Big Ag and Small Farms- Why we need both

Colin Tudge has an article for last week’s Oxford Real Farming conference. Unfortunately, he provides little evidence for many of his assertions, repeats many long-debunked myths and seems intent on promoting a black-and-white world or Goodies (small farms) vs Baddies (Big Ag and GMOs) to have a go at his pet hate of “neo-liberalism”.

Tudge begins:

The sad state of Britain’s dairying has the same root cause as the billion worldwide who are undernourished, the billion who are overweight and/or diabetic or in danger of heart disease, global warming, the mass extinction of our fellow creatures: global agriculture, and indeed a global economy, that is geared not to the wellbeing of humankind and of the planet but to short-term wealth, in the simplistic belief that money per se is good and can solve all our problems no matter how it is produced or what it is used for.

To put things right we have to think deeply – in fact re-think from first principles – and act radically.

Tudge’s philosophy is firmly rooted in the back-to-the-land small- is- beautiful tradition beloved of Organic farmers, locavores and romantic pasturalists. The line-up for the Oxford Conference promises more of the same, including offerings from Schumacher College. Continue Reading

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Monty Python and the Tale of Sir Robin

Simon Singh has received a response from media celebratory and Soil Association chief Monty Don in response to his two questions concerning organic farming.

Apart from completely evading the relevant scientific issues Singh raises, Don makes the following extraordinary comment:

Having known you for nigh on 20 years – albeit with great gaps – I suspect that you are as temperamentally and intellectually suited to immersing yourself in organic, holistic agriculture as I am in particle physics. Your mind just doesnt work that way. That does not make you wrong or me right. Well,OK, I am just being polite but it doesn’t make you bad for being wrong…

WTF?! I mean, really, what is he actually getting at here? And what is the Bigger Picture about “organic, holistic agriculture” ?

Perhaps picking up on Singh’s admission that organics is not really his subject, Don recommends some reading:

Suggest you inform yourself a lot more before taking this any further. If you are genuinely interested in understanding what it is all about start by reading Michael Pollan, Colin Tudge and Rob Hopkins. No specific scientific work so you may not feel comfortable with it but very good cross section of the field.

Let’s have a look at what these three authors have to say on the subject under discussion:

Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is celebrated by foodies, and it is certainly an original perspective and well-written survey of many of the issues in food production.

But in Chapter 9 he takes a look at Big Organic and concludes

So is an industrial organic food chain finally a contradiction in terms? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is…. The inspiration for organic was to find a way to feed ourselves more in keeping with the logic of nature, to build a food system that looked more like an eco-system that would draw its fertility and energy from the sun. To feed ourselves otherwise was “unsustainable”, a word that’s been so abused we’re apt to forget what it specifically means: Sooner or later it must collapse. To a remarkable extent, farmers succeeded in creating a new food chain on their farms:trouble began when they encountered the expectations of the supermarket. As in so many other realms, nature’s logic has proved no match for the logic of capitalism, one in which cheap energy has always been a given. And so, today, the organic food industry finds itself in a most uncomfortable, and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.

Pollan is aware of the limitations of trying to live “sustainably”- he is accutely aware of course of how impractical it would be for him to always eat the hunter-gatherer meal he prepares for himself in the last section, because of the extreme amounts of time and work it would involve; and so ends his book with something of a lament:

..imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the earth.

Ding Ding! Naturalistic Fallacy- sorry, Michael, “nature” does not have “grace” and does not give a wit as to whether we eat or not- we eat by dint of our own ingenuity and hard work, and famines were a constant threat until the advent of industrial food and the globalised food industry. The Malthussian fears of a burgeoning population outstripping food supply have not been realised because of technology. Any move back to nature will not only turn us into peasant laborers but will also put us right back as defenseless against the vagaries of nature and living always in the shadow of hunger.

Colin Tudge, in his 2003 book So Shall We Reap is another prominent critic of modern farming, and while convinced that its “unsustainability” could be our downfall, nevertheless addresses many of the very shortcomings of organics raised by Lynas and Singh, specifically the need for extra land:

Organic farming has much to recommend it, of course, but could it in conscience be recommended to all the world? I find it hard to see how…Manure can be polluting…could organic farmers really double their input of nitrogen, as they would need to do to maintain present agricultural output if artificials were banned? Could they double it again in the next fifty years as world population doubles? Nobody knows but the odds are surely against.

…if yield is lower farming must then occupy more space, spreading into wilderness and into marginal land that should not be cultivated at all.

