An almost-optimistic vision of the future by Colin Tudge.
If we are truly to ‘feed the world’ – to ensure that everyone has enough good food to eat; if we are to halt the mass extinction of our fellow creatures that is now all too horribly in train – then we need to re-think from first principles the way we farm and the kind of food we eat.
The good news is that this should be nothing like as difficult as it may sound. For although we always need more knowledge and can always improve technique (of course!) we already know enough to ensure that we can produce enough good food for everyone without destroying everything else, which is what ought to be meant by ‘sustainable’.
Although the kind of farming we need is highly sophisticated and takes a lifetime (and more) to get to grips with it is rooted in traditional practice – the kind that has evolved over the past 10,000 years (at least), and is still the global norm. We don’t need to rely on space-age technologies, fancier and fancier chemistry, and bigger and bigger machines and mega farm factories to dig us out of trouble. Neither do we need to become vegans, or learn to live on ersatz meat and other concoctions knocked up with huge but misguided ingenuity in laboratories. We simply need to take food and cooking seriously. We need to appreciate and relish good food and re-learn how to cook — and give ourselves the time to do it. In short we need simply to establish or to re-establish true food culture – of the kind that, mercifully, still exists the world over, though increasingly under siege.
Why, though, do we need to re-think ‘from first principles’? Of course we face huge problems – huge numbers of people still go hungry while many more are suffering ‘diseases of affluence’ – but surely we, or rather our governments and the supra-national agencies and the food companies, with and all their expert and intellectual advisers, are on the case? Surely the stats are showing steady improvement – a billion have been ‘lifted out of poverty’ over the past few decades, we’re told – so surely we are on the right lines
Well – it doesn’t seem like that. Archbishops, scientists, and growing armies of thinking schoolchildren are telling us that unless we mend our ways we are heading for the buffers – well within the lifetimes of the children who are now protesting. And yet, even at this late hour, if we play our cards properly then our descendants should still be here in a million years’ time, living far more harmoniously than most people do now, both with each other and with our fellow creatures; at least the bulk of those that are with us now plus a few more that will have evolved by then (for new species can appear remarkably rapidly). The present plight of the world and the decline of wild nature that we see all around us are not only tragic but are ridiculous. So what’s gone wrong and what do we need to do to put things right?
What’s wrong is all too easy to quantify. According to the United Nations (and who knows better than they?) nearly a billion out of the current world population of around 7.5 billion are chronically undernourished. Nearly two billion more suffer from excess, at least of some foods – and so it is that the world population of diabetics, mostly with the diet-related form of the disease, is now far larger than the total population of the United States, and more than twice the population of Russia. Clearly, farming as now conceived is not serving us well.
Neither is it good for the biosphere (‘biosphere’ meaning ‘living world’ rather than ‘environment’, which simply means ‘surroundings’ and in practice is equated with real estate). Agriculture provides the lion’s share of what we eat and now occupies more than a third of all the land on Earth including most of the most fertile lowlands. Wildlife reserves are highly fragmented, which hugely compromises their usefulness, and are mostly in regions where farming is too difficult, like mountains, deserts, and wetlands.
For good measure, most wildlife reserves are seriously compromised one way or another by agriculture, with wildlife sharing the space with domestic livestock, and commonly polluted by surrounding, intensive agriculture. Areas of forest bigger than fair-sized nation states have been and are being felled throughout the tropics to make way for plantations of palm oil, soya, sugar cane and maize – much of which is for animal feed, which on the whole is luxury rather than need. For all these reasons and more, agriculture in its present forms is perhaps the main cause of the mass extinction that is now well in train worldwide.
Meanwhile the FAO tells us that about a third of all the world’s soils have been overworked or otherwise maltreated and are seriously degraded. Yields of wheat per hectare in Britain are among the highest in the world but the soil is so overworked that, it is feared, large areas will be fit for arable crops for only a few more decades, and some are already past recovery (although they can be grassed for sheep). Again, too, most of our home-grown cereal is for animal feed.
