How to grow a better class of carrot

Organic food costs too much. Leanda de Lisle proposes a return to the rotating crops of our ancestor

Farmers aren't very popular. Those who are rich are assumed to have succeeded at the expense of the rest of us. They have cheated us, poisoned us, destroyed the very earth we live on, so they can lord it over us from their horses and Range Rovers. Those who are poor are considered too backward and stupid to succeed at anything. The best place for the lot of them is in the stocks of TV comedy. Except, that is, for organic farmers. Fashionable opinion has it that farming should be as it was depicted by the German Romantic movement of the 1930s: full of big, pink people cutting wheat by hand. We are told that the past is the future and it's organic.

But the truth is that this is neither feasible nor desirable. The way forward lies in a new kind of farming that's good for the earth and good for people. One that's already being practised all over the country.

A mere 0.3 per cent of land in Britain is farmed organically. This is due, in part, to the innate conservatism of farmers. Farming is a highly geared industry that offers a low return on capital. Few can afford to take big risks. It could cost them their jobs, their home, their heritage and their children's future. Knowing this, farmers think long and hard before they go into something like organic farming from which there is no short route back. Until recently those who farmed organically have tended to be early, fervent followers of the green movement or the trust-fund babes of the farming community - people like Prince Charles. However, the BSE tragedy, public disquiet about industrial farming methods and the high, positive profile of organic farming have led farmers to look again at the organic option. In the past year, the number of those farming organically, or applying to the Soil Association to do so, has increased by 40 per cent.

There is no doubt that we could and should have more organic farms. EU subsidies have been paid per acre rather than per ton produced since 1993. This has put organic farms on a level playing field with conventional farms. In addition, an aid scheme subsidises the costs of converting to the organic system, and the much derided set-aside scheme pays organic (but not ordinary) farmers to grow clover to improve productivity. However, being few and scattered, organic farms have crippling distribution costs and offer an unreliable supply of goods.

So demand for organic produce is not being satisfied. But once they have reached a critical mass, organic farmers will find it easier to meet the demand which will then, in turn, increase. But by how much? Telling farmers that the organic system is the way forward is like telling grocers that Fauchon's is the Sainsbury's of the future.

CWS Agriculture (the farming wing of the Co-op) set up an organic farm in Leicestershire in order to look critically at the issues surrounding organic farming. The first concern of most farmers is whether they can grow organic crops successfully. At CWS they could, and without great difficulty. Yields were down, as expected; wheat by 56 per cent. Inevitably, organic food has to be premium priced. But people pay premium prices for glossy packaging at Marks and Spencer, so perhaps that wouldn't matter. It did. The real problem with organic produce was not growing it, but marketing it, according to the project manager, Alastair Leake. "All the surveys we've done show that people think organic farming is wonderful and, if they were faced with the choice of buying organic food, then they would buy it. But when you face them with the reality, which is that the product is sometimes inferior to look at and always more expensive, then people start to shift."

The middle-class people who order boxed organic produce may get depressed after weeks of finding nothing but potatoes and cabbages in their food parcels. But at least they are happy for food to look as if it once grew in the ground or walked upon it. Many people aren't. The supermarkets put meat in absorbent packaging so that you can't see the free blood; fruit and vegetables are washed and waxed so they look bright and clean. The aim is to make food look as if it arrived on earth as a ready-made meal. The public is more than happy to pay extra for a hamburger that's already in its bun, ready for the microwave. They are not so keen to pay extra for a perfectly dull, organic turnip.

People are more worried about dying from a heart attack than getting BSE, salmonella or some as yet undiscovered disease spread by cheap sprouts. White meat such as chicken has grown in popularity over the years at the expense of red meat such as lamb - yet it's lamb that's invariably free range. The public demands lean pork, but the leaner the meat, the more likely it has come from a crated pig. Organic pigs, in addition to being fatty, often have hair and the follicles can start right down in the meat. It would be nice if people could be persuaded to eat greener, kinder food, but the evidence suggests that only a minority will pay more for a clean conscience and a dirty spud.

