Intensive arable farming in England: no space for people or wildlife. Photo: Peter Roworth / Natural England via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Six steps back to the land: an agricultural revolution for people and countryside
22nd April 2016
What's the point of farming? To produce an abundance of wholesome food, writes Colin Tudge, while supporting a flourishing rural economy and a sustainable, biodiverse countryside. Yet the powers that be, determined to advance industrial agriculture at all costs, are achieving the precise opposite. It's time for a revolution in our food and farming culture, led by the people at large.
The open-mouthed technophilia that now prevails in political circles with their calls for 'science-led policy' is naïve in the extreme, and yoked as it now is to the service of neoliberal economics it is threatening to kill us all.
The world is in a disastrous state, but there's still hope.
Our descendants could still be here in a million years' time, feeling far more secure and fulfilled than most of us do now and still enjoying the abundant and diverse company of what Robert Burns called our "Earth-born companions".
To achieve all this, though, we need to do just about everything differently. We should start with farming - which in the end is the most important thing that we do, and right now is at the heart of all our troubles.
A billion people out of seven billion are chronically undernourished; a half of all other species are judged to be in imminent danger of extinction; all the world's great ecosystems are seriously compromised; and global warming has destabilized the climate.
For good measure, global poverty is as bad as ever, the gap continues to grow between rich and poor, and there is discontent everywhere with dozens, literally, of wars and uprisings at any one time - too many for the standard news media even to mention.
Farming as now practiced is both a prime cause of all of this, and a prime victim. Above all then we need all to re-think and re-design agriculture - what amount to an Agrarian Renaissance.
The oligarchy tightens its grip
The task is huge, but there is worse. For the world is now dominated as never before by a self-reinforcing oligarchy of powerful governments, like Britain's, in partnership with the transnational corporates, banks, and their chosen expert and ideological advisers.
The oligarchy clings together and inexorably tightens its grip on the world not through design or conspiracy but through natural selection: those who think in the way the oligarchs do can join their ranks and make them stronger, while those who do not fall by the wayside.
The kind of agriculture that the oligarchs now advocate - industrialized, centralized, high-input, high-capital, high tech with minimum or zero labour, organized from the top down - and the kind of ideas that lie behind that strategy, must be, by their nature, oligarch-led.
But it is almost precisely opposite in almost every respect from the kind of farming that we really need if we truly care about the future of the human race and of the biosphere. So the Agrarian Renaissance that is so necessary must be brought about despite the people who now dominate the world.
In other words, the Agrarian Renaissance must be led by us, people at large, the Honourable Company of Ordinary Joes. In my latest book, Six Steps Back to the Land, I aspire to show what needs to be done and how we can go about it. It's a long shot, to be sure, but it's the best chance we have.
Start at the beginning - question everything we've been told
To begin with, everything the powers-that-be tell us about the state of food and farming is wrong, or highly questionable. Thus the current mantra, echoed not least in Sir John Beddington's government report of 2011 The Future of Food and Farming, is that the world must produce 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising numbers and expectations.
Some opportunist politicians have upped the ante since Beddington's report - demanding 100% more by 2100. Worse, say the powers-that-be, we must now produce biofuel as well as food and, of course, more and more land is needed for airports and the rest. Thus the talk from on high is 'productionist': more and more of everything, on less and less space.
At first sight the stats seem to support the official analysis. A billion people out of the current seven billion are hungry now - and the UN tells us that by 2050 numbers will rise to 9.5 to 10 billion. At the same time, as (some) people grow richer, they 'demand' more meat - and meat production is innately profligate.
The world's livestock now consume at least a third of the world's grain and by 2050, the projection has it, they will be eating enough to feed another 4 billion people. In the long term, but starting as soon as possible, we need draconian policies to reduce population. But for the immediate future we must produce as much as possible, by whatever it takes. Stands to reason, doesn't it?
Furthermore, say the powers-that-be, to produce all this extra food we need high tech, which means high capital, practiced on the largest possible scale to achieve economies of scale: megatonnes of fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide, applied to monocultural fields that stretch to the horizon; there are arable farms in the Ukraine bigger than Kent.
All, though, is ameliorated these days by GM, crops genetically engineered to resist pests without pesticide and to grow in the most hostile conditions. GM came on line in the nick of time, like the US cavalry in the 5th reel. Labour must be kept to a minimum and preferably down to zero (this is the age of the robot).
All who oppose these vital developments are backsliding Luddites, or middle-class airy-fairy elitist do-gooders, steeped in superstition and/or nostalgia, anti-science and anti-progress, the enemies both of humankind and of the biosphere.
Yet once you look beneath the surface - as we might hope our leaders and their expert advisers would do - you see that the official analysis, acted on by governments and worldwide and the driving force behind modern research, is the grossest nonsense, threatening if we continue with it to kill us all, and most of our fellow creatures too, and helping to poison all the world's ecosystems and screw up the climate for good measure.