As the coup de grace, the carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and oxides of nitrogen generated by intensive agriculture and the rest of the modern global food chain are prime contributors to global warming, which threatens to make a nonsense of all our aspirations.
Even if there were no such side effects, however, intensive industrial agriculture as now practiced could not continue for much longer because it depends entirely on oil – for traction, transport, manufacture of fertilizer, and as the base material of the herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides that in commercial circles are now considered de rigueur.
Yet, we are told, high-tech industrial farming is necessary because we supposedly need to produce more and more food and only high-input high-tech farming on the biggest possible scale can possibly deliver what’s needed. The world population could reach 11 billion by the end of the century and as societies grow richer they demand more and more of everything including, or especially, meat. So (we are told) we need to double food output by the end of this century: cows that give 20,000 litres (4000 gallons) of milk per lactation; chickens that race from egg to oven weight in 35 days or less; wheat that routinely yields 12 tonnes or more per hectare. True, wildlife is suffering –but there are solutions: farms and food factories that are ever more productive and intensive, to leave more space for wilderness; wider field margins; ever-more specific pesticides and engineered, pest-resistant crops.
On the whole, though, we just have to accept that the world cannot support vast numbers of us and vast numbers of other species – and we take priority, do we not? Conservation strategy must be hard-headed, geared to economic reality, like everything else. It must pay its way, and shown to pay its way. New concepts are in place to make sure this happens – like “natural capital” and “ecosystem services”. Conservation, like everything else, must be seen as an exercize in accountancy. Or so we are told.
Yet, I suggest, much or most of what we are told about the food and farming by the world’s most influential people (governments, corporates, and their selected intellectual and expert advisers) is untrue; and most of the strategies they put their weight and our money behind are misguided. The details of strategy are wrong and, most of all, the underlying mindset is wrong: the out-and-out materialism; the unquestioned belief that science of the hard-headed kind is making us omniscient, and that we are already able to control the world for our own convenience; and uncritical acceptance of the modern form of capitalism known as neoliberalism which tells us that we can safely leave the world’s affairs to the market, and if we all seek only to maximize our own material wealth, then all will be well.
This approach clearly does not work – so what do we need instead?
What the world needs in place of the status quo is what for some years I have been calling ‘Enlightened Agriculture’, aka ‘Real Farming’ (as in the Real Farming Trust, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), and the College for Real Farming and Food Culture). Enlightened Agriculture is informally but adequately defined as –
‘Farming that is expressly designed to ensure that everyone, everywhere, and forever, has ready access to food of the highest standards, nutritionally and gastronomically, without cruelty or injustice and without wrecking the rest of the world.’
The expression ‘Enlightened Agriculture’ is new and I lay claim to it but it is based on three big ideas that are already widely recognized and were thought up by other people. They are:
A brief word on each is called for.
The term “agroecology” was first coined in the 1920s and like all big words it means different things to different people but I take it to mean that –
‘All farms should be treated as ecosystems with semi-permeable borders and agriculture as a whole should, as far as possible, make a positive contribution to the global biosphere.’
The basic idea is that farming in general should emulate nature, and not seek to ride rough-shod over it on the apparent assumption that we, with our marvellous powers of rationality, can do much better – and indeed that we have the ability and right to reinvent the natural world (which is the basic conceit behind genetic engineering). Of course, nature is not all good from our point of view – wild plants tend to be toxic and full of thorns, and wild animals are hard to catch and often dangerous – but it does have outstanding qualities that surely are well worth emulating. Thus, if we really care about the long-term future of humanity then we need agriculture that is –
Nature in truth is not maximally productive and in its pristine forms it certainly would not provide nearly enough food for the present world population and still less would it enable us to double output by 2100. But – contrary to what we are told – we don’t need to be maximally productive, and certainly don’t need to double present output. For statistics that are freely available on the web suggest that the world already produces enough food to support 14 or more billion people – twice the present world population and far more than the most extreme forecasts predict.
