We – humanity; the world – need to produce, distribute, and generally treat our food in quite a different way, because the way we do things now is a disaster on every front: humanitarian, political, economic, social, ecological.

We need enlightened agriculture – loosely but adequately defined as:

“Farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, and forever with food of the highest standard, nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the rest of the world”.

Broadly speaking, this requires us to treat all farming as an exercise in agroecology, and to perceive humanity itself as part of the grand global ecology: one species in a huge and diverse synergy. Vital, too, is the concept of food sovereignty, which basically means that humanity – all of us – should keep control of our own food supply.

What we have instead is agro-industry – farming and distribution systems designed to maximize wealth and to consolidate power in the hands of a few large corporations, half a dozen governments, and a handful of international agencies, with their entourage of bureaucrats, experts, and intellectuals.

The two ambitions – feeding people well with minimum collateral damage (and with luck also benefiting our fellow creatures), or the ever increasing pile of wealth and centralisation of power – are quite different, and lead in quite different directions. Despite the best efforts of well-paid and sometimes well-intentioned intellectuals, the two in the end cannot be reconciled.

Enlightened agriculture begins with three questions: what is it right to do? – which of course is a matter of morality; what do we need to do, to ensure that everyone is well fed?; and what is it possible to do? These last two questions are basically those of biology, and more specifically of ecology.

Enlightened agriculture acknowledges the principle of “enough’s enough”: we should quantify what we need and might reasonably desire, and set out to produce it, but then call a halt. Simple arithmetic tells us that we have no need to panic. The world already produces about twice as much food as we will ever need (because the human population is levelling out). The task is to go on producing what we produce now (or less) but in ways that are more convivial, more fair, and leave the rest of nature in good heart; in short, just to do things better. Serendipitously, good farming, sound nutrition, and great cooking (which does not need to be vegan) go hand in hand.

The principles of agro-ecology – and 10,000 years of experience! – tell us that the most productive and sustainable farms are above all diverse, just as nature itself is diverse. This means “polyculture” – mixed-use farms of genetically diverse crops and livestock. The different crops and livestock must be integrated to create synergy – all the different species and classes benefiting from the others. For all kinds of reasons the farms should be low-input – minimising the use of non-renewables; which means in general they should as far as is possible be organic (and the principles matter more than the rules).

Such farms are highly complex and so must be skills-intensive – plenty of farmers! So in general there is little or no advantage to scaling-up, and so the default size of the farms that really could feed us well is small to medium-sized. It would be good if at least 10 per cent of people in Britain worked on the land –  roughly a tenfold increase. In countries that are less industrialised, the farm workforce could be perhaps be as high as 50%, at least until there is realistic alternative employment. (Not all farmers need to be full-time).

But agro-industrialists do not ask what is good – or at least they assume that the maximisation of wealth is good per se, regardless (it seems) of how that wealth is generated or what it is used for. They do not ask what is necessary, for if you seek to maximise wealth then there can never be enough: all ceilings on production must be removed (and nowadays the surpluses are burnt and called “biofuel). What is possible, we are given to understand (and the powers that be apparently believe), is limited only by human ingenuity, and the wealth available for research.

In all businesses, those who seek to maximise wealth must strive to maximise turnover – output. So we have been told in a wave of official reports these past few years – and it’s either a mistake or a straightforward lie – that we need at least 50% more food by 2050, and perhaps 100% more by 2100. So the agro-industrialists pile on the agrochemistry – fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and the rest. “Value” must be added – by processing, packaging, and selling out of season. Above all, costs must be cut. This is done mainly by sacking workers – who flee to the cities where almost one in three of the inhabitants (a billion in all) now live in slums. With skilled workers no longer available, the husbandry must be simplified: no polyculture, no small-scale farming, but vast monocultures and factory farms, propped up by industrial chemistry. The result is cruel to people and to livestock, and to the rest of nature it is devastating.

In industrial agriculture the highest of high-tech is employed at every level, whether needed or not. GMOs, the obsession of governments like Britain’s (despite their denials) are promoted not because they are necessary, but because they are esoteric, and can be ministered only by the few highly-endowed companies. So they both generate and consolidate wealth: a double whammy. Successive British governments have queued up to hand over their power and our sovereignty to the high-tech oligopoly, helping them on their way with our taxpayers’ money, making a virtue of Britain’s technological whizz-bangery.

So in truth we, humanity, have two problems. The first is to install a new generation of polycultural, low input, ‘Enlightened farms’ and all that goes with them – artisanal baking and brewing and charcuterie and all the rest; local markets; and an appropriate financial infrastructure.

The second is to do this despite the powers that be: the oligarchy of corporates, governments like ours, the big banks, and their chosen intellectuals who contrive to make the whole endeavour seem respectable. We need nothing less than a people’s takeover: achieved not by step-by-step reform (it won’t work) or by out-and-out revolution (too dangerous) but through Agrarian Renaissance: building the new system in situ; allowing the status quo to wither on the vine.

You can learn why the Renaissance is necessary, and what is really needed – and above all, how to get involved yourself!! – at a five-day course at Schumacher College, Dartington, from September 23 to September 27.

For more information and how to register please see www.schumachercollege.org.uk/courses/agroecology

This short course launches the College for Enlightened Agriculture, which will be running a one year masters’ course (or equivalent) in 2015. 

Bursaries are also available for this course. To apply, people need to contact Jane Pares: jane.pares@schumachercollege.org.uk with agroecology in the subject line and include in their application answers to the following questions:

  • Why this course would be of benefit to me
  • Why this course would benefit the wider community
  • Why I am eligible for a discounted price

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