Sunday, January 15, 2017

Organic Farming and British Conservatism

A few days ago I stumbled onto an interview with British philosopher Roger Scruton, all done at his farm. He walks around talking about restoring the land, raising organic cows, monitoring the health of his fish pond, riding horses, joining his local church, and generally getting back to the roots of rural England. And then today I was reading the November 11 TLS, which features a long review of three recent books by other Englishmen obsessed with traditional farming and the lore and literature of the English countryside. These men scorn "rewilding" – "teen fantasies . . . of importing lynxes, bears and wolves" sniffs Nick Groom – in favor of the Wind in the Willows landscape of Victorian times. They love hedgerows, hares, corncrakes, wildflowers, little woods, and the sort of butterflies that lady naturalists used to chase around the chalk downs with their long, elegant nets. They enjoy words like "utching" and writers like Wordsworth and John Clare. "Parochial," writes John Lewis-Stempel, "has become pejorative, when it should have become exalted."

Nick Groom is launched into a tragic reverie by the brand names of herbicides:
Such herbicides have now been acculturated, and the chilling compounds of scientific names and numbers have been replaced by branded lines such as "Artist", "Regatta" and Lewis Stempel's favourite, "Othello". I prefer the more melancholy guise of the "Hamlet" herbicide, available from the Bayer Crop Science UK website. "Hamlet is the latest post-emergence herbicide from Bayer to control black-grass in winter wheat crops" – black-grass being slender meadow foxtail, a rush that was used as a staple of floor covering and on theatre stages in Shakespeare's time; it was one of the everyday smells of Merry England. Today, the exploitation of the land in increasing crop yields means that, as Lewis-Stempel puts it, "every time one buys the lie of cheap food a flower or a bird dies".
In America, we tend to think that anti-agribusiness activists will come from the left. But these men are Tories. Like Prince Charles, who was once the biggest organic farmer in Europe, they see modern farming as a threat to what they hold most dear: a world that is old, familiar, small, and thoroughly English. Surely they all voted to leave the EU.

Working in historic preservation, I have been made aware of how badly these questions fit into our left-right divides. The crowd that shows up to protest a planned development is likely to include eco-fanatics, Occupy veterans, old-money traditionalists whose ancestors led the local regiment in the Civil War, and just plain folks worried about traffic and pollution. There is no necessary connection between a love of old ways and the defense of capitalism or militarism. And this should remind us that all grand divisions like left and right do violence to our humanity, and to judge each other by such labels is a gross mistake.


G. Verloren said...

The critical flaw here is that this method of farming simply cannot support the current population of humanity, much less the explosively larger population numbers of the future.

If you want to go back to parochial farming, then we need to get rid of a few billion people first. This sort of farming can only exist today as a luxury for the privileged.

John said...

No doubt some things about traditional English agriculture would have to be abandoned, but it is absolutely possible to feed all of us with organic food. Just Google "Can organic farming feed the world?" and you'll get tons of articles. The catch is that organic farming is much more labor intensive and therefore much more expensive. It is cost, not yields, that drives modern agribusiness. But since we seem to be entering an era defined by surplus labor, this may not be a major problem in the future.

I personally think that artisanal food will be one of the big growth industries of the next 30 years. Looking around at our lives, I get the sense that we are reaching saturation point with material things; how much more could we possibly make use of? So I suspect that people with small families will choose to spend their money on better food and a sense of supporting a better planet rather than bigger houses or more gadgets.

And even if we don't move to fully organic agriculture, I think we will deploy our growing biological knowledge to raise crops without wholesale spraying of chemicals. It really can be done.

G. Verloren said...


Spoken like a true baby-boomer.

I said nothing about "organic" farming, because that is a made up term that encompasses hugely different types of farming. Yes, there are types of farming that qualify as "organic" that could sustain us. Just look at our fruit industry. Most of it is grown in Latin America, and there's actually not much difference between the scale and nature of operations at plantations that produce "organic" fruits and those that don't.

The only thing "organic" means is that you don't use certain chemicals on the crops, you don't irradiate the produce after harvest to preserve it, and you don't use "genetic engineering" (despite the fact that genetic engineering is perfectly safe, and every major cultivated drop has already been genetically engineered through artificial selection).

Organic farming is fine. My complaint was against "parochial" farming - small scale farming on the local level. Whether you use certain pesticides or not, whether you dye or irradiate the food or not, you still need to grow it on a scale that cannot be supplied by anything other than industrial farming operations.

Farming is always more efficient when done on a larger scale, and small farms cannot compete economically. We see this all throughout history. The Romans started with a system of citizen-soldiers going to war to earn land on which to start family farms, but farming soon was taken over by business magnates operating plantations worked by slaves taken in battle. The early Japanese were hunters and gatherers, until rice farming was brought over from the mainland, and with it the so-called Rice Kingdoms, where the biggest and most successful landowners consolodated their holdings and controlled the food supply, which made them the de facto rulers.

Are there problems with large scale farming? Absolutely, and some pretty awful ones. But we've become dependant on large yields to feed our absurd population levels. And those yields, organic or not, can only really come from modern industrial farming techniques on a large scale. The economics just don't work out otherwise.