For Whom the Bell Tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 Special

March 23, 2020

Since nobody seems to be talking about anything except COVID-19 at the moment I thought I’d join the crowd and, in a change to my published program, write a blog post about the pandemic.

Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the Jürgen Klopp gambit of refusing to talk about things you know nothing about, but I propose to take the opposite tack on the grounds that (1) while indeed I know very little about anything, as the proud owner of a 25 year-old master’s degree in health planning with a quarter-helping of epidemiology in the mix, I humbly submit that I’m at least as well qualified to talk about it as most of the other blowhards who’ve been weighing in online; (2) the outbreak bears directly on many themes of relevance to this blog, and; (3) if the blogosphere was designed only for the dissemination of expert knowledge, it would be a very different beast to its present shape. Possibly a better one, but that’s another story.

So, without further ado, here are Small Farm Future’s five take home (and stay there) messages concerning COVID-19.

1. What if we only ate food from local farms? This was the title of a recent post of mine, in which I critiqued TV botanist James Wong’s view that in this scenario, we’d starve. I argued in that post that if we continue to romanticize global trade we’d be more likely to starve, sooner or later. And now, all of a sudden, sooner seems more of a possibility than later as the precariousness of long global supply chains in the face of even minor system perturbations begins to bite.

True, COVID-19 isn’t directly a food crisis – though it may turn into one if the rather elderly cohort of people still foolishly involved in the underpaid business of growing food for humanity succumbs disproportionately to the virus, or if our much-vaunted ‘just in time’ automated supply chains turn out to be less automated and not quite as in time as we thought. Perhaps the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and on that front our small market garden has been inundated with new customer enquiries in the last week from people who’ve clearly come to a view that local supply mightn’t be such a bad way to go right now.

Good news for us, I guess, except where I live – and where most people live in the rich world – we’re not remotely capable of meeting current food or other needs renewably from local supply at present, in large measure because we’ve resolutely championed the ‘efficiency’ of global supply chains and enthusiastically undermined local land-based skills and infrastructures. Meanwhile, most of us live crowded together in vast cities which can only be kept healthy by large inputs of (fossil) energy – maybe we can ‘self-isolate’ briefly in these circumstances, but not long-term. For numerous reasons long expounded on this blog, long-term we need to create predominantly rural societies that are geared to renewably skimming their local ecological bases. Maybe COVID-19 might prove the shot across the bows we need in this respect?

Like many long-term advocates of such localization I’ve had to put up with a certain amount of scorn over the years for my errant views. I don’t want to peddle too much reverse scorn right now, and I want to do what I can personally to help see us all through this crisis. But I’m hoping that COVID-19 might encourage some folks to be a little more open-minded about small farm localism in the future. What if we only ate food from local farms? Maybe James Wong might now consider amending his tweet thus: “We’d starve – it’s as simple as that. So let’s see what we can do to rebuild local agricultures.”

2. Follow the money. After the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the government introduced strict containment legislation that outlawed feeding livestock anything that had been in a kitchen, however it was treated, apparently on the grounds of potential contamination from imported food bearing the infection. A more reasonable and energy-efficient policy would surely have been to accept the low possibility of infection by this route, promote good biosecurity and contain local outbreaks (which would be easier with local foodsheds and farm infrastructures). I can’t help feeling that this didn’t happen because the more stringent policy created financial benefits for large-scale meat exporters, fodder producers, middlemen and tax collectors, while the main losers were small-scale farmers with no political voice.

Then with COVID-19 the government’s initial response was the exact opposite – it’s going to be endemic, so let’s not overdo containment and isolation, but build herd immunity through letting the infection run its course. The problem with this is that it meant a lot more people would probably die, and that health services would be overwhelmed. When this became apparent, the government dramatically changed tack and adopted drastic containment – but probably not soon enough to avoid deaths that seem preventable had they been more willing to learn from other countries. Herd immunity is hard to sell to the herd when it means a significant proportion of its loved ones will die. And whereas small farmers don’t have much political voice (livestock even less), the human herd does still have some call on political decision-making.

