Profits won't feed the world

We will all have enough to eat if we stick to the good, old-fashioned craft of farming. We don't nee

This ought to be the century in which, once and for all, we show that Thomas Malthus was wrong. Cleric, moralist and economist, he predicted at the end of the 18th century that the human species would go on increasing exponentially until we all starved. But United Nations demographers now predict that the human population will level out by 2050; and although it will then be ten times bigger than in Malthus's day - about ten billion as against one billion - we should easily be able to grow enough to keep us all sleek and perky for the next million years, after which our descendants can work things out for themselves.

Yet it is not quite time to rejoice. Global warming hangs over us, and the threatened rise of sea levels is enormously important because much of the world's most fertile land is low-lying. Some predict that a third of it could be flooded - and the change could come suddenly because, if the Antarctic ice melts, it is likely to do so quickly.

More threatening by far, though, are the world's food policies, if such they can be called. Wickedness - corruption, cynicism, greed - plays a significant part in screwing things up for us all. But more pernicious, because less obvious and so less tractable, is a series of misunderstandings and prejudices held by the powers that be of politics, industry, academe and especially science.

The fundamental problem is that in world politics as a whole, and in agriculture in particular, two different agendas run side by side. The first is concerned with human well-being. In farming - easily humanity's most important pursuit - the aim is to provide good food for everybody, sustainably: three square meals a day, or whatever the local custom is, for everyone, for all time. The second has nothing to do with general well-being. It has simply to do with power: who runs the show, and for whose profit.

In agriculture over the past 30 years, this second agenda has triumphed. The world's food production at any one time was historically run by millions of small farmers - by the mid-20th century, there were hundreds of millions. They were craftsmen and craftswomen, selling most of their produce through tens of millions of small, independent retailers. Although long-distance trade in food has existed at least since classical times - and when properly run can be highly beneficial - people obtained the majority of their food from local sources, with the advantage, among other things, that the producers were directly answerable to their customers.

As we all know, world food production, distribution, processing and retail are dominated today by a few ever-expanding corporations. Farm labour is reduced because these businesses want, above all, to cut costs, and labour is the most expensive input. In Britain, only about 1 per cent of the workforce now works full time on the land, and we are still losing 1,000 farmworkers a month. In the United States, which Thomas Jefferson saw as a nation of small farmers, there are more people in jail than on the land. In Britain, 80 per cent of produce (about half of it grown here) is sold through five supermarket chains. If people eat better than 50 years ago (and it is a big if), this is because the world is richer and technology more advanced. We should not be fobbed off with the status quo. We should be asking how much better our lives would be if all that added wealth and science had really been directed at improving the world's food. But that first agenda has long been secondary.

How come? To be sure, the American right makes no bones of its ambitions. It has stated clearly and often that it aims to control the entire world, and that the US itself should be controlled by the elite, which means the wealthy. Agriculture, for the US right, is just another route to hegemony, albeit a supremely important one. If you control another country's food supply, why bother to invade it? Replace traditional growers of sorghum and maize with subsidised, surplus, genetically modified corn created by US biotechnology, replace the farms themselves with American-controlled plantations of coffee, cotton, soya and peanuts, and you have a country in your grip with hardly a shot fired in anger.

Most people around the world, including a great many Americans, are uneasy about this (though it is hard to know where Tony Blair stands). Such a transfer of power and resources is by any reasonable standards theft. So why are we allowing it to happen? Why do so many of Britain's "top" scientists work so hard to create the technologies (GM is an example) that make possible this extraordinary transfer of power?

Because the two agendas, so different in motivation, have become intertwined; and this has happened because of the long chain of misunderstandings and prejudices.

The first profound mistake is to suppose that traditional craft agriculture cannot cope, that humanity has been rescued in the nick of time by modern science, notably by the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and that we need ever-more-daring technologies such as GM and cloning. I have heard this sentiment bruited from a thousand conference platforms by stern gentle-folk in striped suits or reassuringly leather-elbowed tweeds, wagging their fingers at the backsliders such as myself who would like things done differently. But it is a mistake none the less. It is a misunderstanding of the status quo, of history and of the role and nature of science. (It is surprising how many scientists are extremely bad philosophers of science.)

