For whom the bell tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 special

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!

30 thoughts on “For whom the bell tolls: a Small Farm Future COVID-19 special

  1. Thanks Chris. And I dearly hope your diet of fresh veg, good labour and what passes for sunshine in the UK keeps you strong through this.

  2. First – I’ll second Ruben’s thoughts above.

    I need to go back and reread William Davies LRB piece you’ve linked here (and thanks for putting it here BTW). I see some value in pieces of his argument. But I also notice some liberties taken with certain interpretations. As someone firmly planted within the boomer generation it may well be personal bias that is coloring my view. So to give Mr Davies a little room to run I’ll have another peek.

  3. Chris,

    Best wishes to you, your family & all at Vallis Veg

    This article is interesting

    What is particularly interesting is that The Government held a 3 day exercise in , Exercise Cygnus to see what would happen in the event of a Pandemic Flu outbreak

    Where it became clear that the UK could not cope.

    However despite both the reasonably high likelihood of such an outbreak, and of course the significant economic effects no action was taken to address the weakness’s that the exercise uncovered.

    At the moment we are enjoying ‘Make it up as we go along’ policymaking which has bailed out the richest in society, financially at least and only helps those lower down the income scale because the other option is Social Unrest.

    But the question that needs addressing right now is Harvest 2020. Winter crops have suffered because of the wet weather, undoubtedly farmers are replanting but especially given the average age of farmers in the UK & USA and I see no plans to ensure that the harvest can be gathered in, especially the labour intensive fruit and vegetables.

    So should we be bringing back the Land Girls (And Boys!) and Digging for Victory

  4. Hopefully something good will come out of it.
    It may well be the start of a massive economic crisis with global demand deconstruction and depression. While I do advocate degrowth and the fall of captialism, I am not convinced that the anticipated sequence of events will be the right kind of degrowth and societal r(evolution).

    But we must just continue sowing the seeds, it is soon spring.

  5. We won’t starve. But growing food alone may no save the farm.

    Very few in the self-sustainability movement are truly above it all. There’s always property taxes. And often a mortgage. And if a mortgage, you don’t have the option of ignoring the usury insurance industry.

    Our farmers market — responsible for at least 30% of our income — has been shut down indefinitely. Hosting international students, about 20% of our income, is probably coming to an end soon. (One of the two is leaving prematurely tomorrow.)

    Another 20% of our income is rent. Our renter’s income is from the oil industry, not exactly a thriving place these days. With various forms of rent deferral or forgiveness being talked about, that portion of our income seems shaky.

    So, take away 70% of our income, and we’d be laughing — if it weren’t for mortgage, insurance, and property taxes.

    Luckily, the remaining income is mostly wholesale to grocers, which if anything, should do well. We are adjusting our planting accordingly to try to shift emphasis from direct market sales to wholesale.

    A huge problem for small farmers in general is systemic bias in the system toward large food processors. We are highly vertically integrated, with an extensive line of value-added products — which, due to public health regulations written by Big Food™, can only be sold direct! We cannot sell our value-added goods to the grocery store or institutions, as we can our produce. Probably about 50% of our market revenue stream is value-added, which we cannot simply shift into the wholesale stream.

    Bottom line, the wolf is not at the door, but we can hear him howling, not too far off in the distance.

    • just as a bye , farmers markets have been shut down here in the USA ,
      my pigs have half a ton of veggies to munch their way through , they should have been sold last weekend in Austin .

      • farmers markets have been shut down here in the USA

        Same here in BC.

        The grocery stores remain open, though. The industrial food system uber alles.

        To add insult to injury, we do a lot of value-added processing, in order to tide us over before produce hits. According to BC Health rules, artisanal and farm food processors don’t have to follow industrial regulations on “low risk” foods, such as fruit preserves, dried fruits and vegetables, and baked goods — as long as the producer is the one selling it!

        So that means that we cannot sell a living-room full of value-added goods that we’ve been making all winter. We can sell tomatoes to the grocer, but not tomato sauce, for instance.

        I wrote my MLA (like a State Representative in the US), noting that if the rules were relaxed so artisanal and farm value-added producers could wholesale to grocers, we might be able to make it without direct government assistance. I got a polite form letter back about how hard they were working on the CoViD-19 crisis.

        We can still eat, but we might not be able to pay the mortgage.

  6. Thanks for the comments. Indeed, if and when the history of this is written it’ll be interesting to see if the more collective state and dirigiste model of mainland Europe so despised by Brexiters and Anglo-American free marketeers will prove to have better protected their citizenries than the pallid versions of ‘liberty’ propounded by the likes of Johnson and Trump.

