NS Essay - 'There will never be any other industry that can employ as many people as farming'
By 2050, six billion people will live in cities - as many as now live on the whole earth. At least a
Tony Blair has appointed Bob Geldof to tell us what is wrong with Africa. Radical thinking is clearly needed, and Sir Bob seems ideal. He is Irish, wears denims and swears on TV. But intellectually, Geldof is very conventional indeed. He favours the George Bush, big-money, high-tech, corporate approach. In a radio interview, he has stressed the complexity of Africa's problems, with special emphasis on Aids. Alarm bells should ring immediately. Although there are indeed infinite complexities, and although Aids is one (albeit far behind malaria), the complexities have common causes, and the trick is to seek them out. Focusing on the complexities is a spin tactic: a smokescreen of activity, with sheaves upon sheaves of "initiatives", but nothing going on behind.
The root cause of Africa's misery is extraordinarily simple: the almost absol-ute failure of people in high places (government, industry, academe, science) to understand agriculture; what it is, what it is for, how it needs to be done, what it can do. In Britain, we can just about get away with this failure. We can pretend that the running down of the countryside is just the way of the world, and buy our way out of trouble with cheap imports (including, in the latest twist, imported labour). In the agrarian economies of the developing world, the almost absolute misunderstanding in high places is the greatest tragedy that can be conceived. All else follows from it: famine and malnutrition, because people are no longer allowed to grow the food they once took for granted; disease, which is usually, though not invariably, exacerbated by malnutrition; Aids, because it is spread above all by prostitution, which, with mugging, is the chief of the industries that have grown up as farming runs down.
Farming is the only industry remotely capable of employing the billions of people - literally billions, because most of the world is agrarian - who will be out of work if agriculture continues on the course now plotted for it by western governments and corporations, assisted by expensive science. An "enlightened" agriculture - I use the term because, in this debased age, common sense stands out as enlightenment - would easily feed all the world's people, to the highest standards and for ever, as well as maintaining plentiful employment. It would be traditional in structure - small family farms - though not necessarily in technique. As a bonus, it would tend also to be kind to the environment. It is not an exaggeration to say that an enlightened agriculture provides the basis of a solution to all the world's outstanding problems. Without it, we are certainly sunk.
Modern farming is not designed to feed people. Despots and politicians of all hues have taken it for granted that, with modern techniques and cheap energy, agriculture is infinitely adaptable, to be slotted in to any ideology. Stalin designed Soviet agriculture in the 1930s to prove that collectivisation works (only it didn't). The infamous Common Agricultural Policy that has caused so much waste and misery was designed as part of the postwar dream of a united Europe.
Farming that feeds people well doesn't need to be "designed" at all. It arises. People do what their patch of land permits them to do, and they fill such (mainly local) gaps in the market as are available. This is truly in the spirit of Adam Smith, and it inspired Thomas Jefferson, who envisaged the US as a country of small farmers. Human beings are good omnivores. They can do well whether their diet is high in (lean) meat or low. They don't much care if the basic provender is wheat or rice or sorghum - it's just a question of what they're used to. Give or take a few taboos, our species can live just about anywhere on just about anything; not frugally, either, because every region has given rise to its own magnificent cuisines. But with the growth of mass transport (clippers, then steamships, then aeroplanes) and refrigeration in the past 200 years, it has been possible to suck agriculture as a whole into the broad river of world commerce. Technologies in general - notably the tractor - have also made it easier to take in hand huge areas of land, and so to impose "design".
Now, we have the greatest and most sinister dogma of all. It is carved into the lintels of modern colleges of agriculture, and it inspires the World Trade Organisation. It says: "Agriculture is a business like any other."
To be sure, farms need to be run as businesses. The peasant agriculture of Russia was primitively capitalist and worked far better than Stalin's collectives. But capitalism can take many different forms, some benign, some vile. The modern model - mass production by transnational corporations; high-tech as a matter of policy; and globalisation of absolutely everything - is capitalism at its most brutal, the kind that Jefferson and Keynes warned against. This brutalist agriculture is at odds, in all important respects, with farming that is intended to feed people. The more that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Bob Geldof seek to solve the problems of the poor world by deals with big business - "corporate responsibility", etc - the worse the world's problems will become; with Africa, as always, hit hardest of all.
The essence is simple. The modern business model demands maximum generation of cash and profit, all driven (in theory) by maximum competition. No one sensible denies that cash is necessary. Profit is not bad per se. Competition is an antidote to complacency. What is wrong is the stress on "maximum" - the result of pressure from shareholders, who will switch allegiance if some competitor offers bigger returns.
