Colin Tudge suggests a 17-point plan to rescue Britain’s (and the world’s) agriculture

Leaving the EU gives Britain the opportunity to put its agriculture on a sound footing: to create a strategy that acknowledges the physical and ecological limits of the world, matches our real needs, and is morally acceptable.

Such a strategy would be opposite in almost every respect to what we have now. Thus:

1: We need to recognize that the prime function of farming is to provide sufficient quantities of good food and to keep the biosphere (“the environment”) in good heart.

Farming that is designed expressly to provide everyone with good food without wrecking the rest has been called Enlightened Agriculture (EA), aka Real Farming”. The three essential principles of EA are those of agroecology, food sovereignty, and economic democracy.

2: Agriculture should be run on business lines but must be conceived primarily as a service. In short: individual farms and farming as a whole should be conceived as social enterprises within a mixed economy (see also point 12).

Farming should not simply be conceived as “a business like any other”, designed primarily or simply to contribute maximally to GDP.

3: Clearly farming must be productive (70 million-plus Brits: 9 billion-plus overall) but we must recognize the principle of enough’s enough.

Agriculture at present is intended to produce as much as possible of everything (or at least, of the things that are most profitable) with reasons invented post hoc for doing so. In truth the world as a whole already produces more food than we will ever need and the priority must be to improve food quality and make farming as a whole more humane, more wildlife-friendly, and more socially benign.

4: Britain and almost all countries in the world need to pursue a strategy of self-reliance and fair trade. Britain could easily produce enough temperate crops and livestock to provide us all with an excellent diet, both nutritionally and gastronomically, and then use trade to provide what we can’t sensibly grow, like coffee; as an insurance against shortfall; to keep trade routes open for diplomatic purposes; and for some export. But trade should always be seen as a back-up. Self-reliance should be the aim.

This is in sharp contrast to the strategy of successive governments these past few decades, who have followed the early 19th century economic theory of David Ricardo: to treat all produce as commodities, for export; focus on what we grow best, which represents our “comparative advantage”; and import what we really need at the cheapest possible price. This is a politically precarious policy and leads us towards high-input monocultures which are ecologically disastrous. The exhortations of many Secretaries of State to raise more beef and pigs for export to the Chinese and dried milk for India, and to promote biotech for export, are about as far from being sensible as can be conceived.

5: The method of Enlightened Agriculture is that of agroecology: with all farms treated as ecosystems (“closed ecosystems with leaky borders” as Devonshire farmer Rebecca Hosking puts it) and agriculture as a whole designed as far as possible to make a positive contribution to the biosphere (whereas, at present, it is a prime cause of mass extinction and a major contributor to global warming).

The essence of agroecology is to emulate nature (or at least to emulate those qualities that have enabled natural ecosystems to endure without interruption for the past 4 billion years, even though conditions on Earth have fluctuated spectacularly).

In particular this implies that farming – like most of nature most of the time – should be:

5a: Low input: which in practice means as organic as possible.

5b: Diverse: farms should ideally be mixed, and individual populations of livestock and crops should be genetically diverse. The trend towards monoculture must be reversed. Some crops, such as varieties of apples or potatoes, are natural clones but otherwise cloning should be for research purposes only. Cloning of livestock for commercial purposes is a misuse of science.

5c: Integrated: a mixed farm should not be conceived as a menagerie or as a botanic garden. The different species and classes should work together synergistically – as in rotations.

5d: There should be special emphasis on Agroforestry. Britain needs more trees for all kinds of reasons (not least to ameliorate drought and flood); and agroforestry in its various forms is the ultimate exercise in diversity and agroecology. There should be no overall loss of value or yield. An area of crops and trees together can be more valuable than the same area would be if devoted to crops or trees alone (the principle of land-equivalent ratio).

5e: Methods to restore soil structure and fertility must be pursued with all possible vigour, with particular emphasis on soil carbon and the microbiota. Again, this flies absolutely in the face of the all-out industrial strategies of the past half century (and more).

Farming organized along agroecological lines has obvious political/economic/social implications which lead us to the following:

6: Enlightened Agriculture based on agroecology is complex – in principle, the more complex the better. Therefore it must be skills-intensive. Since Britain’s farmers are ageing and the overall farm force is dwindling we need a concerted strategy to train and recruit a new generation of farmers: perhaps eight times as many as we have now; perhaps a million more to begin with. Farming should again be seen as a normal pursuit, a truly satisfying profession, on a par with medicine or teaching, which anyone with an aptitude, whether country- or city-based, ought to feel able to contemplate.

