On the suppression of agriculture

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution,

Warning: Contains book recommendations. Proceed at your peril.

Only a complete idiot, of course, would want to suppress agriculture. But apparently we now have complete idiots in charge of our food supply. Consider this video by a UK poultry farmer, explaining the shortage of eggs: not the result of avian flu, but of the refusal of supermarkets to pay farmers enough to cover their increasing costs. The same is equally true for dairy farmers, and has been for a long time now. Likewise small-scale pork producers. Costs go up, prices stay the same, and eventually farmers stop farming.

Increasingly, the only way for farmers to survive is become a large-scale industrial producer. But this means they are completely in hock to the supermarkets, which are becoming the only distribution channel unless the farmer is lucky enough to be able to sell directly to the public. They are also hugely vulnerable to price increases in their inputs, If you have a million commercial laying fowl in barns, you are going to be spending a lot of money to feed those birds and to heat those barns. When those costs go up – and they have gone up a lot recently – you’re in trouble, unless the supermarkets are kind enough to pass on the price increases which they are imposing on the buying public to their suppliers. Which they aren’t.

None of this is especially new. Joanna Blythman‘s excellent book Shopped, which I have recommended here before, had all of it well-documented back in 2004, and none of it was especially surprising news even then. But it is now reaching a point where farming, in any meaningful sense of that word, is becoming almost impossible. For those of us who like to eat food – which I imagine includes you, dear reader – this is an issue.

Sweeping decisions about agriculture are now being made by people who apparently can’t tell a pig from a pitchfork. Consider the Dutch government’s edict to close down their livestock farmers, with the results pictured above, or the Sri Lankan government’s catastrophic decision to move over to 100% organic agriculture overnight. It’s not that organic agriculture is a bad thing, but the fact that those in power apparently thought it could be achieved at the press of a button.

On the other hand, your organic farming methods need to be the officially blessed ones, or you could end up in deep trouble. If you don’t believe me, ask Amos Miller, who is looking at a $250,000 fine for producing organic food in what the authorities deem to be the Wrong Way. As farmer Joel Salatin put in the title of his 2007 book, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.

I certainly don’t dispute the fact that industrial agriculture needs to go away and be replaced by something that can actually be sustained, not to mention providing the people with adequate nutrition. Frankly, it is becoming embarrassingly obvious that it is going to go away, whether we plan for that transition or not. But the transition can be eased tremendously by well-informed and judicious policies. There seems to be little sign of these breaking out.

Small farmers are, of course, anathema to the sort of “big-picture” morons who are calling the shots these days. This has been the trend for a long time. “Get big or get out,” said US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz back in the 1970s, earning himself a particularly scathing chapter in Wendell Berry‘s magisterial The Unsettling of America (1978). Arguably, in England this goes back as far as the Enclosure Acts.

Why is this? For a long time, after all, the yeoman or small farmer was considered to be the backbone of the nation, not only supplying us with food but also playing a vital military role. (It was just the same in the Roman Republic before there was a standing army, so this not a parochial point, either in time or in space.) Why would anyone object to that?

Well, there may be a clue in the fact that the Russian for yeoman is kulak. Stalin was prepared to risk a major famine to stamp out the kulaks, in which he was ultimately successful – both in stamping out the kulaks, and bringing about a major famine. The farms were collectivised; that is to say, the kulaks were made to get big or get out (in this case, to Siberia). This event, incidentally, is ingrained so deeply in the collective memory of the Ukrainians as to be a major contributory factor to the present war. But we digress,

Stalin was a totalitarian, and so is Tesco. That may sound like an extreme assertion, but really, Tesco would like to have a monopoly on all food sales in the UK, and collectively the UK supermarket sector is not far away from achieving that goal. At that point, they will have a complete stranglehold not only on British farmers but on the British people in general.

After all, how is it possible to coerce a yeoman? The yeoman is able to provide not just food but other necessaries such as clothes (ever wonder about the term “homespun”?) and medicines. Before formal schooling, people learned the skills they needed by doing, under instruction from experienced adults. Basically, between them and their neighbours they had pretty much everything they needed to live, and to live reasonably well. Yeomen only tend to get shirty when outsiders – overlords, for example, or governments – try to oppress them. And they are well-placed to resist oppression.

It is a good deal easier to oppress people who are in no position to resist. This includes farmers just as much as the rest of us. The kulaks put up quite a fight against Stalin, and although Stalin won in the end it was at immense cost and hardly a cause for celebration. If you are in charge – and it doesn’t matter if your intentions are good or ill – what you want is a docile population that will go along with whatever your prescription happens to be for the earthly paradise.

It would be extraordinarily convenient if those people only knew food that came from a shop, water that came from a tap, and value that flowed from the state-issued currency (ideally in a cashless society so that all expenditures can be monitored and controlled). The last thing you want is people who are to any degree self-reliant. After all, such people may not do what you tell them, and then where will you be?

One last book for your consideration: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott (Yale University Press, 1999). Even if you are deeply convinced that Tesco is your friend, this may perhaps convince you that this may not help as much as you might suppose in terms of outcomes.

Of course, we don’t actually need food, do we? We can just eat this stuff instead. It’ll be fine. Right.

This is what the buffet will look like at the next Davos forum. Definitely.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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