of the status quo. All countries everywhere should strive for self-reliance in food, and most of them could achieve this fairly comfortably, if that was the concerted policy, including many of most of the poor countries of Africa who feature on Channel 4 News in times of famine. Some countries might find it very hard to achieve self-reliance in food (Singapore, Monaco) and a very few might be better advised to focus on commodity crops, as Israel does. But most countries should not be growing food for export until and unless they have already achieved self-reliance. Ex-President Clinton said just this when he visited Haiti after the earthquake of 2010 and saw people starving in the countryside only because the crops they grew were of no use for home consumption. Obviously, too, importing countries should always pay a fair price – and not, as now, simply go for the knock-down prices offered by the most desperate. As some importers are already demonstrating, too, importers should be doing deals with individual farmers and cooperatives overseas, by-passing the modern trade agreements that often ride roughshod over small producers. In short:

Policy 8: Self-reliance and fair trade

Britain should seek to be as self-reliant in food as possible. Here as in all countries, this must take precedence over commodity crops for export (which for Britain includes prime beef). Insofar as Britain has influence in the world at large, it should encourage others to pursue a similar policy.

Economic Democracy and Social Enterprise

Since the doctrine of neoliberalism lies at the root of so many of the world’s problems,  at least in their modern form, a government that truly had the best interests of humanity and the world at heart would be seeking by all possible means to create an economic alternative. This would not mean some form of Stalinism, as defenders of the status quo are wont to argue. It simply means some version of social democracy – or, more specifically, the modern version of it known as economic democracy. The great serendipity is that there is nothing frightening about this. It simply applies a judicious mix of private ownership and government ownership – plus  (a refinement emphasized in particular by Martin Large) community ownership, for example in the form of trusts. In fact Martin Large envisages a tripartite economy, like a clover-leaf: private, government, community.

Social Enterprise implies that business should seek to “wash its face” commercially – that is, pay its way – but is not required primarily to maximize profits. Its prime aim is to benefit society and/or the biosphere. We can assume that enterprises owned by government or by communities would be run in that spirit; and so, too, as far as possible, should private enterprise.

Private enterprise should in general mean the small business. The terms “bourgeois” and “petit-bourgeois” have commonly been bandied as insults these past few decades but, as with “Desert Rat” or “Suffragette”, these insults might re-emerge as badges of honour. The kind of capitalism favoured by many old-style Tories and US Republicans from Edward Heath to Abraham Lincoln. They would despise neoliberalism as vehemently as any socialist (as Heath made clear). In short, economic democracy isn’t conceptually difficult.

Three obvious policy implications are:

Policy 9: The tripartite mixed economy

The kind of governments that Britain and the world really need would explicitly espouse the tripartite mixed economy. Above all it would favour small businesses (and relish the fact that they are small! Not seek simply to make them bigger, which is present government policy!); and would encourage the many movements nationwide that are seeking to establish community ownership.

We might reasonably hope that any party that embraced such an economic policy would find many allies in Europe, and not a few in the rest of the world including the US. The neolibs are tremendously powerful but not well liked.

Policy 10: Small businesses

In Britain as in the world over small businesses are the mainstay of the economy. Yet, as small businesspeople complain, big business receives far more support one way and another, and governments preferentially consult corporates when framing policy. All parties pay lip service to small businesses but insofar as they lend support it is generally to help them to “grow” – that is, to become large businesses. We need governments that acknowledge that small businesses are often the most effective and appropriate and help them to stay as they are but with more security.

Policy 11: Encourage benign forms of finance

Government does not need to reinvent the wheel. Many private groups the world over, including Britain, are developing means of helping small businesses and particularly small farms and the local markets that are appropriate to them. These groups explore all manner of benign approaches to funding (see Appendix). For farming and related enterprises FEA – “Funding Enlightened Agriculture” – is proving particularly effective. Government should identify who is doing what and again, put its weight behind them.

The political, legal, and financial implications of Enlightened Agricutlture and some of the current initiatives that a political party could put its weight behind are discussed in Appendix 1.

The price of food

Defenders of the status quo claim that industrial agriculture produces cheap food and that this is necessary. The perceived need to keep prices down is one of the main excuses for sacking labour.

However, little of what people spend on food actually goes to producing it. According to Defra and to Corporate Watch, of every pound spent on food in the supermarket only 9p goes to the farmer.

