“Agriculture is not like any other business, it beats to the drum of biology”

CT

This was successful writer and biologist Colin Tudge’s key message at last night’s launch of his book, ‘Good Food for Everyone Forever’ hosted by the Gaia Foundation.

To an audience of leading NGOs and interested parties, Colin spelled out the key challenge of our time; the gap between with is possible and what actually happens with food production today.

What actually happens can be summarised with a few alarming facts: 1billion people are currently undernourished whilst another billion are over-nourished (i.e. obese), over half of all our species are in danger of extinction and more than 500million people are being forced off the land as we seek to industrialise and privatise our food supply.

For Tudge the fault lies largely with the “powers that be”; policymakers, chief scientists and the commercial food industry, who use crude science to polarised the debate into one of the ‘serious, industrialist, rational and scientific’ majority versus the ‘romantic, nostalgic and elitist’ few. He compares this majority thinking to the Enlightenment age, where the idea that man could control nature was born and came to form the dominant paradigm. The recent Foresight Report published by the government’s chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington, is a chief example of this, since it operates within the neoliberal system that must price everything, be competitive, and maximise costs.

Whilst Tudge is calling for nothing less than “a people’s takeover of the farming supply”, he’s no romantic. As a scientist himself, his facts are founded and he’s not apriori against any ‘new’ technologies such as GM crops. The problem is, he says, it’s thirty years since they came on the scene they have yet to product anything of “unequivocal value”. “Except perhaps, virus resistant Papaya”!

The answer to this he says is simple; “create farms that designed to feed people”. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Colin argues however that this is far from how we currently farm the neoliberal dominated industrialised world; where the principal concern is to increase efficiency, increase profit margins and increase yield, rather than feed the population. Capitalism could serve nature, but neoliberalism cannot; in an inelastic food market it is easy to feed everyone, “that’s why we waste 50% of our grain on livestock”.

Farms must be designed to imitate nature, from their resilience and minimal input requirements (i.e. organic as default– but not necessarily certified so), to their biologically diverse and complementary systems. The peak for mixed farms answering to this description was the 1950s, and since then farms have got bigger and better at producing single crop yields with fewer staff and input costs. However, worldwide c. 70% of all food is produced on small mixed quasi organic farms, and this absolutely can feed the world, Tudge declares. Far from the Malthusiasn dilemma we’re made to feel trapped in, Tudge sites the convenor of the recent and widely heralded IAASTD report that shows the world’s farmers are producing enough food to feed 14 billion people.

If we had a good food culture, like Italy for example, we would not be in the state we are in now. There are murmurings of a revival, but nothing substantial enough yet to achieve the ‘Agrarian Renaissance’ he is calling for. We shouldn’t get confused, however, between ‘self sufficiency’ and ‘self reliance’. Whilst the latter is both possible and advisable, the former is neither, since it would inevitably lead to the collapse of many tropical markets. The answer therefore is to “combine self reliance with fair trade”. This is the winning combination.

In his new book, Tudge sets out the steps for this ‘people’s takeover’, including a transition from growing your own to becoming a part time farmer, and he also directs us towards the Campaign for Real Farming, which he founded with his partner, Ruth West.

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