A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part I

Last week my publisher Chelsea Green hosted a webinar to launch my book and I then spoke about it at the Permaculture Convergence. I’ve struggled a little with the online format, but I appreciated the engaged comments from the audiences at both events who I knew were out there somewhere. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to answer all the questions in the time available, so I thought I’d reproduce the questions here and attempt to answer them, if only briefly. The book contains more in-depth discussion of most of the points raised. I’d strongly recommend buying a copy…

I’ve grouped the questions into these six overarching headings:

  1. Food & farm system economics
  2. Labour questions
  3. Property & access to land
  4. Settlement geography
  5. Politics
  6. Caring for the land

I’m going to work through headings 1-3 in this post, and 4-6 in the next one, which I’ll post in a couple of days.

Food & farm system economics

Q. I have recently been suggesting that the price of food should double – but how do we then ensure that we are not increasing food poverty?

Sounds about right as a minimum. The key is to consider food prices in relation to the price of everything else – land, housing, labour, energy, transport, welfare. For sure, if food prices increased without any other economic adjustments, food poverty would increase. But we need to rethink those other sectors too. That’s something I do, albeit in fairly general terms, in the book. I think we also need to decommodify food production considerably, so that non-commercial, locally self-reliant food production is more of an option for many people, including poor people – ‘recapturing the garden’, as I call it in the book, after Steven Stoll. If we get it right, food poverty and nutritional deficits will decrease.

 

Q. As the current large scale food system has to start internalising its costs, how do you think its affordability would balance out with agroecological production models

A similar question to the previous one, perhaps? My view is that if the existing food system fully internalised its carbon, soil, water, health and pollution costs we’d probably be questioning the affordability of anything other than agroecological production models. At the same time, I want to avoid an overly dualistic ‘mainstream bad – agroecological good’ framing. I argue in the book that farming of all kinds has to confront difficult dilemmas to which there are no perfect solutions.

 

Q. In Covid I’ve reinvented my not for profit company into a local produce wholesaler called Brighton Food Factory, to support small farmers and supply community food projects. Is that a service that small farmers need? To create the bridge from small farmer to food citizen, not just as a consumer but to shorten the supply chain and help people understand the upsides and challenges of local, small farm production?

The way food commodity markets work in my experience is that most of the financial value is captured at the point of retail sale, which is why small-scale farmers tend to sell direct to customers – volumes aren’t high enough to make a living from wholesale prices. But this does mean we spend a lot of time on the retail side of our operations when we could be farming. If other organisations took on the marketing, this could be a boon – but the question is how best to create these collaborative rather than competitive relationships between production and marketing. If your venture is succeeding at that, I’m sure there will be a lot of wider interest.

I think people sometimes over-emphasise the marketing difficulties facing small farm enterprises at the expense of emphasising the difficulties of production in the face of wider economic forces. The key problem facing small farmers probably isn’t a lack of sympathetic people offering to sell their produce. But that said, your points about creating bridges and public understanding do seem vital to me…

 

Labour

Q. If you talk about the global equity and the creation of livelihoods for small scale farmers – how can this be created for small scale farms which (often) heavily depend on volunteer work?

Not that many small commercial farms I know depend heavily on volunteer work long-term, because it can be rather a mixed blessing. But, as I said above, I’m in favour of considerable decommodification, and here ‘volunteer work’ broadly conceived can play various roles compatible with livelihood creation. Generally, small-scale local agrarianism isn’t well suited to generating salaried work, but it is well suited to generating livelihoods. I talk about this quite a bit in the book.

 

Q. Are farm volunteers (e.g. CSAs) included in the 1% who work on the land?

(Note: I mentioned in a talk that about 1% of the UK workforce was employed in agriculture). No, that figure encompasses only salaried and self-employed agricultural workers. So the true amount of work going into the production of food consumed in the UK is higher – not only CSA volunteers and similar, plus home gardeners, but fisherfolk and all the people working abroad whose labour is embodied in the food we import.

 

Q. I know you like to calculate Chris (perhaps your book address this): What is your take on how big a share of the population should/will have to be involved in farming if it is small scale, ecological and based on renewable resources (under European conditions). Or put otherwise, how many people could an empowered small scale farmer produce food for?

Is that you Gunnar? You know me down to a T! Yes, the book does address this for the UK – and the answer is … 15% of the working-age population working directly as farmers, or one farmer per twelve people altogether. As per the previous question, that ignores volunteer and backyard labour and fisherfolk. But it’s based on meeting national food needs entirely, without imports. It also ignores the various rural trades supportive of farming work. Of course, it’s only a rough guess…

 

Q. With the poor response by the general public to Pick for Britain and British Summer Fruits jobs in the face of (the recent) crisis, how realistic is a wider small farm approach and the need for more labour compared to our current industrialised farming practices?

At the moment, not very realistic – though the crisis seems to have changed the narrative about small farm localism a little for the better. But in the longer term I think it’s unrealistic to expect that our current industrialised farming practices will continue. Most of my book is addressed to that tension between the large farm present and the small farm future. I argue that agrarian localism will emerge in the disorder arising from the decline of the current global political economy – though it can happen in various ways, some better than others.

 

Property and access to land

Q. Do you talk in your book about new ways of looking at land ownership?

Yes – especially in Chapter 13 (‘Complicating the Commons: Holding and Sharing the Land’). Though, as the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. So many of the ‘new ways’ of looking at it that I discuss are actually old ways.

 

Q. Recommoning please!

OK, not a question as such, but a statement. And one that I agree with. But it’s complicated … hence my chapter ‘Complicating the commons’.

 

Q. As someone looking to enter into small scale farming it is clear just how difficult it is to access land in the first place, due to a wide range of factors, not least the price of land. What do you think can be practically done to encourage new entrant farmers, and specifically younger people, into farming, when it is currently so difficult for people to make that transition?

There are various organisations trying to ease routes into farming and people can be quite inventive at finding their way in, but ultimately I agree it’s difficult and the price of land is a major stumbling block. One way or another, there’s going to have to be a major reconfiguration of access to land – I discuss this in Chapter 13, and also in Chapters 17-20.

 

Q. Property developers artificially inflate value of land. Village of Cassington that has allotments at centre of village life is about to lose this invaluable food and community resource for local people as Blenheim Palace estate plans to build housing on the land. What can be done about this sort of situation?

As per my previous answer, I discuss this in some detail in the book – you’ll just have to read it! But I don’t claim to have all the answers and I’ve been unable to go into the issues at the level of deep policy detail, so this is an ongoing discussion I’m interested in having with people.

 

Q. In the UK, many pubs, cinemas, community centres etc have been registered as Assets of Community Value, giving local people the opportunity (although unfortunately not the right) to buy them rather than see them converted into accommodation or other uses for profit. Have any small farms been listed as community assets under the ACV legislation? Could be a great way to protect small farms and a way to exit on retirement if passing on to family members isn’t an option.

Interesting, and not something I’m very familiar with, so I can’t answer the question about small farms and ACVs. My guess, though, would be not many because land inheritance is the norm. I suggest in Chapter 13 that this will need to change, but the wriggle room for achieving this is extremely tight. Currently, the UK planning system generally protects farmland from development, albeit often in cumbersome ways that are obstructive towards a small farm future. But I get the sense that the present government would like to remove planning controls altogether, and this would be more obstructive still.

Building regional autonomies for a small farm future

The first talk I’m giving in relation to my new book is at the Northern Real Farming Conference, at 7.30pm on Tuesday (29 Sept). Although I’m not from or in the North, the conference is nevertheless an appropriate launchpad for my book because I suggest in it that in the future people are going to have to furnish their livelihoods more regionally and locally than most do today, and that this is going to involve a lot of rethinking – of agriculture, of industry, of politics and society more generally, and indeed of what we mean when we talk about the local or the regional. There are few better forums for getting going with this rethinking process than a regional farming conference.

My talk is going to be fairly general in its scope. I’m hoping that the audience discussion will add more local colour and detail to it and fit its themes to the specifics of Britain’s north. But I also hope that anyone reading this webpage may do the same in relation to wherever in the world they live, and however they think of their locality and their region. Perhaps, in the comments to this post or elsewhere, this will help to generate some worthwhile rethinking of agrarian localism.

And boy do we need that rethinking! Wider issues like climate change, energy scarcities, economic stagnation and political fragmentation are already reconfiguring our world, but we can only guess at the local adjustments this will demand of us – which makes it hard to know where to put our energies and what kinds of institutions to support and nurture. Often, as a grower and smallholder I feel that I should probably just get my head down and try to produce food in a low impact way. But that alone isn’t going to be enough. Below, I lay out five broad themes (and some more specific pointers) that I’d suggest need addressing everywhere as we rethink regionalism and localism for a small farm future:

  1. Producing for local needs, instead of for commodity markets.
  • in (northern) Britain, this probably means going easier on livestock and cereals, and harder on woodland, horticulture, fertility-building fallows, fibre crops, seeds, medicines and general trades and inputs into farming.
  • it also means entering a steep learning curve on low impact, local farming, involving a thorough rethinking of scale, labour input and agricultural education
  • and it may mean disregarding recent historical land use patterns. Where I live, for example, there’s a strong recent history of dairy farming which partly has to do with the fact that grass grows well here (harking back to the quaint days when that actually mattered…) but also with the fact that the opening of the railways to London created a demand for fresh milk in the capital
  1. Rethinking settlement geography
  • cheap energy has broken the links of mutual service between town, village and countryside. How can we restore them?
  • in the future, we will probably see ruralisation or deurbanisation in the face of new energy, climate and economic realities. Population dispersal is harder to achieve than concentration – how can this be managed?

     3. Rethinking landownership

  • ruralisation may put inflationary pressure on farmland prices to the benefit of existing landowners, exacerbating inequalities
  • this is potentially counterbalanced by the sheer weight of a new rural population of smallholders, perhaps articulating its interests as a class, the weakness of the political centre and the residual influence of liberal rights ideas
  1. Local identities
  • in what ways might local or regional identities help or hinder reconstructing a renewable agrarian localism? (Personally, I’m dubious about most existing identities in this respect, in the North and elsewhere: northern, Yorkshire/Lancashire, East Riding/West Riding, urban/rural, ‘indigenous’ or ‘immigrant’, here first, the ‘real people’
  • almost everyone is a child of a failing economic modernism – can we forge new identities as farmers engaged in creating renewable livelihoods in place?
  • civic republicanism as a political tradition to inform new identity-making, not based on ideas of a pre-existing ‘natural community’. The politics of ‘here we all are’

 5. Wider interactions

  • in a supersedure state situation with semi-autonomy of, say, the north from London, how would relations between region and centre work?
  • and between regions?