Clearly, a government that seriously wanted to bring prices down, or at least to contain them, would not be putting even more pressure on farmers and their workers, or their suffering livestock, which account for only a fifth of the total cost.  They would be seeking to reduce the 90% that goes to various kinds of middle-men. They don’t, of course, as things are, because it’s the trading and general manipulation that are seen to contribute most to GDP.  Tesco is highly favoured while small farmers decidedly are not.

One obvious way to increase farmers’ income without increasing the price of food is to re-instate traditional markets. A farmer who sells through conventional small shops should receive at least 30% of the retail price – a three-fold increase immediately. If he or she sells through farmers’ markets they get at least 65% of the retail price. A traditional food chain of small shops and processors demonstrably employs many more people than a corporate chain – give that corporates are keen to cut labour in the name of “efficiency”. Common humanity, common sense, and simple arithmetic all proclaim that this is the way to go. Instead, ostensibly to keep the prices down, more and more workers are sacked. Yet they probably account for only 5% or less of the total cost of food, if indeed it is the case that farmers receive only 9p of every pound spent.

** We should also ask how much of the farmers’ share of the retail price – and of the distributors’ share — goes to bankers, to pay off the loans that most of them must take out in order to stay in an industry that has become capital intensive.

** We should ask, too, why and how it is that Britons now spend only about 11-14% of their income on food but typically spend 50% on a mortgage – which again goes to the bankers.

** We should also ask why it is that in a rich economy like Britain’s, 900,000 people now resort to food banks. Fifty years ago, when we were far less rich, it wasn’t so.

** Finally, we should ask whether a mere 11-14% on food is sensible. The countries that in recent centuries have been considered the most civilized, including France and Italy, habitually spent 30% or more. But they didn’t spend 50% on a house.

In short:

Policy 12: The real price of food

Government should initiate in-depth studies to ask why food costs as much or as little as it does; why so many people in Britain apparently can’t afford it; what proportion of income should be spent on food; and what can be done to ensure that everyone can afford good food – which shouldn’t mean more industrial chemistry, biotech, and unemployment.

Food culture

Enlightened Agriculture and all that goes with it would be far easier to introduce in a society that still took a serious interest in food as a whole – as in traditional Italy or France, or indeed India, China, or Turkey. People who really know and care about food and know how to cook are simply not content with the kind that now prevails in supermarkets. Here there is enormous serendipity, for Enlightened Agriculture, based on small mixed farms and focused first on arable and horticulture, with animals filling in the gaps, inevitably produces “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”. These nine words (plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety) summarize the mainstream nutritional advice of the past 40 years and also describe the basic structure of all the world’s finest cuisines, from India and China through Turkey and Persia to Provence and Tuscany (and indeed traditional Britain, though with our rain and hills we are particularly suited to livestock). In short, enlightened farming, sound nutrition, and the finest gastronomy go hand in hand; and with a sensible and humane economy, all are perfectly affordable.

This suggests a final policy:

Policy 13: Encourage food culture

Food studies, notably cooking and gardening, should be given a prime spot in all schools, from the infants’ upwards. The teaching should be eclectic, and community-based. We should be making maximum use and drawing on the traditional skills of all the many peoples who have come to Britain over the past few decades for we have much to learn from all of them: West Indian, West African, Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, Chinese, East European, and all the rest.

In short, nothing is more important for the future than to encourage food culture. It shows us that to live well we do not need to don our hair shirts – that is another piece of misguided propaganda; it encourages food security and food sovereignty; and it has the potential, more than any other human pursuit, to bring people together and create social harmony.

In conclusion

Although this essay is far longer than I intended, it cannot do more than sketch in the main headings.  It’s clear, though, that governments of all stripes must take food and agriculture far more seriously than they generally do, and that this means re-thinking from first principles. Certainly, it cannot be enough simply to abandon agriculture to the market, as has been the norm.

Agriculture is where concern for humanity and concern for the biosphere come together. For any party that truly aspires to be green, as all parties these days claim to be, agriculture must be the central strut of policy.

Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, October 5 2014


The principles of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty lead us to what seems to be the traditional farm structure – polycultural, low-input, therefore complex, therefore skills intensive, and therefore generally small to medium sized.

