The research agenda we really need

16th December 2018

Colin Tudge argues that the British government is spending agricultural research money on the wrong things and not tackling the issues that really matter. What are they really trying to do?

At this stage of history, agricultural research should not at this stage be focused on productivity. The world already produces enough food for 14 billion people – almost twice the present number and 40 per cent more than the UN says should ever be needed – which is easy to check from figures available on the web. (i.e: the world produces 2.5 billion tonnes of cereal per year which is enough for 7.5 billion people (with some leeway), which is roughly equal to the present world population; and cereal accounts for only half our total production of calories and protein).

We, or rather them-in-charge, also need to reconsider the much-vaunted concept of “efficiency”. It should not as now mean “cash efficiency” because cash in reality is a very poor measure of wellbeing, whether of human beings or of the biosphere. Even worse: efficiency in practice commonly translates as calories or cash produced per employee, meaning the fewer workers the better – whereas the priority now in a crowded and over-stressed world should be not be simply to create “jobs” (as in shelf-fillers on zero-hour contracts) but to provide satisfying careers; and farming when properly conceived is among the most satisfying of all, up there with medicine and teaching, or painting and science.

The overall priority now as the natural world dies around us is to create agriculture that is as far as possible in harmony with nature, and enhances human contentment. In other words we should be focused on the components of Enlightened Agriculture (real farming) — Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Economic Democracy; plus, specifically, on the elusive but all-important quality of human happiness.

Agroecology requires scientific research into, for example:

  • Organic farming in general – which nowadays receives a derisorily small portion of the government research budget. The research that is done is mostly by private organisations.
  • Agroforestry in particular – which so far as I know does not now feature at all in Defra or BBSRC thinking.
  • Soil – and particularly soil microbiota: microbes (bacteria and archaeans); “protists”; invertebrates; and fungi – including and perhaps especially the all-important but much neglected mycorrhizae!
  • Grazing (and browse); i.e, pasture-fed livestock. In particular, does well-managed grazing lead to loss of CH4 or to net carbon sequestration? General biological principles suggest the latter. e.g: during the Miocene and Pliocene when there were many billions of grazing animals the world grew steadily cooler. The present, almost hysterical attack on cattle is most inappropriate. True, intensive cattle (of the kind the government now favours) must be massive CH4 generators but cattle judiciously grazed are surely good for the biosphere.
  • Mixed populations of cereals and other crops. Inter alia, genetic diversity offers more long-term protection against pests and diseases than specific resistance genes.
  • Pollinators other than honeybees. Flies for example are among the most important pollinators but only a few biologists are taking them seriously.
  • Animal welfare in all its aspects.

None of the above, I venture, is receiving anything like the attention it deserves – and certainly not from government. Taxpayers’ money is spent elsewhere (basically on making life easy for corporates).

Food Sovereignty implies that people (generally meaning communities or societies) should have control of their own food supply – and we should be asking what this means in practice. We can learn in particular from the world peasant movement, La Via Campesina, which first formulated the food sovereignty idea in the 1990s. Britain’s Landworkers’ Alliance is allied to La Via Campesina (and to the Oxford Real Farming Conference).

Economic Democracy implies, in similar vein, that we, humanity, should have control of the economy, and run the economy in ways that enhance our own lives. The concept should be extended to become Green Economic Democracy – meaning that the economy should be geared to the wellbeing both of humanity and of the biosphere. There are plenty of economic models out there and in the history of the world – and indeed in the history of Britain – which suggest ways of achieving Economic Democracy, although green thinking for the most part has lagged woefully behind. It is absurd that we should now be expected to live our whole lives, and to re-shape the biosphere, to fit in with the economic dogma of the day, as if economic dogma had the weight of scientific law or indeed of divine edict. It is doubly absurd not to say suicidal to gear our lives and the biosphere to the demands of the simplistic, brutalist formula of neoliberalism, which simply decrees that if we all compete on the world market with whatever it takes to maximize our own wealth then everything will turn out OK. How can governments and intellectuals who claim to be “evidence-led” support such an idea when the evidence shows so clearly that it is not true? Inequality, hunger, war, mass extinction, global warming – what more evidence is needed? (OK: all of these existed before neoliberalism but the materialism and competitiveness that are the drivers of neoliberalism add fuel to the flames).

To this list of desiderata I would add one more line of inquiry of a social nature – bringing together studies in human ecology, sociology, and mental health (and indeed physical health) to ask: “What forms of farming contribute most directly to happiness”? Is rural life in a thriving rural economy – viable villages, communities – really as good as or better than life in than the city? How much do we really gain from contact with nature and from handling animals and plants? Some would doubtless find such studies whimsical but actually they’re about human values as opposed merely to short-term wealth; and those who think that short-term wealth is all that matters should, I suggest, be kicked into touch or otherwise banished to the naughty step and certainly should not, as now, be put in charge.

In fact, the research priorities listed by Michael Gove in recent talks to Theos and the CLA and pursued so eagerly by BBSRC – gene editing, synthetic protein and all the rest – are all, in the grand scheme of things, marginal. They are trendy and flashy and “challenging” and for those who are good at them (including Britain) they are potentially lucrative. But they do not go to the heart of the world’s problems and the research that would go to the heart of the world’s problems is neglected. In truth we – and especially government with access to all the taxpayers’ money — need to re-think agriculture (and therefore everything else) from first principles. For starters we need to ask: “What are we really trying to achieve? What do we really think is important? Should ‘economic growth’ really be the limit of our ambitions?”

Given that our government along with most other governments seems to be pushing us in quite the wrong directions we might also ask — “Whose side does the government think it’s on?”

by Colin Tudge