A small farm future

My book A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth is now hurtling on its final trajectory to land on Planet Earth mid-October. To herald the impending event, I’ve set up this new page on the site, which will track the book’s earthly existence, and I’ve posted the new banner above to give a flavour. I have an advance copy in my hands – my thanks to the folks at Chelsea Green for turning my splurge of Word files into such a work of art. For the impatient, there are links on my page for pre-ordering a copy.

Talking of Planet Earth, a recent article by Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry (henceforth BB) entitled “Local Farming Can’t Save The Planet” has come to my attention. Since I argue at length in my book that, on the contrary, small-scale, locally-oriented farming is probably the only thing that can ‘save the planet’, or at least that can deliver a reasonably congenial life to the majority of the world’s people with minimum impact on wider biological and earth systems, I think it’s worth taking a look at BB’s arguments. Many of these nicely prefigure some major themes in my book, so it seems appropriate to engage with them here.

But before I do, a quick word on grounding assumptions is in order. If you assume that in the coming decades the effects of climate change will be manageable without major socio-economic dislocation, that the global energy economy will transition quickly to low carbon forms without major reductions in supply, that the availability of various other resources such as phosphorus, water and soil will likewise remain basically as at present, and that global inequalities and political instabilities will also fail to wreak any major changes to national and international governance, then I concede that the case for building economic localisms based around small-scale farming is weaker than if you assume otherwise. BB proceed implicitly with those assumptions, which in my view are an implausible extrapolation of current global trends. A good deal of my case for a small farm future is based on a different extrapolation. But let’s keep that in the background for now, and look more closely at BB’s arguments.

They begin their pushback against local food by saying that organic farming is 20-30% less efficient than conventional farming and is “a form of luxury consumption for well off westerners who can afford it”. By less efficient, I assume they mean per acre crop yields are 20-30% lower, which is generally true – at least in the rich countries. There are arguments that this yield gap can be closed, and arguments that it can’t, which I’ll reserve for another day. The biggest problem is that organic farming as it’s presently practiced isn’t the same as “local and small-scale” farming. BB assert that the latter is just as inefficient as organic farming, without citing any supporting evidence. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that small-scale farming in poor countries is more productive in yield per acre than larger farms (the so-called inverse productivity relationship). And there’s also evidence that organic or organic-ish techniques can be more productive than non-organic ones in certain situations, especially in poor countries.

There’s a complex underlying story to all this which I won’t try to unpick in any detail here. But it simply isn’t true that small-scale, local farming is always less land-efficient than ‘conventional’ farming. Nor is yield per acre the only worthwhile measure of efficiency in farming. Among the numerous other ones, the social efficiency of capital and labour deployment are also relevant. The cheapness of energy and the cheapness of capital in the rich countries create a misleading sense of scale efficiency.

A curious aspect of homing in on organics as an inefficient form of farming for the affluent, as BB and many other ‘conventional’ farming advocates do, is that there’s a vastly more inefficient form of farming for the affluent that they ignore – livestock. According to one recent study, the land use efficiency of producing protein from suckler beef is about 3,500% less than from peas (I have some problems with this kind of comparison, but I don’t dispute the fundamental trophic realities underlying it). So if we really want to talk about inefficient land use geared to furnishing the affluent, why don’t we focus first on the land devoted to livestock farming (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: >70%) rather than that devoted to organics (proportion of total global agricultural land-take: 1%)? A suspicion lurks that it might be because criticizing conventional livestock farming doesn’t fit so well with a preconceived ‘alternative farming can’t feed the world’ narrative. In my book, I provide analyses to suggest that alternative farming probably can feed the world – especially if we eat less meat (but not necessarily no meat). Continuing to feed the world is less certain if we carry on with ‘conventional’ farming, extensive meat production and other trappings of the high-energy economy.

A big difference between organic and ‘conventional’ farming is that the latter uses industrially synthesized nitrogenous fertilizer and mined phosphates. I don’t personally take a fundamentalist line against the use of these fertilizers in all circumstances, though it seems to me unwise to suppose that they’ll remain as cheap and abundant in the future as at present. But if we’re talking about the efficiency (in several senses of the term) of the global food and farming system, it’s worth thinking about where those fertilizers would be best deployed. My suggestion would be mostly among poor, small-scale ‘local’ farmers in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America and not so much in the over-nitrified wastelands of rich-country agricultures. The fact that this scarcely happens ought to prompt some questions about the supposed efficiency of the ‘conventional’ global food system. As should the fact that the 20-30% yield advantage of ‘conventional’ vis-à-vis organic farming is bought with an awful lot of fossil energy to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides.

Next in their article, BB say that “not every region has the right soil and climate for growing food” and they cite research that found only 28% of the global population at most could source their staple food requirements from within a radius of 100km. Now, the fact is that more or less every region does have the right soil and climate for growing food of some kind, but it’s true that the present geographical distribution of the world’s population isn’t conducive for many people to source their food locally. If everyone living in London, for example, immediately had to meet their staple food needs from within 100km, they’d starve in short order.

Here we come to the grounding assumptions I mentioned earlier. For some, that fact suggests that localism won’t be a plausible way of providing food in the future. For others, it suggests that living in London won’t be a plausible way of life in the future. Generally, people seek out places with the best economic opportunities. Throughout the 20th century those places were often urban, not least because of fossil fuel-enabled state policies that directly or indirectly promoted an unprecedented mass urbanization and a de-localization of agricultural production. This was a profound change to the deeper historical reality that the best economic opportunities are mostly in the places where it’s easiest to grow food and fibre. A mass ruralization in the 21st century and beyond in keeping with that deeper reality seems likely. Unfortunately, de-urbanization will probably be harder to achieve than urbanization. All the more reason to start now and find ways of settling people on small-scale holdings oriented to self-reliance and local production.

As an aside, the food writer Jay Rayner takes a similar line on this point to BB:

What matters is not where food is produced but how. The example I always give is of potatoes. In the right soil you will get 20 tons an acre; in the wrong soil you will get 16 tons. So, in the latter, you will need 20% more land or shed loads of carbon inputs to get the same outcome, even if it happens to be closer to you.

There are numerous unexamined assumptions in this passage, leading us from the fact that, other things being equal, some soils can produce more potatoes than others, to the implicit conclusion that it’s a good idea for people to buy potatoes from places with the best soils for growing them.

I examine these assumptions critically in my book, and I won’t spell them out here. But when BB say that “farming locally often means farming on less suitable soils”, they miss the point that that isn’t the case if you arrange your farming to suit the soil, and if you arrange your settlement patterns to suit the farming. Reverting this long-established geographical reality will likely be the major political challenge of the near future.

And that, I think, remains true notwithstanding BB’s argument that “even if you could grow all your food locally, it might still be more efficient to import it from another continent. That’s what economists call “comparative advantage.”” Here, BB rather mischaracterise comparative advantage, which is an almost obsolete concept in the modern global economy. It refers to situations where specifically local investors unable to invest elsewhere get the best financial returns when they support local trades that earn the highest returns to capital, regardless of how competitive they are globally. Basically, the concept of comparative advantage highlights the best ways of making money within the constraints of an international economy that no longer exists. Which is why if you want to make money nowadays you’re probably better off investing in wheat futures rather than in growing wheat, even if you live somewhere with the best wheat-growing soils.

But in the actual future to come rather than its present Wall Street version, you might well be better off growing wheat locally instead of investing your hard-won money in far-flung parts of the world in the expectation that more money will return to you. And that will probably require you to be living in a rural area, where there’s some room for you to do it.

The next major part of BB’s argument is a long exposition of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument in favour of intensive agriculture for biodiversity reasons – in other words, the view that concentrating farming in intensive, nature-unfriendly ways on as small a land area as possible and thereby leaving more land for wilderness has greater conservation benefits than more nature-friendly but more extensive farming. Here, I’m just going to skate over a complex area with a few brief points.

First, BB simply assume that small-scale, local farming is less intensive than larger-scale farming aimed at more distant markets – but this isn’t necessarily true, as we know from the inverse productivity relationship. This renders moot a lot of their argumentation around the land sparing benefits of non-locally oriented farming, because it doesn’t necessarily spare more land than local farming.

Second, if you’re going to compare specific farming practices that are more or less land intensive, such as synthetic fertilizer based ‘conventional’ agriculture with organic agriculture, you need to include full lifecycle impacts. The smaller land take of synthetic fertilizer-based agriculture may (arguably) be a conservation plus. Not so the climate-forcing effects of fertilizer manufacture nor the eutrophication of watercourses from fertilizer runoff. And farm systems that incentivize farmers to maximize yields have cascading effects that aren’t necessarily beneficial for biodiversity – even at a basic local level such as the various slurry and diesel spillages recently in my own local watershed.

Third, as BB themselves concede, possible land sparing benefits are easily offset by rebound effects. If, for example, you shrink the amount of land needed to meet the demand for rice, then the freed land becomes available for meeting new demands – producing coffee, tropical fruits or golf courses perhaps. BB say that zoning restrictions are therefore needed to protect spared land, and note – rather spuriously – that land ‘marked as protected’ has increased in recent years. But if the wealth-generating and poverty-eradicating potential of the global capitalist economy championed by its advocates manifests, how will this play out long-term? Will the rising middle-class in poorer countries vote to forgo their coffee, fruit and golf in favour of nature reserves? Is that what the electorates in the rich countries have done? The alternative is a hard road that modern humanity may ultimately only travel out of necessity, but it’s one that I think we need to embark on, and it’s among the strongest arguments for local farming. People need to spread out across the landscape and, like other organisms, skim the flows that its ecological base can provide renewably. We need to learn how to do this by living it locally. For this and various other reasons, many ecologists argue that the sparing-sharing framework is a false dichotomy.

BB then turn to health issues, arguing against the view that the modern food system makes us sick on the grounds that we shouldn’t conflate processing with production: “It’s ultra-processed foods that are linked to obesity and cardiovascular disease, not the crops as such”. No doubt this is true, but it’s a fine distinction given that 70% of the world’s cropland is devoted to just nine crops, chosen largely because these are indeed the crops most amenable to ultra-processing.

