Agri-Culture book coverExcerpt from: Agri-Culture

  • Publisher: Earthscan
  • First published: 2002 (English edition), 2005 (Japanese edition)
  • ISBN: 978-1-85383-925-2 (English edition)

Something is wrong with our agricultural and food systems. Despite great progress in increasing productivity in the last century, hundreds of millions of people remain hungry and malnourished. Further hundreds of millions eat too much, or the wrong sorts of food, and it is making them ill.  The health of the environment suffers too, as degradation seems to accompany many of the agricultural systems we have evolved in recent years. Can nothing be done, or is it time for the expansion of another sort of agriculture, founded more on ecological principles, and in harmony with people, their societies and cultures? This is not a new idea, as many have struggled in the past to come up with both sustainable and productive farm systems, and have had some success. What is novel, though, is that these are now beginning to spread to many new places, and are reaching a scale large enough to make a difference to the lives of millions of people.

My intention in writing this book is to help to popularise this complex and rather hidden area of human endeavour. I live and work in the picturesque landscape of the Suffolk and Essex borders of eastern England, a region of small fields, ancient hedgerows, lazy rivers and Tudor wool towns. I spent my early years growing up amongst the sands and savannahs of the Sahara’s southern edge, landscapes dotted with baobab and acacia, and teeming with wildlife. In my time, I have had the fortune to meet and work with inspiring people in many communities in both developing and industrialised countries. Most have been swimming against a prevailing tide of opinion, often exposing themselves to ridicule or even opprobrium. In writing this book, I want to tell some of their stories, about how individuals and groups have chosen routes to transformation, and how they have succeeded in changing both communities and landscapes.

Agri-Culture 1I also want to present evidence to support the contention that industrialised agricultural systems as currently configured are flawed, despite their great progress in increasing food productivity, and that alternative systems can be efficient and equitable. My intention is to bring these ideas to a wider audience, as food matters to us all. As consumers, we buy it every week, even every day, and the choices we make send strong signals about the systems of agricultural production we prefer. We may not realise these messages are being sent, but they are. Our daily consumption of food fundamentally affects the landscapes, communities and environments from which it originates.

In the earliest surviving texts on European farming, agriculture was interpreted as two connected things, agri and cultura, and food seen as a vital part of the cultures and communities that produced it. Today, however, our experience with industrial farming dominates, with food now seen simply as a commodity, and farming often organised along factory lines. The questions I would like to ask are these. Can we put the culture back into agri-culture without compromising the need to produce enough food? Can we create sustainable systems of farming that are efficient and fair and founded on a detailed understanding of the benefits of agroecology and people’s capacity to cooperate?

As we advance into the early years of the twenty-first century, it seems to me that we have some critical choices. Humans have been farming for some six hundred generations, and for most of that time the production and consumption of food has been intimately connected to cultural and social systems. Foods have a special significance and meaning, as do the fields, grasslands, forests, rivers and seas. Yet over just the last two or three generations, we have developed hugely successful agricultural systems based on industrial principles. They certainly produce more food per hectare and per worker than ever before, but only look so efficient if we ignore the harmful side-effects – the loss of soils, the damage to biodiversity, the pollution of water, the harm to human health.

Over these twelve thousand years of agriculture, there have been long periods of stability, punctuated by short bursts of rapid change. These resulted in fundamental shifts in the way people thought and acted. I believe we are at another such junction. A sustainable agriculture making the best of nature and people’s knowledges and collective capacities has been showing increasingly good promise. But it has been a quiet revolution because many accord it little credence. It is also silent because those in the vanguard are often the poorest and marginalized, whose voices are rarely heard in the grand scheme of things. No one can exactly say where this revolution could lead us. Neither do we know whether sustainable models of production would be appropriate for all farmers worldwide. But what I do know is that the principles do apply widely. Once these come to be accepted, then it will be the ingenuity of local people that shapes these new methods of producing food to their own particular circumstances.

We know that most transitions involve trade-offs. A gain in one area is accompanied by a loss elsewhere. A road built to increase access to markets helps remote communities, but also allows illegal loggers to remove valuable trees more easily. A farm that eschews the use of pesticides benefits biodiversity, but may produce less food. New agroecological methods may mean more labour is required, putting an additional burden on women. But these trade-offs need not always be serious. If we listen carefully, and observe the improvements already being made by communities across the world, we find that it is possible to produce more food whilst protecting and improving nature. It is possible to have diversity in both human and natural systems without undermining economic efficiency.

This book draws on many stories of successful transformation. Sadly, I cannot do them full justice, and so they are inevitably partial. Nor is there the space to provide a careful consideration of all possible drawbacks or contradictions. I do not want to give the impression that just because some communities and societies are designated as `traditional’ or `indigenous’ they are always somehow virtuous, both in their relations with nature and with each other. The actions of some communities have led to ecological destruction. The norms of others have seen socially-divisive and inequitable relations persist for centuries. Nonetheless, my intention here is to show what is possible, on both the ecological and social fronts, and not necessarily to imply that each and every case is perfect. This is also not a book where you will find substantial evidence and analysis. There are no tables or figures in the main text, though the endnotes do contain much primary data. I am convinced, though, that the stories are based on sound methods and trustworthy evidence, and that they represent a significance beyond the specificities of their own circumstances.