While the government chose the opposite strategy in the two cases, the common thread is that both were the options that least disturbed the economy’s capital-accumulating dynamo, despite the negative human impacts – minor in the former case, probably major in the second. Of course, these decisions are difficult, and a smooth-running global economy is itself a human benefit – though to some people far more than others. Ultimately, though, what seems to have happened in this crisis is, to put it crudely, that human society has trumped the human economy. I think the consequences could be profound, and I hope people will notice this and try to work it through.

***Addendum: farming minister George Eustice has just warned that “buying more than you need means others may be left without”, neatly encapsulating a universal truth that goes curiously unrecognized in orthodox economic theory and in the standard case for the superiority of the capitalist political economy undergirded by private market solutions. Eustice’s easy distinction between needs and wants as something that’s apparently self-evident is worth cutting out and keeping for when the orthodoxy has regained the confidence to reassert itself ***

3. OK, boomer – our problems are structural. Coincidentally, just as the discussion under my last post on population highlighted the point that a considerable part of our ‘over-population’ problem stems not from the fact that too many babies are being born but from the fact that people are living to much older ages, here comes a disease that disproportionately fells the elderly. At the same time, as William Davies has elegantly argued, trends in employment and property prices in the rich countries have effectively created a class divide between entitled older generations and disinherited younger ones. Generationally, compared to a fiftysomething like me, I’d say people coming into adulthood today have a rougher time of it than I did (yes, I know the world is supposed to be getting better and better all the time, but that’s another chart-topper I’ve never been able to dance to).

I’ve seen a bit of online schadenfreude at the plight of the elderly with respect to COVID-19 – not especially pretty, yet maybe understandable in small doses in the light of these generational inequalities. Clearly, though, moving wealth down the generations a little sooner than it might otherwise have happened doesn’t materially alter the nature of our class divisions. Which underscores another point I took some pains to make in my previous post – we badly need to stop thinking about the problems we face as aggregates of our individual decisions and behaviours, and think about emergent system structures instead. Our ecological problems won’t be inherently eased by a smaller population. Our economic problems won’t be inherently eased by old, rich people dying sooner. And so on. Please.

4. Will the real tough-talking politicians stand up? In recent years, global politics has thrown up a series of divisive, showboating, self-aggrandizing politicians who talk tough to camera – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to name but two. To me they seem like media constructions who lack the moral fibre to deserve to be called ‘tough’. Real toughness involves telling citizens hard truths they may not want to hear, but empathically, organizational ability and shouldering responsibility rather than trying to offload blame onto ‘Chinese viruses’ and the like. But maybe that’s just me. If figures like Trump and Johnson manage to bluster their way through a crisis like this with their popularity intact, I think it’ll be time for me to give up and tend my own garden … well, I hope to tend it either way, but you know what I mean. But maybe a silver lining of COVID-19 might be that the tangible physical crisis prompts a rethink among electorates about the kind of people we want leading us, and the kind of issues we need them to confront.

5. No wo/man is an island. This is a time when I think we’d do well to remember John Donne’s ageless wisdom: “No man is an island, entire of itself … Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

But how we best enact this is more open to question. Inevitably, many of us will see in COVID-19 the mirror of our preferred politics – as in those right-wing commentators pointing to the empty supermarket shelves and economic misery as exemplary warnings of what would happen under socialist or green regimes, while ignoring that, actually, they’ve happened under right-wing, capitalist ones. But I’m no exception. I think the crisis underscores that old saw of green politics – ‘think global, act local’. The first part is maybe easier – no more talk of ‘Chinese viruses’ – but the acting locally raises intriguing issues. In times of crisis, especially in urban situations, a lot of the usual individualist concerns drop away and people create ingenious new commons to get by, ‘paradises built in hell’ in the resonant phrase of Rebecca Solnit. But I’d argue the longer and larger task is to dwell less on this transient commoning and focus instead on building the conditions in which people can create their own livelihoods renewably and locally as individuals-in-communities. So we need a sense of subsidiarity from the global to the local and thence to the household and the individual. More on that shortly…

Well, more on that shortly, I hope. If I don’t make it through the epidemic, let me just say that it’s been a pleasure writing this blog over the years and interacting with its readers. Santé!

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, building resilient societies, coronavirus, small-scale farming