Health-wise, BB also weigh in on Covid-19, arguing that “Enclosed, controlled systems with high levels of biosecurity minimize the risks of viral outbreaks. By contrast, on… small farms…the risk of novel species-jumping diseases is significantly greater.” I’ll leave until another time the complexities that make this a half-truth at best, pausing only to note that the world we live in isn’t some controlled experiment with two separate economies or worldviews – local/extensive and global/intensive – running side by side. Large farms and small farms in their present form are part of the same global political economy, with a singular risk profile that easily turns novel zoonoses into global human pandemics.

Finally, BB argue that “the declining cost of food associated with globalization and intensification has been an unmixed blessing for humanity” adding “the notion that cheapness is bad in and of itself reflects an elitist reflex that is offensive to the global majority … telling less well-off folks that they should just buy more expensive food is the policy equivalent of telling the sans-culottes to eat cake instead of bread.”

Indeed, that would be so … except that I can’t think of a single advocate for agrarian localism who actually does take the view that less well-off folks “should just buy more expensive food” (perhaps it’s no accident that the copious hyperlinks to supporting literature that pepper BB’s text dry up in this paragraph). Instead, we localistas emphasize the linkages in the global economy that enable it to furnish food at rock-bottom prices (achieved partly, it must be said, by relying on government subsidies and the poorly-paid labour of the numerous ‘less well-off folks’ who toil in the global food system), while simultaneously scouring economic rent from the global poor in the form of property prices, welfare charges, immigration policy, investment policy, labour policy and numerous other tactics.

Contrary to BB, I’d argue that declining food commodity prices in fact have been an extremely mixed blessing (indeed, more of an unmixed curse) to the global poor, by undercutting their capacities for local food autonomy and exposing them to the fluctuations of global commodity markets in which they have no comparative advantage at all. So, yes, food prices should be higher, but only as a necessary part of a wider rebalancing of land, labour, energy, capital, carbon and welfare that mitigates against the present extreme concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the global wealthy, and its destructive effects on the biosphere.

That, in a nutshell, is why I argue local farming can ‘save the planet’. But if you’re looking for more than a nutshell, the fully-referenced, feature-length version will be along soon.

What if we only ate food from local farms?

“We would die from starvation. It’s that simple.” Or so TV botanist James Wong recently tweeted in response to the title question, taken from a BBC feature. In this post I’m going to make the case that we wouldn’t, that it isn’t simple, and that in fact our chances of starving are probably higher – albeit in some quite unsimple ways – if we don’t start eating more food from local farms.

A good many of the comments under James’s tweet rehearsed various misconceptions about local food, so in a change to my intended programme I feel the need to put another side to the story in this post. If what I write here whets your appetite, so to speak, I cover these points in more detail in my forthcoming book, A Small Farm Future.

So…to answer the opening question, it’s necessary for some definitions – who is ‘we’, and what exactly does ‘local’ mean? Many of the commenters under James’s tweet took the question to mean ‘what if we, the inhabitants of Britain, only ate food that was grown in the country?’ which seems a reasonable starting point. If ‘we’, so defined, had to do this tomorrow, we’d probably struggle. But to me, the larger question is could we do it if we wanted to, given time to prepare?

Various commenters invoked the lessons of history in support of James’s assertion, correctly pointing out that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food for two centuries. But what this tells us is that self-reliance hasn’t been a priority of national food policy over that period, not that it’s impossible. This raises the interesting question of why that’s so and whether it might change in the future, points I’ll come to shortly. First, though, it’s worth asking whether Britain could conceivably feed itself if it so wished.

Under current conditions, the answer seems to me a pretty clear yes. In 2018, the UK grew 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 3.2 million tonnes of potatoes for human consumption on an area that amounted to about 31% of its arable land and 10% of its total farmland. Those two crops alone provide more than enough protein to meet the daily recommended amount for all of Britain’s 66.4 million people over a whole year, and about 85% of recommended calorific intake. It would be easy enough to meet the remaining 15% from crops on the rest of the farmland, or by expanding wheat and potato production a little.

We can make more stringent assumptions and still attain self-sufficiency. Suppose we grew wheat and potatoes organically without high-energy fertilizer inputs. If we assume rock-bottom-of-the-range organic wheat yields of 2.5 tonnes per hectare and organic potato yields of 20 tonnes per hectare (the corresponding figures for conventional crops currently are about 8 t/ha and 45 t/ha respectively) then we could meet the UK population’s total energy and protein needs even with these low yields on just 75% of the country’s current arable farmland area.

A diet comprising solely wheat and potatoes might sound grim, but bear in mind we’re feeding the entire population’s macronutrient needs from them on less than 20% of the country’s land area even assuming super-low yields. That gives a lot of space – all those pastures, orchards, gardens, allotments, city farms and all the rest of it – to lively up our diet with more variety. However hard it might be for us to shift to food self-reliance, the reason isn’t agricultural carrying capacity.

Commenters under James’s tweet raised various other objections to the possibility of British food self-reliance, but they mostly seemed to me exercises in whataboutery that missed their target. For example:

What about the war – Britain wasn’t even food self-reliant in the 1940s when the pressure was on and the incentive for it was sky-high. The main pressure that was on during the war was to win it. Improving national food self-reliance was an important but subsidiary goal to that overriding objective. With a vast amount of resource and labour devoted directly or indirectly to fighting, it’s hardly surprising that we failed to achieve food self-sufficiency.

What about the winter, when food is scarce? Seasons are pretty predictable, at least for now. So if you’re not importing food you can plan ahead. With modern refrigeration and other highfaluting, energy-intensive methods this is a doddle. Even without it, our forebears have bequeathed us numerous cunning techniques: canning, salting, smoking, clamping, drying, pickling and … remember Lent? … fasting. If all else fails, we can even grow Hungry Gap kale.

What about staples like oranges and coffee – we simply can’t grow them here. True. But they’re not staples. I’d sure miss coffee though. Next.

What about the Irish potato famine – national food self-reliance didn’t work out too well there! There’s a long answer to this, and a short answer. The short answer is that famines are rarely just about an absolute lack of food, and invariably involve questions of social entitlement – a view famously articulated by Amartya Sen in his book Poverty and Famines. When a famine strikes, look first at what’s going on socially and politically, not at the Malthusian equation of crop yields and mouths to feed.

OK, but what about major crop failures and poor seasons – you can’t always provide for your needs locally in the face of these fluctuations. Farming systems oriented to self-reliance build in resilience to crop failure, and most of them can survive a year or two of bad harvests pretty easily, except in situations like 1840s Ireland when people are forced into monocropping on tiny plots. But it’s true that markets for non-local food can sometimes be a boon in times of dearth. A couple of points to bear in mind here, though. First, money can buy you food, but only if you have money, so again we need to look at social entitlements. And second, if it’s not too obvious to say it, money doesn’t actually create food, so it’s unwise to assume that access to the former guarantees access to the latter. True, money can incentivize people to create food and sell it, but only under certain circumstances and in the face of various constraints. The more that we attend to securing our food needs locally under our own power, the less vulnerable we are to these circumstances and constraints outside our control.

oOo

Some further thoughts to close on these issues of food supply and money. Going back to the objection that Britain hasn’t been food self-reliant for two centuries, the missing piece in this puzzle is money. In the 19th century, Britain could buy grain more cheaply from abroad than it could produce it at home … and it had plenty of money, because all those people who weren’t farming were toiling in factories. But with transport and communications being what they were back then, we grew most of our own fruit and vegetables. Nowadays, the situation is reversed. We’re more or less self-sufficient in grain, but import a large proportion of our fruit and vegetables – essentially because grain is more fuel-intensive to grow whereas fruit and veg are more labour-intensive, and the relative prices of fuel and labour in Britain currently favour the former. Britain’s lack of food self-reliance over the last couple of centuries has a lot to do with price signals, and nothing much to do with ecological carrying capacity.

But things can change. Most countries are net importers of energy. Most of the world’s bread-basket regions are threatened by climate change and water scarcity. We need to stop using fossil fuels. While small, wealthy countries can at present pick and choose where to obtain their food on global markets, there is not – to paraphrase a former British prime minister – a magic global food surplus tree that will keep on providing for everybody so long as we water it with money. We’re so often enjoined nowadays not to romanticize the ability of peasant societies and local agricultures to achieve self-reliance. I think we’d be better off not romanticizing the ability of market trade to continue buying us out of food self-reliance. But if we do keep romanticizing global food trade, I think we’re far more likely to starve, sooner or later. This is for a number of reasons, including the fact that relying on a global food commodity system that responds to short-term price signals (driven mostly by cheap fossil fuel prices) and not long-term biophysical signals like a heating climate incentivizes practices that damage agroecosystems and earth systems. Meanwhile, cheap global food commodities already undermine local agricultures in places where people lack the economic opportunities to buy themselves out of hunger – more starvation.

So, if you’re rich enough to think about these things, I’d commend the opening question as a handy personal resilience health-checker. Are there farms and gardens within walking distance of where you live that can provide for all your food needs, and those of all the other local residents? More to the point if you’re not yourself a farmer or a grower, are there people within walking distance of where you live who are likely to be willing to provide for your food needs in future scenarios of energy, climate or economic turbulence? If not, perhaps you might start buying more from local farms in order to help stimulate the better local supply that you need, or even better become a local farmer yourself. Or move to where your answer to that question could conceivably be ‘yes’. It seems likely that in the coming decades a lot of people will be on the move, looking for places that can service their food needs in a climate-challenged and energy-constrained world. Might as well get going now…

Down the toilet…

Still mired as I am in book editing, I’m not finding the time to engage with this blog as I wish. Hopefully, that’ll change soon. But I feel the need to make a brief appearance here today to mark Britain’s exit from the European Union – and, not unconnectedly, to talk about toilets.

Moves have been afoot for a ‘Big Ben bong’ at midnight tonight to celebrate our ‘independence’ from the EU, with a crowdfunder to expedite the repair and refurbishment of the clock in time for the big moment. I always thought a bong was something for smoking intoxicating substances in cafés – which is kind of appropriate, because a lot of people probably won’t have much else to do but sit around and take their mind off things once Brexonomics bites. But the appeal didn’t raise enough money, and permission to ring the bell was refused by the Houses of Parliament anyway. Somehow I can’t help seeing this as an omen for Brexit: the icon of British sovereignty is broken and in need of repairs, not enough people care enough to pay for them, and in any case the repairs are stymied by bureaucratic nay-saying of the kind we were supposed to have overcome by leaving the EU.