To maximise profit, you need to maximise output, because a small profit on a lot is more than a big profit on a little; to minimise the cost of production; and to "add value" - ie, widen the gap between the cost of production and the sale price. All three of these requirements are absolutely at odds with what is needed to provide an agriculture that serves the needs of humanity.
Output, or productivity, is the item that is most misunderstood. The conventional argument is that, since population is doubling every half-century or so, humanity requires a constant increase in output. Only science-based technology, it is argued, can do what is needed, and only corporations can provide the necessary high-tech answer. The Green Revolution is invoked as irrefutable proof that conventional farming will not do, and that high-tech responses must be brought in like the US cavalry to rescue it.
Yet this line of argument, taken virtually to be self-evident, is wrong at every step. Population growth is slowing, and UN demographers predict that numbers will stabilise at about ten billion by 2050. There will be no need after that to go on producing more. Agriculture that is traditional in structure is easily up to the task. The Green Revolution, based primarily in Mexico and Asia in the late 1960s and 1970s, was the one unequivocal triumph of high-tech agriculture, but it was a one-off. It produced semi-dwarf varieties of wheat and rice - by far the world's most important crops - that responded positively to high fertility (the traditional, tall varieties merely fell over when fertilised). There is no comparable problem still to be solved.
But more important than productivity are sustainability and reliability. Modern industrial agriculture, when transferred from the forgiving fields of the temperate north, has often proved neither reliable nor sustainable. Technology can help conventional farming: better vaccines, information via satellite, and so on. The poorest people sometimes benefit most. But new technology need not emanate exclusively from corporations. It does so only because western governments, led by Britain, have ducked their responsibility for developing it. Corporations will develop only those technologies that are good for them. Present-day genetically manipulated organisms are not intended primarily to feed people, but to give power to the corporations that develop them.
The day-to-day reality, as all proper farmers have recognised at least since classical times, is that productivity must be kept in check. Shortfall is disastrous, locally and globally, but overproduction runs a close second to it. It leads to glut, when prices plummet. Consumers might benefit in the short term, but if the farmers go bust, everybody loses in the long run. Traditional societies have cushioned the ups and downs with quotas and tariffs and so on. But the new dogma insists that the free market can replace all those refinements. Farmers everywhere in this brave new business world are being encouraged to produce more and more of everything.
Costa Rica and Brazil, two well-established coffee producers, are now growing more and more, as are Vietnam and East Timor. Entirely unsurprisingly, world coffee prices have fallen by nearly 70 per cent over the past five years. The Costa Ricans gave up the beans and maize they used to grow to feed the people (it's cheaper to buy US surpluses) and now find themselves growing more coffee to sell at below-cost prices. So it is with tea, soya, even cardamom. Traditional in Kerala, it is now also grown in Guatemala, so that prices are tumbling and farmers are going to the wall. The middlemen are doing very well indeed: able to buy at rock-bottom prices and sell for the same as before - you'll note that the cost of coffee hasn't fallen 70 per cent in Starbucks. Thus the logic of the brutal business dogma is to encourage glut. Invitations go out to leap aboard the already overladen bandwagon. In theory, farmers can choose whether to sign up. In practice, there is no choice as established markets disappear.
Clare Short, when in charge of the Department for International Development, said she envisaged Africa growing fruit and vegetables for Europe. Yet Europe's markets are already supersaturated, as a visit to Sainsbury's would reveal. Is Angola going to undercut Spain's tomatoes? Can it push Israel out of strawberries? It could cultivate novel fruits that cannot be grown outside the tropics - but how many custard apples is the world prepared to eat? The idea that developing world countries can transform their economies by growing food for the rich world is ludicrous. The markets just aren't there - not enough to make any real difference to a producer country. Yet in making the attempt, the producers must displace their own farming, which fed and employed people. Besides, any leverage they might achieve would be at the expense of the west's farmers, who deserve sympathy, too.
But there is one conventional commodity where the market has seemed virtually limitless: meat. It would be easy to feed the world on a high-cereal diet, but that would place a ceiling on production and would be bad for business. The ceiling can be raised and raised again if the cereal is fed first to poultry, pigs and cattle. Animals fed on grass use a resource that humans cannot use, but when they feed on cereal, they compete with us. On present trends, by 2050 the world's livestock will consume an amount equivalent to that eaten by four billion people, the world's total population in the 1970s. This will, in effect, raise the planet's total population to 14 billion. The commercial/political spin has it that people are "demanding" meat. The truth is that it is largely a fashion promoted by commerce. The very rich are already eating less meat for reasons of health, and all the world's great cuisines - which are now being swept aside - use meat sparingly. Brazil's biggest dollar earner now is soya, grown to feed yet more cattle in Europe. Soya is raised intensively, with near-zero local employment, and the dollars go to the owners of the big estates, and help to pay off Brazil's debt to the US. None of it has anything to do with feeding people or with human well-being, because Europeans have enough to eat already and the cash serves merely to make the rich richer. All this follows logically from the dogma of farming as a business "like any other". It is sublime.
