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15 April 2002updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

The greatest folly of our age

Clare Short believes that rural India needs more hi-tech. Wrong, wrong, wrong, argues Colin

By Clare Short

Britain’s government, urged by Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, is preparing to give £65m to the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to modernise its agriculture. This sounds like an admirable example of overseas aid because, we are told, it will “totally eradicate poverty”. The money will be used to replace bullocks with tractors and combines, merge the farms, enlarge the fields, get stuck in with the fertiliser and the crops to match.

Norfolk in the sun. Isn’t it grand? Isn’t it good that such kindness may flourish still in this cynical world? Karl Marx dreamed that technology one day would lift the drudgery of labour from humanity’s shoulders – and aren’t we being taken one step nearer? There are detractors, who like to watch the ox-ploughs in the sunset; but they are rich, effete, self-indulgent “romantics”, technophobic, elitist and despicable. Are they not?

No, is the answer: no, no, no, no, no. I have taken a serious interest in world agriculture these past 30 years and this is among the worst and most shocking pieces of reactionary nonsense I have heard in all that time – worse by far than the traditional targets of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola which, we know, are merely businesses, obliged to make money. This gratuitous arrogance is dressed in the weeds of self-righteousness, of “we know better than you”. Believe me, Clare, you don’t. Listen to the Indian farmers themselves, 20 million of whom will lose their jobs. I am told you are not a bad person, but you are wrong about this at all levels: technically, politically, socially, economically, morally. If you think it is right to do this, it is because you have been duped.

I am sure Clare Short believes (for it is the current mantra) that humanity in general (six billion of us, rising to ten) and India in particular (about a billion, in a space that’s not as vast as people seem to think) cannot possibly be fed without science and the hi-tech that emerges from it. True: but caveats are in order. Agricultural science did not seriously begin to make its mark until the late 1920s, when the world population was already two billion. We added another billion by the 1960s, but largely by cultivating yet more land. So farming based only on craft, with no formal science, evidently supported a world population of between two and three billions. We probably would not have got to six billion without science but, even so, all that science has really done – or all that really matters – is to give a couple of tweaks to the traditional craft.

The first and greatest tweak was a piece of pre-First World War industrial chemistry: the creation of artificial nitrogen (N) fertilisers by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. The second came with the classical genetics of the mid-20th century (with some “cytogenetics”, too, but nothing so fancy as genetic engineering): the provision of dwarf (short-stemmed) varieties of wheat and rice that could take high doses of N without falling over. The increased yields gave us the Green Revolution. Wheat, rice and maize between them provide humanity with half our calories, with wheat and rice by far the most important. Increase them, and the job is largely done.

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Artificial N, and the dwarf grains of the Green Revolution, were both technologies born of science and so, by definition, qualify as “hi-tech”. But they are modest hi-tech: simple stuff by modern standards. Modern hi-tech could contribute more, including excellent vaccines, more pest-resistant crops, more subtly “integrated” (chemical-cum-biological) pest control. So let’s go for it. Yet it’s all bells and whistles compared to the extra N on the new varieties of wheat and rice. It is not true that hi-tech keeps the world afloat. The basis of the farming that has taken world numbers to six billion is, as it has been for the past 10,000 years, the craft that farmers themselves have evolved in their fields.

The second huge mistake – apparently common to all modern politics, commerce and much of academe – is that hi-tech (the technology that comes of science) must imply industrialisation: factories, big machines, big piles of potentially mobile cash known as capital. Again, this simply is not true. The main source of this deception is historical. Scientific research is expensive, and governments don’t like to pay for it. In reality, science and capitalism have arisen in harness and harmony over the past 400 years to create a positive-feedback loop: capital provides the cash for the scientific research that produces the kinds of high technologies that will generate more cash, and so on. The loop has been reinforced since the 1970s, as Thatcheresque governments have urged scientists to get more and more of their funds from industry. It seems to follow that if poor societies need hi-tech (and they certainly can benefit from it in all kinds of ways: vaccines, for example, or satellites for schools in rural India), then they also need the big companies that alone can pay for it. Ergo, the logic goes, societies that need more hi-tech (as most do, if it is well chosen) must also industrialise.

But the huge snag is that the feedback loop can produce only the kinds of technology that generate more cash, and make the financing companies even stronger. The technology should be geared to humanity, and not the other way around; and the people to ask first (and last, and all the way along the line) are the farmers themselves, who actually do the work. Although Andhra Pradeshi farmers might benefit from more hi-tech, they don’t have to accept the grand western industrial package that goes with it. It should not be beyond the wit of humanity to separate excellent science from the strategies of industry and modern commerce.

Then there’s the broader issue – in some ways, the biggest of all: the pervasive notion that all the world’s countries should be categorised as “developed”, those that in some sense have arrived, or “developing”, whose task and destiny it is to try to become more like us. This conceit is gross, and Short surely needs no lectures on it. I have been often to rural India, and it’s poor, but it is not desperate; or not, at least, as Bombay is desperate – or Harlem or downtown Philadelphia. Andhra Pradesh’s new hi-tech farming, linked to the global market, might indeed generate more accountable wealth than traditional systems do, but nobody with any knowledge of recent history or with eyes in their head can believe that this will necessarily improve well-being.

If you ask the Andhra Pradeshi farmers themselves if they want their farms and their society industrialised, they will say: “No, absolutely not.” The millions who will lose their jobs will join the millions who already live on the streets and in the shanties of towns such as Calcutta. Short did not ask the farmers; but some of them came to London a fortnight ago to speak to her (presumably at their own expense). I also spoke to some of them and found again how very clued-up they are. Britain hasn’t had a peasantry for several hundred years and doesn’t understand what peasants are. In this country, the term is used in a derogatory way. But peasants can include the brightest people. Their sons and daughters get PhDs, given half a chance. How dare London politicians presume to transform their way of life without even asking them, with a knowledge-base of zero? But that is the way the world is run. Government de haute en bas – the antithesis of what democracy ought to mean – is still the seismic fault in human affairs that above all we must put right.

Of equal moment is what humanity should do with farming as a whole. Common sense and serious scholarship combine to tell us that agriculture is not, as the modern mantra has it, “a business like any other”. It may or may not be good for other industries to corporatise and globalise, but it can be demonstrated in a hundred ways that this is not good for farming. Farming must march to a much more powerful drum, that of biology; and because it affects every aspect of all our lives, social concerns, too, must be paramount. It is not just a matter of making calories as cheaply as can be managed, with the smallest possible labour force, as is the way of conventional industry. No sensible person should believe that farming, with all its ramifications and its overwhelming importance, can safely be placed in the crude hands of commerce.

But that is what the modern industrialist, globalist zealots do believe, with all the quivering passion of religious fundamentalists; and that is what our present government subscribes to. World farming and our attitudes to it, the norms and the myths that have been built into it as the industrial revolution has unfolded, need rethinking from the bottom up. By all means build on the craft of farming with excellent science, though always guided by the farmers themselves. But to replace the legacy of 10,000 years and of a billion skilled and experienced people with the simple formula of cash and hi-tech – that is a lunacy that will eventually outweigh all the other follies of these most mischievous times.

Colin Tudge’s In Mendel’s Footnotes (Vintage) and The Variety of Life (Oxford University Press) are now in paperback

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