Food for thought

In March 2009, Professor John Beddington, who was at that time the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, forecast a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by the year 2030. Jonathon Porritt, the then chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, was less optimistic than Beddington and predicted that 2020 was more likely. At the time of writing, we are now more than halfway through 2017 so the predicted crunch point is between three and thirteen years away.

Of course, these warnings are only useful if they are able to nudge governments and people into taking co-ordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the crunch point has arrived, no more preparation is possible – crisis prevention then has to give way to crisis management. So far, unless plans are being made in secret in Whitehall, there has been a deafening silence from government. I see no preparation and no awareness – but plenty of signs of crisis.

These signs include climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events; a shrinking land area as the seas rise; and heat, drought and flooding affecting the land that remains. As the oceans acidify, they will less and less be able to provide food or remove carbon. Keystone species such as bees and plankton will continue to die off; and the depletion of the humus and mineral content of our farmland soils will go so far that we will no longer be able to rely on future harvests.

In the face of accelerating disasters such as these, we could begin to see events moving out of the grasp of governments; and if, as seems likely, we are unable to make enough changes to avert the worst environmental effects, this will be followed by economic and social fracture, the breakdown of law and order and large movements of refugees from those parts of the world devastated by climate change and war. Hand in hand with this, much of the infrastructure on which we rely to provide food, water and energy will start to fall apart. Professional skills, such as those needed to prevent disasters in the privatised nuclear industry, may no longer be available.

The ways in which the descent to chaos could develop are so varied that governments seem paralysed by the sheer scale of the problems. As the crisis bites, so will the scale of unemployment; and this in turn will mean that government tax revenues become so reduced that they can no longer support the unemployed, or pay for fundamentals such as education, health and law and order. In the UK, we are seeing early signs of this in the way the government is changing the rules about the state pension, meaning that people will now have to work until they are 68 before they can expect to receive it. As the crisis deepens, the rest of us will also be finding it harder and harder to pay our way, and necessities such as food and even water supplies could be hard to get. The social contract between government and people will eventually be broken.

In an uncomfortable kind of way, all of this may be good news. Communities will have to find out how to provide such things for themselves, or do without. All of us will need to re-discover our locality and local skills, and build a new culture of community to take us through. The power of unfettered capitalism, which now seems so inescapable, may become as irrelevant tomorrow as the divine right of kings seems to us today. The shock of this descent will leave nothing in our lives unchanged. It is probable that we cannot now avoid it, but with determination and courage it can be managed, its worst effects averted, and it can be made survivable. It will be our species’ most difficult challenge ever, but also our greatest opportunity.

Turning now to one aspect of this rapidly approaching crisis, how can we secure our food and farming systems for the future? Conventional industrial agriculture is the short-sighted and short-lived product of abundant cheap energy, which has made it possible for a small number of farmers and landowners and industrial food processors to operate on a very large scale, using industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides, while also requiring the elimination of natural ecosystems which get in the way. It has brought the whole supply chain, from seed production to supermarket checkout, under the control of a few very large companies.

But glyphosate and genetically modified crops etc have led agri-biz into a technological trap: large-scale monoculture means that the crop is highly vulnerable to pests and diseases, since there is no local ecosystem to support predators or resistance. Agri-biz cannot now do without these chemicals, but continuing to use them brings many other problems, such as the steep decline in soil fertility, the absence of pollinating insects, or the introduction of neuro-toxins into our food. Could the bees be telling us something about the consequences for our own health?

What’s more, concentrating agriculture into just a few giant food production centres removes all our defences against the spread of catastrophic crop failures, as well as any security we may have against famine. The claim that centralised industrial agriculture is the only way of feeding large populations is about as scientific as a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but rather more damaging. Nor will technological fixes help. Their only effect will be to put off for a time the inevitable consequences, so that the breaking point, when it comes, will be as devastating as possible.