I anticipate criticism from those who disbelieve that such progress can be made with agroecological approaches. I also do not want to reject all recent achievements in agriculture by presenting a doctrinaire alternative. Real progress can only come from a synthesis of the best of the past, eliminating practices that cause damage to environments and human health, and using the best of knowledges and technologies available to us today 

This sustainable agriculture revolution is now helping to bring forth a new world. But it is not likely to happen easily. Many agricultural policies are unhelpful. Many institutions do not listen to the voices of local people, particularly if they are poor or remote. Many companies still think that maximising profit at a cost to the environment represents responsible behaviour. But changing national or local policies is only one step. Governments may wish for certain things, but having the political will does not necessarily guarantee a desired outcome. Structural distortions in economies, self-interest, unequal trading relations, corruption, debt-burdens, profit-maximisation, environmental degradation, and war and conflict all reduce the likelihood of achieving the systemic change required to nurture this emerging revolution.

But we must not let these deep problems stop us trying. Things change when enough people want them to. The time is surely right to speak loudly and, with a collective will, seek any innovations that will help overcome these problems. I aim to take you on a short journey through some of the communities and farms of both developing and industrialised countries where progress is being made. I hope you will agree that these stories of success deserve careful consideration and some celebration.

In Chapter 1 of this book, I set the scene by showing that landscapes, and their attendant agricultural and food systems, are a common heritage to us all. In the pursuit of improved agricultural productivity, we have, though, allowed ourselves to become disconnected from nature, and so tend not to notice when it is damaged or taken away. For all our human history, we have been shaped by nature whilst shaping it in return. But in our industrial age, we are losing the stories, memories and language about land and nature. These disconnections matter, for the way we think about nature and wildernesses fundamentally affects what we do in our agricultural and food systems.

Chapter 2 focuses on the darker side of the landscape, showing how the poor and powerless are commonly excluded from the very resources on which they rely for their livelihoods. Modern dispossessions have extended such actions both in the name of economic growth, and in the name of nature conservation. Strictly protected areas designed to protect biodiversity simply disconnect us once again from the nature we value and need. At the same time, modern agriculture has created monoscapes to enhance efficiency, and the poorest have lost out again. Repossession and regeneration of diverse and culturally-important landscapes is an urgent task.

Chapter 3 takes a deliberately narrow economic perspective on the real costs and benefits of agricultural systems. The real price of food should incorporate the substantial externalities, or negative side-effects, that must be paid for in the harm to environments and human health. Food appears cheap because these costs are hard to identify and measure. Allocating monetary values to nature’s goods and services is only one part of the picture, but it does tell us something of the comparative value of sustainable and non-sustainable systems, as well as indicate the kind of directions national policies should be taking. To date, the fine words of governments have only very rarely been translated into coherent and effective policies to support sustainable systems of food production.

Chapter 4 shows how food poverty can be eliminated with more sustainable agriculture. We know that modern technologies and fossil-fuel derived inputs can increase agricultural productivity – but anything that costs money inevitably puts it out of the reach of the poorest households and countries. Sustainable agriculture seeks to make the best use of nature’s goods and services, of the knowledge and skills of farmers, and of people’s collective capacity to work together to solve common management problems. Such systems are improving soil health, increasing water efficiency and reducing dependency on pesticides. When put together, the emergent systems are both diverse and productive. There are, of course, many threats, which may come to undermine much of the remarkable progress.

Chapter 5 focuses on the need to reconnect whole food systems. Industrialised countries have celebrated their agricultural systems’ production of only commodities, yet family farms have disappeared as rapidly as the rural biodiversity. At the same time, farmers themselves have received a progressively smaller proportion of what consumers spend on food. Putting sustainable systems of production in touch with consumers within bioregions or foodsheds offers opportunities to recreate some of the connections. Farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, box schemes, and farmers groups are all helping to point to what is possible. None of these alone will provoke systemic change, though regional policies and movements are helping to create the right conditions.

Chapter 6 addresses the genetic controversy. It is impossible to write of agricultural transformation without also assessing biotechnology and genetic modification. Who produces agricultural technologies, how they can be made available to the poor, and whether they will have adverse environmental effects, are all important questions we should ask of the many different types of genetic modification and different generations of application. The answers will tell us whether these new ideas can make a difference. We must, therefore, treat biotechnologies on a case-by-case basis, carefully assessing the potential benefits as well as the environmental and health risks. It is likely that biotechnology will make some contributions to the sustainability of agricultural systems, but developing the research systems, institutions and policies to make them pro-poor will be much more difficult.

Agri-Culture 2Chapter 7 centres on the need to develop social learning systems to increase ecological literacy. Our knowledges of nature and the land usually accrue slowly over time, and cannot easily be transferred. If an agriculture dependent on detailed ecological understanding is to emerge, then social learning and participatory systems are a necessary pre-requisite. These develop relations of trust, reciprocal mechanisms, common rules and norms, and new forms of connectedness institutionalised in social groups. New commons are now being created for the collective management of watersheds, water, microfinance, forests and pests. These collective systems, involving the emergence of some four hundred thousand groups over just a decade, can also provoke significant personal changes – no advance towards sustainability can occur without us crossing the internal frontiers too.

Chapter 8 focuses on a select number of cases and individuals who have crossed the internal frontiers and then caused large-scale external transformations. Our old thinking has failed the rest of nature, and is in danger of failing us again. Could we help to make a difference if we changed the way we think and act? Can we, as Aldo Leopold suggested, think like the mountain and the wolf? Heroic change is possible, yet we also need to expand from the parochiality of these cases. Everyone is in favour of sustainability, yet few seriously go beyond the fine words. There really is no alternative to the radical reform of national agricultural, rural and food policies and institutions. The need is urgent, and this is not the time to hesitate. The time has come for this next agricultural revolution.