Incidentally (or not so incidentally), although Britain should welcome the immigrant workers on which our farming now relies, we must take immediate steps to put a stop to what in effect has become slave labour. Rather, skilled immigrants could and probably should become bona fide members of the new farming generation.

7: Enterprises that are complex and skills-intensive do not in general benefit from scale-up, so farms in general – the default size – should be small to medium-sized. Such enterprises do, however, lend themselves very well to various forms of cooperation, so we should encourage cooperatives.

8: The new generation of farmers and their families will need somewhere to live so we must rethink planning laws to allow them to build reasonable dwellings on their land.

This in turn requires a rethink of conservation policy: seeking ways not simply to conserve wilderness but to integrate the needs of farming, wildlife, and human living.

In the long term we need to think about serious land reform but for the time being we should seek to create tenancy agreements that offer both farmers and landowners a fair deal, within the overall strategy of self-reliance and agroecology.

9: A return to small to mixed farms with plenty of farmers does not imply a return to the pre-industrial days when men, women, and children did the work of tractors. We also need to develop technologies, both “high” (science-based) and “low” (craft-based), appropriate to small, complex farms.

10: Small mixed farms are best suited to local markets so we need to encourage the re-creation of local delivery and marketing. Also, however, the idea that small farms cannot serve the needs of big cities (the common excuse for developing large-scale industrial monocultures) is false. We need also to provide systems that will enable small-scale farmers to serve the needs of big cities.

11: However, all these ideas are dead in the water unless people give a damn. We need to rebuild true food culture so that people are no longer fixated on convenience and price, but also care about quality and provenance. This requires serious education in growing and cooking at school level, and support for small restaurants and related initiatives that focus on local growing and cuisine.

(It is perceived to be socially responsible to reduce food prices but in truth the cheapness is more apparent than real; and the reason that many people cannot afford good food is that the price of houses has been artificially inflated, and because of huge and growing inequality of income. These issues need to be addressed separately.)


12: Agriculture cannot be left to the free market! The governments of Britain, Europe, and the USA must abandon the fiction that it can. No market outside the domain of gangsters can be entirely free, and agriculture in particular needs protecting at various turns, not least to ameliorate the ups and downs of weather. But present interventions by the governments of the EU and the USA, in their attempt to be minimalist, have been reduced to crude subsidies which, as played out in Britain, serve mainly to reward the rich while abandoning the small farmers who in truth are what the world needs.

Therefore, governments must bite the bullet: accept that they have to take control of agriculture just as they must take control of defence; and re-explore the gamut of interventions that were in place until the 1970s – grants, quotas, intervention buying, guaranteed prices, tariffs, and all the rest. The incentives should be directed in particular at the farms (and subsidiary services) that contribute to the cause of Enlightened Agriculture (and not, as now, doled out according to land area).

13: We also need a quite different attitude to the biosphere and a different approach to wildlife conservation. At present wildlife and its habitats are still seen as a luxury, an add-on, to be attended to when we are rich enough; or as the source of “ecosystem services” which are expected to pay their way, like any commercial business. We need instead to see ourselves as part of the biosphere. Our connections to it are ecological and spiritual.

14: Governments of all parties over the past 40 years (at least) have demonstrated that agriculture is far too important to be left in their hands. We need to establish a semi-independent, non-governmental specialist agency to look after food and farming, comparable with the agency that looks after the Dutch dykes.

15: We need to take all possible steps to restore the erstwhile Agricultural and Food Research Council and the network of Experimental Husbandry Farms. Their systematic destruction and sell-off since the 1980s may properly be seen as state-sponsored vandalism, comparable with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s and 1540s.

16: Not only do we need a great deal more education and training in farming and its ancillary industries, we also need a very different kind of agricultural education: one that looks beyond the details of husbandry (and in particular of industrialized husbandry) to encompass the broad ecological, political, social, moral, and spiritual dimensions (as currently demonstrated by the College for Real Farming and Food Culture).

17: Overall we need to develop the tripartite mixed economy – combining government, community, and private ownership, with the accent on community. Specifically, we would ideally establish a network of community banking, and all land would be community owned and held in trust: leased to private or community enterprises and then returned.

Some of the above proposals could be put in place immediately on an ad hoc basis while others that are more far-reaching and long-term should at least be initiated. The whole 17-point proposal adds up to a “paradigm shift”; what has been called the Agrarian Renaissance.

Nothing less will do.

Colin Tudge, 20 August 2016