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Colin Tudge, 'Feeding People is Easy'

Pari Publishing, 2007; 160pp; £9.99

ImageOne of the sessions at PN’s 2010 Summer Camp was entitled “Can we eat our way out of crisis?” “Is that a practical workshop?” one wag asked. Everyone laughed, but if Colin Tudge is right – and on certain fundamentals I suspect that he is – then perhaps it should have been.

A modest proposal

Though best-known for his rather wonderful science writing (recent books include The Secret Life of Trees and a book on the evolution and classification of birds) Tudge has also spent over three decades thinking and writing about farming.

His basic thesis is as simple as it is arresting: “[T]hat we human beings, can feed ourselves to the highest standards both of nutrition and of gastronomy; that we can do so effectively forever – for the next 10,000 years, or indeed the next million; that we can do this without cruelty to livestock and without wrecking the rest of the world and driving other species to extinction; and that if we do the job properly, we will thereby create human societies that re truly agreeable, co-operative and at peace, in which all manner of people, with all kinds of beliefs and aspirations can be personally fulfilled.”

The bad news

That our current state – with a billion chronically undernourished people and roughly the same number living in urban slums – is deplorable will come as no surprise to PN readers.

It is also radically unsustainable. The oil upon which modern industrial farming depends will run out in the not-too-distant future (and possibly sooner rather than later), almost all of the land that can be used for agricultural production already is in use, and global warming threatens to wreak havoc with global food production. A new era of resource wars has already begun, and looks set to get worse.

The good news

However, as Tudge makes clear, there is some good news as well. It might be impossible to feed 30 billion people sustainably, but global population is set to plateau at around nine billion in 2050, and this “should be eminently doable, even in the face of global warming and diminishing oil.”

Moreover – and crucially, given the nature of Tudge’s proposals – far from being a cancer on the planet (a familiar trope in popular culture) “ordinary” human beings “are actually rather brilliant”. “In every sphere – building, farming, fishing, milling, cooking, carpentry, metal-working, music-making, tanning, weaving – we find that the basic skills are immensely subtle, and so too is the understanding that goes with them”, while on the moral front: “People at large simply don’t need self-appointed proctors to tell them how to behave”.

Enlightened agriculture

The answer to almost all of our problems, Tudge contends, is farming.

Get this right and “everything else we want to achieve can begin to fall into place, from the day-to-day pleasures of good eating and social living, to the grand aspirations of full and fulfilled employment, world peace and the conservation of wildlife”. Doubtless an overstatement, but one that – perhaps surprisingly – contains a large measure of truth.

Specifically, Tudge advocates what he calls Enlightened Agriculture (EA), defined as farming “specifically designed to feed [all of the world’s] people [well], and to provide agreeable ways of life [for farmers], and to look after the environment.” This might sound innocuous but as Tudge points out the consequences of adopting such principles would be truly revolutionary.

Biological efficiency

For one thing, feeding nine billion people sustainably (recall that 10,000 year timeframe) in the teeth of global warming will force us to maximise biological – as opposed to monetary – efficiency, and this in turn will force us to farm – and to eat – both differently and better.

“At bottom”, notes Tudge “we need primarily to regard ourselves as we really are – as a biological species with in-built physical needs like any other” and this is “totally at odds... with the thinking that has underpinned agricultural thinking in the western world over the past few centuries, and in particular over the past few decades”.

Indeed, looked at in terms of energy (as opposed to cash) inputs and outputs, traditional farming methods are about 100 times more efficient than modern industrialised farming. The former produces roughly 10 kcal of food energy for every kcal expended on cultivation, while the latter uses 10 kcal of energy (mainly in fossil fuels) for every 1 kcal or food energy produced. “It is ourselves, not the “Third World” he notes “who are most out of touch with reality, and most in need of transformation.”

Back to the land

Tudge advocates “science-assisted craft” (ie supplementing the best of traditional farming with science of a truly appropriate kind) rather than turning back the clock, but the typical EA farm – a small, often family-run, affair mixing arable, horticultural and pastoral production – would necessarily be a much more labour-intensive and skilled affair than the modern industrial farm. Currently, less than 1% of the UK workforce works full-time on the land. Under EA this would have to rise to at least 20% – a revolutionary shift if ever there was one, and one which many will consider absurdly utopian / dystopian.

Yet, as Tudge notes, “The world needs agrarianism, and has to pay what it costs. Simply to decide that proper farming is too dear – or provides too little opportunity for rich people to become even richer – is to sign our own death warrant.”

A wondrous serendipity

Clearly, such a monumental shift in working patterns will only be possible if farming can be made an agreeable – indeed enjoyable – profession for the large numbers of people it actually requires, and Tudge has much to say on this front, noting that, “When farms are properly mixed and geared to the local landscape and climate, they become extremely absorbing: nothing more so”, while there is “no technology more valuable to a new agrarian society than modern hi-fi and the internet”.

Biological efficiency also dictates that, whilst all farms must adapt to their local ecology, most will possess the same basic structure: producing plenty of plants, some but not much livestock, and great variety.

And here we find what Tudge calls “a wondrous but obvious serendipity: the output of farms that march to the drum of sound biology exactly matches the nutritional needs of human beings as defined by modern nutritional science: Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety.”

From here to there

Indeed, this is one of Tudge’s main grounds for optimism, as well as the foundation of his proposal for making EA a reality. Namely, the creation of a “a truly collaborative and cooperative movement of all [the] players in the global food supply chain” – producers, preparers and consumers – “who are driven by concern for all humanity, and other species, now and in the long term”.

The prime task, he notes, “is to establish, worldwide, in every country, a food culture: a critical mass of people who really appreciate food, and will put themselves out for it” and this “is the thing that everyone – even the most apparently disempowered – can help to bring about”.

Side-lining the powerful

Excoriating both the madness of our current food system and the West’s democratic deficit, Tudge is clear that his proposals require humanity to “by-pass and generally sideline the powers that be” who are living “in a fantasy world of their own devising, blind to every observation that is in any way inconvenient.”

Rejecting both Reform (“persuading the powers that be to change their ways”) and Revolution (by which he appears to mean a tumultuous head-on confrontation with the state), he instead advocates what he terms Renaissance – a massive international grassroots movement that can pull the rug out from under the system through its own practical activity.

A nonviolent (food) revolution?

“We can’t all be farmers”, he notes (though many more of us need to be) “but we can all be serious cooks”, and “[c]ooking is the ultimately anarchic act.” “If we could all cook – or if a critical mass of us rediscovered the joys of it – then ... the whole sorry superstructure of the present corporate-government-bureaucrat-technologist food supply chain would begin to fall apart”.

The Western diet – with its reliance on factory-farmed meat, processed foods, and apples that could be grown locally flown-in from the other side of the world – will have to go, but this will be to everyone’s benefit, except of course those making a killing out of the current system. Some PN readers might even regard this as a nonviolent revolution of sorts.

Fork and chopstick

Feeding People is Easy is a short, highly idiosyncratic work, offering an extremely radical solution – albeit one rooted in biological necessities – to some of the world’s most urgent problems. No-one will agree with everything it contains (this reviewer found Tudge’s call for a “new capitalism” particularly grating), and some will regard parts of it as naive.

Nonetheless, it deserves the attention of – and action from – anyone who wields a fork or a chopstick. In the words of a former PN editor, “Let a hundred courgette flowers bloom!”