For example, envoys from the west, sent out with narrow briefs and brand-new MBAs by corporations and governments, typically report back that agricultural yields in the developing world seem desperately low. An African farmer in a dry climate might hope for a tonne of sorghum per hectare, while an East Anglian is only moderately satisfied with ten tonnes of wheat. Did not Jonathan Swift observe that two ears of corn are better than one? Isn't the third world farmer missing out - sans fertiliser, sans equipment, sans cash and, above all, sans technique?

But all real farmers know that yield isn't everything. Some enterprises are low-input, low-output; and some are high-input, high-output. The vital thing is to know which is appropriate. Africa is not short of land (Angola has about 12 million people in an area five times the size of Britain), but it is short on climatic security. Twice per decade or so, El Nino strikes and brings drought or flood. It's a huge mistake to over-invest - as is known even in Lincolnshire, though there the taxpayer has often picked up the bill.

Output in Africa should be geared to security in the worst years, not to overproduction in the best. Those who have looked closely at traditional systems invariably comment on their intricacy and subtlety. The Rwandans, for example, have 600 kinds of bean in circulation at any one time, each geared to minutiae of landscape and climate, and to shifting patterns of disease. Monocultural GM corn might give more protein in the short term, but, conceptually, it is not in the same league. If the Rwandans fail (or the Angolans or the Ethiopians), it is because of politics, and not least because of civil war.

The green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was wonderful and timely, but it was a one-off. Yields of wheat and rice, in Asia in particular but also elsewhere, were falling behind rising populations - so that Malthus did seem for a time to have hit the nail on the head. When the traditional crops were more heavily fertilised, they simply grew tall and fell over. They did not produce more grain. Then, within a remarkably few years, breeders at international centres in Mexico and the Philippines created a series of short-stemmed ("semi-dwarf") varieties of first wheat and then rice that didn't grow too tall when fertilised, and so could be farmed by conceptually modern methods.

The sociology was not handled well - agriculture is a zero-sum game, and if one farmer produces more, many others are put out of work - but the value was undeniable. Most new varieties of wheat and rice now contain semi-dwarfing genes of many different kinds, some of which suppress output of the growth hormones (notably gibberellins) and some of which reduce responsiveness to gibberellins, and so on. No monoculture is implied. All this was achieved in the decade before genetically modified organisms were even mooted. Wheat and rice are far and away the most important crops. Together with maize, they provide humanity with half our energy and most of our protein (though maize is mostly fed to livestock). Nothing comparable will ever be required again. The idea that such feats need to be repeated, and that this can be done only with the highest of high biotechnology, is either hype or a lie - or it is born of ignorance. Ignorance in high places is almost as alarming as corruption.

If one takes the long view of agriculture, science certainly does not emerge as the saviour of human-kind. When settled farming first began with the neolithic revolution, 10,000 years ago, the world population stood at an estimated ten million. Bona fide science began to come on board in the 18th century but made no significant impact until the 1920s or even 1930s, courtesy of the tractor (not agricultural science at all) and artificial nitrogen fertiliser, produced by the industrial chemistry of the First World War. By then, the world population was already pushing towards three billion. So craft alone had allowed a 300-fold increase in human numbers; and given that the area under cultivation has increased by 50 per cent since the 1960s, it could support more than four billion.

Now we stand at six billion. And science emerges not as the saviour but as the gilt on the gingerbread. Its most important contributions by far are the tractor, First World War chemistry and the breeding techniques of the mid-20th century which brought us the green revolution. To imply that we owe our existence to modern agricultural science, epitomised in particular by pesticides and GMOs, is ludicrous. To strive to replace the craft that has served humanity so well with largely untested high technologies whose outcome is unpredictable, and which are expressly intended to put people out of work, is ludicrous to the point of wickedness. But that is official policy embraced by successive British and US governments, and so by the world at large.

