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19 March 2001

Stalin was wrong; can we do better?

We can't get away from capitalist farming. But which model of capitalism can deliver most, and cause

By Colin Tudge

BSE and foot-and-mouth disease threaten Britain’s farming. Yet this trail of epidemics poses a challenge not only to the nation’s farmers, but to capitalism worldwide. In modern agriculture, increasingly, the criterion of excellence is “efficiency”. This seems reasonable, as its antithesis, after all, is waste. But efficiency is measured almost exclusively in cash – the only common currency by which to compare the hundred different inputs, the cost of labour and the price of fertiliser, the value of inherited land and the depreciation of barns and tractors. Thus, turnover must be maximised, value added and costs cut to the bone – and then some more.

Animals and crops and landscapes, however, are biological systems, and biology is not so easily bossed about. The systems fight back – hence the epidemics we are witnessing now in Britain.

When I first became seriously interested in agriculture in the 1970s, memories of the 1967 epidemic of foot and mouth still hung over Britain’s farming, but the world as a whole focused on the famines in Asia and Africa and the increase in world population. America’s aid was being exposed as technical and economic imperialism, while the Chinese found it easy to occupy the moral high ground at the World Food Conference in Rome in 1972, even though it had been convened by Henry Kissinger. Many, including me (I wrote a book about it), concluded that capitalism really could not solve the world’s food problems.

Everything that capitalism required seemed innately destructive. Increasing turnover meant raising the output of meat. If we had been content simply to eat grain, grain production would have been limited by our capacity to consume it – for the human appetite for grain is rather low. But if grain was first fed to livestock, and then if most of the animal was thrown away, so that only the best cuts were left, the ceiling on output was removed. Unlike grain output, meat output is profligate; maximising production clearly exacerbated the world’s food problems at the most fundamental, ecological level. As the individual animals were coaxed into greater production, their lives became harder: 300 eggs a year from the hens, 25 piglets from the sows, 2,000 gallons-plus of milk from the cows. In addition, as we are seeing now in Britain, the more animals there are, and the more they are stressed, the easier it is for infection to spread.

To add value to food, distributors sent strawberries and even potatoes from world’s end to world’s end, packaged this way and that, processing everything they could, and all the while squandering precious energy. To cut costs, people were thrown off the land: their labour, after all, was the most expensive input. The green revolution, founded on dwarf wheat and rice, was fabulous and necessary; but many thousands of small farmers who couldn’t afford the necessary inputs went to the wall. They were disenfranchised by it, and for them it was the ultimate horror. In livestock units worldwide, including Britain’s, the loss of husbandmen made life even harder for the poor beleaguered and overproductive beasts, banged up in their stalls and packed in, from birth to abattoir, as if in a perpetual football crowd. In the name of efficiency, agriculture became increasingly ugly and yet increasingly precarious. The more that beasts, farmers and landscapes were pushed to their limits, the more uncertain it seemed that the world’s population could continue to be fed.

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Capitalism, so it seemed to many of us in the 1970s, had no answer to any of this. Only a centralised, dirigiste policy, with the best interests at heart of all the people – and of the livestock and the landscape – could possibly save the world from the famine or the ecological collapse that profligacy brought on. I thought at the time that Mao had got it right: rigorous socialism in some form or other was called for.

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In practice, the world’s first consciously centralised and socialist agriculture – in Stalin’s Russia – had collapsed horribly, and only the skills of the peasants who managed to continue in their traditional ways prevented even worse famines. Mao, at his best, built on those peasant skills: but still it was the peasants, and not the central organisation, that brought home the bacon. Simple computer models show that centralised economies are innately inefficient: the volume of commands that must be transmitted up and down the hierarchy is out of proportion to the output. Free markets, instead, can dispense with the chains of command altogether, so the players can get on with the job. Adam Smith’s “hidden hand” mysteriously provides the structure in the well- tempered market, cutting out all need for bureaucracy. Human beings, moreover, are natural traders, and like working for themselves. They cannot operate comfortably for long in a strict hierarchy, however vehemently they might defend its ideals.

So where does that leave us?

The disaster that has befallen Britain’s farming is unquestionably born of capitalism. Profit has prevailed over good sense; hi-tech has been deployed to override sound husbandry, where it should be helping it to operate more benignly. Maximum output at minimum cost has left our farming vulnerable. Infection, in particular, has not been properly factored in: the whole system has been running on a wing and a prayer. Yet we are stuck with capitalism. It no longer seems to make sense to dismantle the free market system, as it did for a time in the 1970s. The alternatives that have been tried don’t work.

The problem is serious, but not quite critical. The particular brand of capitalism that has prevailed in Britain’s agriculture these past few decades happens to have been especially crude. There are many reasons for this, including the brute monetarism of the 1980s; and the new capitalist barons out in the shires are still a law unto themselves.

But it does not have to be like this. If new Labour or, indeed, the Conservative Party were at last to take agriculture seriously, consider the meaning of good husbandry, and ask what science and hi-tech can do, then either party, in its own way, could bring about the necessary reforms. New Labour needs to show that social democracy can work, that a free market really can operate within the rules made by society, and that governments really can make rules that are sensible. The Conservatives need to show that capitalism can have what Edward Heath would acknowledge to be an acceptable face: one in which the players do not simply strive to grow rich by the shortest possible route, but have a vision of how society should be, and are restrained by their own morality. This, after all, was the essence of the old-fashioned Tories: to be both capitalists and moralists. No one has condemned the modern market’s excesses more vehemently than they.

Whichever party forms the next government, agriculture will provide its greatest challenge: to get people back on the land, to encourage again the small- to middle-sized farms that have been swept aside, to re-establish the regions with their local traditions (and markets and abattoirs) – while all the time making the best use of the new and increasingly astonishing technology. Hi-tech with a human face: the transition must be made, and financed. But still, the greatest test for each party is ideological. Each has to show that its own particular model of capitalism, social democrat or Tory, can really deliver, producing a system that is efficient but also humane, safe and sustainable.

At the moment, it is not at all clear that either works. Both have a lot to prove.