So what options do we have? Where does true food security lie? My own sense is that we need to re-discover localism. Hundreds of small farms and CSA schemes, growing healthy and nutritious food for their local communities, is surely much more sustainable than relying on the toxic, glyphosate-drenched prairie monocultures of conventional industrial agri-business.

Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said at a recent international conference in the USA:

“… at a time when governments are beginning to take action on pollution in transport, with plans for a ban on new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, food producers remain largely financially unaccountable for the terrible damage that current systems are inflicting on the environment and public health.

Mechanisms that could exist to allow future food pricing to be more honest include the introduction of ‘polluter pays’ taxes on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the redirection of farm subsidies in such a way that producers whose systems of production sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and improve public health are rewarded for these benefits.”

At the same conference, Tyler Norris of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, highlighted how the declining nutritional quality of food has an economic cost. In the US, nearly 18 cents of every dollar is spent on health care services.

Other hidden costs exposed by scientists and economists in the proceedings included:

  • the cost of nitrate and pesticide pollution of ground and river water from agro-chemicals, which in some areas of the US is so high that the water industry is struggling to provide drinking water within legal limits;
  • air pollution from CAFOs are shown to be increasing respiratory infections and other diseases in people living nearby; (a CAFO is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, as an animal feeding operation —a farm in which animals are raised in confinement—that has over 1000 “animal units” confined for over 45 days a year)
  • the loss of biodiversity, including the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects,
  • soil degradation and erosion from continuous monoculture crop production,
  • the human health costs to employees working in stressful conditions in food processing plants.

All these and other costs are ultimately paid for by taxpayers and society in hidden ways, which include general taxation, insurance, water charges and reduced quality of life. Cheap food comes at a high cost to all of us.

As it happens, Patrick Holden is a graduate of Emerson College at Forest Row in the UK, where I currently work. It was Emerson College which, in an astonishing act of public altruism, donated the land now farmed by Tablehurst Farm to St Anthony’s Trust, a local charity whose charitable objectives include the training of biodynamic farmers and growers. This has had the radical effect of removing the Tablehurst farm land from being a tradeable commodity, and allows the farmers to do their work without having huge amounts of mortgage debt around their necks. I also work at Tablehurst, and to my mind it is an inspiring example of a farming model which offers great hope for a sustainable and much happier future.

On behalf of John Swain, a film-maker in the States who is putting together a project around issues of farm ownership, community farms and access to land for young farmers, I recently interviewed several people who were involved with the early days of Tablehurst Farm and the transfer of the land from Emerson College to St Anthony’s Trust. You can hear these interviews, and/or read the transcripts, here. I hope you will enjoy listening to them, as well as finding some food for thought about the future of farming.

 

25 Comments

Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, Climate change, Community, Farming, Localism

25 responses to “Food for thought

  1. Jeremy, here in America there is a similar initiative coming out of a little town in southern Wisconsin, Viroqua. Maybe this is the best kept secret in America, I don’t know, but the locals get to sell their respective markets right on the street in a communal environment.

    Interestingly, I found out about all this a couple of years ago on the Waldorf-Critics list, and even our dear Herr Professor Staudenmaier acknowledged this kind of regime in honor of his acolyte, Murray Bookchin, who had started this kind of movement in our very day and age. Liberal communalism is what he called it.

    This community has even created a Thoreau College, which is likely modeled on your own Emerson College. It has a Waldorf school, and a biodynamic culture, which I am sure will impress you. So, Forest Row, meet Viroqua, Wisconsin. It is only across the long pond, which is usually measured east to west.

    Check out these reference points:

    http://www.thoreaucollege.org/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viroqua,_Wisconsin

    https://pleasantridgewaldorf.org/

    http://social-ecology.org/wp/

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  2. Midnight Rambler

    Jeremy states “So far, unless plans are being made in secret in Whitehall, there has been a deafening silence from government. I see no preparation and no awareness – but plenty of signs of crisis”.

    Michel Gove – the new Environment Secretary at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, recently outlined his
    vision of a green Brexit,

    https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-unfrozen-moment-delivering-a-green-brexit

    The speech builds on the environmental policies outlined in the Conservative Party election manifesto, which people voted for, although I suspect only a hand-full of voters actually read this.

    Many of the factors mentioned by Jeremy are recognised. Some policy ideas for addressing some of them are put forward. If they don’t come up to the mark, then its up to us, e.g. through the green NGOs to challenge and point out the failure to deliver and press for change. Green groups have regular sessions with Ministers to do just that.

    However averting the Beddington perfect storm needs vigilant and enthusiastic effort at many levels, and for entrenched attitudes to change. From individuals and their life-style choices right the way up to those leading global organisations who can pass laws which countries should enforce, and global corporations, where leaders can initiate change. Its easy to be cynical, but unless cynicism translates into something creative, there is no chance of averting the storm, which in some parts of Africa has already come.

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  3. Personally, I have long been convinced that focused organic agriculture methods alone can reclaim land that is turning to desert, and feed the world. See for example the Sekem project in Egypt.

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    • Midnight Rambler

      Thanks GudrunVL

      Yes, organic agriculture is definitely the way to go although currently only about 1% of world food production is organic to the levels needed would mean finding sufficient people willing to work on the farms, and for them to earn enough money to make it worth their while. You also need to convince the members of the public to pay the higher prices. This is a more difficult choice for people on low wages. You also have to address the mis-information spread by the opponents of organic agriculture.

      In a recent study, http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms11382,
      500 food production scenarios were tested out by researchers to see if we can feed an estimated world population of 9.6 billion people in 2050 without expanding the area of farmland we already use. They found that enough food could be produced with lower-yielding organic farming, if people become vegetarians or eat a more plant-based diet with lower meat consumption. The existing farmland can feed that many people if they are all vegan, a 94% success rate if they are vegetarian, 39% with a completely organic diet, and 15% with the Western-style diet based on meat.

      On a positive note, the Scottish Government recently launched a scheme https://www.ruralpayments.org/publicsite/futures/topics/all-schemes/agri-environment-climate-scheme/management-options-and-capital-items/organic-farming–conversion/ to support Scottish farmers to convert to organic agriculture, providing financial support to encourage this.

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      • Thank you, M.R., for this encouraging information. Patrick Holden’s concept of “true cost accounting” for farmers would go some way towards evening up the costs of organic and non-organic food for consumers. Do you think there is any chance of the UK government moving in that direction, please?

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  4. Midnight Rambler

    Jeremy – George Eustice is still the minister in charge of farming following the recent UK election. Earlier in the year, there was a meeting between the organics community and GE, in which he agreed to continue to provide government support for organic farming. It would seem he is sympathetic ? The Soil Association (Peter Melchett) and the Biodynamic Association (Tarry Bolger) were both present.

    https://www.soilassociation.org/news/2017/january/31/farming-minister-confirms-organic-support-will-continue/

    Those present at such meetings may have a feel for where the UK Government is heading, although Secretary of State Gove will bring a new direction ! There is clearly a channel for putting ideas to ministers and for the organic / biodynamic community to argue their case. They should arrange further meetings while policies for the new Government are still developing.

    Michael Gove apparently favours the “natural capital” approach

    http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/environment/michael-goves-speech-at-the-conservative-environment-network-launch-full-text/

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    • Thank you, M.R., for this excellent information. I will check with Peter Brown of Tablehurst Farm (previously director of the UK Biodynamic Association) whether the BDA is currently in dialogue with ministers.

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      • “In dialogue with the minsters”. You know, Jeremy, this sounds a lot like the reference that Liliana gave recently to the “thought police” of Orwell’s 1984.

        It was very-well considered, and yet it has its resistance. Personally, I think hoping for this kind of exchange could ‘appear’ to be useful, and yet, unless a real political movement on behalf of those that see the future in the “green brexit” that MR alludes to here, it will simply be another failure in support of the corporate regime.