Tudge correctly concludes that artificial fertiliser need not destroy soil structure or lead to polluting run-off if properly applied- thus “good farming” is always the key- and even points out that we will not run out of natural gas for manufacturing artificial fertliser- he cites a figure of only 1% of fossil fuels currently being required for this- “a small price to pay for half of agriculture’s fertility”- and that it could be easily made from solar power or biofuels(?) if needed. Although Tudge is opposed to GMOs, even he accepts that

GMOs are currently deployed for dubious economic and political purposes but the science that has given rise to them should not be banished out of hand.

Pollan and Tudge are well-known published authors on food and farming, but Hopkins, really?! There must be some mistake. Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins would not I think qualify as, nor claim to be an expert on organics, although like the other two he is of course a strong proponent of it. Unfortunately, he has found the wet summer too much for his own garden which has been overtaken by slugs; at least he confesses to the limitations of self-sufficiency in such circumstances, but shirks the logical conclusion that it is a globalised food industry which leads to true resilience, allowing us to grow the most suitable crops in the most suitable climates and ship in surplus to where there is a shortfall.

In the same post, he challenges the genetic engineers to do something (Hopkins and most of his followers are vehemently opposed to GE):

If those people working on genetically modified crops while also claiming to be working for the benefit of mankind actually want to do something useful, perhaps they might engineer a kind of grass that you could grown in your lawn that would be more attractive to slugs than the things you actually want to eat? Or engineer a slug that prefers the boring stuff that you don’t actually want to eat (like brambles, Woundwort or bindweed) to the stuff you want? Just a thought.

More likely, it might be possible to insert slug-repellant genes directly into the plants, as the Bt pesticide has been successfully engineered into corn and cotton, thus saving vast amounts of sprays. (My comment to this effect was deleted as I am banned from Hopkin’s blog.)

(I should say that as a gardener I found most of Rob’s post quite amusing and I do sympathize, though I have not had nearly as much trouble with slugs as he describes; it’s a great gardening column, easy to forget that this is a writer who heads up an influential international movement that is opposed to modernity and influenced by quacks and other doyens of New Age occultism.)

Transition Towns, like much of the organics/back-to-the-land movements, resembles a Medieval re-enactment society, aiming to turn back the clock to an imagined romantic past of local communities growing their own veg and darning their own socks under lights powered by windmills and solar panels, while fleeing in fear, like Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin, from the very technologies-such as genetic engineering and precision farming- that might actually improve farming and ameliorate both world hunger and some of the excesses of industrial farming.

The idea, you see is to turn everyone back into peasant farmers: organics takes a lot more labour, and for it to increase its tiny market share from just a couple of percent at present to challenge conventional farming would require the wholesale reversal of the main demographic movement from parochial country to cosmopolitan city that defined the 20th century.

So what was that “Bigger Picture” again that Don speaks of? Maybe he found it on this Biodynamic farm he visited in 2002 in the Black Mountains, where a family are using the magical methods of Steiner’s astrology and alchemy to grow vegetables on poor land where “The Soil Association wanted money to even talk to them.”

Don admits BD is whacky:

But there is an aspect of biodynamics that needs to be taken with a dumper truck of salt. This is the essential tenet that cosmic and terrestrial forces can be harnessed for the benefit of soil and plants by the mixing of certain preparations. These range from oak bark buried over winter in the skull of a domestic animal to Valerian flowers buried inside a stag’s bladder. The preparations are used in minute quantities – such as a level teaspoon to 10 tons of compost. Crazy stuff.

but cannot quite dismiss it because the farmers are “models of health and vitality” and the veg is just sooooo tasty. The whole place seems a picture of the rural idyll amongst rolling green pastures with a communal lifestyle and plenty of laughter in the fields, that many organics supporters yearn for.

But he gives it all away in the last paragraph:

Conventional farmers and growers are in a mess. I suspect that the government is incapable of understanding the problem, let alone providing any solution. The answer lies in us as individuals – gardeners or people brave enough to buy a patch of ground ‘no good for growing vegetables’. And if that is accompanied by the burial of dandelions collected at dawn or a chart of the phases of the moon, then is it any weirder than the damaging potions and incantations of scientists, ministers and so-called experts down the years?

You see Monty, the thing about science is, it provides a method for examining these things rationally, using evidence. Thus, there are plenty of other successful small farms using either conventional or organic methods that are just as successful, where the produce is just as good, the laughter just as vibrant, but without the magic, which adds nothing other than the fog of delusion and the propensity to foster the creation of cults. Biodynamics is not as Don seems to think “one step further down the organic road” -unless that road is one leading back into the Dark Ages of witchcraft and goat-sacrifice.

Betweeen Don’s tolerance of superstition, and his apparent sharing of the aims of Hopkin’s Transition Re-enactment Society, we would seem to have something closer to Monty Python rather than any useful contribution to addressing the very real issues of food and farming in the 21st century.