By Robert Fraser
The industrial and intensive agriculture that is now promoted by western governments (high input, high tech, high capital, minimum labour, mono-cultural and large scale) is perceived to be necessary to feed the rising population. Yet the world already produces enough food for 14 billion people, twice the present number and 40% more than the maximum predicted by the UN. The continuing emphasis on more and more production has nothing to do with human need, or with true aspiration, and everything to do with commerce. Despite this increasing scale and intensification, we are becoming increasingly dependent on food imports, with UK production providing less than 60% of the UK’s demand, leading to a £21 billion annual food trade gap.
It is also perceived that intensive production is necessary to provide cheap food to everyone. Again, the facts suggest otherwise; 80% of what we spend on food in supermarkets goes to the immensely complex food chain with the farmer only getting a fraction of the final price. If you factor in the public subsidies received by industrial agriculture, and the hidden and unaccounted costs relating to pollution and public health, it is clear that cheap food is nothing more than an illusion and leads to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. Furthermore, it is of course absurd that, in a rich country like Britain, a million people must now resort to food banks. This has almost nothing to do with price – the average British family spends a mere 11% of its income on food – and everything to do with economic inequality.
The fundamental problem is that agriculture is currently driven by neo-liberal economic dogma: the belief that an ultra-competitive, globalised market of big operators is the only way to meet increasing demand. The Real Farming Trust believes in a different model of production; one which is expressly intended to produce good food and promote social justice without damaging the biosphere; one that shifts the emphasis from quantity to food quality and provenance. We call this “Enlightened Agriculture”.
Enlightened Agriculture has three guiding principles: (1) economic democracy, in practice rooted primarily in small to medium-sized businesses that are generally conceived as social enterprises and are often cooperative in nature and community-owned; (2) food sovereignty, the idea that individuals and communities everywhere must have control over their own food supply; and (3) agroecology, where individual farms are conceived as ecosystems, and agriculture as a whole is seen as a key component of the biosphere. The farms that could meet these requirements should be poly-cultural (mixed, diverse); low-input (with organic as the default position); therefore, complex, skills-intensive and small to medium-sized; and rooted firmly in their own communities trading largely through local markets. This is the very opposite of the status quo.
The RFT (www.campaignforrealfarming.org) brings all of these ideas together, demonstrating the principles of Enlightened Agriculture, and building and supporting a new generation of farmers. It does this through several complementary projects including the highly regarded and much loved Oxford Real Farming Conference (www.orfc.org.uk). I would urge anyone interested in food and farming to come along to this inspiring event, which is held in January every year.
The RFT also provides mentoring and financial support to enterprises that adopt agroecological methods of farming, and helps to revive local economies through its Funding Enlightened Agriculture Network (www.feanetwork.org). We are currently developing a social investment fund which will provide affordable finance and advice to enterprises that we believe have real potential to transform agriculture in the UK and deliver significant social and environmental benefits. We are also exploring mechanisms which will help people to access land, lack of which is one of the biggest barriers to those wishing to start some form of land-based enterprise.
We are also establishing the College for Real Farming, which will run courses and seminars promoting the ideas of Enlightened Agriculture and tackling the big issues that need to be addressed for Enlightened Agriculture to truly flourish (see www.collegeforealfarming.org). This is work in progress, but promises to offer fascinating opportunities for learning and debate. From economics to morals and spirituality, from the importance of being radical to the role of science and the arts; food and farming cannot be considered in isolation. As Maddy Harland summarised so eloquently in her editorial to the most recent Permaculture magazine, what is needed is a “growth in consciousness if we are to shift to a more resilient, regenerative and kinder world”.
Finally, the RFT also set up and supports the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Agroecology (www.agroecology-appg.org). We are working hard on issues relating to Brexit, which could be extremely challenging for small-scale agroecological farming and food enterprises in the UK. But we are also tackling issues relating to UK aid, and the impact it is having on small-scale farmers in the Global South. The UK is supporting the industrialisation and consolidation of the food chain through its development programmes. Land-grabbing, seed patents, the marginalisation of women and disenfranchisement of small-scale farmers are all issues that we are trying to address by progressively moving agroecology up the political agenda in the hope that it will eventually form the basis for changes in development policy and practice.
I am so lucky to work for the RFT. I work with, and have met, such a wide array of amazing people, doing extraordinary things often in the face of great adversity. It gives me hope that we can build a better world for our children, one in which we genuinely care for and cooperate with each other and where our actions are guided by moral principles that are in effect universal: those of compassion, humility, and respect for and an empathy with our fellow creatures and the world at large.
Robert works for the Real Farming Trust and lives in Herefordshire where he farms traditional breeds of cattle and sheep. He is a passionate advocate of local, sustainable and organic farming with a particular interest in agroecology and permaculture.