        I am sorry, but I have been on this blog for a long time, and have expressed my feelings and thoughts ever since Cameron called for the special referendum vote concerning Brexit, and then May’s courage to call for a new general election. So, while her tenure as PM now gets extended into 2022, what can reasonably take place?

        You have an initiative for the future of Britain. As much as I would love to see threefolding arise as a conscious-force on it own merits, and organically oriented to every individual, it simply will not happen unless a political voice is spoken for the cause. To ask whether the BDA is currently in dialogue with the minsters of justice only proves my point that the movement needs a political platform.

        This rationale has previously been discussed on behalf of your initiative, and while I personally hate politics over real aims, I suspect it will have to take hold in order to make this possible. Let us not forget that you have Prince Charles in your hip pocket on this one.

        Steve

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  5. A transition economy from a centralised industrial agriculture to an organic cooperative agriculture is needed to avoid the big crunch in food and water supply, but especially in energy. A transition phase typically demands more fossil fuel, not less. Alas, autocratic Russia – the owner of Gazprom, Rosneft and Rosatom – happens to be the largest natural gas exporter and crude oil producer. So, in a transition economy political awareness of the global energy players and their pipelines cannot be neglected.

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    • Ton, I look at it this way. Whatever is happening here with the Brexit initiative, which is supposedly a fact by now, and needs to be addressed very soon, is definitely one in which agriculture will have to be taken up by the aims of personal cooperatives, as well as many other local common markets. Yet, how many really want this? Personally, I think that most of Britain in these tumultuous times wants to stay within the European Union, and so, this should be made official with a re-vote of the original Cameron referendum.

      I suspect it would go down in defeat, and make David Cameron wonder why he didn’t stay on as PM, unless he was simply tired of the job. Then, Theresa May can simply live out the next five years with an honest effort, and she deserves it for her years as home secretary. She appears to be very serious, and cares, but totally aligned with ‘old regime’. So, she cannot be counted on in this type of engagement, which Jeremy sees as the only solution to the world propagation of democracy coming out of the west, which is the U.S. May has already hung her head in abject horror of Donald Trump.

      Brexit is a lost cause, and that is the first thing that needs to be understood in Jeremy’s initiative. Any hope of whatever he has in mind must come from a grassroots belief that people in this world can fend for themselves, and self-government is the leader of the cause.

      Yet, can it be proven? People can simplify anything down to the science of it, and leave any outward annoyance behind, like ruling governments, for example. We do not have to wait for any conference in which ministers take our issues in hand. They will only tell us what is best.

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    • Brexit or not-Brexit is a relatively small issue compared to transition scenario’s, like Europe’s Roadmap for 2050 (wiki/Transition_scenario).

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      • All I know is that there is a certain conscientious effort being made today, and that is what I am addressing. Whatever the future holds, c, 2050, will likely be the result of human effort, and not “transition scenario roadmaps”, which is a forecast out of AI today.

        What has to happen has to happen now, otherwise all we have to do is wait for 2050. Is that what you’re saying? We won’t be here then, but it would be nice to look back on an earth that has been saved for the future by future-thinkers in human form.

        Thus, Brexit is a much larger issue than people [apparently] think. Please don’t weaken and water-down the matter of what it means for people to truly commune on a spiritual basis. Self-government is a huge issue, and there is nothing to prevent its possibility, unless we merely look at the forecasts you suggest.

        In other words, the litmus has met its test here. Do we drink it for its fructifying power, or wait in order to be a mere statistic in 2050?

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      • What I try to say is that a local cooperative agriculture on a spiritual basis takes time to grow. In the mean time a transition phase with clear-cut goals (like Paris or green Brexit or the Roadmap for 2050) is needed. But a huge political trap is the building of transition economies on a nationalistic basis (Putin, Xi Jinping, Trump) e.g. economic nationalism or patriotism.

