Sunday, September 04, 2011
Colin Tudge - Good Food for Everyone Forever
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.
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