Which way will the world flip after Covid-19?

Colin Tudge hopes for an Agrarian Renaissance

Biologist, writer and co-founder of the Campaign for Real Farming, Colin Tudge is our guest blogger.

Everyone – even governments! – is acknowledging that the world can never be the same again after the Covid-19 pandemic has died down (which it will, because that is what pandemics do, although the virus itself will not go away).

Yet it’s clear that most governments, certainly including Britain’s, will seek to restore the status quo ante – the mixture as before – as nearly and as soon as possible.

The world may be falling apart but so long as the computers show a steady increase in disposable wealth, then all is well. Isn’t it?

We, people at large, will be required to tighten our belts just as people at large always are when the flak is flying, but the essential structure – the economy, the way the country is governed — will stay the same although with a little less freedom, and the existing technologies will be adjusted to fit. HS2 is apparently going ahead, although buses will continue to languish. Britain is only 800 miles long and 400 miles wide and most people live roughly in the middle so from a practical and social point of view a 200 mph railway makes no sense. But it will be lucrative, for some, and it is attracting “foreign investment”, which is what is deemed to matter most. Money is seen to be the sine qua non, without which we can do nothing; and it is taken to be self-evident that since some money in practice is necessary, then more must be better, and of course there can never be enough. Above all, when the workers return to work, there must be growth. The world may be falling apart but so long as the computers show a steady increase in disposable wealth, then all is well. Isn’t it?

The most important technology or set of technologies of all, and the most important human occupation, is farming; farming and the related pursuits of food preparation, distribution, and cooking. This has been obvious at least to most people worldwide for the past 10,000 years (and probably a great deal more). But it does not seem to be obvious to modern, urbanized governments, especially Britain’s.

“agriculture is just a business like any other”

In the 1970s (when I worked for a time for Farmers Weekly – transformative years!)  I first heard the chill expression “agriculture is just a business like any other” – and a decade or so later Mrs Thatcher re-defined what is meant by “business”. She introduced the world to the idea of “neoliberalism” (she first, then Ronald Reagan). Neoliberalism says that the course of the whole economy should be determined by the market itself – by what is offered for sale and what people are prepared to buy. The market was supposed to be ultra-competitive. All traders should seek single-mindedly to out-sell and undercut the rest so as to increase their own profit and market share. This non-stop competition must lead to a general improvement in quality and increase in efficiency and in overall wealth – or so the thinking went, and still does. Each trader should focus only on their own material interests, not trying to improve the wellbeing of society as a whole. Yet somehow or other (in fact by what Adam Smith in the 18th century called “an invisible hand”) everyone would benefit.

In reality however, as we can see all too clearly after 40 years of neoliberal economics, we don’t all benefit equally. Indeed a great many people in Britain and the world over are worse off than before – and a great deal worse off than should have been possible; and the natural world, the biosphere, is being trashed. But the neoliberal mindset suits the world’s most influential people and remains intact nonetheless.

Before 1980 it was reasonable to argue even if it was not always the case that business, albeit primarily an exercise in private enterprise, is the natural economic underpinning of a free, democratic, and functional, society. The former Tory Chancellor Kenneth Clarke talked and talks of “business with a conscience”. Traditional Tories like Clarke also believed in the mixed economy – that private enterprise must be counterpoised by public spending. Traditional Labour politicians believed and believe this too, though of course with more emphasis on public spending. The great post-war Labour paragon Nye Bevan was quite explicit about this.

…beneath the veneer of breath-taking architecture and super-highways and all the rest, all the bad things have got worse. Overall, life has become more precarious. The spread of Covid-19 is a prime illustration. 

But the neoliberals are focused on private enterprise absolutely. They positively fear public enterprise. The neolibs who now dominate the world’s economies take it to be self-evident that all individuals, all companies, and all nations must and should simply compete with each other as ruthlessly as possible to maximize their own profit and market share.  Any other approach is said to be “unrealistic”. Public ownership is an anathema. What are still called “human values” – love; community; respect; fairness; and care of the natural world – are left to sink or swim. There was a lot wrong with the world even before neoliberalism. But although the world has superficially grown richer in the 40 years of neoliberalism, beneath the veneer of breath-taking architecture and super-highways and all the rest, all the bad things have got worse. Overall, life has become more precarious. The spread of Covid-19 is a prime illustration. Who can doubt that many (possibly most) of the people in the UK who died in the pandemic, including all those health-workers, would have lived if the government had not so disastrously pruned the budgets of the NHS in the past decade?

Agriculture has suffered very badly from the neoliberal mindset. 