The cutting of costs - the second absolute requirement - is even more disastrous. In Britain, BSE/Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and foot-and-mouth disease were not acts of God, and cannot be blamed on dodgy farmers. They resulted from cut-price husbandry, which requires the cutting of corners. They were directly caused by government policy. We will see their like again, often. Meanwhile, shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic, we have the Food Standards Agency, to protect us from ourselves. Bureaucracy is cheap. It's effective action that costs.
Worse by far is the effect on employment. Labour usually is the most expensive input. When cutting costs, it is the first thing to go. Again, we have seen the effects in Britain. In the 1940s, at least 20 per cent of the people worked on the land. Now it is down to about 1 per cent; labourers in Lincolnshire, with the aid of industrial chemistry, look after 1,000 hectares each. It's the same in the US, Jefferson's land of small farmers. More Americans are now in jail than work full-time on farms. Even then, the resulting cash "efficiency" is mostly a sham. The gaps in labour are frantically filled with immigrants: illegal Mexicans in the US, to be rounded up and thrown out at will; Albanians of dubious legality in Britain.
The effects are worst in the developing world, where 60 per cent of the people work on the land, amounting to almost half the world's total employees. India has a billion people, with 600 million on the land - nearly half as many again as the population of the expanded EU. In Angola, 80 per cent are on the land. In Rwanda, the figure is 90 per cent.
Yes, 90 per cent is too many. There aren't enough people left to do all the other jobs, and create wealth. In India, academics to whom I spoke reckoned that 50 per cent on the land (around 100 million fewer people) would be about right. But if India went down the western route, it would throw more than half a billion out of work. India's IT industry, heralded as the glorious future, currently employs just 60,000. If India served the IT needs of the whole world, it surely would not employ more than 600,000 - roughly one-thousandth of the farmers who would be out of work if India's agriculture were to be westernised.
If the world continues to industrialise its farming in the cause of productivity and cutting costs, billions will be out of work. The world's problems spring in large part from a lack of food, but in equal measure from a lack of employment. Britain and the US, now the world's models, did not reduce their agrarian workforce until their urban industries were ready to soak up the labour, which in Britain took from the 18th century to the mid-20th. The countries of the developing world are being invited to throw most of their people out of work before there is any industry that could even begin to employ the dispossessed. Either this policy is extremely careless, or it is downright wicked.
There never will be any other industry that can remotely employ as many people as farming. Certainly, no other industry could employ people usefully, because agriculture at bottom is a craft (or was until very recently) and crafts benefit from more skilled hands on deck. If humanity were really interested in the long-term future, and if we really gave a damn about justice in the short term, then we would be making all possible effort to create agrarian economies worldwide. But again, the new economics drives us to do the complete opposite.
By 2050, says the UN, six billion will live in cities - as many as now live on the whole earth. Already, again according to the UN, one billion live in slums. The cities are not coping, and never will. Urbanisation must be seen as a minority pursuit, and extreme urbanisation as an aberration. For the foreseeable future, which in effect means for ever, the world will not be tolerable for most people unless it is agrarian. Yet, driven by the business mantra, we are trying with all possible speed to destroy agrarian economies and replace them with God knows what, and calling it progress.
True, agrarian life is difficult. But it is nothing like the inevitable disaster that it has become convenient to pretend. There's a wondrous swatch of technologies out there waiting to make country living tolerable, from solar electricity to non-mains water to satellite TV and the internet. Only the economics seems difficult - but again, there are plenty of models already framed, waiting to be explored.
But those models tend to spread wealth among people at large. They would not serve, on the whole, to make rich people even richer; and because the world is run by the rich for the benefit of the rich, they are deemed "unrealistic". What is real is the mantra of farming as brutal business, the WTO, the CAP, the myth of corporate responsibility, and radical Bob to the rescue. It would almost be funny, if it weren't so unremittingly foul.
Colin Tudge's latest book, So Shall We Reap, is published by Allen Lane, the Penguin Press (£20)