Thus, the world output of cereals is around 2.5 billion tonnes and each tonne of cereal (including wheat and rice, the biggest of all) provide enough macronutrient (food energy and protein) to sustain three people for a year – so in theory at least 2.5 billion tonnes is enough for 7.5 billion people. Cereals provide only half of our food (the rest comes from pulses, tubers, non-cereal grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy –which also between them provide the micronutrients (vitamins etc)) so the total could feed 15 billion. A billion go hungry not because we can’t or don’t produce enough food but because much of it is produced in the wrong places by the wrong people and then is either wasted (thrown away, burnt as ‘biofuel’, or fed to animals in far greater quantities than is justified); and because of economic and political injustice. If we retained the present overall food strategy the same proportion of humanity would still go hungry even if we did manage to double present output.
In short, pristine nature does need to be manipulated (wild plants turned into crops, animals domesticated, fields made more fertile) if we are to feed ourselves but we do not need the dramatic reinvention of life forms that is now considered to be necessary and progressive.
The priorities now should shift from bulk to quality and provenance – at the very least we must strive to minimize collateral damage. Even though nature in its pristine forms does not meet all our needs it certainly does have the necessary basic qualities. Furthermore, Earthly life has been commendably (if not maximally) productive for almost four billion years – which surely is sustainable enough. Furthermore, nature has achieved this even though for cosmological reasons the world’s climate has shifted several times from pole-to-pole tropics to pole-to-pole ice and back again, and all the continents have fragmented and joined up again and spun on their axes and raced around the globe, driven by convective currents in the Earth’s molten interior – all of which shows that life on Earth without our intervention is remarkably resilient.
It makes sense, then, to ask how nature achieves these wonders – and the answer seems to lie in a short-list of tricks including:
** Nature is above all diverse – there are millions of species, including (usually) many thousands (including soil bacteria) in any one place, and together they exploit the resources far more efficiently than any one of them could do on its own.
** The different players in any one ecosystem work synergistically, each enhancing the others. Most obviously, one creature’s excrement is another’s provender.
** Although some wild places are nutrient rich (as estuaries are) most wild places are low input. Most wild creatures most of the time make do on what is immediately to hand. Levels of nitrogen in the wild are generally low and no wild ecosystem makes use of fossil fuel. Sunlight will do.
Thus in general (although all farms should be different and must adapt to circumstances!) farms should seek to incorporate these three fundamental principles: to be diverse, integrated, and low-input.
Farms that seek to be diverse should (in general) be mixed, and each crop and species of livestock should be genetically diverse. To achieve synergy the different elements of the farm should be integrated – as in the traditional English farm of the 1950s when farmers grew some barley to carry their cattle through the winter and fed whey from cheese-making to the pigs (and especially in South-East Asia where carp live in the flooded paddy fields and their poo feed plankton which feeds ducks and the higher ground is a marvellous substrate for horticulture and there are pigs and chickens in the village and the whole is enriched by water-buffalo which feed on whatever there is and plough the rice-fields. I have seen such systems first-hand. Marvellous).
“Low input” in farming terms in general means “organic”.
Food Sovereignty is a concept provided by the world peasant movement, La Via Campesina, in the 1990s. Its rules are complex but in essence it means that every society should have control of its own food supply, for reasons that are political, economic, moral, social, and ecological. Among other things this implies that countries and certainly all bioregions should strive to be self-reliant in food – which most could be. Britain as a whole for example could fairly easily produce all the basic foods it needs (cereals, potatoes, etc) plus all the fruit, veg, and meat that it needs.
Self-reliance does not imply complete self-sufficiency. Each country or bioregion should and most could try to produce all that it really needs but each, too, can happily import desirable luxuries of the kind that can travel easily and cheaply from other people who grow them better (provided we pay a proper price for the imports and don’t cause other societies to wreck their own agriculture in order to supply us).
Thus we in Britain should raise our own beef and potatoes, say, but be content to import coffee and cinnamon, and indeed bananas. Some countries would therefore – as now – be net exporters of food, as Jersey surely is. But none should be in the position that many now find themselves in of growing commodity crops for export at the expense of the crops they need to sustain their own people. Thus Mexico for example, where maize originated, now grows luxury crops for the US and imports American maize (‘corn’) for a far higher price than the people once grew it themselves.
This simply means that we need to devise an economy that ensures justice for all, and which does not overstrain the fabric of the Earth. Whatever the intentions behind it, the present economy in practice is serving primarily to make rich people richer and is racing through the world’s non-renewable resources as quickly as they can be mined with all too obvious damage to the rest.
So what kind of farms do we really need?
All three of the ideas that feed into the concept of Enlightened Agriculture lead us to favour the small mixed farm with plenty of farmers and growers (Britain could do with at least a million more farmers right now); although, of course, small farms can and generally should combine in various ways to form cooperatives. These enlightened, agroecological farms are not to serve centrally-controlled, corporate-owned supermarkets as now but feed mainly into a network of local markets – a network that needs to be reconstructed ASAP.
Thus, farms that are run along agroecological lines – basically mixed and low-input, meaning organic – are necessarily complex. They are designed to be complex, because complexity brings many advantages. If they are complex then they need plenty of skilled farmers and growers on board. If enterprises are complex and skills-intensive then there is no advantage in scale-up so the default position is to be small to medium-sized.
By the same token: farms that are small to medium-sized, designed first and foremost to serve local markets and to overall self-reliance, are ipso facto under the people’s control – which is what is meant by food sovereignty.
Thirdly: a network of small farms serving local markets keeps the money circulating within the economy. It is not siphoned off to enrich the shareholders of some overweening supermarket chain, because there is no overweening supermarket chain. Small, skills intensive enterprises employ a great many people. In the modern economy it is considered ‘inefficient’ and therefore bad to employ two people when, in theory, one would do. But it should be a prime task of all economies and all societies to provide good jobs – satisfying careers – for its citizens, which farming (and retailing) certainly can do. Local economics with plenty of satisfying employment are key ingredients of economic democracy.
Finally, demonstrably, enlightened, agroecological farms as outlined here are, or certainly can be, wildlife friendly. Since agriculture as a whole occupies so much land and has such profound effects on the rest we can reasonably argue that unless farming is wildlife friendly then the cause of wildlife conservation is more or less dead in the water.
All this, of course, is the complete opposite of the industrial farming that is now considered necessary and progressive and indeed is de rigueur; and the opposite, too, of the strategies and mindset that lies behind industrial farming. For farmers today and for the past half century at least have been encouraged above all to expand and to plug themselves in to the modern, neoliberal economy. ‘Get big or get out’ said Earl Butz (1909-2008), the US Secretary under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford; and he advised farmers to plant commodity crops ‘from fencerow to fencerow’.
The idea was and is not to ‘feed the world’ and to look after the biosphere but to maximize profit, meaning short-term wealth, apparently on the assumption that if we are rich enough we can always buy our way out of trouble. The way to maximize short-term profit in the present economy is to replace farm labour with machines and industrial chemistry, all on the biggest possible scale – because big machines get more done with less energy than small machines. Unfortunately, big machines can’t handle complexity and so the big modern industrial farms must be simplified – and so in practice they are reduced to monocultures, with of crops or livestock. Monocultures are extremely vulnerable to pests, diseases and weeds and so must be protected with insecticides and acaricides and fungicides and bactericides and herbicides and every other –cide, where cide’ means ‘kill’.
To maintain the enormous outputs needed to finance all the inputs there must be commensurate inputs of fertilizer. Labour is reduced, as nearly as possible, to zero.