The 'free market' has been portrayed as the answer
For the real reason that a billion now are hungry has very little to do with total numbers and everything to do with waste and the misallocation of resources, with the wrong crops in the wrong places, and with government (tax-payers') support for what doesn't matter and little or no support for what does.
Behind all this lies a highly extrapolated version of ideas that date from the Scottish economist Adam Smith, and the early 19th century English economist David Ricardo. It's surprising how so much modern lore, not to say dogma, in science and economics, derives from the musings of 200 years ago.
For Smith seemed to argue in his seminal Wealth of Nations that if markets are left to themselves everything will turn out OK because no traders can survive in a truly 'free' market unless they do what their customers want, and crooked or otherwise defective traders are weeded out because they lose custom.
So the free market is both democratic and efficient. This is the thinking behind the 'deregulated', 'free global market economics that is called 'neoliberal', and now dominates the world. Ricardo argued that every nation should concentrate on producing those goods that it can produce better than anyone else (its 'comparative advantage'), and then sell them to the highest bidder (through, nowadays, the global market).
Thus the producing country grows as rich as it is possible for it to do and it can use its surplus cash to buy all the ordinary stuff that anyone can grow. Thus the world's traditional 'banana republics' grew, well, bananas and then imported, say, surplus American corn. Makes perfect sense, eh?
I have heard modern sages on television assuring the world that poor countries should go on selling their produce on the world market even in times of famine.
However the neoliberal market doesn't work
The trouble is, President Obama recently pointed out and as the past 40 years have shown in abundantly, "Guess what. The neoliberal market does not work". In practice the 'free' market is inevitably dominate by a handful of corporates, supported by the world's richest governments, which depend on the corporates' good offices.
The whole works are thrown off course by the mega-banks on which everyone depends but which have their own agenda; and nobody in high places seems to know or care what effect their machinations are having on the world at large.
The prime virtue, for a true oligarch, is loyalty to their employer or their political party, come what may. Probably, though, ironically, the market does not work in the best interests of humanity precisely because it is supposed to be maximally and indeed ruthlessly competitive.
It is the nature of competitions to produce losers as well as winners. The billion malnourished and the billion in slums are the losers. The oligarchs are among the winners. In truth, too, cooperativeness is more efficient and productive than competition. The losers also of course include the biosphere, which doesn't get a look in, except as an afterthought.
There's another irony, too. Modern politicians, taking their lead from scientists, claim to be 'evidence led'. All the evidence suggests that the extrapolated ideas of Smith and Ricardo don't work, as Obama said. But our leaders cling to them despite the evidence, as zealously as any religious fundamentalist ever did.
Enough food can be grown to feed an ever-growing population
If we shook off the ancient economic theorising, applied a little common sense and compassion, and did things properly, no-one need go hungry. The UN demographers tell us that although the human population could rise to 10 billion it should not grow larger than this, because the percentage rate of increase is falling and by 2050 the increase should be down to 0% - meaning that numbers should then be stable.
After that, if the trend continues, the population should fall. The reasons for this are all benign: decreasing infant mortality, so people don't need extra children as insurance; more choice for women, and women everywhere, it seems, given the choice, commonly choose to have fewer children. So if we can feed 10 billion people for a few decades or centuries without doing terminal damage to the rest we'll have cracked the problem. Forever.
But can we really feed 10 billion? Well, as Millennium Institute President Professor Hans Herren has pointed out many a time and oft, the world already produces enough food to support 14 billion people - twice what we should need now and 40% more than we should ever need.
For the world now grows 2.5 billion tonnes or so of cereal per year, mostly wheat, rice, and maize, which is enough to supply 7 billion people with 3000 kcals a day (comfortably more than the required average intake, given that most people are either children or old and consume less than adult males), and with all the protein they need.
But we also raise many millions of tonnes of pulses, tubers, fruit and vegetables, plus meat, fish, eggs, and dairy - which supply enough macronutrient for another 7 billion, and also the bulk of our micronutrients (vitamins and the rest).
Meat is a fad, consumption should be occasional
The alleged 'demand' for meat is specious - at best a careless misreading, at worst a commercial scam. True, people newly emerging from poverty as in the US after World War II and the Depression, or in modern-day China, but does this really reflect an innate craving for meat as the official folklore has it? Or does it merely reflect what people will buy, if it's on offer?
Modern research and common observation show above all that human beings are adaptable - we eat what's available and what is fashionable. Meat for newly-rich people symbolises the end of hard times and commerce rushes to cash in, as in all those burger and fried chicken joints in modern Beijing.
