Common as muck

The French cattle-feed scandal is just the latest calamity to befall agriculture in Europe. Colin Tu

It is not completely unreasonable to feed human sewage to cows, a la mode francaise. They ferment all their food before they absorb it with the aid of the microbes - bacteria and protozoa - that populate their rumina. These microbes can remove the organic nitrogen in excrement and use it to make amino-acids, purines and pyrimidines, the raw materials of proteins and DNA. For cows - as for many animals from dogs to rabbits to gorillas - faeces can indeed be nourishing. Pathogens in faeces presumably fail to survive the competition from ruminal microbes. In some systems chickens are routinely fed chicken manure (or presumably consume their own, when free-range); and cattle are commonly and acceptably fed urea as a nitrogen supplement, as found in mammalian urine. The urea complements the straw, which is carbon-rich but poor in nitrogen.

So it is not completely unreasonable to feed raw sewage. But it is disgusting. It shows contempt both for the animal and the consumer and, incidentally, it is illegal. It suggests that the farmers are desperate, cynical, or both. It reflects, indeed, the fact that is obvious to everyone except, apparently, the politicians: that European agriculture as a whole has lost its way, or indeed was ill-directed from the start, and is digging itself into deeper and deeper holes. We (and the world as a whole, but we might as well begin at home) must rethink from first principles.

What, first of all, is agriculture actually for? "Feeding people" is not a bad answer, at least as a first approximation. So is that what European agriculture is primarily designed to do? Of course not. Don't be silly!

Of all the systems of agriculture that have ever existed in the world, I can think of only two for which this was the prime ambition. One was created in Britain during the second world war. Our governments between the wars had found it convenient to import cheap food from the world at large (much of which we owned) and had blithely allowed our own agriculture to decay, most picturesquely. But life got very serious again when the convoys were being sunk: the system was rough and ready - an emergency measure - but nonetheless it produced adequate staples and livestock in appropriate places. The other example was Mao's China of the late 1950s and 1960s, which seemed to create an agriculture based on the sublime peasant skills that elsewhere have been so insouciantly swept aside: in the wet areas at least, rice fields were raised (manured with human sewage), with ducks, pigs and carp reared in the interstices. Brilliant.

Otherwise, farming has always been designed primarily to prove some political point. The medieval strip system ensured that the peasants worked hard but remained in fealty to their feudal lords. Stalin's collectives were designed to show that central government works (and that the socialist collective will can override Mendelian genetics), and even more people would have starved if some peasant skills had not slipped through the net.

Europe's farming is designed, more and more, to suit the needs of big business. In the end, it's as simple as that. Economy of scale with maximisation and centralisation of profits (not totally dissimilar in spirit from Stalin's central-isation of government) are the names of the game. You see it plainly on the ground - fields fused into prairies, combines as big as cottages, monoculture where once were the jolly, mixed farms of our childhood. Dairy cows mill around in herds of 100, though in the 1970s,when I spent a few years at Farmer's Weekly, 30 was commonly considered too many and 20 or so was more comfortable. Behind the scenes lie horizontal and vertical integration (fewer and fewer companies, bigger and bigger, with the farmers doing what the supermarkets tell them) and more and more City money.

Of course, there are fewer farm workers (labour is the most expensive input, and is the first to go). Of course, there is less variety (variety needs labour). Of course, there is less tender loving care (does a cow, producing ten times more milk - literally - than she would in the wild, really need only 100th of your time?). Of course, corners are cut (hardware and chemistry cost less than human skill). Of course, the bureaucracy grows (in centralised economies, and governments, 'twas ever thus). Of course, the farmers are unhappy (they vie with publicans and GPs in the suicide stakes). Their society is gone and so has most of the fun. Good husbandry matters much, much less than the chasing of subsidies, the search for legal loops. It's hard to be a farmer, and they didn't do it for this. Of course, they are cynical. As they feed their cows, vicariously they feed us. Revenge?

In truth, "feeding people" is not quite enough. That is only the first approximation. Agriculture that was properly designed would also care for the producers - the farmers and the market gardeners - for they are fellow citizens, and we need them. The neurosis of farmers worldwide (different causes in different countries, though with a common thread) is ridiculous. Almost all whom I have met worldwide seem happy with "a fair day's money for a good day's work"; but that principle has become rare.

Agriculture that truly matched the needs of the world, too, would care for the environment, and the wild creatures that live in it. Such a suggestion is written off in these slick times as sentiment - much less important than money. But while we are asking what farming is for, we might also ask what money is for. If we wreck the world as a whole, what is the point of anything? If that's not serious, what is? Agriculture is the greatest single influence on the survival of other creatures. If we get that wrong, then conservation is a lost cause.

The welfare of livestock also matters. We must keep animals for food. Veganism is not a realistic option. But if we keep them at all, we must treat them properly: gear the husbandry to their physiological and psychological needs. Cows, for instance, are small-herd animals, with a keen sense of hierarchy. The 100-strong herd is an insult in itself, whatever else is done to its members.

Finally, of course, in a moral world, each country should care about the others. Globally speaking, the current battle between the British and the French is a bit of a joke. We've been at it for 1,000 years, so why stop now? But the realignment of the world's hemispheres, east and west and north and south, matters a great deal. It's important that farming in Norfolk or Wisconsin does not destroy a livelihood in Malawi or Kerala.

Farming that is designed to feed people, does treat the producers with justice, does not wreck the environment, is not cruel to livestock, and does not destroy the livings of other people in far-flung societies, might properly be called "enlightened". It would, I suggest, be a good thing. It is worth the devising. To those who say it is "not realistic" (because it would not necessarily bring profits to the people who are now in charge), we should respond: "Just go. You've tried, you've failed, your time is up." The task is eminently doable. It's just a question of knowing what we should be trying to do.

I suggest, in fact, that the creation of an enlightened agriculture is the most important material task facing humankind. Agriculture is huge. If we get it right, all else follows. If we continue down the present, dreary track, with nothing in our minds but short-term profits, convinced that nothing else is "realistic", then we deserve disaster. Stalin showed what happens when you get agriculture wrong.

How in practice would enlightened agriculture differ? How would food be different? In a nutshell, there would be smaller, more mixed farms with far more labour, fewer livestock (but much better and more kindly raised), and far more varied staples and vegetables. Good science and the highest technology are vital to the task. This is not nostalgia. Organic farmers have got the structure right, but they don't need to be organic. Their organic status is the least interesting thing about them. What they do is fundamentally good; they shouldn't have to defend it with gratuitous Luddism.

Food would be dearer at the farm gate (as they say on Farmer's Weekly) but consumers would save by eating less meat (though it would be much more flavoursome), with less processing. In any case, the cheap food policy is a sad exercise in hypocrisy. Cruelty to animals and social and environmental degradation are a device to palliate poverty. The real question is why we tolerate poverty at all in a rich country.

The National Farmers' Union is now asking us to "Buy British!". Fair enough. But don't let's make it an exercise in xenophobia. This article has been pro-farmer - but the farmers have not been innocents these past few decades. The NFU happily grabbed whatever goodies were on offer, without much sign of global conscience. If they are now taking the moral high ground, that's grand - but let them earn our loyalty. Let them demonstrate that their claim of "quality" is more than a knee-jerk marketing device. Let them show, indeed, that they grasp the concept of enlightenment.

Colin Tudge's next book, "The Variety of Life: the meaning of biodiversity", will be published by OUP next spring