Vegetables at a farmers market. Photo: Socially Responsible Agricultural Project via Flickr.com.
Manifesto for a new agriculture
Graham Harvey and Colin Tudge
2nd January 2013
The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2014 begins on Monday. Graham Harvey and Colin Tudge set out its mission: farming systems producing healthy, affordable food in harmony with environment and wildlife.
When we get farming right everything else we might aspire to becomes possible - from good food for all to global peace and the conservation of our fellow creatures.
A good farming system should provide healthy, nutrient-rich foods for everyone at prices they can afford using methods that don't harm our fellow creatures and the world at large.
By this measure our present system looks like a dismal failure. Yet good farming - or 'Real farming' - is easily achievable.
No scientific breakthroughs are required - no clever new technologies. It's simply a matter of applying sound biological principles to the way we manage the land. This is why we at the Oxford Real Farming Conference believe it's time for radical change.
Our agriculture has been brought near to collapse through unswerving belief in a few simple dogmas - the efficacy of high tech and the ultra-competitive marketplace.
In our 5th year we at the ORFC say enough is enough. It's time to put British agriculture back in the service of the people
Our grand ambition - and where we've come from
Agriculture sits right at the heart of all the world's affairs - our own, our fellow creatures, and the fabric of the Earth itself. It is the world's biggest employer, it provides at least 80% of our food (the other 20% comes from hunting, fishing, and people's back gardens), and it occupies a third of all land. It is the principal meeting place of humanity and the rest of nature.
When we get farming right everything else we might aspire to becomes possible - from good food for all to global peace and the conservation of our fellow creatures. When we get it wrong everything else is compromised.
At the moment it's very apparent that we're getting it wrong. Western industrial agriculture is currently doing immense harm to our fellow human beings and to the planet we live on.
As well as producing a large amount of starchy materials, it is degrading soils at a ruinous rate, increasing the threat of food shortages; failing to help the billions of people who are undernourished or malnourished; squandering the Earth's freshwater resources; polluting soils, watercourses and the oceans with chemical fertilisers and pesticides; reducing biodiversity by destroying habitats and eroding wildlife populations; and undermining rural communities by eliminating jobs and business opportunities.
Challenging industrial agriculture
Despite these obvious and well-documented failings industrial agriculture continues largely unchallenged. Those with the most power - big governments, the corporates, the banks, and their chosen economic and scientific advisers - talk a lot about the need for change. In practice little is done.
Most of the steady succession of reports - along with the big speeches from the highest platforms - advocate more industrialisation and more control from above.
And behind the advocacy lies an unswerving belief in the efficacy and sanctity of a corporate-dominated global market, driven by all-out competition; in new technologies as the answer to our ills; and, despite the obvious shortcomings, in the need for tighter top-down control.
Industrialisation, commodification, and bureaucratisation, are now what in practice is meant by progress.
To change things for the better we have to re-think, not just agriculture itself, but the ideas that lie behind it. What kind of economy do we need to make possible an agriculture that serves people before corporate profits?
What kind of governance do we need to encourage such an economy? What kind of science do we need to show us what's possible? And above all what grand ideas - both moral and metaphysical - can provide the necessary foundations?
The real challenge will then be to turn the thinking into reality. In short, what's needed is a Renaissance in the ways we think about and practise agriculture.
A movement of millions
All in all, it's a tall order. But worldwide millions of people are already on the case. Some - including a number in high places (UNCTAD for example, and the IAASTD) - have already outlined the ideas that we need to act upon.
A great many farmers, in rich countries and poor, are practicing the kind of farming the world really needs - some because they have always farmed that way, but also a growing army of newcomers eager to do things better.
In Britain - despite the bleakness of the present system - we have a rich farming heritage to draw on. It's easy to forget that before the excesses of the chemical age UK farmers followed a system that was both productive and sustainable.
It was known as mixed farming. At its heart were grasslands and grazing animals, which allowed soil fertility to be maintained without the need for fossil-fuel consuming chemical fertilisers.
Professor George Stapledon, the leading agricultural scientist of the 20th century, was convinced that mixed farming was the ideal system for Britain. The balance of pasture and grazing with crop growing ensured the three essentials of good farming, he claimed: sustained fertility, self-sufficiency and flexibility.
This year at ORFC
The 2014 ORFC features a young farmer who's bringing pasture and grazing back on a large scale. Tim May farms 1,000 hectares in north Hampshire. Until 2013 the farm was mainly down to high-input cereals and oilseed rape crops.
But having seen the damage this kind of industrial agriculture does to both soil and wildlife populations, Tim has now sown half the farm to 'herbal leys' - pastures containing deep-rooting herbs and clovers as well as grasses.
Since autumn the mixed-species pasture have been grazed by a large sheep flock. Soon beef cattle are to be brought onto the farm. Tim's aim is to put life back into the soils and wildlife back into the woods, pastures and hedgerows. And through it all he plans to make a healthy profit!
We see the principal purpose of the ORFC to highlight initiatives like Tim's. As elsewhere in the world, brave and innovative individuals are turning their backs on industrial agriculture and looking for something better.
Our aim is to bring these people together. We don't need a majority to bring about a real renaissance in agriculture. We merely need a 'critical mass' - perhaps as little as 10% of the whole.
Worldwide, the mass of people now on board is already great enough, and to 'go critical' they need merely to coordinate their efforts. This is what the ORFC is for. More than anything we want to provide a forum where forward-thinking farmers, consultants, researchers and others come together in the search for better ways of producing food.
Colin Tudge is a biologist with special interests in natural history, evolution and genetics, food and agriculture, and moral philosophy. The author of Good Food for Everyone Forever and Why Genes Are Not Selfish and People Are Nice, he is co-founder of the Campaign for Real Farming. His latest venture is Funding Enlightened Agriculture which seeks to help new entrants to farming find start-up funds and become investment ready.
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