Agriculture has suffered very badly from the neoliberal mindset. In the few brief decades after World War II when the Atlantic blockade had threatened Britain with starvation successive British governments favoured and nourished agriculture. Some even complained that farmers were being unfairly cossetted – “feather-bed farming”. We can see in retrospect that much of the post-war strategy was misguided– hedges grubbed up to make way for big machines; farming seen as an exercise in industrial chemistry – but governments did at least see the importance of farming, and why it is necessary or at least highly desirable to produce our own basic foods.

But to the post-1980 neoliberals agriculture was and is just another contributor to GDP – and not a very efficient one at that. In particular, it is nothing like as profitable as banking. Indeed, governments of all political stamp asked themselves from time to time, and still do, “Why grow food at home when we can buy what we need more cheaply from overseas, where there is more sunshine and fewer restrictions?” I was reliably informed by a former very senior civil servant that in the 1990s Tony Blair’s “New Labour” government, an uneasy blend of socialist sentiment and neoliberal economics, seriously wondered whether Britain should bother with agriculture at all. Shouldn’t farming be allowed or encouraged to go the way of Britain’s coal mines? And if food was to be grown at home, why farm by the methods of old-fashioned craft, with many thousands of small family farms, when it is so much easier to blitz the whole landscape with mega-machines and fill it up with super-productive livestock and crops propped up by agrochemistry? To a very large extent the NFU went along with this line of thinking. So long as the oil continued to flow the high-tech route was cheaper and more profitable and therefore was seen to be both necessary and right. Anyway, high tech is progress, and progress is ipso facto good, it is not?

Organic farming was and to a large extent still is seen as a middle-class indulgence, or at best as a “niche market”.

Those who argued otherwise, as the organic farmers and growers were wont to do, were largely written off as woolly-minded, elitist dreamers. Organic farming was and to a large extent still is seen as a middle-class indulgence, or at best as a “niche market”. The crafts of farming were regarded at best as occupational therapy. Nowadays many well-informed people including a great many scientists perceive that organic farming, embedded within the larger concept of agroecology, must be the way ahead. Still, though, high-tech, high-input industrial farming grabs most of the research budget. Britain’s erstwhile Ministry of Agriculture, the old Min of Ag, is now subsumed within DEFRA: the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. Farming apparently is just another “rural affair”. Britain’s erstwhile Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC) was replaced in 1994 by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). So the rural affair that is agriculture is just another branch of biotech. So now we know where we stand.

What has all this got to do with Covid-19?

What has all this got to do with Covid-19? Two things. First, as intimated, the same economic and political mindset that starved the NHS and has so obviously exacerbated what was already a disaster has also pushed farming down a highly destructive, unfair, and obviously unsustainable route. Both have been led and driven off course by an unswerving dedication to short-term profit and to individualism with commensurate disdain for and fear of public service.

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Secondly: pandemics, like tsunamis and wars, are punctuation marks in history. There is the time before and the time after. At the same time, the lock-down has given people time to reflect (although most of course, with work suspended, are focused perforce on their own and their family’s survival). Some – many – for whom commuting was simply a part of life, like cleaning one’s teeth, now ask, as people were urged to ask themselves in World War II, “Is your journey really necessary?” For those who are obliged to travel at least a bit even the present government is encouraging walking and cycling – a century or so behind the Dutch but a step at least in the right direction.

More broadly, more and more people and organizations are asking – “Was the status quo ante really what the world needed, and needs?” In general, is the ultra-materialist, ultra-competitive neoliberal economy really fit for purpose? Can we really create a world that is fair and good for everyone, and for the natural world, with such a mindset?

Specifically, more and more people are applying such thinking to food and farming – and many indeed are thinking about farming for the first time: not as a minor contributor to GDP that is best left to the corporates, insofar as it’s worth doing at all, but as the centre of our existence, the pursuit on which we all rely, endlessly complex and absorbing and – crucially! – still open to all, if we choose to get stuck in. Many were thinking this way even before Covid but Covid beyond doubt has focused minds.

So, post-Covid, the world’s agriculture will find itself at a cross-roads, with three possible ways ahead.  

So, post-Covid, the world’s agriculture will find itself at a cross-roads, with three possible ways ahead.  The first — the route favoured by governments like Britain’s – is to restore the former economy with its focus on competition, growth and material wealth with all possible speed (which doubtless will be expedited by “Whatever it takes!” as Chancellor Rishi Sunak put the matter in a somewhat different context). This will again favour the neoliberal-industrial kind of farming that is rapidly becoming the norm: high-input, high-tech, structurally-simple monocultures with minimum to zero labour, all on the largest possible scale, and geared ultimately to the global market. The threatened trade deals with the US will add further momentum: lowering standards, loss of jobs and ways of life, all justified by rising if more concentrated piles of wealth.

The second is to develop more sustainable forms of agriculture rooted in low-input, more labour-intensive organic farming – but to seek to do this within the present economic structure, largely in alliance with existing economic power-blocs, which mainly means the corporates. In practice this means more organic produce in Sainsbury’s — but no radical shift in approach. 

