Sustainable Food

Written evidence submitted by Colin Tudge, Campaign for Real Farming

Agriculture based on mixed and highly-integrated, labour-intensive, low-input (meaning quasi-organic), small-to-medium sized farms could feed everyone who is ever liable to be born on to this Earth to the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy, with minimal collateral damage. In general structure, such farms are still the norm worldwide – though they need to be up-graded, which means above all that they need to be supported.

In structure, in husbandry, and in much or most of its technology, industrial agriculture of the kind that is now (anomalously) called "conventional" is quite opposite: monocultural, non-integrated, high-input (industrial chemistry and heavy engineering), and practiced on the largest possible scale. Industrial agriculture can produce spectacular outputs (10 tonnes-plus per hectare of wheat, 15,000 litre cows, etc) but is clearly unsustainable and it does not produce the food that is needed, or in the right places. So in a world where everyone could be well fed – in principle the task should be straightforward! – a billion are chronically undernourished, and a billion more suffer "diseases of excess" – of which the chief, probably, is diabetes. The collateral damage is enormous. Inter alia, it is conservatively estimated that half of all wild species are in imminent danger of extinction.

Yet big governments, such as Britain’s, put their weight and the taxpayers’ money behind industrial agriculture. More accurately, they have handed the task of "feeding the world" to the corporates. In effect, government has become an extension of the corporate boardroom. Good science is vital – much more basic information is needed to bring out the best in the mixed, labour intensive farms that could feed the world. But science too has become the handmaiden of the corporates. (The Royal Society and academe in general should be ashamed).

To put things back on course we have to go right back to fundamentals and ask what agriculture is for. The small-scale, complex farming that can actually feed people with minimum collateral damage -- what I call "Enlightened Agriculture", aka "Real Farming" – is rooted in basic principles of biology, and in a true desire to meet the needs of humanity. Industrial farming is designed primarily (indeed, virtually exclusively) to maximize wealth. It is commonly supposed to be "scientific" -- guided above all by hard evidence – but in truth it is rooted in the dogma of neoliberalism, and in faith: faith in the omniscience of science, and in the omnipotence of technology – both of which are naïve indeed (and quite out of line with the modern philosophy of science).

Emphatically, my thesis is not anti-science: it is anti the misappropriation of science, in the interests of big business and power politics. Neither, despite possible appearances, is it anti-capitalism. This is not a Marxist tract. I believe that many of the mechanisms of capitalism, properly deployed, are the best equipped of all the economic systems that have emerged so far to serve the needs of humanity and of the world. But capitalism itself has lost its way. Like everything else, it now is designed to serve a powerful elite, rather than humanity at large. People worldwide should be far angrier than they seem to be. Anger bubbles over only when the shortages of food become apparent to people who are in a position to protest – which is largely what has now prompted the "Arab Spring".

The role of government

As things are, I fear that governments such as Britain’s can do remarkably little to make the necessary changes. Britain’s government is far too locked in to the rules of the EU; far too committed to the idea that the global market must rule supreme; has far too much faith in the power of science and high technology to solve all our problems; and far too little faith in the ability of people at large to manage their own affairs. For all these reasons I personally feel that the future must lie with people’s movements of various kinds, both very small and very large, not simply to challenge the status quo, but between them to create a true alternative.

However, I do believe that most British politicians – certainly the ones I have met – seek to do good; and although they do not have the power, as things are, to make the radical changes that are now needed, they can certainly help things along. Two areas in particular come to mind, where government could use its present powers truly for the public good: in many areas of law; and in the restoration of independent science.

I: Changes in the Law

Government has the power to modify or reverse the laws that have found their way on to the statute books in one way or another over the past few years and decades, and now are inhibiting the efforts of reformers to make the necessary changes. These include:


Areas include:

1.1: Feeding livestock

Especially the present ban on feeding swill to pigs, which is very damaging many ways -- biologically, socially, economically. (It was introduced on health grounds, but the case for this is extremely weak).

1.2: Seed laws and all that goes with them

** Present directives from the EU restrict the varieties of seed that can be legally sold. This reduces the diversity available – at a time when diversity is particularly necessary to cope with changing conditions; and impacts on traditional ways of life; and so on. See the recent report IEED Report on Participatory Research and On-farm Management of Agricultural Biodiversity in Europe, May 2011 by Michel Pimbert.