This is always the way with nationalism. The unities and resolutions it asserts never quite work, because the underlying story is always more complicated. Fintan O’Toole – whose acerbic Brexit commentaries have consistently hit the nail on the head for me – puts it like this:

“There is no doubt that Brexit has worked in the way that nationalist movements try to – it has united people across great divides of social class and geography in the name of a transcendent identity …. But the problem is that this unity of national purpose functions within a nation that does not actually exist: non-metropolitan England and parts of English-speaking Wales. And it is purchased at the very high price of creating much deeper divisions between England-without-London and the rest of the British-Irish archipelago.”

The opportunity in this is that it could ultimately weaken Westminster’s grip on the country – most strongly at first in Scotland and Ireland, but eventually in England and Wales too. Once the scent of secession is in the nostrils, there’s no telling where it might end – possibly in those parts of pro-Brexit, non-metropolitan England having to take full responsibility for their own wellbeing. I’m not sure that’s what they were voting for, but in the long run it may well be what people are going to have to do across the world in the face of our numerous economic and environmental problems. So … Brexit … hell yeah, why not? Let’s start practicing. The Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, here we come.

Actually, I don’t think Brexit is a secession so much as what I’ve called elsewhere a supersedure. Britain has left ‘Europe’ but is still part of it, just as the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex would still be part of a larger polity. So, much as I’d have preferred to avoid the numerous absurdities of Brexit, I think it’ll prove an interesting experiment in what’s to come. Not least because the EU has long been an exclusive club to which other countries have desperately sought entry. I think we’re about to find out why.

What’s to come agriculturally looks like the ending of per acre subsidies for landowners, with public money paid only for delivering ‘ecosystem services’. Which is great, except that since there’s no commitment to national food self-reliance, we’re also set for agricultural trade deals on probably disadvantageous terms – certainly for the average farmer. Expect more farm closures, lots of nature-friendly rewilding at home, and cheap, nature-unfriendly food from abroad … while we can still pay for it.

Still, who cares? We’re sitting pretty on our farm. The outlook for UK veg growers is good, we’re not reliant on subsidies, and we’ve already made considerable strides towards supersedure. For example, our compost toilets save us from wasting water or fertility that we can furnish ourselves, ultimately saving us money that we probably soon won’t have as the rest of the world carves up lonely and vulnerable little Britain. It started with voting for Brexit. It’ll end with townsfolk spreading over the countryside and carefully composting their shit. Welcome to my world. Well, there are worse ways to live. At least when I look down the toilet I know that, however feeble my other accomplishments, I’ve made some kind of solid contribution.

But never let it be said that here at Vallis Veg we hoard our riches at the expense of others. The wisdom of our accumulated compost toilet experience is now available to you in our online course, where you’ll be safe in the hands of our resident toilet expert, my dear wife Cordelia. It’s her show and not mine, but if you look very closely you may just catch a glimpse of some of my dodgy plumbing. The good news is, you get the first seven minutes – in which Cordelia explains how to supersede yourself just a little bit from the capitalist system – absolutely free. And the rest for a mere £45 …which I guarantee we won’t spend on bongs, of any description.

Comparative disadvantage

When I make the case for greater local self-reliance in agriculture I quite often come across the counter-argument that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food since the early 19th century. This is true, but what’s not so often noted is that we’re now not self-sufficient in different kinds of foods to those we weren’t self-sufficient in 200-odd years ago. Back then we were self-sufficient in most things except for staple grains, whereas now we’re mostly self-sufficient in staple grains while we’re not self-sufficient in most other things, our greatest food-trade deficit being fresh fruit and vegetables.

The reasons for this switch aren’t hard to find. As a result of crop-breeding, mechanisation, the development of artificial fertilisers and other agro-chemicals, along with the EU’s productivist aims and subsidy regimens, cereal productivity nationally, and per hectare or per hour of human labour, is now much greater than it was in the early 1800s. So despite a six-fold population increase since then, we’ve become pretty much self-reliant in cereal grains – though it’s a fragile self-reliance, based to a considerable degree on imported fossil fuels. But the cost of labour and the opportunity-cost of agricultural land is now also much greater, while the relative cost of energy is much lower – all of which mean it’s cheaper to import bulky, labour-intensive products like fruit and vegetables than to produce them domestically as we did a couple of centuries ago.

Wait, scroll back. Did somebody mention the EU? Britain voted to leave that creaking old juggernaut years ago and then struck out boldly on its own, right? The answer to that is yes and no, my friend, yes and no. Yes, we did narrowly vote to leave the EU more than two years ago, but no we haven’t left yet. Instead, we’ve had two years of epic fudging, as the government has tried and largely failed to work out how to leave the EU without tanking the economy, while simultaneously dealing with vast amounts of other fallout, such as the Irish border question. Perhaps I’ll write another post soon that runs the rule over this monumental waste of political energy, but here I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the aforementioned fallout, namely post-Brexit agricultural policy.

The government’s consultation paper Health and Harmony: the Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit set out its post CAP policy thinking, receiving a response from me and, apparently, about 43,999 other people and organisations. I don’t think I was the only one to notice that there was precious little about food or farming in the paper. The government seems to be planning some kind of environmental payments scheme to farmers on a ‘public money for public goods’ basis, but the notorious single farm payment subsidy regimen is soon to be history, with nothing to replace it. This was predicted long ago on this website – not that it was a hard prediction to make.

Well, the SFP was a bad scheme, and it won’t be mourned by many. Though much as folks like to bang on about the way it enriched people who didn’t need enriching and turned farmers into subsidy-junkies, the truth is the real junkies were retailers and consumers grown reliant on rock-bottom farm-gate prices. I won’t further plumb that particular line here, but it’s worth noting the implications of the SFP’s demise. There’s to be no emphasis on national food production or security, instead just a thoroughly neoliberal commitment to making British agriculture globally competitive. Which it probably won’t be across almost all dimensions of food production, with the possible exceptions of things like whisky and smoked salmon. My guess is that in the short-term we’ll see farmers getting out of farming and becoming landscape managers, while retailers and consumers continue getting their cheap food fix by importing more from abroad, regardless of the longer-term consequences – something like the ‘bad rewilding’ scenario I outlined some time ago. Farms will prioritise chasing money for wildlife management and visitor attractions, while we export the responsibility for producing our food to other countries willing to sell on global markets (and possibly less anxious to protect what remains of their own wildlife).

Nothing wrong with all that, according to mainstream economic theory. If each country focuses on what it’s best at producing and imports what other countries are best at producing, then everyone gains – this was all explained long ago by David Ricardo in the theory of ‘comparative advantage’ set out in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817).

Comparative advantage is still routinely invoked as a justification for free trade today, so it remains sadly necessary to explain why it’s a poor foundation for contemporary economies. If investors who are unable to freely put up their capital outside their own country – which was generally the case when Ricardo was writing – wanted to obtain the best possible financial returns, then it made sense for them to invest in their local or national industries with the greatest comparative advantage. But since Ricardo’s day, the entire drift of global financial policy has been to remove the trade barriers that pushed investors to seek comparative advantage, and also to virtualise the economy away from the production of physical things and towards the increase of money itself. So while an English capital-holder today may be better advised to invest in cloth than wine (Ricardo’s original examples) if they want a high return on investment they’re almost certainly even better advised to invest in derivatives on Wall Street. This replacement of comparative advantage by absolute advantage fundamentally changes the economic game in ways that quaint Ricardian theories of international trade are powerless to model.

Meanwhile, national and local governments have numerous responsibilities. Trying to maximise fiscal flows and foreign exchange earnings are certainly among them, but there are many others – the health and wellbeing of the populace, the resilience of infrastructures (including soil health and food security) and so on. Global policymakers nowadays seem to be gripped by a huge Hayekian delusion that all of these things are best secured by hawking them on global commodity markets. Even so, most wealthy countries take steps to protect their agricultures and ensure that their farmland remains productively farmed. You can certainly criticise the way they go about it – as in the EU’s common agricultural policy – on numerous grounds, but the basic motivation behind it seems sound. It’s unusual, and I think ill-advised, for a country to cast out its agriculture as Health and Harmony does in favour of the religious mantra that ‘the market will provide’.

Eighteen months ago I was pilloried on here by a couple of commenters for supporting continued British membership of the EU on the grounds that the latter is committed to neoliberalism. But it seemed obvious then, and it seems even more obvious now, that aside from a few misty-eyed nationalists the main impetus for Brexit within the Conservative Party came from people dissatisfied with the EU because it wasn’t neoliberal enough. The Health and Harmony paper seems confirmatory of this point. A case could have been made for a ‘progressive’ Brexit, but it would be stretching a point to say that that case has even been a marginal part of Brexit politics. In this sense, though I don’t like to use the term, people who supported Brexit for its progressive possibilities strike me as essentially useful idiots for neoliberalism. Though it’s possible, if fortune smiles on them, that they may yet have the last laugh.

In the short term, though, Britain is putting itself at a comparative disadvantage in pursuit of ‘competitiveness’ in the global agrarian economy. It’s worth bearing in mind that agriculture currently contributes less than 1% of Britain’s gross value added economic output, and under any realistic medium-term economic scenario it’s hard to see that increasing in any major way. But Britain could more or less feed itself from its existing agriculture if the government chose to make that a priority. To me, that seems a much wiser option than trying to wring another few million quid from a more ‘competitive’ agriculture.

Meanwhile, another aspect of Ricardo’s economics is looming ever larger. Ricardo supported international free trade because he perceived that in a protected capitalist market landowners would be able to extract economic rent – an excess return over production costs – as a result of increasing food demand. Essentially, he construed a scenario in which labourers did honest work to earn their wage and capitalists did honest work to earn their profit, while landlords pocketed an increasing share of the economic surplus thus generated without lifting a finger.

This dynamic of Ricardian rent has largely been in abeyance for many years in the rich countries. Food prices have been low and rural landownership has rarely been a royal road to wealth. But as industry and economic growth stalls and inequalities widen, the prospect of the economy falling into the grip of landlordism grows. If we extend the logic beyond agricultural land per se, it’s already happened. It’s already happened from a poor country perspective in terms of the extraction of Ricardian rent by rich countries in controlling access to the global economy (this is one reason to welcome exit from the protectionism of EU agricultural policy – but Britain unilaterally falling on its sword in this way probably won’t benefit poor people globally a great deal). And it’s already happened from a rich country perspective in the substantial exit of businesses from matters of production in favour of battling to control the means of circulation – intellectual property rights, branding and so forth. The emergence of a rentier capitalism which has no interest in putting capital to work in service of material improvement (always a minor theme at best in earlier capitalist iterations in any case) has a thoroughly Ricardian resonance.

The way I see this panning out is a period of tricky trade wheeler-dealing that won’t be more economically beneficial to Britain than EU membership was, but may inaugurate a brief honeymoon of cheap, low-quality imported food and possibly improved wildlife habitats at home (we’ll conveniently ignore the consequences for ghost acres abroad). Then as climate change begins to bite in the global breadbasket countries and calculated self-interest looms larger in the global political economy, I think we’ll be in for a major food crisis where it’ll suddenly seem like a good idea for the government to be supporting the local production of food, and where large landowners in possession of lightly-farmed estates may start to feel some class-aligned political heat.

At that point, the government will start casting desperately around for solutions to the self-inflicted problem of its Ricardian nightmare. Luckily, Small Farm Future will be here for it, shining a guiding light that will help it overcome the Ricardian perils of our age with this simple two point plan:

  1. A new protectionist economics, focused around local production for local use. This protectionism won’t be of the tit-for-tat, ‘my country first’ kind being reinvigorated by idiotic politicians like Donald Trump. It will take the form of an internationally agreed, convivial kind of protectionism in which collective strength is gained from individual difference.
  2. A new anti-landlordism economics. But not in the traditional socialist or capitalist manner of alienating people from the fruits of their own work on the land, because the benefits of this ‘globalising’ move will no longer be paying out. In this situation, the most obvious form of anti-landlordism is of the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em variety, in which more or less everyone becomes their own landlord.

The result of this protectionist, anti-landlord economics would look a lot like the small farm future I’ve long promulgated on this blog. What a funny coincidence. Undoubtedly, figuring out how to deliver this future from the unpromising present is a major conundrum. Happily, here at Small Farm Future we have all the answers – and we’ll start revealing them soon. But not just yet. First I have to go and pinch out my tomatoes.

Talkin’ bout a revolution: a response to the Breakthrough Institute

The Breakthrough Institute have published a response to my critical commentary on a recent post of theirs. Here I continue the debate, because I think it might clarify some worthwhile issues. I’d like to thank Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Kenton De Kirby (henceforth B&D) for engaging constructively with me – a welcome improvement on what’s come my way from some previous Breakthrough folk.

Broadly, the issue between us is our different visions of agrarian, and therefore human, futures. I stress more people working on more small farms and a degree of deurbanisation, they stress increases in farm scale, a continued agrarian-urban transition out of agriculture and an emphasis on yield increase. On some points, I’d suggest our differences are not as great as B&D suppose: for example, I’m not necessarily for small farms and against yield increases or the use of synthetic fertiliser in all eventualities. But we’ll come to that.

I’m going to structure my response under three headings: change, ‘development’ and wealth.

Change

B&D suggest that my vision involves revolutionary change that would have to reverse robust global trends, and therefore isn’t feasible. My first response to that is to ask what makes a trend ‘robust’ and irreversible. Suppose, for example, that global trade rulings force countries with large populations of poor farmers to open their markets to rich-country agricultural commodities and to abandon food price controls and social welfare provision. We’d surely expect life to get tougher for the poor farmers and for them to seek other sources of income in place of or in addition to their dwindling farm income. Well, that’s pretty much what’s happened over recent decades. You could say that it’s a ‘robust trend’. But it’s a robust trend that’s resulted from policy decisions – and other policy decisions are possible.

There are other trends much more robust than the ones I’m lobbying to reverse that attract less fatalism than B&D apply to agrarian transitions. For example, the sexual harassment of women by men has a long historical pedigree, but nobody seems to be arguing against the #MeToo movement on the grounds that predatory male sexuality is a ‘robust trend’. To invoke a trend as an argument against a policy proposal risks turning an ‘is’ into an ‘ought’. Doubtless it could be argued that #MeToo has a greater chance of reversing male sexual aggression than a neo-peasant movement has of reversing current global agrarian and economic trends. It would be interesting to see such an argument laid out, because I think it could be quite revealing of where the obstacles lie. Meanwhile, I’d say ‘low chance of success’ is not the same as ‘bad idea’.

I want to push further at that last point. The word ‘revolutionary’ has numerous connotations, not all of which I embrace, but I’m happy to accept that my stance involves a commitment to ‘revolutionary’ change in some sense of the term. Our present epoch is revolutionary through and through, so I’m not sure describing a proposed change as ‘revolutionary’ really counts against it. Proponents of mainstream agriculture happily talk about the ‘green revolution’, while other analysts describe the early 20th century mechanisation of farming in the wealthy countries as ‘the second agricultural revolution of modern times’1. The 20th century was garlanded with political revolutions, many of them with small-scale farmers at their heart. But the capitalist global economy has been the most revolutionary force of all. It’s constantly made and remade the world with a success that I think stems less from the over-emphasised fact that it’s what everyone wants, as B&D imply, than from the fact that its unparalleled powers of wealth creation have been locked in by mutually-dependent political and business elites, with limited payback to the majority of the world’s people.

The truth is that any plausible vision for a prosperous and sustainable future from here on will have to be revolutionary. For example, let’s review the implications of B&D’s solid trend towards agricultural transition and their business-as-usual approach to the global economy in its present form. Assuming current global economic growth of 2.5% per annum (and anything less over a prolonged period would surely imply economic crisis within current economic parameters), in fifty years’ time the global economy will have to be producing additional economic activity well over double the entire present global output. It will have to do so after reducing fossil energy use pretty much to zero (currently about 80% of global energy use is fossil fuel based) in order to stave off drastic climate change. And if it’s going to deliver increased prosperity for the half of the humanity who currently live off about US$5 a day or less, it’ll have to do a vastly better redistributive job than it’s done over the last 20 years, when the lowest-earning half of the world’s people only received around 10% of the income increase over the period2. That all sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

‘Development’ and the global peasant-family farm

B&D impute to me the belief that small-scale farming has great inherent value, but that’s not really true. I don’t, for the most part, argue for small-scale farming as a valuable end in itself. I argue for it largely because it seems to me the most feasible way of delivering sustainable prosperity (or ‘development’) to the world’s people in the future. In saying that, I agree with B&D that my vision is very revolutionary and not very feasible. However, I think it’s less revolutionary and more feasible than theirs.

The idea of a future based on peasant farming may seem far-fetched, but I want to offer a brief sketch to suggest why it could be less far-fetched than it may seem at first. Consider two farms. One comprises an acre or so, and is farmed by a poor family in a poor country who use it to grow mostly subsistence crops. The other comprises several hundred acres, and is farmed by a family who are not poor by global standards and who live in a rich country, using numerous high-tech inputs like tractors to grow mostly commodity crops. The two farms look very different. The first might be described as a ‘peasant’ farm, whereas the second most likely wouldn’t be. But they both have the same ‘peasant-like’ structure vis-à-vis the wider economy. They both use mostly family labour, which is rewarded not by an hourly wage but by a share of the farm’s output. And they both involve capital investments (buildings, land, livestock, equipment and human knowledge) which isn’t valued in terms of the opportunity cost of the returns to its annual investment, but in terms of its contribution to the long-term productivity of the farm, including its potential productivity after the death of its present incumbents and on into the future incumbency of their descendants.

Contrast that with the simpler economics of a fully capitalist farm. Labour and capital are just costs on the debit side of the equation. Profit is realised output less costs, year by year. If costs exceed profit, or even if they don’t but the difference imposes sufficient opportunity costs to capital investment then the farm soon closes and the released capital is invested elsewhere. That’s not the case with the peasant or the family farm in the same situation. Its circumstances are dire, but it’s not looking to maximise returns on immediate investment, so the chances are it’ll survive.

At root, I think it will prove more feasible to create a prosperous and sustainable future by adopting policies that make life easier for existing peasant and family farmers of this sort than by adopting policies that make life harder for them, and easier for capitalist farmers. This is for numerous reasons that I won’t go into here – though I have done over the years on this blog, and am happy to discuss in more detail should anyone wish…some of the reasons in any case are probably quite obvious just from my brief description. In broadest outline, I think an agrarian future based on support for these kinds of farms will take a lot of damaging hot capital out of the global economy, do a better job of reproducing the biophysical means for continued human flourishing and do a better job, too, of spreading fairly such prosperity as can be sustainably created. However, supporting both such kinds of farms would involve ensuring that the second type doesn’t undermine the first.

Commenting on my ideas, B&D state that “with less international agricultural trade, countries would have to either convert more land to farming to make up for the drop in food, or people would have to deal with higher prices, change their food consumption, or go hungry more often.” That may be so if all I was suggesting was limiting international food trade alone, but I’m arguing for something rather more ‘revolutionary’ than that – broadly, for an agrarian economy that widens opportunities to take up small-scale farming and narrows opportunities to gain economic rent from land.

Wealth and the transition out of agriculture

The revolution that B&D prefer is another iteration of the one that today’s rich countries passed through, which they summarise as follows:

“Historically, the agrarian transition of people moving from rural farming communities to urban centers has greatly improved people’s lives. As urbanization occurs, incomes rise, access to healthcare increases, and population growth slows, among other beneficial changes in social outcomes.”

All that has been true – well, kind of eventually true – for the citizens of some countries, albeit usually at the expense of people elsewhere. But I think there’s a failure of imagination here to suppose that what worked for, say, Britain in the 19th century will inevitably work for, say, Niger in the 21st…and also to suppose that such transitions mark a once and for all arrival at prosperity. Prosperity increase is not exactly a zero-sum game, but it more closely approximates to it in a world dedicated to maximising net present value through frictionless financial movement. The idea that, in such a world, Niger will achieve prosperity by urbanising like Britain did 200 years ago neglects the pyramid-scheme resemblances of the present global economy: the benefits of agrarian transition accrue largely to those who undertake it first. Or perhaps, over time, to those who undertake it best. So to my mind, on that note the lesson of China’s current transition (one that was achieved in some measure by investing in peasant agriculture) is not that other parts of the world should try to follow its example, but that they should try to build as much economic resilience as possible out of local resources.

Contrary to B&D’s global agrarian transition, then, I’d argue that putting one’s trust in an economic model explicitly geared to maximising short-run fiscal returns on investment, with other benefits essentially epiphenomenal, is a very high risk way of seeking to improve people’s lives globally today. And not a very effective one either: relative to the generation of wealth, it hasn’t so far been conspicuously successful at distributing it.

