Roots of Destruction - Can we rescue agriculture from big business and feed the world healthily?
Roots of Destruction
Can we rescue agriculture from big business and feed the world
Felicity Lawrence explores arguments from Colin Tudge, Marion Nestle,
and T Hugh Pennington
The Guardian, Saturday September 20, 2003,
*So Shall We Reap by Colin Tudge 448pp, Allen Lane, £20
*Safe Food, Bacteria, Biotechnology and Bioterrorism by Marion Nestle 356pp, California, £19.95
*When Food Kills by T Hugh Pennington 256pp, Oxford, £25
British governments don't like telling us what to eat these days. Whether on the left or the right, they fear it smacks of the nanny state. While a government may advise, it is not seen as its business to do more; what we eat is a matter of individual choice. Where politics does tangle with food, governments put it down to the unfortunate legacy of previous interventions from which they wish to withdraw, such as subsidies and other barriers to the efficient working of a global market.
By this argument, decisions about the future of genetically modified organisms are not political but scientific and economic - a matter of dispassionately and independently weighing the evidence on safety and assessing the benefits against the risks. This position is of course not apolitical: it is in fact highly political. It is also the wrong sort of politics - monetarist, myopic and dangerous, as Colin Tudge's important new book makes clear.
A failure to acknowledge that food is about politics leaves governments floundering before the epidemics of obesity and other diet-related diseases which are overtaking industrialised nations. It leaves them unable to tackle the real causes of food-borne illness, as the American academic Marion Nestle and the eminent British government advisor Professor Hugh Pennington show in their books.
Nestle gives an excellent analysis of the shortcomings of the science-based approach to food - it asks how big is this risk; does it outweigh any benefit? But this leaves out other vital factors based on values - who is imposing the risk and who is taking it? Are the risks being taken by one group (the public) and the benefits accruing to another (the industry)?
Pennington's detailed reconstruction of the E coli outbreak in Scotland in 1996 and the origins of BSE makes clear how much is at stake. It also makes an important contribution to the growing revisionist debate about whether eating infected meat is really the cause of BSE and vCJD. Nestle gives equally revelatory accounts of how economic imperatives overrode the public interest when traces of genetically modified corn, not licenced for human food, were found in food on American supermarket shelves.
Nestle and Pennington both report from the coalface of government advisory work. Tudge's book offers a broader sweep which puts our food system in its historical and philosophical context. He has published some of the ideas before but this is the magnum opus and it is a huge and significant work, a wake-up call to politicians, who are fiddling while our prospects of survival burn.
His thesis is that if we carry on with our current system of food production the chances of humanity lasting through the next few hundred years are rather slim. It is possible to feed the world but we don't farm to do that. Instead, agriculture is now treated as though it were like any other business and is being given over to what he describes as an extreme form of capitalism, which is monetarist/industrialist/corporatist/ globalist - MICG for short. He no longer has any quarrel with capitalism per se - nothing else works, he argues - but this extreme form, in which companies have grown into giant corporations so powerful they are able to override the societies that gave rise to them, is pernicious.
The big question is can we feed the world? The traditional view, going back to Malthus, has been that agriculture will not be able to keep pace with the exploding world population and that we will be overtaken by famine and biological collapse. The introduction of GMOs is now being justified on precisely these grounds, that they will help feed the world.
It now appears that the global population will stabilise around the year 2050 at about 10bn, and will then decline again. There will be a period of demographic winter lasting 500 to 1,000 years when it will be touch and go as to whether we can feed ourselves but then things will get better. There will also be the small matter of how to employ all these extra millions of people as we all get older. 2050 is not so very far off - in other words, this enormous issue will have to be faced in the lifetime of most of us.
We could feed the world and escape this threat but not if we continue to farm in the current way. We would have to return to a more traditional form of mixed farming. By a series of dazzling calculations, which take in the history of agriculture and the evolution of man, Tudge shows that there is enough land to grow the staples for the world population at its peak and to provide a mixed diet - fruit and vegetables and small quantities of meat - which delivers our other nutritional requirements. But there is not enough global capacity to support a population whose eating habits are being pushed by commerce in the opposite direction.
Take meat. The global drive is to raise livestock in the greatest numbers. Keeping a few animals is efficient: cellulose is a cornucopia of food available in nature in billions of tonnes in the form of plants. Humans cannot digest it but animals can; we can get the benefit of this food source by eating them. Animals can also make use of otherwise unproductive land such as uplands. But in excess, meat is bad for us and too many animals become a drain on resources. Livestock today consume a third of the world's wheat, two thirds of the maize and at least three quarters of the barley and soya - that's enough nutrition for an extra 2bn people. By 2050 if current trends continue, livestock will be consuming more food than was consumed in 1970 by the entire human population.
Mixed farming - in which livestock and crops are properly balanced - works because it marches to the drum of biology. It modifies nature but also mirrors it. Animals eat plants and return material to the soil in their manure, in forms that the plants can in turn feed on. In other words it is sustainable and it minimises disease.
Why do we farm so perversely? Because everything in agriculture, as elsewhere, is translated into money. Efficiency is measured solely in cash terms. Efficiency is achieved by reducing the cost of inputs.
Livestock are a way of making more money out of staples. The greatest input in traditional agriculture is labour, so labour must be cut. The farmer in Lincolnshire can now run 2,000 hectares with just one employee.
But if you cut labour you have to simplify husbandry - you can't have mixed farming, which requires people. Mono-culture, with farms run by numbers, with routine applications of chemicals, are what one man and his 2,000 acres can manage.
You are inevitably drawn into a cycle of industrialisation. Other concerns - social, moral - do not even get on to the balance sheet, because you cannot measure them in cash terms. Reducing the agricultural workforce to almost zero is not only the policy pursued by politicians in the west, it is one they seek to impose on developing countries.
Even if you choose to be blind to the long-term prospects for humanity, the immediate dangers are obvious. Half the world is starving while the other half suffers from disease of excess. Epidemics of animal disease become inevitable too - foot and mouth, and BSE recently are the result of what Tudge calls "bad husbandry".
This is also the objection to GMOs: they are worrying for biological reasons, because the risks are unknowable. They contribute nothing truly worthwhile to wheat, rice and maize - which account for half of all human calories and most of the protein. But the greatest threat they present is political, by helping to create a world in which agriculture becomes the domain of big business. Science has in this sense been corrupted. Instead of supporting an agriculture which is in step with nature, it seeks to override nature.
Tudge, a zoologist by training and fellow at the centre of philosophy at the London School of Economics, combines an eclectic mind with analytical powers and the humane sweep of a political philosopher. Unlike many opponents of GMOs he can argue the detailed scientific case, but he also has a wonderful eye for anecdote. I, for one, didn't know that the panic on horses' faces in Greek statues was due to the fact that before the invention of the soft horse collar by the Chinese, harnesses were tied around the horse's neck so the more the animal pulled the more it was throttled.
Felicity Lawrence is writing a book about food politics to be published by Penguin next year.