    I agree with Gunnar and Jan that, broadly, while COVID-19 may prompt degrowth, the chances aren’t high that it’ll be the right kind of degrowth. Perhaps I’m more hopeful than Jan that some of the economic realities he mentions that trap small-scale farmers will have to be reconfigured in the light of the crisis. Then again, there’s a fair chunk of history to suggest that when economies are reconfigured it’s rarely to the benefit of small farmers … though most of the counter-examples bear on times when securing the local food supply rises to prominence, which may be the case in present circumstances.

    Bottom line is, as Gunnar rightly says: it’s spring – sow seeds.

  7. Thanks Chris for this latest installment, written with the usual clarity, reason, and heart. The closing paragraph calls for this response: If either of us doesn’t make it through the epidemic, let me just say that it’s been a pleasure reading (and learning from) this blog over the years…

  8. There’s likely going to be a lot more focus post-COVID-19 on resilient systems including supply chains. And a recognition that offshoring manufacturing, food-production etc in the pursuit of “efficiency” defined against narrow criteria might not be such a great idea after all.

    Perhaps we’ll see the inspirational sight of a flying squad of neoliberal economists, policy makers, small government muppets etc bravely stepping into the breach to care for COVID-19 patients without PPE, diagnostic tests etc; unavailable due to offshored manufacturing in countries now reserving production for local use.

    I’ve been following the progress of COVID-19 since some friends mentioned it early in January. One of them works in healthcare and his son has a compromised immune system so my friend – who is also an avid amateur historian – was very concerned about a pandemic. Sth Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have done an excellent job of containing the initial spread from China. This is held to be largely due to lessons learnt containing and eradicating SARS back in 2002-3. So these countries had aggressive initial testing, contact tracing and quarantine/isolation amongst other measures.

    What I find very sad is that the Anglophone and European nations could have learnt from this experience but didn’t. Why not will be an interesting study for the social scientists.

  9. just as a bye , farmers markets have been shut down here in the USA ,
    my pigs have half a ton of veggies to munch their way through , they should have been sold last weekend in Austin .

  10. Clem has previously mentioned here (four years ago) the work of evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. Wallace is the author of “Big Farms Make Big Flu,” published in 2016, and he connects the dots between capitalist agriculture and outbreaks such as Covid-19.

    “The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure –or better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production…”

    “Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities…”

    “Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence… As industrial production–hog, poultry, and the like–expand into primary forest, it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and spillover of, new pathogens, including Covid-19.”

    • Building a factory farmed future, one pandemic at a time
      (another article from GRAIN)

      “A wave of African swine fever outbreaks has been wreaking havoc on global pork production over the past decade, with ripple effects across the whole meat industry. Luckily this livestock disease is not a direct threat to human health, but a quarter of the global pig herd may have already been wiped out and the economic costs are running well into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet while small farmers have been decimated, the outbreaks are a windfall for transnational meat companies, and the companies that supply them…”

      “GRAIN began working on global livestock diseases in 2006, when we launched a report on the global bird flu pandemic. That report punched a hole in the accepted wisdom, promoted by meat companies and international agencies, that the disease was mainly being spread by wild birds and backyard farms. It exposed the rapid rise of factory farms in Asia as the likely source of this highly pathogenic virus, and the global meat industry as the principal conduit for its spread. We wanted to help the small farmers and wet market traders challenge the punitive measures that they were being unfairly subjected to, and to push for an effective global response to the disease that would also prevent the industrial meat system from producing more such lethal diseases. Unfortunately this has, for the most part, not happened, and more outbreaks have occurred, notably the swine flu outbreak in Mexico in 2009. Sadly, our investigations into today’s ASF pandemic read like a déja vu of the work we began over a decade ago.”

      “Some of GRAIN’s reports on livestock diseases:
      Fowl play: The poultry industry’s central role in the bird flu crisis, 2006
      Viral times – The politics of emerging global animal diseases, 2008
      A food system that kills – Swine flu is meat industry’s latest plague, 2009”

    • Thanks for the Grain link Steve – Robert hasn’t posted anything on his own blog since last December. I’m guessing he’s been pretty busy of late.

  11. Thanks for the further comments – much good stuff to ponder…

    Bear in mind that one reason there’s fewer hospital beds now is because average lengths of stay are much shorter. Or were…

  12. Yes, readmission rates may be significant. The problem with hospital beds as an indicator of anything is that they’re places nobody wants to be except when all the other options are worse.

    National food protectionism is a fascinating issue which maybe has a similar structuring about it – a really bad idea until suddenly it becomes a really good idea. I hope to write more about that soon.

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