This isn’t necessarily the last word, however. For the traditional model is based on the idea of the single owner or tenant – the yeoman or peasant farmer – and this may not be ideal, especially in today’s world.  The lone farmer (albeit archetypally with family) on a complex farm must have many different areas of expertise and must work extremely hard to keep all the balls in the air and yet, as history shows all too clearly, such farmers are extremely vulnerable economically and politically. While retaining the principles of polyculture and low input, the structure must be made robust.

The way to do this is to involve more people, working in concert: sharing liability and risk; supplying complementary skills; probably operating quasi-independently day-by-day but sharing and cooperating whenever this is appropriate; a network or an ecosystem of interlocking enterprises. Socially such a farm can usefully be re-conceived as a hamlet, a community with common interests and a common goal. The overall holding, with several or many people on board, may no longer be small. But each enterprise within it remains small, human-sized, with plenty of tender-loving care.

The necessary components that can create the required, co-operative structures can be considered under four headings, and the overall outcome is a permutation of elements from all four. The possible complexities are therefore endless and there are thousands of existing examples worldwide. But here are the main headings with a few salients:

1: Ownership

Present land ownership in Britain is extremely skewed with not much than half of one per cent of the population owning 60% of all the land – reflecting out Feudal past and the eagerness of recent governments to sell off land to the highest bidder, which means to whoever is richest. This cannot be morally right or sensible, and historical precedent suggests that we cannot restore some semblance of justice without major upheaval. Yet, far short of bloody uprising, there is a great deal useful that can be done.

First, farmland in Britain now commonly sells at around £10,000 an acre or £25,000 per hectare which seems to put it beyond the reach of all but the richest — yet significant public buy-out is still possible if people cooperate. Thus a market garden or smallholding of five acres can make a significant difference to the diet and social life of a small village, and the villagers between could easily raise the £50,000 needed to acquire the land, and so acquire their own village farm. There are various precedents.

On the grand scale – a people’s buy-out of all Britain’s farmland would be perfectly affordable, without violence and on generous terms. Thus, Britain now has 18 million hectares of farmland, which is about a quarter of a hectare per head of population (easily enough to ensure self-reliance) – which at £25K per hectare is around £7000 per head. Not everyone can produce £7000 just like that but if borrowed from the banks (that’s what banks are for) and paid back over a lifetime like a mortgage, £7000 becomes almost trivial (and would be compensated several times over by the stabilising of food prices and the opportunities for employment). Compulsory purchase is possible; but if that is considered too Draconian, then a law to demand that local communities should be informed of land coming on to the market, and must be entitled to bid for it, would at least be a shift in the right direction. With present turnover (about 1% per year) there should be a significant transfer of ownership within a few decades and almost total buy-out within a century.

But ownership is not the be-all and end-all. Indeed it has disadvantages. Of at least equal importance are the principles of usufruct and security of tenure. Usufruct simply means that people may have a legal right to use land for their own purposes and/ or that they have a right to the fruits (fructus) of the land even if, on paper, somebody else owns it. Similarly, if occupiers have guaranteed security of tenure they can be just as secure as a legal owner (who could after all be displaced by compulsory purchase).

Neither should we assume – it would be a huge mistake — that all present landowners want to use their land for frivolous purposes or are interested only in profit. Many already manage their land as well as anyone could, and many too would be very happy to let it out to would-be farmers who would farm it well, and some indeed are trying actively to do so. But present-day laws often make this difficult. Present tax-laws can penalize farmers who allow others to farm their land, and planning laws commonly make it impossible for newcomers to live on the land they farm although some of them at least (especially the horticulturalists and keepers of livestock) need to be constantly on hand. The laws that now are holding back progress can be changed. Contracts between sympathetic landowners and keen tenants can and should be bespoke — tailored individually to the needs of each. Tom Curtis of Oxford is working on this.

It is sometimes said that farmers who were merely tenants or members of cooperatives would not have the incentive to farm to the best of their abilities because they all want to build up the cash value of their farms and pass it on to their children. This may be true of some but on the whole this is nonsense. Good farmers simply want the opportunity to farm well and several of the best that I know are farm managers. By the same token, doctors and teachers are not the less dedicated because they do not own the hospital or the school.

2: The structure and management of the farm

So the land managers – the farmers – need not be the same people as the owners. Who should they be?

As we have seen, the farmers could be individuals, either owner-occupiers or tenants, or – which increasingly seems more realistic, and is in many ways desirable – they could be various kinds of group. Sometimes groups of friends acquire land and farm it between them – as Sam and Lucy Henderson and friends are doing at Whippletree Farm in Devon.