B&D imply that people inherently prefer urban over rural life, and that various other aspects of the global farmscape result from the free exercise of choice. I’d suggest instead that people inherently prefer prosperity, and will seek it where they can find it – and that the shape of the global farmscape results mostly from the free exercise of choice by the rich, not by the poor. Whatever the case, despite all the pressures to shed labour from agriculture there are still more than 1.2 billion farmers in the world at a minimum estimate – over 16% of the global population. Supporting their desire for prosperity while keeping them in farming seems to me a wiser overall strategy than willing them into cities and assuming that short-run capital intensive farming will more successfully fill the vacuum they leave.

A couple of final points on yield. Within the parameters of the non-capitalist family farm (whether rich or poor) described above, in some circumstances it may be an excellent idea to increase per hectare yields through any number of different means, and I have no particular problem with that. I do have a problem, though, with the idea that improving per hectare yields is a fundamental desideratum for agriculture globally, regardless of any other considerations. And on the matter of yield improvement, I mentioned above the ‘second agricultural revolution of modern times’. The first one occurred in the 18th century in countries like Britain, arguably as much or more through the spread of ideas about better ways to farm than through increased energy or other high-tech inputs – what today we might call an ‘agroecological revolution’. It may be wise to devote more thought to innovations of that sort than to the idea that greater yields only arise as increased returns to land input by means of other costly inputs. I’m all for breakthroughs, but we often have too impoverished a notion of what technological ‘breakthroughs’ look like, let alone breakthroughs in a more general sense.

Notes

  1. M. Mazoyer and L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  2. B. Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality. Harvard UP.

Nitrogen wars

In a change to my published programme, I thought I’d engage with a couple of posts on nitrogen recently emerging from the Breakthrough Institute. In fact the issue is quite relevant to my last post, and to the next scheduled one. For more on the regenerative agriculture issue I’ve recently discussed, I’m following the debate over Andy McGuire’s recent blog post with interest. Meanwhile, for more on ecomodernism of the Breakthrough Institute variety, Aaron Vansintjan has just published this nice little critique. Doubtless we’ll take a spin around both these issues here at SFF again in the future.

Anyway, having directed some scepticism of late towards various aspects of the alternative farming movement that I consider myself to be a part of, perhaps it’s time I twisted the other way.  So here I want to take a critical look at the Breakthrough Institute’s line on the necessity of synthetic nitrogen in world agriculture, which is laid out in its agronomic aspects in this post by Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Linus Blomqvist (henceforth B&B), and in its historical aspects in this one by Marc Brazeau.

To begin, let me say that I’m not implacably opposed to the use of synthetic fertiliser in every situation, and I don’t think that a 100% organic agriculture globally is necessarily desirable or perhaps currently feasible. However, I think the narrative presented in the two BI posts is misleading. As is often the case, the sticking points lie not so much in what the posts say as in what they don’t say. I know Christmas is a long way off, but I’m going to lay this out in terms of the ghost of nitrogen past, the ghost of nitrogen present and the ghost of nitrogen future.

The ghost of nitrogen past

Marc Brazeau’s piece reminds us that, prior to the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis at the start of the 20th century, countries went to war to secure nitrogen for their farmers. He focuses on the international conflicts of the 19th century over the guano islands off South America, with their vast concentrations of richly nitrogenous seabird faeces.

It’s a nice piece in its own terms, but there’s a bigger historical story it omits. Brazeau broaches it, but doesn’t develop it, in this passage,

“The full lower 48 [US states, in the 1850s] was available for cultivation, and yet soil fertility was already a challenge. US agriculture is currently tasked with feeding 325 million citizens while exporting $150 billion worth of food. But in the 1850s, with just 25 million citizens to feed and hundreds of millions of acres of some of the most fertile soil in the world, on farms where manure-producing cattle, hogs, and poultry were well-integrated with crop production, US presidents were promising to get tough on guano prices and US business interests were verging on war in the Caribbean over fertilizer.”

For their part, B&B note that:

“During the 19th century, the populations of the United States and Europe were growing at an unprecedented pace — the U.S. population increased tenfold and Britain’s more than tripled…To raise farm productivity, these imperial powers started to import nitrogen-rich guano.”

What’s going on here? Well, the key surely lies in B&B’s phrase “these imperial powers” and in the spectacular US population increase, which wasn’t just a baby boom. In 1803, after defeat in Haiti, Napoleon gave up on his ambitions for an American empire and sold a fair old whack of that lower 48 to the US (another large tranche was subtracted from Mexico in 1848). The US spent much of the succeeding century progressively divesting the original inhabitants of their access to it and during that process, multitudes of European-origin settlers moved in – witting or unwitting foot soldiers of their government’s imperial ambitions. As historian Geoff Cunfer puts it, these pioneers “may have devoted most of their land, time, and energy to subsistence activities out of necessity” but they were “aggressively committed to…commercial cash-crop agriculture as fully and as soon as possible”1, because of their intimate connection to the global imperial nexus via their own government’s global ambitions.

Meanwhile in Europe, after Napoleon’s defeat Britain emerged as the dominant imperial and industrial power of the 19th century. With the abolition of its Corn Laws in 1846, cheap grain from North America (and, increasingly, other places with continental grasslands whose original inhabitants were also violently displaced in favour of export-oriented grain agriculture such as Australia and Central Asia) started flooding into industrialising Britain. The British agricultural workforce dwindled, and the British farmers who managed to survive the resulting agricultural crisis started favouring higher value, non-staple crops2.

All of which is to suggest that the search for cheap nitrogen in countries like Germany, the USA and Britain from the 19th century wasn’t just some inherent truth about the nature of farming and population increase, as the casual reader might surmise from the BI posts. Rather, it was the product of aggressively expansionist imperial-industrial ambitions, fuelled by fears among industrialising powers that lack of food autonomy made them vulnerable to enemies. If that point needs underscoring, perhaps Haber’s other main claim to chemical fame as the overseer of Germany’s successful chemical weapons programme during World War I might help to dramatize it.

Brazeau implicitly accepts this imperialist-expansionist aspect to the politics of agricultural nitrogen, but turns it into a world-historical truism:

“the Roman Empire was largely defined by imperial expansion, in search of fresh sources of nitrogen. They found it in the form of soil which had not yet been exhausted. The whole Mediterranean basin became tasked with feeding the city-state at the heart of the empire. All this is to say that this is not an industrial agriculture problem; clearly, it’s been a central obstacle of civilization for thousands of years. If the problem of nitrogen scarcity could be solved by cover crops and manure, it would have been solved long ago.”

But I think the direction of causality is wrong here, and so is the conclusion. Imperial expansionism sometimes involves a search for cheaper farm inputs, but the search for cheaper farm inputs is not usually the cause of imperial expansionism. And for a long time, in many parts of the world whose polities were not expanding aggressively, the problem of nitrogen scarcity was solved perfectly well by cover crops and manure.

The ghost of nitrogen present

But that was then and this is now. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, the fact is there are now 7.6 billion of us living on an ecologically fragile planet who somehow need to eat. The case set out by B&B in favour of synthetic fertiliser and against organic methods is, as they confess, the well-worn one that the lower average yields and higher average land-take of organic farming militates against it as a sustainable solution for contemporary food production.

Again, what strikes me about this argument is the things that aren’t said – four things in particular.

Thing #1. The idea that, as much as possible, we should aim to use less rather than more land for human crops surely commands wide agreement. So suppose you come to the issue afresh and take a look at global agricultural land use. You’d find that by far the largest proportion of the food that people eat is grown on arable land, which constitutes 29% of all agricultural land globally. You’d also find that about a third of this arable land was used to grow livestock fodder. You’d find that a small proportion of food comes from permanent crops, occupying 3% of all agricultural land. You’d find that the remaining 67% of farmland comprises permanent grassland, which produces a very small proportion of the food eaten globally in the form of meat – possibly no more than about 4%3. And you’d find that just over 1% of all this agricultural area was devoted to (formally) organic farming. If you did this, I think you’d probably conclude that the easiest way to reduce the global agricultural land take would be to reduce the amount of permanent pasture, followed by the amount of arable cropland devoted to livestock fodder, in view of the trophic inefficiencies involved. You might also wonder why B&B don’t mention this at all, and why they’re so exercised about the putative inefficiencies of the minuscule organic farming sector rather than the inefficiencies of the enormous livestock sector4.

Thing #2: Another idea that seems to command wide agreement is that it’s good to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ with nitrogen fertiliser, as with many other things. Fertiliser has major upstream (energy) costs and downstream (pollution) costs, so using as little as possible surely makes sense. In their post, B&B go through various options for improving crop fertilisation through such things as better management of cover crops, manure and food waste. They don’t give an overall figure for how much synthetic fertiliser could be saved, but totting up their numbers it looks to me like it might be as much as 80% – though maybe I’ve got that wrong. Even if it’s much less, that’s surely a good place to start for improving agricultural efficiency, rather than targeting organic farming. If the answer to the question ‘how much land should we use for agriculture?’ is ‘as little as possible’, the answer to the question ‘how much organic farming should there be?’ is surely ‘as much as possible’. We live in a world of awkward trade-offs.

Thing #3: labour is a missing variable in the BI posts, but it’s lurking in their shadows. B&B state that traditionally farmers reserved between 25-50% of their land for (not directly edible) N-fixing legumes. These figures seem to trace back to Vaclav Smil’s fascinating book Enriching the Earth5. Smil states therein that traditional Chinese agriculture never devoted more than 10% of cropland to green manures, while in parts of England the corresponding figure was 13% up to 1740 and 27% by 1836. In his definitive contemporary guide to organic farming Nicholas Lampkin argues for a minimum ley of 35%6. What accounts for this apparent historical decrease in the efficiency of organic fertilisation? Probably a number of things (including yield increase), but I suspect one of them is declining labour availability and increasing mechanisation. In contexts of low food insecurity, low labour availability and high mechanisation, it’s just easier for organic farmers to build fertility with long leys. But there are other options – as in labour-intensive Chinese or historical European agriculture, with their finer-combed local recycling of nutrients. Personally, I think more labour-intensive and local agricultures are the right way for agriculture to develop. I accept that other people may disagree. I don’t accept that current levels or trends in agricultural labour inputs should be assumed to be inherently the right ones.