In the long term, the Soil Association would like to see the world farmed 100 per cent organically. But would this really be a triumph? It's far more difficult to control pests in tropical climates than temperate ones. Last year, the green pioneer Dr Norman Borlaug said that environmentalists had paralysed attempts to prevent starvation in the developing world by denying farmers access to disease-resistant seeds and crop-protection chemicals. This is imperialism of the worst kind. The only "natural" way to compensate for lower yields is to plough up more land, much of which may be unsuitable for cultivation. We are already seeing the environmental consequences of this in Brazil, where the rainforest is being slashed and burnt to make way for new farmland.

In Britain, we'd be unlikely to starve if all our farmland was managed organically. However, we'd be more dependent on imports and people would have to get used to spending far more on food. It's common for journalists to say that farm subsidies place a terrible financial burden on British families, though they now spend a lower percentage of their income on basic food than ever before. But surely it would be better if foodies and animal lovers persuaded people to spend more on their food and eat organic produce than have politicians force them to; not least because people deserve a choice, and organic food is not the only animal and environmentally friendly produce out there.

Organic farming is more a religion than a science. Farmers will use copper sulphate and sulphur on their crops because they are natural, yet their toxicological profiles show that they are considerably more harmful than some of the man-made chemicals used on conventional crops.

On the other hand, there is a new method of farming known as integrated crop management (ICM) which is based on science and also rooted in a respect for the environment. ICM takes the natural system of crop rotation and many other of our ancestors' farming practices and integrates them with the latest technology. Hedges are encouraged rather than ripped out because they are the natural habitat of creatures that feed on destructive pests. Those pesticides that are used are to DDT what electricity is to the wood fire. They have excellent environmental profiles and are targeted rather than used prophetically.

At CWS they have found that, where ICM has been practised, yields have been slightly down (8 per cent for wheat), but as so little pesticide is used costs have also declined. As a result, performance is equivalent to or better than the conventional system. ICM removes many concerns about modern farming methods. It allows the farmer to make a profit and the customer to get affordable, quality produce. For Bob Hilborn, head of primary agriculture at Sainsbury's, "it's a clear win-win for farmers and customers alike".

Customers have not yet heard much about ICM, but farmers are already enthusiastic about this "third way" and it is being promoted nationally by a charitable organisation called Leaf (Linking the Environment and Farming).

Founded six years ago, Leaf has about 1,200 farming members whose subscriptions help to support it. Most of them hail from eastern counties like Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, the supposed home of demonic grain barons who like nothing better than to rip up a hedge before breakfast. But 6,000 of these farmers have signed up to the Farm Assured Schemes, which include strict environmental (plus, where relevant, animal-welfare) and quality guarantees.

A scheme for fruit and veg was followed by one for beef and lamb and then, more recently, by one for pigs. Six months ago, the Combined Crop Assured Scheme was launched and it has already attracted 5,000 out of 30,000 grain farmers. The rapidity and apparent ease with which these schemes are being taken up suggest that the average farmer is not the animal and vegetable torturer of popular myth.

However, the proliferation of assured schemes is confusing and both Leaf and the National Farmers' Union are now considering having a single, whole farm scheme that will go further in answering customer concerns.

There is a saying that "the man who has food has many worries, but the man who is hungry has one". To a large extent, British farmers have been the victims of their own success. During the second world war and its aftermath they were asked to increase food production and they did so. By the 1970s they discovered they could completely control pest diseases in wheat and grow it year in, year out, without rotation. We now know that the consequence was environmental degradation. But we cannot throw away everything that has been achieved in the past 50 years.

Insisting that organic farming is the only right way to farm damns the people who will be producing the bulk of our food for the foreseeable future, or damns us to a time when food will again be expensive and scarce. It is a flat-earth entreaty, as helpful as Marie Antoinette's suggestion that the poor eat cake. Like the rest of us, farmers need to learn from the past and build on it. A system that integrates natural and scientific methods of food production does just that. It will help everyone do the right thing.

The writer is married to a Leicestershire farmer

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge