Sunday, September 04, 2011

Colin Tudge - Good Food for Everyone Forever

Subtitled "A People's Takeover of the World's Food Supply", Colin Tudge's book is really a manifesto for what he calls, "enlightened farming". While the concept seems onerous, the reality, as the author explains, is much more straightforward.

Tudge begins by explaining that the food system we currently have, is dominated by Western corporations driven by their need to make profits, rather than feed people in the best possible way. This produces the contradiction of malnutrition and starvation for millions at the same time as obesity and unhealthy eating for others.

Tudge, argues that this can be different. He points to the need to break from the food system we have, by encouraging better practices, better crops and more farmers. In the industrialised world we should, he argues, we should arrive at a situation were one in ten workers is a farmer of one sort or another. Tudge is at pains to argue, that farming should not be the back-breaking drudgery that is often imagined by city dwellers. It can be enjoyable and stimulating, so long as the farmers have the opportunities to break free of economic constraints imposed by the wider system, particularly government policy dominated by the idea that technological solutions are all that is needed to feed the world.

Some of the most useful parts of the book are the parts were Tudge shows how mixed farming, or poly-culture is more environmentally sound, produces better yields and healthier crops. He shows how our reliance on technology has helped to deplete and damage the basis for farming systems, but he's careful not to throw the technological baby out with the bathwater. Organic farming should, he points out, be the basis for rational agricultural, but farming that specifically excludes technologies and developments such as pesticides or some fertilisers may undermine the abilities to produce the best food in the best yields. Tudge is also keen to challenge those who simplistically argue that vegetarianism would enable us to feed the world, and save the planet. He points out that mixed farming, and corresponding "traditional" diets have served us well for tens of thousands of years and animals on farms offer opportunities to improve other crops as well as produce meat, milk and eggs. No system of agriculture exists, Tudge says, that couldn't be improved without the right number and correct type of agriculture. But this is not a meat-eaters manifesto, this is about producing better food, in a way that is better for the planet and better for farmers

I also found Tudge's style very straightforward and easy to understand. His explanation of why a well managed farm with cows grazing grasses could actually reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide, is a good example of this. It is encouraging that not everyone falls for the environmentalists' status quo.

There are problems though. In part this is with the manifesto style. Much of the first few chapters is taken up with philosophical musings on why people are not inherently evil, and change is possible. There is nothing wrong with this, as I am warrant to do exactly the same fairly frequently. The problem is, that this detracts from the more interesting and potentially more valuable arguments that Tudge is making about how farming might be. The second problem flows from this first. Tudge clearly identifies the main problem is the particularly modern system of capitalism that we see, and how it ruthlessly exploits, overproduces and undermines the best interests of everyone. His solution, he explicitly argues is not for revolution, but a "renaissance".

Tudge believes that early forms, the early United States' small-scale capitalism, is better and we need a return to this. There is of course a kernel of truth, small capitalists are less damaging than modern multinationals, but this is to ignore the continuity between the past and now. Tudge seems to view capitalism simply in terms of exchange of commodities, so he seems elements of capitalism even amongst ancient neolithic peoples exchanging hand-axes. But this is nonsense. Capitalism is a particular mode of production that was the result in the revolutionary transformation of the old feudal order a few hundreds years back. It grew out of that system, but was also the result of a break from it. Modern capitalism has developed from this, through a process of expansion, centralisation and concentration. To believe that we can simply retreat, without challenging the powers at the core of the system is more Utopian than some plans for revolution.

Nonetheless, Tudge offers many insights, and indeed the examples of those farmers trying out in practice, small localised mixed farming are fascinating and we can but wish them success, in the face of the powerful corporations and economic forces that threaten us all. All in all, I would suggest people read this. Too few of us in the industrialised world understand agriculture, still fewer have any understanding of how it could be improved. Tudge offers some interesting ideas, its a shame the book is to preoccupied with the philosophy of change, and not enough on the change we need.

Related Reviews

Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds
Walden Bello - The Food Wars
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture


Comrade Markin said...


I'm not sure about the whole small farmer angle to be honest. It seems to me that large, mixed, intensive agriculutral zones would produce the food qunatity and quality we need while providing an easier are of land to manage sustainably and, crucially, would free up greater areas of the planet for managed areas for leisure and nature.

Resolute Reader said...

This is an interesting point, and a difficult question to respond to. One limitation of Tudge's book (and this is true of most books on agriculture, even those by explicit Marxists) is that it is only within the framework of capitalism. Tudge is particularly honest about this.

Under capitalism, the large scale farm is not as productive as smaller farms. This is because of the way that capitalism is driven by the need to maximise profit on invested income. To do this it introduces as many labour saving devices / technologies / pesticides as it can. This leads towards a tendency for mono-culture crops, as machinary cannot cope with mixed crops for instance.

The improved yield from small farms is rooted in the higher use of human labour power. This is an anathema to capitalist farmers. There are additional problems to, labourers on other peoples land are less likely to have an interest in improving soil / conditions or thinking about the long term productivity of a farm. Similar to the experience of course, of a worker in a factory. Smaller farms, run and worked by their owners are more likely to be run with the longer term future in mind.

The question of how farming would be in a future society is interesting. An immediate switch to collective farming is unlikely - this would have to come from the farmers & peasants themselves. They are more likely to seize land, and redistribute it on a small scale. As happened in Russia in 1917 and is happening in parts of South America today. This is why the leadership of the urban proletarian is so important as they will create the conditions for collective labour in the future.

Tony Cliff spent some time analysing this problem in an essay on agriculture and collectivisation in the early 60s. He broke a little with the classical Marxists like Kautsky and Marx who wrote on this question. They assumed an inevitable movement towards ever larger, more centralised farms, similar to what happened in industry as capitalism developed. In fact this didn't happen, for a variety of reasons. Cliff's essay is important, because in addition to examining the efficiencies of different forms of collective farming (including Israeli Kibbutz) he also concludes that revolutionaries shouldn't simply call immediately for agricultural collectivisation, but recognise that they dynamic of rural movements will not necessarily lead to this automatically, but it will come out of the longer term success of the revolution.

Comrade Markin said...

I take the point about the difference between the post-revolutionary and current capitalist societies and I would agree with what you say on the long-term control aspect of the land.

But I think the classical model of peasant revolt depends entirely on where you are in the world. I doubt that the large agglomerated brassica farming of the Lancashire plain, or the foothill cow farming or the pennine highland sheep farming would result in the parcelling up of the land in a revolutionary situation. The only place where I could envisage this happening in Britain would be in the soft fruit growing areas of the South-East.

What it would need is the nationalisation of the estates - so most of the land in the West Pennines is owned by the Queen's cousin and the seat of Devonshire but I struggle to think about who would actually parcel it up. The numbers of agriculutral labourers isn't massively in surplus.

Resolute Reader said...

That may well be true, though we should be wary simply of viewing the world of agriculture through the distorted lens of what happens in the UK. A p[oint that Tudge makes well, is that agriculture in the developed world, particularly Britain, rarely produces good, high quality, safe, flavoursome food. Nor are the practices that take place environmentally sound.

A more rational (enlightened) agriculture in these lands would require a transformation of practices, not simply parceling up the land, or growing different crops. The first step in this process is dealing with the question of ownership, which is why private land must be nationalised and those who understand farming given more of a free-hand to grow and produce in ways that maximise yields, reduce environmental impacts and protect the land for future crops.

The rural changes that take place in the developing world are more likely to take place as in classic peasant rebellions.