Fields of dreams

The British countryside is in crisis, but we're not debating the real issues. Colin Tudge puts the c

Britain's countryside has rarely been at peace, except in the minds of poets and passers-through. Now it is in several kinds of crisis - economic, political, ecological, scientific, social, moral and aesthetic. The landscape needs farmers to be its guardians, but the farmers need the townsfolk on their side, for the townsfolk hold the political and economic power. Farmers who make enemies of city ramblers dig their own graves: if they truly sensed how the wind is blowing, they would offer guided tours with free teas. The National Farmers' Union must become a moral force, truly the defender of tomorrow's multi-purpose countryside. Self-righteousness and pure self-interest are no longer enough. Tony Blair's government should remember what it was elected for - not simply to give the free market its head, but to take it in hand. Economists must find a way to break the apparently inextricable link between hi-tech and big business so that, as William Booth said in another context, the Devil is not left with all the best tunes.

At present the coin could flip either way. In 50 years' time, Britain's countryside could have become a factory, with big, mysterious sheds in a flawless prairie, and irrevocably so, as the infrastructure needed to do otherwise will be gone. Or it could be an endless trail of golf courses and caravans, if farmers finally accept that in a globalised market they can no longer compete with other peoples' climates and their willingness to work for slave wages. Both prospects are dire. We must do better. But the rustic debates of recent years offer little encouragement: BSE, fox-hunting, Monsanto's genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the absurd excursions of the Countryside Alliance - what's on offer is feudalism with hi-tech. The organic movement is one of the few bright hopes (although its organicness is the least interesting thing about it).

GMOs illustrate general principles. GMO supporters claim that they are necessary. The world's population now stands at six billion and will reach 12 billion before it stabilises - assuming it does so - possibly within another 50 years. Only genetic engineering, it's claimed, can double the food supply in that time. The engineers argue, too, that they do only what traditional breeders do, but quicker. Opposition is ill-informed and woolly-hatted. Monsanto is bound to argue thus, but many otherwise disinterested scientists have come out on their side, apparently to defend hi-tech against the tide of Luddism.

Some GMO opponents do hate hi-tech on principle and/or fear any direct interference with the genome. But many object not to genetic engineering per se, but to its present applications and to the arrogance of its proponents. The principal arguments for today's GMOs are simply not true. Present famines and other deficiencies in world agriculture are brought about not by inadequate technique, but by inappropriate and unjust policy: agriculture, as it stands, is simply not designed to feed people. Present technique geared to well-shaped strategy could feed the pending 12 billion; fabulous technique thrown at misguided policy simply papers over cracks.

It is not true, either, that genetic engineering merely extends traditional breeding. Traditional breeders who wish to improve potatoes, say, must acquire novel genes from other potatoes, while the engineers can get them from anywhere - or, in principle, will eventually make fresh genes from scratch. In 100 years' time they will fashion crops that have no precedent at all as easily as mechanics build motor cars. Breeders, in short, are circumscribed by biology, while the new genetic engineers are constrained only by the laws of physics. That is a qualitative leap - and people who are unable to see this simply should not be in charge. Furthermore, the present engineered crops are not designed to feed the world, but to serve the needs of the big companies who developed them and who seek to practise agriculture on the largest possible scale. In short, some of us are objecting not to science, but to Monsanto; we don't want them and the supermarkets to take over farming any more than we want Rupert Murdoch to take over the whole press, and for the same kinds of reasons. This objection is not Luddite, and it is at best disingenuous to suggest that it is. Again, those who cannot see such arguments should not be making policy.

What, though, the GMO enthusiasts ask, is the alternative? The free market produces cheap food and plenty of it; it is the way of the modern world; and even if there were a realistic alternative, it would be too disruptive to change. If Monsanto and Monsanto's technologies take over - well, that is the way life is, because that is the way the free market works, and it is childish not to face up to it.

But that is why the arguments extend well beyond farming. It is obviously time to ask, in all contexts, just how free it is proper and reasonable to allow the free market to be. New Labour was supposed to be putting this question, but in farming - perhaps because the present leadership is so inveterately urban - it has so far failed to shape up. Farming is special precisely because, despite its importance, its output is subject to weather and thus is variable. So it has always been subject to government restraint and support. Now government must use the power it already possesses to create something better than what Monsanto and the supermarkets are offering. This is the test case for social democracy.

What, though, should we (and our government) be asking for? Quite a lot - all of it achievable. We should acknowledge (for the first time in history) that farming is primarily for feeding people - which means providing sufficient amounts of food that meets the highest criteria of nutrition, gastronomy and safety. But farming should also be kind to livestock, be good for producers (plenty of people securely employed in interesting jobs) and provide a countryside that is both rich and aesthetically pleasing - though we should match our aesthetic standards to the needs of wildlife.

Agriculture that met these targets could properly be called enlightened. It is not pie-in-the-sky, for the products of an agriculture that truly used the land efficiently - plenty of plants, with animals raised mainly on hills and in meadows - would also meet the recommendations of modern nutritionists (high carbohydrate, low animal fat) and of the best cuisine, which is always peasant-based. It would also be kind to livestock and create a rich and pleasant landscape. It would not be innately or expressly Luddite. There is a strong case for engineered crops - for example, to help provide a decent British bean.

Enlightened agriculture would not, however, be especially friendly to big business, since in general it would require smallish, labour-intensive units with plenty of variety and minimal centralisation. So we reach another critical issue: that only the big companies can afford to develop hi-tech crops and that they very reasonably make only those crops that are good for their own business. A key task for the 21st century is to free hi-tech from the bonds of big business. If we are truly to benefit from hi-tech, we must be able to deploy it in small-scale enterprise and, more generally, for the poorest people who need it most.

For my part, I follow research on genetic engineering because it is so absorbing and could so obviously be worthwhile, but I applaud the saboteurs of present-day trials. The technologies are promising and powerful but they should not be deployed until the strategy is right. We need a moratorium: not simply to dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s on present GMOs, but to rethink agriculture from first principles. The status quo is neither desirable nor inevitable, and we must not allow it to become entrenched beyond recall.

Colin Tudge's latest book, "Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers", is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson