Oxford Real Farming Conference: power, lies, and the need for agrarian resistance

October 24, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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The sad state of Britain’s dairying has the same root cause as the billion worldwide who are undernourished, the billion who are overweight and/or diabetic or in danger of heart disease, global warming, the mass extinction of our fellow creatures: global agriculture, and indeed a global economy, that is geared not to the wellbeing of humankind and of the planet but to short-term wealth, in the simplistic belief that money per se is good and can solve all our problems no matter how it is produced or what it is used for.

To put things right we have to think deeply – in fact re-think from first principles – and act radically.

The lies

The world’s global strategy of food and farming 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, sustainability, 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 exercise 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 see the 50% which they do not control increased two or three times; 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. But the downside is denied or air-brushed out, 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. “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 we are more meat-oriented than many because since we have plenty of hills, grass, and rain. 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 alone 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”, 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 sacrosanct. 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 bigger technology.

In practice, though, as is beyond dispute, 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 that 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 with farms and plantations in the Ukraine or Indonesia or Brazil or where you will that can wipe them off the map. Of course the whole exercise 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

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, perhaps knowing no better, 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 means to acquire 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, its efforts 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. In Britain, as reflected in the name of the BBSRC, it is seen as a scion of the biotech industry, a jewel in the corporate crown. 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 seems 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 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 also hoping to found a College for Enlightened Agriculture (and have taken some preliminary steps. Momentum is needed right now). These will form a part of that vast global movement.

Overall, the world needs a Renaissance – to build a different and better world in situ. Agrarian Renaissance is key 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 it good news, for 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; we merely have to invoke the acceptable face of capitalism.

This is what the Oxford Real Farming Conference is for: to discuss what really needs to be done and why and – more importantly – to introduce practicing farmers who are already showing what can be done even as things are.

We cannot afford to compromise at this stage of the world’s history – radical must been radical – but there are plenty of serendipities along the way. We have the tools to make the Renaissance happen, in short — and, worldwide, there is no shortage of good will. So let’s bring it into being. 

Find out more about the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

*For all three truths, see 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.

Colin Tudge

Colin Tudge is co-founder of the College for Enlightened Agriculture, which is a project of the Real Farming Trust. His latest book, The Great Re-think, to be published later this year, puts flesh on the bones of all the above.

Tags: building resilient food systems, mixed small-scale farming