The third possibility is the only one which makes sense.  To rethink everything. 

The third possibility – and for me the only one that really makes sense – is to re-think the whole caboodle from first principles: the “first principles” being those of morality (what is it desirable – good – to do?) and of ecology (which asks, what is it possible and necessary to do?). Both principles lead us towards what I for the past 15 years or so have been calling “Enlightened Agriculture”, sometimes abbreviated to “Real Farming”. Enlightened Agriculture is informally but adequately defined as – “Farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality, both nutritionally and gastronomically, without cruelty or injustice and without wrecking the rest of the world”.

This high-sounding and apparently utopian ambition should in truth be eminently achievable. The idea of Enlightened Agriculture is compounded of the now well-established principles of Agroecology (farms conceived as ecosystems) and Food Sovereignty (all societies should have control of their own food supply). The whole structure is underpinned by what might be called Green Economic Democracy.

In short: we don’t need to become vegans or to develop high-tech forms of ersatz meat. We just need to re-learn how to cook.

Enlightened Agriculture must be complemented by appropriate food cultures – and here is a huge serendipity; because agroecological farming focuses on arable and horticulture and fits in livestock as and when and so it produces —

“Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety”

These nine words perfectly summarize the best nutritional advice of the past 60 years and also encapsulate the basic structure of all the world’s greatest cuisines. In particular, all the great cuisines on an axis from Italy to China use meat sparingly (primarily as garnish and stock, and for only occasional feasts) and make maximum use of whatever grows locally. In short: we don’t need to become vegans or to develop high-tech forms of ersatz meat. We just need to re-learn how to cook.

In practice, Enlightened Agriculture leads us to favour highly diverse (polycultural, meaning mixed), low input (meaning organic) and therefore complex farming, which perforce must be skills-intensive (lots of farmers) and is best practiced on farms that are small-to-medium sized and (better still) are linked in networks of like-minded producers and geared primarily to local markets. Thus the kind of farming that we really need (route 3) is the precise opposite of what we have (which is route 1). Route 2 I regard as an uneasy compromise. Of course it is easier in the short term to operate in harmony with existing power structures (including existing corporates) where this is possible. But the very big question is whether we can ever create the kind of farming and food culture the world really needs, and indeed the kind of world that we really need (and most people would surely prefer) within the present economic structure and with the neoliberal mindset that lies behind it. The answer, I suggest, is surely “No”. We cannot (surely?) safely leave the world’s affairs to the algorithms of market economics. We have to think and act radically, which means, literally, getting down to the roots; and, where necessary, we need to start again. In truth we need nothing less than transformation; metanoia and metamorphosis. Indeed, nothing less than a Renaissance – re-birth – will do: beginning, I suggest, with food and farming. That is, the Renaissance we need can properly begin with an Agrarian Renaissance.

This is the thinking behind our own, still embryonic but robust College for Real Farming and Food Culture (http://collegeforrealfarming.org), a twin project, together with the Oxford Real Farming Conference, within the Real Farming Trust. The point of our College is to ask, primarily, “What kind of farming can best serve the long-term interests of humanity and our fellow creatures”, and “What kind of food culture is needed to complement the kind of agriculture we really need?” But – crucially – we also recognize that nothing can be put to rights ad hoc.

We cannot introduce the kind of farming and encourage the kind of food culture the world really needs unless we also re-think the economy; and we will not create a new kind of economy unless we re-think the way that society is governed; and no system can truly operate for the benefit of humanity and the biosphere unless it is guided by the principles of morality and ecology – so these must be explored too. Hence the agenda of our College is very broad – all-embracing; but is focused, as all human endeavours must ultimately be, on the need to keep ourselves and our fellow creatures in good heart in effect forever.

BMC and our College for Real Farming and Food Culture are exploring ways to collaborate. If we are going to change the world in the ways that are needed then cooperation, not competition, must be the name of the game.

Serendipitously – at least in general outline — this is also the thinking behind Black Mountains College. The BMC recognizes, as we do, the need for truly radical thinking and for holistic thinking: everything re-thought and everything re-thought in the light of everything else. BMC recognizes too as we do the central importance of agriculture and of the natural world. Indeed right now BMC and our College for Real Farming and Food Culture are exploring ways to collaborate. If we are going to change the world in the ways that are needed then cooperation, not competition, must be the name of the game (provided we cooperate with people who really are headed for the same goal). Our College and BMC, and quite a lot of other groups as well, have recognized this for a long time – that there is a need for radical change and in particular that we need, as a society, as a species, and indeed as a privileged participant in life on Earth, to think cooperatively. The all-out emphasis on competition has been a horrible mistake.

The pandemic, with luck, is prompting many more to realize this too. If there can be a silver lining in such a huge black cloud, then this is it. 

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