** Existing laws of intellectual property worldwide again restrict what is available; puts more and more power into the hands of fewer and fewer companies. Again, see the 2011 IEED report.

1.3: Slaughter

At present farmers are often obliged to transport animals over many miles for the dubious privilege of slaughter, and then – if they have farm shops -- to bring the carcasses back again. They are allowed to slaughter on site – but they cannot then sell the meat. There is huge waste and cruelty inherent in all this. The whole issue of slaughter needs re-thinking across the board – including the law.

1.4: The relationship between farming and forestry

The importance of agroforestry is now increasingly acknowledged worldwide – the integration of farming with significant numbers of trees. Contrary to some received opinion, all forms of farming – including arable and horticulture – can benefit from the proximity of trees. Grants are now available to plant and maintain woodland, in which trees by definition are closely grouped. But agroforestry needs trees that are not necessarily, or usually, grouped in woods but for example are arranged in rows – and for this, grants may not be available. Thus, again, existing law militates against systems of farming that are known to be most desirable.

1.5: Excessive Bureaucracy

This may be a matter for logistics rather than of law. However, it does seem that farmers are required to produce too much information in too detailed and complex a form – and there is evidence that the growing burden paperwork is a major cause of unhappiness among small farmers, who often cannot afford secretarial assistance, and indeed is a significant cause of the suicides that now, tragically, are so common.


2. 1: Health and Safety

No-one doubts the need for laws to protect health and safety. However, many of the restraints that now (again!) make life so difficult for small farmers are primarily of relevance to big farms and large corporations. Small farmers, of the kind that Britain and the world now need, are caught in the cross-fire.


3.1: Planning laws

If Britain is to introduce the small mixed farms which biological principle tells us are necessary then, as a matter of urgency, we need to recruit a million new farmers. In any case we need a new generation of farmers since the average age of present incumbents is now around 60. To create the new farms, existing estates must again be broken up. The new farmers who will run them need somewhere to live – but planning laws commonly scupper all reasonable attempts to provide new accommodation. This again is a matter of urgency.

3.2: Tenancy

Would-be farmers generally cannot buy enough land to start up because prices are now so high; and often find that too that they cannot rent land for more than a year at a time or less. We need laws to enable long-term tenancies. Among other things, it seems necessary to change the laws of death duties so that landowners who allow long tenancies do not thereby lose their exemption from duties, as now seems to be case.

3.3: Land Reform

In the long term, it is surely necessary to re-examine the laws that enable 5000 families to own half of England and Wales, and a handful of huge landowners to own most of Scotland (especially as those families acquired the land only because their ancestors gained the favour of some mediaeval monarch).

More immediately – and perhaps this would be enough – we need to divorce the mere fact of ownership from the right to dictate use. Ie, titular owners could be obliged to enable their land to be used for the general good (a principle that is already well established).

The above offers only a glimpse of what needs to be done. Much could be done more or less immediately just by cherry-picking from this list. But formal study is required. The Campaign for Real Farming would be happy to help assemble a suitable group of experts to undertake the necessary research and provide formal recommendations.

II: The restoration of independent science

Until the 1970s Britain had a network of independent agricultural science institutes that were supported by a range of Experimental Husbandry Farms, which between them produced a regular stream of improved crops, livestock, and techniques; and these improvements were delivered free to farmers via an independent extension service – the independent ADAS.

Now it is hard to find any agricultural research that is not financed by corporates, and improved lines of crops and livestock become available only if they are perceived to be immediately profitable. Farmers must do their own experimenting at their own expense (I belong to a group of farmers who are doing this), and there is no free, independent advice. The original research institutes, once the envy of the world and many of them household names (at least in rural circles), are now privatized or closed. As late as 1977 Sir Kenneth Blaxter FRS wrote in a book published by the Royal Society: "It seems wrong that … the science related to producing food has to be used in a competitive fashion: the essence of science is its universality, and freedom from hunger should be the birthright of all mankind". ("Options for British Farming" in Agricultural Efficiency). Now, such an opinion would be laughed out of court.

We need to restore the freedom of science, and the sense that the fruits of science are truly for the benefit of humanity and the fabric of the world. Government still has some power to begin this restoration.

The ideas in this text are spelled out at greater length in Good Food for Everyone Forever, and on the website of the Campaign for Real Farming:

June 15, 2011

Prepared 27th June 2011