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Tudge writes: "The greed for profit is ruining agriculture - and the world - but the trend for local shops and farmers' markets offers real hope."

Jack and Garrett help their dad feed calves. (photo: Dairy Mom)
Jack and Garrett help their dad feed calves. (photo: Dairy Mom)

Why the World Needs a Renaissance of Small Farming

By Colin Tudge, Guardian UK

21 September 12


The greed for profit is ruining agriculture - and the world - but the trend for local shops and farmers' markets offers real hope

ritish farmers can't produce pigs as cheaply as the Poles, or cattle feed as cheaply as the Brazilians, or milk as cheaply as the Americans, or fruit as cheaply as the Spanish, and if they can't pull their socks up, the market dictates, they will just have to go. According to a recent survey by the National Pig Association, about 100 small- to medium-sized pig farmers are likely to quit this year - which is 10% of them. We are losing dairy farmers by the score every month. Horticulture has long since gone by the board (whatever happened to "the garden of England", aka Kent?). Only about 1% of people in Britain now work on the land.

But it's the same everywhere. The traditional farmers of Africa and Asia are urged to give up growing food for their own people and raise commodity crops for us, in exchange for our money, which we make by banking. Of course farms should be as big as possible to achieve economies of scale, and labour must be reduced to cut costs, so most of the existing small farmers, men and women, must go. Hundreds of thousands have committed suicide in India, but most flee to the cities to join the estimated billion rural exiles who now live in urban slums (almost a third of the urban population of the country).

Objective data, of the kind that the scientists and economists who advise the powers-that-be claim to base their ideas upon, suggests that the new ways aren't working - not, at least, if we feel that the job of agriculture is to produce good food. Worldwide, 1 billion people of the present 7 billion are chronically undernourished, while another billion are chronically overnourished - such that according to an article in Nature in May the world population of diabetics now exceeds the combined population of the US and Canada, and almost all because of diet. Damage to the world at large is huge. Mainly because of industrial farming, half of all species on Earth could be extinct by the end of the century. Agriculture occupies 40% of the planet's land, but its pollution endangers creatures everywhere, including the seas, where farming run-off is destroying the coral reefs.

But the corporate-government complex that runs our lives is committed to the all-out financial competition of the neoliberal global market. So British farmers in British conditions in a British social context are head to head with peasant Africans and US mega-corporates and Ukrainian grain barons (or would be were it not for the EU subsidies) - while farming as a whole must compete for investment with cars, weapons, casinos and hair-dressing.

If British farmers can't produce more cash in the short term than the Poles or the Brazilians (or the corporates who are billeted in their countries) then they just have to go. Indeed, Tony Blair's government just a few years ago seriously mooted that British farming should go the way of its mining. It may seem hard, even vile, but, as Lady Thatcher assured us all those years ago, "there is no alternative" - and all British governments since, even those with "Labour" in the title, have taken this as gospel. The strangely-titled National Farmers Union is firmly committed to big business.

The deep trouble is the huge clash between morality, biological reality, and the present economy. Until and unless we bring the three into line, we are bound to be in trouble. More than that, we need to acknowledge that morality (what is good) and biological reality (what is necessary and possible) must lead, and the economy must be secondary. As John Maynard Keynes said many decades ago: economics must "take the back seat" and we should focus first on "our real problems, of life and human relations, of creation, and of behaviour and religion".

If we don't acknowledge the moral obligation to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest, then what does morality mean? There is no excuse for the present failure - for sound biological thinking shows that good food for everyone should be eminently possible. But report after report - the kind governments and big organisations choose to override - tells us that the best way to ensure that everyone is well fed, sustainably and securely, is through farms that are mixed, complex and low-input (quasi-organic). These must be labour-intensive (or there can be no complexity), so there is no advantage in them being large scale. Such farms are traditional in structure, but they need not be traditional in technology. They would benefit from good technologies and science.

But the small-to-medium mixed farms that could feed us well and provide good jobs are absolutely at odds with the modern perceived imperative to maximise wealth. To survive in the fight for profit, skilled labour must be replaced with big machines and agrochemistry; the husbandry must be simplified - monoculture rules - and all must be done on the largest possible scale. Although industrial farming doesn't feed everybody, has led to mass unemployment and the poverty and despair that go with it, and is wrecking the fabric of the world, it must prevail because it produces piles of short-term cash for the people who are calling the shots.

We need to turn things round and fast. And we means us, all of us - ordinary Joes, because the governments and corporates who run the world, and their attendant experts and intellectuals, are not going to. The standard ways to bring about change are by reform or revolution - but reform is too slow and today's politicians and the big business they are beholden to cannot change course. Revolution is too chancy and too dangerous.

So we need the third route - renaissance: build something better in situ. In effect, a people's takeover. All over the world individuals and communities are starting small mixed farms of the kind the world really needs, while others are starting small shops and farmers' markets and delivery services to serve those new farms. Thousands of organisations worldwide are seeking to promote and co-ordinate these efforts. your social media marketing partner
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