Science does have a vital role. But it is to support craft. Traditionally structured, small, mixed, family farms, abetted by good modern know-how (for example, in biological pest control, and not precluding the ultra-modern biotechnologies), could provide abundant food and work for everyone in a world that still contains skylarks and tigers, and in which the countries of Africa, Asia and South America are still reasonably free of the United States. But modern agricultural science doesn't support craft. It is designed to replace craft with corporate control.

That brings us to the second great mistake, which is to suppose that science cannot exist, or at least cannot be put to practical use, except by dint of the corporations. To a new generation of modern scientists, this seems self-evident. If you want to do basic science - get to grips with molecules and the laws of physics - then the taxpayer will foot the bill. Most basic science is done in government labs and universities. But if you want to grow two ears of corn where one grew before, then you had better work for Pfizer or Monsanto. Only they can truly bring home the bacon. Yet it wasn't always so. As late as the 1970s, Sir Kenneth Blaxter, one of Britain's great agricultural scientists, told the Royal Society how important it was that science should remain in the public domain. Then came Lord Rothschild, who proposed that when the fundamental work was done, the ideas should be applied by private companies; and then came Margaret Thatcher, who thought that was the best wheeze she had yet heard.

By extrapolation, it is now widely assumed (not least by the present government - regrettably, it seems, including Gordon Brown) that the world can be run only by corporations. Thus the well-being of business becomes a precondition for human well-being in general. We can't expect to eat full stop, let alone eat well, unless we ensure that Bernard Matthews and Birds Eye and Cargill and Sainsbury's are waxing fat. That is what now passes as "realism", particularly in the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. We have become like the villagers in some old folk tale who cannot do anything unless we first placate the giant who lives on the hill; or like the maker of pretzels in the Bronx who survives only if he pays off the mafia. But the mafia does at least provide the protection that it promises. Modern governments take money from their citizens and then give away their goods anyway. It's become a strange and foul world. "Realism" ought to mean that we respond to physical, biological and social realities - including the need to maintain agrarian economies. It shouldn't mean that we have to find ways of feeding fat cats before we feed ourselves.

None the less, scientists are increasingly convinced that they cannot do anything practical unless it is through corporations - and this, in the reality we have created, is more and more the case. Rule by the corporations seems to be necessary, because otherwise there can be no science at all. The world at large is left wondering whether we should opt for craft without science or for science-cum-corporate rule. History suggests that craft without science would be a lot safer; and, so long as things go on as they are, we are quite right, for example, to pull up GM crops. Common sense suggests, however, that craft abetted by science would be best of all. Would that it were an option.

So where do we go from here? Despite the best efforts of successive governments and scientists in high places, and the extraordinary National Farmers' Union (probably the only union to collude in the collapse of its own trade), some small farmers hang on even in Britain; and a surprising number cling to the great traditions, including the fine breeds of livestock and crops and ways of raising them. Many small processors, such as picklers, cheese-makers, brewers and bakers, some retailers and a good proportion of restaurateurs desperately want to serve good food. People of all social classes despise what is now on offer, and the ways of producing it, and the dangers that go with it. They want something better.

In the immediate future, the world needs clubs of conscientious producers and consumers: they will be of every kind, but all dedicated to good food. This is not a class thing. Everyone has a right to eat well; and, in food, the peasant farmer and the gourmet make common cause.

The slogan that could unite, I suggest, is "Enlightened Agriculture". For the time being those who subscribe to it will need to take Gandhi's advice and do their own thing, ignoring the blandishments, misinformation, bullying and blackmail from on high. In time, with luck, the hierarchy will give way. If it does, then humanity really can look forward to a million years of sunlit uplands - provided we can cope with global warming. If not, we've more or less had it.

Colin Tudge is the author of So Shall We Reap, newly published by Allen Lane, the Penguin Press