Of particular promise too is the approach of farmers like Joel Salatin in Virginia, USA, and James Odger, in Somerset whose farms host several or many different enterprises run by farmers who operate quasi-independently but cooperate in various ways to their common advantage – so the farm operates in much the same way as a traditional well-run hamlet. James Odger regards his own farm as a launching pad. He encourages the guest farmers to move on after two years – when their own income level enables them to do so – and set up on their own. The financial arrangements on the two farms differ in detail but both ensure that both the host farmer and his guests have a good deal.

Overall a virtual infinity of possible arrangements can be envisaged, and many of them already exist. All of them demonstrate the power of community and of cooperation. What any one person working alone would find difficult or impossible, a few or many together may manage with ease. Those who seek to rule entire societies do so largely by keeping the rest of us divided. But the strength of societies and indeed of all humanity lies in cooperation.

The kinds of enterprises that the world really needs are helped increasingly by “Community Supported Agriculture” or CSA – a term applied both to the general principle and to individual holdings (known as “CSAs”). There are perhaps about 120 CSAs in Britain and more than 6000 in the US, where the movement began (or so it’s estimated). CSAs in general are groups of people who support (usually) local farmers and growers by undertaking to share the financial risk. Commonly they do this by agreeing to take a regular order from the farmer and pay up-front for a year’s supply. The produce often takes the form of a veg-box, but some farmers also offer eggs and various cuts of milk. Some by no means all CSAs demand that all the members should supply some labour. CSAs are free to make their own rules and overall, the arrangements vary enormously in detail. A very good example of a CSA is Ed Hamer’s market garden at Chagford on Dartmoor, whose clients pay up-front for a year’s worth of weekly veg-boxes.

3: Legal structures

Every business should have a formally recognized business structure – and for those seeking to set up enterprises of the kind that can contribute to the grand cause of Enlightened Agriculture and all that goes with it, there are three that seem most appropriate: the Trust; the Community Benefit Society (CBS); and the Community Interest Company (or CIC; pronounced CIC). The details here are all freely available elsewhere. What’s important is that these mechanisms exist, and are designed to provide the framework for the kinds of enterprise that are needed; so governments that are truly on the side of humanity should do whatever is appropriate to encourage them.


There are four standard ways by which new businesses, or businesses that seek to change direction, can raise the necessary finance: through donations; grants; loans; and investment.  All of them have been extended in recent years to become especially friendly to small businesses in general and social enterprises in particular.

Notably, donations and loans and even investments are commonly attracted these days through crowd funding, hosted by “crowd funding platforms” including Buzzbnk, which is dedicated to social enterprises.  Recent years too have seen a significant rise in “ethical investment” which now has been extended conceptually to become “positive investment”. Ethical investment after all has had a negative connotation: not putting money into, say, the arms trade. But positive investment means that investors are invited to put their money only into named enterprises that they feel are particularly worthwhile – which of course can include the kind of social enterprises that can practice Enlightened Agriculture and all that goes with it. FEA (“Funding Enlightened Agriculture”) was recent established specifically to direct new farms and markets and even research projects towards appropriate finance, and to provide appropriate business advice. FEA is a project of the Real Farming Trust, a registered charity.

Taken together all these mechanisms, movements, and trends add up to what might be called – to invert a famous quote from Edward Heath – “The acceptable face of capitalism”. Capitalism should be not be “smashed” as the extreme Left suggests, for this would certainly be difficult and probably counter-productive. But it does need to be rescued from reductionist, amoral pit into which it has been allowed to sink.

Clearly, there are many specific ways in which a political party could help to smooth the path for all of the above endeavours – though in the present manifesto a general statement of intent will suffice.


1: The Future of Food and Farming. A Foresight report chaired by Sir John Beddington. Government Office for Science, January 2011.

2: Agriculture at a Crossroads. Report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Co-chaired by Professor Hans Herren of the Millennium Institute, Washington, and Judi Wakhungu of the African Centre for Technology Studies. 2009.

Global Food Strategy: Power, Lies, and the Need for Agrarian Renaissance

A rapid analysis by COLIN TUDGE

The world’s global strategy of food and farming, insofar as there is one, is founded on three great untruths – lies, in effect — which between them are threatening to kill us all, and in practice are well on the way to doing so.