Thing #4:  B&B write, “organic farms typically have 20% lower yields than conventional farms, requiring more land to produce a given amount of food. This means less land for wildlife habitats or other purposes”. But hold on – that’s only true if you assume that farms themselves aren’t wildlife habitats, that wildlife is indifferent to the habitats afforded by organic and conventional farms, that the possibilities for wildlife to move between habitats across farmland is unaffected by farming styles, that increased production or per hectare yields is always desirable, that ‘other purposes’ are more important than organic farming…and many other things besides. All of these points are at least debatable. I keep going back to this excellent brief critique of the so-called ‘land sparing’ argument by ecologist Joern Fischer, which to my mind effectively skewers the misplaced certainties of B&B’s one liner. As Fischer’s analysis suggests, while producing as much crop as possible from as small an area as possible using synthetic fertiliser certainly can be an appropriate goal in some situations, it’s an oversimplification to imply that the greater land-take of organic farming inherently limits its claims to environmental benefit7.

The ghost of nitrogen future

What would a future world that dispensed with synthetic fertiliser look like? Scarily profligate, according to B&B. They write: “Since synthetic fertilizer provides nearly 60% of current nitrogen for producing crops, eliminating it without making any other changes would require far more farmland to fix enough nitrogen to maintain production….The world would need to more than double the amount of cropland.”

The italicisation is B&B’s, not mine. Note its nervousness. Isn’t it a little bizarre to assume there would be an international drive so radical as to make global agriculture entirely organic but without making any other changes? In truth, ‘without making any other changes’ seems to be the leitmotif of the Breakthrough Institute’s entire programme, which amounts to the view that people in rich countries can carry on living as they do, people in poor countries will soon be able to live in the same way, and with a bit of high-tech magic it can all be achieved while lessening humanity’s overall environmental impact.

Well, it’s a view – a fanciful one in my opinion, and not one that I’d like to see manifested even if it were possible. But I’d note that it is just a view – one of many different visions about what a good life and a good future might entail. Trying to realise it is a choice that’s open to us. Other choices are also available. What I dislike about the BI posts is the way they implicitly lead the reader to conclude that a synthetic nitrogen future is inevitable and scientifically foreordained, rather than a choice we can make – one with consequences for better and worse, as with all choices.

The alternatives? Well, if we want to talk about inefficient agricultures, the vastly inefficient production of meat (disproportionately consumed by the world’s richer people) is an obvious place to start. I’m not a vegan and I think there’s a place for livestock on the farm and a place for permanent pasture in global landscapes – indeed, I’ve argued the case for it strongly in the past. But the scale of the global livestock industry doesn’t have to be taken as a given. As Fischer suggests, it isn’t incumbent upon humanity to meet every economic demand that arises. After all, the UN has a special rapporteur on the human right to food – it doesn’t have one on the human right to meat. Of course, it’s not fair that only the rich should get easy access to meat. There are various ways to proceed from that point: maintaining or increasing meat production levels is only one of them.

Smaller-scale, more labour-intensive agricultures geared to better nutrient cycling would be another alternative starting place. I won’t rehearse all the arguments here about depeasantisation, urbanisation and livelihoods, not to mention carbon and energy futures, but a large commercial farm that uses synthetic nitrogen and other relatively expensive inputs isn’t intrinsically better than a smallholding that doesn’t. I think it’s time we laid aside the expansionary and ultimately imperialist mindset that insists otherwise, and settled down a bit. If the US reined in some of that $150 billionsworth of food exports that Brazeau mentions (which it’s ‘tasked’ with only really through its own self-interested economic agenda), less input-intensive and more labour-intensive agricultural approaches may become a little more feasible again worldwide, and could bring many benefits. Moving towards less aggressively expansionist economic ideologies in general certainly seems worth pondering as a route for humanity’s future. You might take a different view – but it would be good if we could at least agree that we’re talking about different views, not the inescapable truths that the BI posts seem to suggest.

Just to crank a few numbers of my own around these issues, I looked at FAO data on current global production of barley, cassava, maize, millet, plantains, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soybeans, sugar, sweet potato, taro, wheat and yams (my calculations are here if anyone would like to probe or critique them). This list probably encompasses most of the world’s major energy-rich crops (oil crops excepted), but scarcely even begins to capture total agricultural productivity. Totting up the total calories produced from them and then dividing that figure by the total calories needed by a 7.6 billion strong humanity at 2250 kcal per day, I find there’s a 43% surfeit over human calorific need from those crops alone. If we then correct the production figure downwards by the 20% that B&B say is the typical organic yield penalty, include a generous 35% organic ley and make a few adjustments for existing organic production and livestock products from the ley, we find that organic production can probably meet around 90% of total human calorific needs just from those 14 crops at existing levels of land-take. That’s just a ballpark, back-of-envelope calculation, but it suggests to me that this ‘organic agriculture can’t feed the world’ trope is a bit overblown. I’m not too bothered about whether it can or not – but I think we’d be better off debating the subjective content of our visions rather than writing them in ways that seek to buttress their historical inevitability or objective truth.

 Notes

 1. Cunfer, Geoff. 2005. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, p.99.

2. Thirsk, Joan. 1997. Alternative Agriculture: A History. Oxford UP.

3. A ballpark figure I’ve come up with from FAO data, based on all the cattle, sheep, goat and horse meat produced globally (so possibly an overestimate?)

4. Data in this paragraph from http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QL; http://orgprints.org/32677/19/Willer-2018-global-data-biofach.pdf; http://www.fao.org/animal-production/en/

5. Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

6. Lampkin, Nicholas. 1990. Organic Farming. Farming Press, p.150.

7. Actually, Blomqvist has written a longer piece on this specific issue here, which is quite interesting – but not to my mind ultimately convincing that the ‘land sparing’ concept is robust to the kind of criticisms levelled by Fischer.

In praise of stupid: for a self-systemic farming

I’ve been blogging for over six years under this ‘Small Farm Future’ moniker, without devoting much effort to defining what a ‘small farm’ actually is. So I thought I’d try to make at least some minor amends on that score in this post. Strangely, I think the results bear on recent discussions here, including the one under my last post on regenerative agriculture.

The standard response to the question ‘how small is a small farm?’ is the same as the standard response to most questions – it depends. A small peri-urban market garden may be a fraction of an acre, whereas a small upland livestock operation may be hundreds or even thousands of acres. So a quantitative definition in terms of land area doesn’t get us far. The same of course holds true for defining large farms. Blank quantification doesn’t elucidate the essential difference between ‘small’ and ‘large’.

Perhaps we get closer to the crux if we say that a small farm is one that serves its local community. A small farm is not one that sells its produce into national or international commodity markets, but one that usually sells directly to local customers. I think this definition is serviceable, but it obscures some details that need highlighting. Most ‘local communities’ in wealthy countries – and, in fact, generally in the world today – are not fundamentally organised with respect to local space and resources. In this sense, a small farm serving its local community is anomalous. Further, because of the non-localism of local economic space, many of the inputs used in small farms are necessarily not that local. The result is that most of us who produce food for local sale have to compromise in various ways, and expect our customers to understand the nature of these compromises sufficiently to keep buying from us rather than simply going to the supermarket. That’s not impossible, but it’s not easy, and it goes some way to explaining why there aren’t many small farms, and why a lot of the ones that do start up go out of business. Michelle’s fascinating account on this site of operating a ranching operation in Hawaii at local and not-so-local retail levels nicely illustrates the kind of dilemmas that arise.

Maybe another way of broaching these issues is to say that a small farm is one that doesn’t grow staple cereal crops for sale. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that the history of modern global civilization is keyed fundamentally to the story of how the world’s immense semi-arid continental grasslands were transformed through colonial violence in Old World and New from human ecologies of foraging and pastoralism to ones of (increasingly mechanised) cereal production1. The resultant vast global flows of cheap grain have successively undermined smaller-scale and more localised agricultures – first in the colonial heartlands (eg. the English agricultural crisis of the 1880s), then in the grain-producing grasslands themselves (eg. with the substantial demise of independent rural farm communities in the US mid-west, starting in the 1920s and 30s) and finally with the demise of peasant grain production and increasing import dependence throughout most of the postcolonial world from the 1960s as a result of international grain trading and food dumping2. To a considerable degree, global grain prices drive the price of almost everything else, and small farms serving local markets can’t compete with them, at least within the narrow framing of the contemporary economy. In other words, small farms have to be ‘niche’ to survive…and are therefore fairly irrelevant to the global food system.

For numerous reasons that I’ve set out on this blog over the years, I think this global food system (and therefore global civilisation writ large) is increasingly beset by crises that it will probably be unable to resolve through its existing structures. I also think that the small farm is the most likely saviour from these crises – but a ‘post-global’ or ‘post-industrial’ small farm won’t look much like the small farms of the present, and it may not look much like the small farms of the past either.

But that’s for the future. For now, the definition of the small farm that I most want to work with is the idea of it as a ‘self-systemic’ entity. Let me try to explain. Generally, I don’t favour technological solutionism in the face of the world’s problems, because I think it usually bequeaths at least as many problems as it solves and in fact is exemplary of the kind of super-scaled terraforming that’s precisely what got us into the mess we’re in in the first place. This would apply, for example, to mitigating climate change by installing vast mirrors in space or seeding the oceans with iron filings. It also applies to much agricultural scheming – from ‘conventional’ approaches such as precision farming, agri-chemical no till, vertical farming, hydroponics etc. to ‘alternative’ ones such as organics, mob-stocking, perennial grain cropping and regenerative agriculture.

Generally, I’m reasonably sympathetic to ‘holistic’ ideas about the common thread between good farming, good food, good health and good earth stewardship, though these connections are often tied up too neatly for my taste in much advocacy for various alternative farming techniques. The claims for the benefits of these techniques often outrun the evidence for them, and I’m uncomfortable with the way that they’re so often presented as a complete system which people in general ought to follow in order to solve humanity’s problems – indeed, that they’d be stupid not to. Stupidity has long been imputed by the advocates of progress and agricultural ‘improvement’ to small farmers practicing self-systemic agriculture historically3. It’s not hard now to find contrary examples of alternative agriculture enthusiasts returning fire to ‘conventional’ agriculture. I daresay I’ve erred myself in this respect.