Besides, meat is the ultimate fast food. Bung it under the grill and throw on some onions and ketchup and Bob's your uncle. An instant national cuisine. No skill needed. Minimum wages all round, or preferably less.
But people who have no need to show their wealth do not eat conspicuous quantities of meat. In some of the richest corners of the world (California, New York, Germany) it is fashionable to be vegetarian. The great cuisines of the world from Italy via Turkey and Persia to India and China all use meat sparingly - as garnish, stock, and for occasional feasts.
Traditionally sheep and cattle were raised on pasture in places where cultivation is difficult - too wet, too dry, too high, too steep - and pigs and poultry were kept as fillers-in, to eat surpluses and leftovers, plus weeds and pests. In these capacities they do not compete with us.
They either live in remote places or else are integrated into rotations that include horticulture and arable, which they help to fertilize and cultivate. By such traditional means we could easily produce enough meat to support all the world's great cuisines. That doesn't sound frightening at all.
Such husbandry is not profligate. It is prudent. We should stop producing more and more of everything, meat included, and focus instead on quality and on justice and kindness and ways of life - and on sustainability and resilience. We need to support farmers who farm accordingly, and the rest of us need above all to re-learn how to cook, to make best use of what good farmers provide.
It is very sad that so many scientists have bought in to the idea that humanity is 'demanding' more and more meat without ever apparently reflecting that 'demand' in this context is merely a measure of what can be sold. Science, one feels, should be more questioning. That is its raison d'etre.
Low-input traditional farms can make all the difference
The kind of farms we really do need are the complete opposite of what the powers-that-be recommend. To be truly sustainable farms need to be low-input; organic becomes the default position. Fertilizers, herbicides and the rest are entirely oil-dependent.
To be resilient against pests and weather, farms need above all to be diverse. Organic (or quasi-organic) diverse systems are necessarily complex - which means we need plenty of skilled farmers: not armies of slaves doing the work of tractors, but people who know what they are doing, and care.
When enterprises of any kind (not just farms) are low-input, complex and skills-intensive there are very few advantages in scale-up, so the default position of farms that could really feed us all well and go on doing so is to be small to medium-size; though they may grow larger by various forms of cooperative.
The oligarchs' selected experts argue that small, mixed, organic farms could not possibly 'feed the world'. Yet an ad hoc group of 900 experts in 2008 called IAASTD, co-chaired by Professor Herren, pointed out that small, mostly low-input traditional farms already supply at least half of the world's food despite the lack of support, and indeed in the face of official hostility
Also a great many studies already show that small mixed units with plenty of TLC can be more productive per unit area than the high-tech monocultural kind (although more formal studies are still needed to pin this down). Farming is also the world's biggest employer by far and since the great or not-so-great age of fuel-hungry heavy industries is now past, no other industry could conceivably employ so many.
More farmers and workers are needed
Unemployment is the royal road to the poverty on which governments have ostentatiously declared war (or at least they did before their own economies collapsed).
Right now a billion people live in urban slums - almost a third of all city-dwellers; and most are refugees from the countryside, with their dependents and immediate descendants. For the kind of low-input, mixed, skills-intensive, small-to-medium sized farms that the world really needs are now being swept aside wholesale by the oligarchs the world over.
In Britain, we are currently losing one dairy farm every day, edged out by high-tech industrialization, with corporate takeover encouraged by the government and the anomalously named National Farmers' Union, the NFU, both of which in truth are extensions of the corporate boardroom.
Demonstrably, milk quality suffers and rural societies are shattered - and the same pattern is repeated in all branches of farming. British governments urge others to follow our lead for we are 'developed'. But Britain's farms right now are dangerously understaffed, and as Felicity Lawrence told this year's Oxford Real Farming Conference, Britain's agriculture now relies absolutely on immigrant labour of conveniently dubious legal status.
To be secure we need about eight times as many farmers as we now have: a million more for starters. The oligarchs claim that if we employed more farmers food would be dearer but this too is spurious. 80% of what we now spend on food in supermarkets goes to the supermarket itself and to the ludicrously complex food chain. Only 20% goes to the farmers and probably only 10% to the workers.
Small mixed farms feeding in to local markets would reduce the food chain markedly, attacking that portion of the cost that really matters. Yet the oligarchs think that it's 'efficient' to lose the work-force, not least because their accountancy is highly selective and the real cost, not least to human wellbeing, is not counted. Indeed the loss of farmers is called progress.
Self-reliance could lead to an 'Enlightened Agriculture'
Finally, contra Ricardo, all countries should strive as far as possible to be self-reliant in food - and most could readily achieve it. Self-reliant does not mean self-sufficient. It just means growing enough to get by, and using trade to fill in the gaps, provide insurance (all crops fail from time to time and it's good to spread the options) and to keep open the lines of communication (the European 'Common Market' was originally designed to make war too difficult).