Lie no. 1 is that the world needs 50% more food by 2050, and will need 100% more by 2100. This provides the excuse for the agrochemical/ biotech companies to focus ever more energetically on productivity.

In truth, the world already produces twice as much food as the world needs and – since the world population should level out by 2100 if not before – produces 50% more than the world will ever need. We should be focusing on food quality, social justice, and environmental protection. But the pursuit of quality and justice would not be profitable to the corporates, so that is not the prime target if indeed it is seriously on the agenda at all.

Lie no. 2 is that to produce all this extra food (which in fact we don’t need) we need enormous inputs of agrochemistry, now abetted in particular by GMOs – which in large part are designed expressly to survive in a world drenched in agrochemistry. Small, mixed, traditional farms are an anachronism which must be done away with asap – or so we are told. Opposition to the agrochemical approach springs from superstition and ignorance which must be corrected by public education.

In truth, today’s industrial agriculture — basically now a field exercize in industrial chemistry — produces only 30% of the world’s food, even though is hoovers up 80% of the subsidies and 90% of the research budget. The small traditional farms that are so despised and routinely swept aside still produce 50% of the world’s food. The remaining 20% comes from fishing, hunting, and people’s back gardens.

Furthermore, much of today’s industrial farming is already hard up against biological possibility and – as shown by the plight of the world’s industrial livestock – is already, often, far beyond what is morally acceptable. To increase the industrial contribution by another 20% would be heroic. Yet people who know Third World agriculture well tell us that with a little logistic help – better roads, better banking – traditional farmers could generally double or triple their output even with present-day practices. But the people in power would rather increase the profitable 30% by another 20%, than double or triple the 50% which they do not control; and governments like Britain’s, and compliant academe, go along with this.

On a significant point of detail — GMO technology, which is now seen as the world-saver, has been on the stocks for about 30 years and in that time has produced no new food crops of unequivocal value that could not have been produced in the same time at far less cost and in perfect safety by conventional means. Yet the collateral damage from GMO technology has been enormous – it includes the irrecoverable loss of genetic diversity in the world’s great crops; although this is denied, through propaganda and lobbying, at great expense, by those in power.

Lie no. 3 is that if we farmed for quality and in ways that keep the biosphere in good heart, then the resulting diet would be too boring to be tolerated. In particular, we are given to understand, we would have little or no meat.

In truth, the kind of agriculture that can feed us well – the kind I am calling Enlightened Agriculture, based essentially on low-input (quasi-organic) mixed farming – would indeed produce plenty of plants, but it would also produce a fair amount of meat (most of the world’s farmland is grass, and there are plenty of leftovers!), and enormous variety. A nine-word adage – “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety” – summarizes all the best nutritional theory of the past 40 years, and also encapsulates the basic structure of all the world’s great cuisines (China, India, Turkey, Lebanon, Provence, Italy – and even traditional Britain though since we have plenty of hills, grass, and rain we are quite meat-oriented). All the great cuisines use meat sparingly – for flavour and texture, as garnish and in stocks, and eat it en masse only in feasts. In other words, the kind of (enlightened) farming that could provide us all with good food without massive inputs of agrochemistry and GMOs would also provide us with the best possible nutrition and the best possible cuisine.

All might be forgiven, at least in large part, if present strategies were succeeding. But the failures are all too evident. Worldwide, a billion people out of seven billion are chronically undernourished while another billion are overnourished – the world population of diabetics is now more than twice the total population of Russia. In Britain, over the past few years almost a million people (900,000-plus) resorted to food banks. One billion people worldwide now live in urban slums – about 30% of the total urban population; mostly because industrial farming that is run by foreign corporates with the blessing of governments like ours has displaced them from the land. Unemployment caused by the industrialization of agriculture is a prime cause of the global poverty that western governments pretend to abhor. At the same time half of all other species (perhaps around four million types) are conservatively estimated to be in imminent danger of extinction. Demonstrably, industrial farming is a prime cause of all these disaster – and since industrial farming is oil-based, it is a prime cause of global warming too. Oil is running out but the shale reserves seem endless and by the time the world has run through them we will be lucky if anything at all survives the resulting climate change with all the floods, droughts, and uncertainties.

But why do the people who now dominate the world, including the governments that we elect and the academics who have such status, pursue strategies that are so obviously wrong-headed and so destructive? Why, when the alternative – mixed, low-input farming with an appropriate distribution network – is already waiting in the wings and is so obviously superior, and indeed could deliver all we need?

The answers are many and complex and have deep historical and social origins but the coup de grace, the last straw that has tipped the world from incipient wrong-headedness into what in effect is suicidal mode, is the economic dogma of neoliberalism and all that goes with it – including a massive shift of power and wealth from the many to the few.

The dogma

Neoliberalism became the dominant driver of the world’s affairs about 30 years ago, thanks to Thatcher and Reagan. The economy as a whole is geared entirely to the ultra-competitive global market, the raison d’etre of which is to maximize wealth. The market is allegedly “free” and open even-handedly to all but in practice, as was always inevitable, it is dominated by the biggest players.

The market has no in-built morality: that would encroach on its “freedom”, which is taken to be sacred. The only value it recognizes is that of money. The players must compete to make as much of it as possible – more than anyone else, so as to attract further investment. Those who take their eye off the ball and fail to compete with the rest go to the wall, because the market knows no compassion. Thus the neoliberal market is neodarwinian: “survival of the fittest”, meaning (in this context) devil takes the hindmost.

The drawbacks, theoretical and practical, are all too obvious. All human values have become secondary if they feature at all while the biosphere, known peremptorily as “the environment”, is seen merely as a “resource”, or as real estate. For, we have been told, money is the sine qua non and the cure for all our ills. Without great piles of it we can do no good, and with great piles of it we can always buy our way out of trouble by investing in smarter and smarter and bigger and bigger technology.

In practice, though, as no-one disputes, in the 30 years of neoliberal dominance, the rich have grown richer beyond all dreams while the poor have grown poorer. All kinds of reasons have been sought but the prime cause is surely that morality and common sense have gone missing. The world’s most influential governments, none more so than Britain’s, are obsessed with economic “growth” and more “growth”, measured entirely in money. Month by month, year by year, GDP – the sum of the nation’s wealth – must be seen to increase. Less and less does it matter how the wealth is produced, or who gets it, or what it is used for. Wealth per se is the sole desideratum.

Agriculture is a prime victim of neoliberalism – and alas in Britain in particular has been the all too willing victim. The anomalously titled National Farmers Union in reality is a club of agribusiness people and has rushed to embrace its ideals. All agricultural produce is seen as a commodity, grown at the lowest possible cost not primarily for food but to sell on the global market for the highest possible price. Wheat has long been a global commodity – and soya, rape, and palm oil. Milk is rapidly joining the commodity ranks. It can be produced anywhere where the climate is equable and labour is not too dear (though labour is cut to the bone anyway), then dried and powdered and stored more or less indefinitely and sold when the price is right. Britain’s dairy farmers are now being squeezed out of existence — but they should have seen this coming. The NFU certainly should. Many people did. The more that Britain’s farmers industrialize the more they get sucked in to the grand global money-fest, and the more they find themselves up against mega-corporates in the Ukraine or Indonesia or Brazil or where you will that can wipe them off the map. Of course the whole exercize is oil-based so the price of food will depend more and more on the whims of the oil market – but hey! In the short term quite a lot of people are doing well and they keep all kinds of people in work – chauffeurs, cleaners – according to the principle of “trickle down”. So don’t knock it.

This is the mentality that dominates the world’s agriculture and determines humanity’s food supply.

The power

The trouble is that in an economy geared to the maximization of short-term wealth sets up a positive feedback look. Those who play the neoliberal game most single-mindedly are most likely to succeed in it, and so become richer. They then use their wealth to reinforce their position: employing people – experts and intellectuals – who will help them both to increase their wealth still further and also to justify their position: arguing indeed in a pastiche of Adam Smith’s ideas from the 18th century that by seeking to maximize their own wealth, by whatever means, for entirely selfish reasons, those who grow rich from the market somehow benefit the rest of us. The absurd notion of “trickle down” is a part of such thinking. When they are really rich, the richest people can in effect buy the services of government who in turn, obligingly, further promote their interests. Finally, compliant government uses its power to devise a system of education that teaches the virtues of the market economy and those who dominate it. “Vocational” training these days does not imply a calling for medicine or teaching or the church as it did when I was at school. It just means learning the specific skills and doctrines necessary to get a job with Monsanto or Goldman Sachs.