Well, call me stupid but I now want out of this megalomaniac solutionism. So I’m tempted to define the small farm as ‘anti-systemic’. The small farm is a farm which is not run on principles like feeding the world, solving climate change, cutting costs or prices, increasing market share, impressing neighbours or peers, beating out the competition, maximising yield or saving the planet. It’s a place whose farmers are trying to provision themselves with the resources to hand, not build a ‘system’ to proselytise and ramify. But of course farming is intrinsically ‘systemic’ – it involves numerous deliberate procedures and input-output loops that you learn from other people, mess around with and apply or modify to the best of your ability. So I’ve gone with the notion of ‘self-systemic’ – the small farm is a farm system that purports no more than furnishing the self.

This raises more questions than it answers, but I think they’re the right kind of questions. One set of questions proceeds from the notion of the ‘self’, because nobody is just a ‘self’. How am I connected to other people? What is my ‘community’? What duties do I have in respect of it, and it to me? What duties do I have to people who are not in my ‘community’? To my descendants, or my ancestors? Another set of questions proceeds from the notion of the resources ‘to hand’. What lands, soils, water, air, energies, plants, germplasm and minerals can be said to be ‘to hand’? And what legacies in respect of them does my farming leave?

There’s nothing massively original in what I’m saying, but I think we easily forget its import. The permaculture movement, for example, has been good at posing these first principle questions – what are the resources of this land and this community? But permaculture design often reverts to systemic shibboleths – no till, perennial plantings, space stacking etc. One of the last comments of the late, lamented permaculturist Patrick Whitefield on this blog was this:

The longer I practice permaculture…the more I’m convinced that dogma and off-the-peg solutions don’t help at all. Every situation is unique. Every piece of land is unique and so are the people who work it. It behoves us to choose the unique solution that will work best in each situation….Having a favourite theory and pushing that above all others is no help to anyone.

Actually, the comment was aimed critically at me, but it’s one I wholly agree with…and much of my critical writing within the alternative agriculture movement has really been an attempt to articulate it. By contrast, not only our entire civilization but also most of the alternatives and critiques of it within and without agriculture proceed too easily from the notion that every piece of land and every person is not unique, but assimilable to wider truths. And of course, all of us and all places are participants in wider relationships that aren’t just self-generated. To me, that contradiction is at the heart of contemporary dilemmas – agricultural, political, environmental, spiritual. And I’d like to place the self-systemic small farm at the heart of them.

Schumacher wrote that ‘small is beautiful’ (though apparently he hated the title). Beckerman countered that ‘small is stupid’. Contemporary complacency over climate change is characterised as ‘The Age of Stupid’. Keith Hart writes that agriculture bears a political weight beyond its economic importance because rural imagery shapes the modern idea of the nation as resistant to modernism under the slogan “stop the world, I want to get off”4 – the characteristic slogan of a superficial anti-romanticism.

I’d like to define the small farm as something that’s richly and knowingly indifferent to all these stupidities and counter-stupidities, and to the worldliness, anti-worldliness or other-worldliness that the slogan invoked by Hart is trying to fix and anatomize. It’s hard to attain such a complex indifference – but I think it’s worth a try.

Notes

  1. See, for example: W. Cronon. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis. Norton; R. Netz. 2004. Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. Wesleyan UP; D. Moon. 2013. The Plough That Broke The Steppes. Oxford UP.
  2. M. Mazoyer & L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  3. Examples are provided by J. Handy. 2009. Almost idiotic wretchedness: a long history of blaming peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies. 36, 2: 325-44.
  4. K. Hart. 2004. ‘The political economy of food in an unequal world’ in M. Lien and B. Nerlich (eds) The Politics of Food, Berg.

An Oxford education

Perhaps I should essay a brief report here on things I heard and learned at the 2018 Oxford Real Farming Conference that I attended a couple of weeks back. If I try to lay it all out in connected prose I’ll probably come grinding to a halt after about 5,000 words, so I thought I’d present it mostly in the form either of little news snippets or of one-sentence assertions…the latter being things I heard people say, or thoughts I had while listening at the conference. So I don’t necessarily agree with all of these assertions, some of which are mutually contradictory anyway. But that’s fine. Most of the time, I don’t even agree with myself. Anyway, here goes.

oOo

The biggest name at the conference was secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs (and arch-Brexiteer), Michael Gove. Quite a coup for the ORFC to get him not only to attend, but to agree to an unscripted Q&A session.

The audience listened in increasingly open-mouthed astonishment as Gove critiqued the inequities in the subsidy system that rewarded wealthy landowners, bemoaned the poor state of agricultural soils under the existing agricultural regimen, restated his opposition to neonic insecticides, critiqued the economic externalities involved in cheap food and emphasised the importance of supporting farmers for delivering environmental benefits.

There are numerous reasons to be sceptical about Gove’s agenda. Undoubtedly, the Tories are trying to re-position themselves as environmental champions again, probably because they’re aware that hardly anyone under the age of about 45 voted for them at the last election (remember David Cameron’s hug-a-husky moment, before he switched to ‘green crap’). And Gove is probably trying to resurrect his career after the long knives of the Brexit campaign.

Still, maybe it’s still better to have a DEFRA secretary at least saying these kind of things than, as before, saying the opposite and/or steering well clear.

Unlike Owen Patterson, Gove doesn’t hail from the landed wealth wing of the Tory party. As a famous doubter of expert opinion and trasher of professional lobbying, DEFRA – much more than the Department of Education – could be just the place where his talents can be put to best use.

The debate in the Tory party at the moment resembles the 19th century debate over the Corn Laws between landed capital, manufacturing capital and financial capital.

The carpets of Conservative Party HQ are seamed with blood.

Gove was equivocal on glyphosate. Expect chemical no-till farming to become the new green.

Everybody now seems to accept that the writing’s on the wall for large-scale landowners pocketing public money via farm subsidies – even the Country Landowners Association (sorry, now the Country Landowners and Business Association) who were in attendance. One positive outcome of Brexit, I think, that I predicted some time ago…

…but while this change will probably have some marginally beneficial consequences for social equity in the country at large, the money is unlikely to be redeployed in farming, but removed from it entirely. So probably tough times ahead for the already struggling medium-scale farm. Example: there are plenty of holdings that keep 2 breeding sows and plenty that keep 2,000. There are very few that keep 200. Is this a problem? I think so.

Farmers have four options: Get big, get niche, get out or get bankrupt.

Gove said there’d be support for upland stock farmers. Good news for James Rebanks. Bad news for George Monbiot. Relevant reading: another brilliant article from the pen of Simon Fairlie, ‘Return of the shepherd’ The Land, Issue 22.

The basic payments scheme inflates land prices (DEFRA).

No it doesn’t (CLA)

When Britain quits the EU, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principles written into EU law won’t be transferred to British law.

When Britain quits the EU, there will be a regulatory gap, both in terms of legislation and regulatory staff.

Brexit is a great opportunity for Britain to set more appropriate local standards for food and farming.

Any post-EU trade deals Britain makes after a hard Brexit will potentially shatter local standards for food and farming, particularly a trade deal with the USA.

But any post-EU trade deals will have to be ratified by parliament, so if our elected representatives don’t like them they can throw them out.

If only it was as simple as that.

US farm animals are dosed with twice as much antibiotics as British ones.

Economic protectionism is a good idea, but only within a wider consociation of essentially amicable states. Otherwise the risk is the kind of trade-war bellicosity of the 1930s, potentially lurching into actual war. But presently there’s no global mechanism to achieve local protectionism and global consociation.

A system of cheap food depends on a system of cheap labour.

Britain currently imports a large part of its agricultural workforce from Eastern Europe, partly because of economic demand for labour from the weaker east European economies, but also because East European workers come with a range of agricultural skills that are in short supply in Britain, mostly through the running down of a proper framework for agricultural education.

In the context of Brexit, the supply of East European workers is dwindling.

Agricultural colleges are concentrating on graduate education, turning out students who want to be farm managers, rather than farm workers.

Allotment gardens available for student use at one agricultural college were derelict.

When faced with a 50-50 choice between investing in labour or investing in machinery, farm managers usually opt for machinery.

Machinery is generally high cost and large scale (= labour saving). The result is that the farm landscape is fitted to the machinery, rather than fitting the machinery to the farm landscape.

Much of the time, machinery sits in the shed. It can do the job it’s designed to do much more quickly and cheaply than human labourers. But without human labourers, much additional environmental work that could be done on the farm – hedging, ditching, woodland management etc. – doesn’t get done.

Nobody wants to work on farms any more.

Lots of people want to work on farms, but the opportunities are limited.

Working on farms is now a lonely occupation – and more dangerous, because of the human lack.

We need to grow more vegetables in the UK.

The UK government’s recent agricultural policy emphasised the need to ‘Grow more, sell more and export more’. Actually we should be trying to grow better, sell better and eat better.

New entrants to farming somehow need access to land. Or do they?

Dispersed grazing provides opportunities for new entrants.

Secure agricultural tenancy rights would take the heat out of the battle to secure access to land.

But there would be a hot battle to gain secure agricultural tenancy rights.

There is a long-term battle being fought between proponents of food democracy and food control. An Uberisation of the food system is occurring, in which the controllers of the software capture the majority of the value.

The food system is dependent on self-exploitation by its workers. It’s not a good system.

Something like 75% of the value in the food sector is captured beyond the farm gate.

Government benefits for the low waged working in the food processing and retail sector are an implicit subsidy to the process/retail industry.

We need shorter food chains.

France does a better job than the UK of controlling land concentration and retaining small-scale agriculture. But is it at the expense of accepting a patriarchal gerontocracy?

The number of farm holdings in the UK is reducing at a rate of about 2% per annum.

There is a precipitous decline in biodiversity and wild species numbers in Europe – and it’s largely due to farming practices.

The focus of the land value tax debate has been on property uplift, not on agricultural land as an enduring public good.

We tend to think of tax as a source of government revenue or for incentivising behaviours. We should also think of it as a means for preventing patrimonial, anti-democratic wealth accumulation.

Landowners capture the majority of the uplift value associated with turning land over to residential property development.

No they don’t.

Yes they do.

Traditional landed estates should be preserved because they’re a good way of handing down agricultural land through the generations.

No they’re not.

It took a war to reform Britain’s antiquated systems of property ownership and social security.

Brexit is like a war. But hopefully with fewer casualties.

Yes, hopefully.

Somebody at the conference I’d not met before had read my paper on perennial grains. They even agreed with it, and felt the Land Institute’s response missed the point. Validation! By Jove, it was all worthwhile…

A spade is a spade is a spade, but a perennial is not a perennial is not a perennial. Seeds are seeds. Fruits are fruits.

No they’re not.

Yes they are.

Etc.