Britain could easily be self-reliant in temperate crops, and we could live well enough on temperate crops, though in normal times we would import coffee and bananas just as we do now (and pay a proper price for them). At the moment, with all our high tech and vast investment, we grow only 60%.
So we need a complete re-think. We need to introduce, or rather to re-introduce, what I am calling 'Enlightened Agriculture', aka 'Real Farming': informally but adequately defined as 'farming that is expressly intended to provide everyone, everywhere, with good food without cruelty or injustice and without wrecking the rest of the world'.
That sounds a reasonable ambition, I hope, and should be eminently achievable, but it's the precise opposite of oligarch thinking.
Right now, agriculture like everything else is treated as 'a business like any other' and since the rise of the neoliberal 'free' market economy in the 1980s business itself has been re-conceived, not as the natural component of democratic society but as the means by which the people who compete most vigorously can grow richer.
Behind all the rhetoric and selected stats that tell us we must industrialize and embrace GM lies the perceived imperative to maximize wealth, measured in cash. That is what the present government and the NFU and the oligarchs in general call 'realistic'. The realities of hunger and environmental degradation are incidentals which will, miraculously, clear themselves up when the world is rich enough.
Clearly, then, it isn't enough just to re-think farming. We need to re-design the economy, to support the kind of farming we need. The economic model that seems most benign and workable is 'economic democracy', one key aspect of which is ownership and control by communities, in addition to state and private ownership; a variation on the theme of social democracy. Martin Large expands this idea in Common Wealth.
The politics behind farming and the links with science
Yet we can't install a new economy unless we have a government that sees the need for it. Given that we are supposed to be a democracy we ought to be able to do this, but apparently not. Britain's present government is one of the most obsessively neoliberal of all times.
Apart from the Government's subservience to international finance it seems to have unlimited power. It also claims to democratic, and indeed sends young men and women to war in the name of democracy. Yet at the last election it gained scarcely a quarter of the available vote. That doesn't look like democracy.
But we need to dig even deeper than politics, down to the Zeitgeist, the largely unexamined ideas that lie deep in our psyche and in the collective mind of all society. We need to look again at science - what it really is: what it really can do for us and what it can't.
The open-mouthed technophilia that now prevails in political circles with their calls for 'science-led policy' is naïve in the extreme, and yoked as it now is to the service of neoliberal economics it is threatening to kill us all.
Science is among the supreme achievements of human kind and the high technologies that arise from it can be among our greatest assets but science and high tech used primarily to make the rich richer and the powerful more powerful are among our greatest threats. This is tragedy writ large.
We need to re-think morality, too. Neoliberals make a virtue of their ruthlessness - it's all about getting ahead: seizing a bigger 'market share'. In truth we need not to compete to the death but to cooperate, and cooperation must be underpinned by trust and rooted in compassion, the cardinal principle embraced by all the world's great religions.
I suggest in Six Steps that science and morality in turn are rooted in metaphysics, with its contemplation of transcendence - the proposition that there is more to the world than meets the eye. But people who reject metaphysical musing can still do all that's needed.
The next steps
So what in practice is required? Well, as outlined, we all need to take food seriously and re-learn how to cook. It would be good too if about 10 per cent of us in Britain became farmers - the book outlines a plausible route, even in these hostile times, and many have already shown what can be done.
For starters we need to form communities of people who care about food and farming and start to take over the entire shooting match - make the Renaissance happen. People in groups can provide markets for farmers brave enough to farm in enlightened ways.
People in groups can buy significant amounts of land even though land in Britain like everything else has been left to the speculators and is ludicrously overpriced. Even at present prices, the people of Britain could buy out all of Britain's farmland for about £8000 a head - not a lot, stretched over a lifetime.
I belong to several groups that are pulling in the right direction. In particular I am involved with the Real Farming Trust which supports the Oxford Real Farming Conference, where farmers and other interested parties gather each January to share ideas on what needs to be done.
In addition to Funding Enlightened Agriculture (FEA) which aims to help new farmers and small farms generally; and - my own pet project - the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, intended to develop and promulgate the key ideas that the Agrarian Renaissance requires, and bring the many various interested parties together.
There are already enough people out there who hate what's going and are seeking the alternative to form a critical mass, but they don't sufficiently cohere. The CRFFC website will be up and running soon. Meanwhile, Six Steps Back to the Land outlines the main ideas and describes what others are doing to push things ahead and asks, why not you?
Book: Six Steps Back to the Land was launched in March 2016 by Green Books, Cambridge.
Event: Colin Tudge will lead a 3-day event next weekend to discuss and debate 'a sustainable future of food and farming'. It begins on Friday 29th April at The Chisholme Institute in the Scottish Borders. Delegates are invited to join in the debate and formulate an action plan for change. Full details here.
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