Britain has seized the neoliberal nettle more eagerly than anyone – all governments since Thatcher have been Thatcherite, even or perhaps especially those that called themselves “New Labour”. Britain, now, is ruled not by its democratically elected government but by a tetrarchy of corporates, banks, government, and their chosen expert and scientific advisers. Some of those chosen advisers are directly employed by the corporates which at least is commendably transparent. Many others claim “independence” and yet rely on the corporates for funding. Thus an increasing slice of academe is now corporate driven, geared not to the disinterested pursuit of wisdom or the wellbeing of humankind or the biosphere but to the further enrichment of those who are already rich.

The trend is all too clear in Britain’s and the world’s agriculture — dominated by the mega-corporates of which biotech, which has brought us GMOs, is a scion.  The international agencies and governments like Britain’s take their lead from those corporates and see it as their role to support them. The two together – corporates and governments – form a coalition, far more significant than any coalition of political parties. Governments like Britain’s are, in effect, an extension of the corporate boardroom.

The experts and intellectuals – mainly scientists and economists – who support and are supported by the coalition intellectuals now dominate academe, including the universities. Intellectuals and experts who question present strategies are routinely ignored, sidelined, and starved of funds – the official pretence being that they have lost their way in life, or simply don’t exist. The resulting oligarchy, the corporate-government coalition plus the heights of academe, may seem superficially benign but is as controlling in its way as any dictatorship and far more robust, precisely because it has discovered the secret of self-reinforcement. It is bound to grow ever richer because that it controls the heights of the economy and wealth is its principal if not its sole ambition, and the richer it becomes the more it can dig itself in.

The solution: Agrarian Renaissance

My own mission in life (it’s grown on me these past 40 years, despite my best efforts now and again to break away) is to reverse this nonsense: to spread the idea of Enlightened Agriculture – the kind that really could feed us all well without wrecking everything else; to help to make it the norm; and to help to create the kind of economy, political structure, and general worldview – the Zeitgeist – that will enable Enlightened Agriculture to flourish. As things stand, any suggestion that farming or anything else might be practiced in ways that are not maximally profitable (at least for a few, in the short term) is wiped off the agenda; and the intelligentsia, to their shame, go along with this, wittingly or unwittingly.

The ambition, to establish Enlightened Agriculture as the norm, is grandiose. But plenty of people worldwide are thinking along the same lines and by teaming up with more and more of them, we’re making progress. The Campaign for Real Farming exists to promote Enlightened Agriculture and all that goes with it. So does the Oxford Real Farming Conference. So does our new outfit, FEA (Funding Enlightened Agriculture). I am hoping to found a College for Enlightened Agriculture (and have taken some preliminary steps. Momentum is needed right now).

Overall, the world needs a Renaissance – to build a different and better world in situ.  A key part of this is Agrarian Renaissance because agriculture sits right at the heart of all human affairs and if we get it right, then everything else becomes possible (and if we get it wrong then everything else is compromised). The oligarchs are not going to create the Agrarian Renaissance: they have invested too heavily, in fact they have invested their entire careers, in the status quo. So the necessary Renaissance must be people led.

But this is the good news – it means that everyone can join in, the more the merrier. In broad terms and even in some detail the way ahead is obvious: the kinds of farms we need already exist; so do the kinds of market we need; so, if we dig them out, do many of the necessary political and legal weapons and – crucially – the financial mechanisms. The financial mechanisms are not revolutionary in nature; w merely have to invoke the acceptable face of capitalism. We have the tools to make the Renaissance happen, in short — and, worldwide, there is no shortage of good will. So let’s make it happen.

Colin Tudge, October 10 2015

This article was first published in Open Democracy

A Guide to Cooperative

There are collaborative enterprises corresponding to virtually every component of farming. The question to start with is, “How do I want to work with other people?” This guide addresses two main categories for working together. In the first, several separate businesses share access to resources and services, like marketing, equipment, and labor. In the second category, individuals work together to form one farm operation with multiple owners, such as a worker cooperative These categories are not necessarily exclusive of each other. For example, a group of farm businesses on shared land might have one shared enterprise, like a cheesemaker and a vegetable farmer in Maine that farm separately, but share ownership of a small dairy herd. On the other hand, some members of a cooperatively owned farm business might have side enterprises, like a collective vegetable farm where one member hosts a chicken business. It may make more sense to own and manage some things independently while combining efforts on others