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      • What strikes me as important, here and now, is that Jeremy is in the unique position to advocate a simple and proven plan that could easily escalate to the level of national economies, and so the transition must start on the scale from small to large. It won’t happen on any bureaucratic government level.

        As such, let’s look at what Jeremy has going for him. He has Emerson College, first and foremost, as a sponsor. Then he has Tablehurst Farm, and its success, and St. Anthony’s Trust. He also has the encouragement of Michael Spence, who wrote the book on Emerson College, and has demonstrated keen knowledge of Threefolding right here. Of course, I could also include Prince Charles himself, and the very real issue of Brexit in England today, but I wouldn’t want to jinx anything 😉

        So, Ton, thank you. I want to encourage this initiative forward, and so I push it in a kind way. Here in America, everything has gone bonkers because certain historical monuments of the confederacy, i.e., Civil War, want to be taken down, and it has become the convenient platform for the white nationalists to protest. They are worried that they are becoming the minority in this country. Go figure that one!

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      • Steve, it’s kind of you to think that I’m in a unique position, but I don’t think that is so – I see that people all over the world are becoming aware of ways in which the economy is not working for them and that our present model of capitalism is leading to disaster – and, like me, they want to do something about it. What I try to remember are two quotations, which all of us ordinary folk should bear in mind: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”. (Theodore Roosevelt); and “If not us, who? If not now, when?” (Mikhail Gorbachev).

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  6. Back to the land: Russia’s farming transformation

    The [Russian] government is pushing to make Russia a supplier of clean food, and the first green shoots of formerly non-existent organic agriculture are starting to emerge. … 82 Russian producers were recognised as organic by a handful of foreign certification groups as of 2015, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FIBL), a Swiss-based group that collects data on the sector around the world.

    The area of farmland converted to organic agriculture in Russia also doubled in 2014 and increased by another 57 per cent in 2015, making it one of the countries with the fastest-growing organic land reserves in the world, according to FIBL.
    https://www.ft.com/content/b5115324-7c8e-11e7-ab01-a13271d1ee9c

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Midnight Rambler

    Good to hear that Russia is doing well. The following link shows how the situation is in Europe, and shows the share of total organic area (fully converted and under conversion) in total utilised agricultural area (UAA), by country.

    Austria leads the way with 20% converted followed by Sweden with around 17%.

    One of the reasons for Austria’s success (mainly family farms in mountains) is that organic farms are promoted by a bundle of support schemes which are granted for the provision of public goods like water-, soil-, climate-, biodiversity-, and animal-protection. The core instrument for organic support is the Austrian Agri-environmental Programme ÖPUL. It offers a special measure for the conversion of, and the maintenance of organic farming which provided nearly one fifth of the total ÖPUL budget. Also, organic farms gain additional subsidies and compensation payments from other schemes of the EU Common Agricultural Policy which enable them to produce profitably.

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    • Thank you, MR. There doesn’t appear to be a file attached to that link – could you re-send, please?

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      • Jeremy, I think that what I was intending to mean with my remark that you are in a “unique position” concerns just that, i.e, Emerson College, Tablehurst Farm, St. Anthony’s Trust, Prince Charles, Brexit.

        Of course, any one of us can find a quote from the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Mikhail Gorbachev, but their agenda’s were different. Yours needs a political platform for the needed push, but this is only my opinion. It was offered amongst several other “crowdthink” offerings that you requested.

        You said that you were going to digest these in a further post with recommendations, and this would be good to hear about. Looking at statistics from Austria, Switzerland, and the Russian land trust is only going to prove what little England must do, which is to gain strength and power for the future as an independent nation.

        Please review the earlier considerations concerning an “Initiative” to be possibly realized in spoken form by Spring 2019. I do see that putting it out so far for realization makes sense at this point.

        Steve

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      • I will be publishing something in due course, but it is taking quite a bit of working out, and involves several other people.

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