The machines grow smarter and smarter and robots are already taking over. The chemical pollution is horrendous and surely is a prime cause of the 60% decline in insects reported over the past few decades. The whole endeavour is entirely dependent on oil, which is running out, and CO₂ produced as it is burnt is a prime contributor to global warming. But the collateral damage is costed only perfunctorily. Reduction of labour is considered a virtue though why it is good to throw people out of work is not made clear – except that for some, in the short term, it is profitable. The goal of much modern technology seems to be to make humanity obsolete and why that should be considered progress is beyond me. In short: the whole high-input, high-tech, commodity-orientated industrial agricultural strategy is ill-conceived.
Three questions remain: Can the global network of small farms really provide the world with enough food? Will they provide a satisfying diet? And can the small network of farms produce food that is affordable?
The answer to all three is resounding ‘YES’ On the first point, more and more studies are showing that small mixed farms – including small mixed organic farms – can produce far more food per unit area than industrial farms. They can certainly do so over extended periods since they are more resilient and sustainable. Furthermore, most people in the world still rely for their food on small traditional farms; yet traditional farms do not benefit from the modern techniques that are now making organic farming so much more efficient.
Secondly, in an enlightened system farmers concentrate mainly on arable and horticulture and fit livestock in where they can – ruminants feeding on pasture in terrain where crops are hard to grow and pigs and poultry raised primarily on leftovers and surpluses, as was traditional. The result is to provide –
‘Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety’ – and these nine words summarize the best of modern nutritional theory and also describe perfectly the basic structure of all the world’s greatest cuisines. In particular, all the truly great cuisines from Italy to China via Lebanon and Persia (as once was) use meat sparingly – as garnish and stock and for occasional feasts. So enlightened farming, sound nutrition, and great cooking go perfectly together. Truly ‘the future belongs to the gourmet’.
Thirdly: the fundamental reasons why food now seems too dear for so many people, even in rich Britain, is income inequality. There is no reason at all why anybody in a country like Britain should be too poor to buy food. Also: while food has got cheaper and cheaper, houses have got dearer and dearer – not because bricks are so much more expensive but because the market is designed to keep prices up, just as the diamond market is rigged to ensure that they are expensive.
Fourthly, present-day industrial farming is economically possible because the price of oil is adjusted so that it is expensive but still (just) affordable. As the oil runs out it must grow dearer.
Finally, the collateral damage – to the biosphere and to rural life — is not taken properly into account. The value of everything is now assessed purely in terms of money – which is itself a disaster; and it seems that the loss of insects, say, or of rural life, is not valued at all, at least by those who make decisions, for they think mainly or exclusively in terms of short-term money and call that “realistic”.
It follows from all this that if we are seriously concerned about the long-term future of humanity and our fellow creatures (are we?) then we really do need to re-think food and farming from first principles.
But it is also resoundingly clear that nothing can be put to rights ad hoc. It we want to put food and farming to rights we need to re-think the economy – simple market forces clearly will not do. We therefore need to install governments that see the need for a different kind of economy. We also need to re-direct agricultural science – away from high-tech, industrial chemistry, and genetic engineering which is now considered ‘modern’, towards the science of ecology which (so modern biologists now acknowledge) in truth is far more subtle and complex than the flashier kinds.
Finally, though, and even more profoundly, we need to adjust our values: away from the materialist competitiveness of modern economics and politics and towards cooperativeness and compassion and a sense of the sacred.
In short, we need to re-think everything, cross-the-board, starting with, ‘What are we really trying to achieve, and why?’ – and working through all that is required on all fronts. To this end I and friends have established ‘The College for Real Farming and Food Culture#, which is expressly designed to explore, develop, and promulgate all the necessary ideas through seminars and courses and – ideally – with research. These are early days but we are making progress. We have already run several seminars of various kinds at some excellent venues with more in the pipeline. More on the College website (http://collegeforrealfarming.org/) – although the website is now being seriously revised.
The College in turn is a project of the Real Farming Trust which also runs the Oxford Real Farming Conference (every January. 2019 was the 10th); and the LEAP programme which helps new agricultural project to get off the ground. RFT also helps to run the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology. We always seek to work as far as is possible in collaboration with like-minded organizations. Cooperation must be the name of the game!