I’ve been reading a very good book called “So Shall We Reap” by Colin Tudge (http://www.amazon.co.uk/So-Shall-We-Reap-Worlds/dp/0141009500). It really is an excellent book, and everybody needs to read it and think carefully about what he says.
In a nutshell, he is saying that agriculture has lost its way. If we are to feed the large and growing population of the planet, then we cannot do it by means of industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture, but have to do it by a modern agrarian economy in which food is grown carefully, by good husbandry, by people who live on and know the land, who are able to grow food suitable to the local cuisine, and who exercise good husbandry over the land and the livestock.
What does this actually mean? First of all, it means that we have to improve the yield of our land, and the best yield (as opposed to maximum profitability) comes from mixed farming in which livestock, arable and horticulture are carefully managed in rotation. Second, it means that science needs to be applied to improving yields rather than improving profitability – this may go hand in hand, but often does not, since the profit is often taken not by the farmer, but by either the wholesaler or the biotech and agrichemicals companies. Third, it means that more people need to work in agriculture, so that the principles of good husbandry can be applied, and animals, humans, crops and people can live in harmony with nature, rather than by trying to control and subdue it.
But surely the largest cost for farmers (and foresters) is labour? What he says is this: we only need to produce food at ever-reducing cost because the goal is not to maximise production of food, but to maximise profit. So we produce raw ingredients at rock-bottom prices using industrialised methods of farming – these are then bought by a small number of globalised food companies who dictate the price, “add value” to them by processing them into ready meals, prepared vegetables or whatever, and then sell them to the consumer. The consumer does not pay less for their food – often they pay more for food of lower quality. If they bought food locally directly from the producers, then they could produce food in a much more environmentally-friendly way, take better care of their animals and land, provide more employment for people who desperately need the work, and it wouldn’t cost the consumer any more, although they would have to be prepared to cook things from raw ingredients, just as humans have done for thousands of years until ready meals took over in the last 40 or so years. We must also be prepared to eat less meat – meat is seen as a garnish and flavouring in many traditional cuisines, rather than the centre of the meal. We need to return to seeing it that way, eating mainly vegetables, roots, pulses, tubers, nuts, grains and seeds, with a little meat for flavour.
So what does it mean for us? We already try to support good husbandry by buying local produce, and making our own food from raw ingredients, cooking our own pizza, pasta, bread, curries, and growing our own where we can. But we need to go further. So my resolution for this year is this – we will seek out those local producers who operate on sound principles of good husbandry and try and buy from them. Where we can’t do that, we will buy from ethical stores, and if we have to buy from supermarkets, buy from those with a good environmental record, and buy organic where possible. We will avoid buying fruits and vegetables from the other side of the world out of season, and instead buy local, seasonal produce. It will involve more effort, but I am prepared to make that effort. I’m sure that at times I will fail – and end up buying something that isn’t produced sustainably. But the point is I’m thinking more and more about it, and trying more and more to support local production.
If everybody thought just a little bit about where their food comes from, and how it is produced, and how the prices are manipulated so that both consumer and farmer lose out, and the middlemen and big superstores take all the profit, then this would seem a logical choice. Politicians are not going to change the way in which agriculture and the food business operate because there are far too many vested interests at stake. The only way in which the world can change is if people start to think more carefully, and buy only those products produced sustainably. Changing the world a bit at a time.