“Eating is an agricultural act” – or how to use those Christmas book tokens!

The headline quote is a characteristically sharp observation by Wendell Berry, one of my favourite writers and quoted by Michael Pollan who adds that Wendell Berry could, equally appropriately, have called eating a political act as well. This reflection begins and will probably end in books, so having promised a list a few days ago I’ve decided to publish a very provisional one today that represents my personal meander through the question of farming and food. I’ll head the list with Michael Pollan because his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was among the first to be published, and was groundbreaking in the way it embraced the whole of food culture from producer to consumer. As a critique of industrial food it’s brilliant, but as a critical friend he addresses many of the questions that sceptics might ask of the alternatives he considers – which, after industrial food production, are – industrial organic food; “beyond organic” farming – basically pasture based livestock production; and foraging. I’ll start the list with this book because I was directed back to it when I started to read Tom Philpott’s new book “Perilous Bounty”, which looks at the state of American farming two decades after Michael Pollan’s research began.

It would be easy to imagine that my reading has focused entirely on American agriculture, but the next four books are UK centred – although in agricultural terms where the US has led, the UK all too often follows to its cost. The feedlot and giant milk production units are here in the UK already and increasing in number.

My third book is Simon Fairley’s “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – a forceful, evangelistic and highly entertaining book on the virtues of mixed farming. Fourth (and these are in no particular order), Chris Smaje “A Small Farm Future” and finally a couple of more technical books; Dieter Helm’s “Green and Prosperous Land” is an economist’s take on reordering farming and building a greener economy and Tim Lang’s “Feeding Britain – our food problems and how to fix them” is a comprehensive survey of UK food policy, what’s wrong with it and – as the title says – how it could be fixed. Finally James Rebanks new book “English Pastoral” has the advantage of being written by a proper hill farmer and it’s a highly readable book, just like his last one.

There are so many other books on the subject ranging from deep ecology through green spirituality and practical handbooks to monographs on single ecological challenges but I’ve mentioned these particularly because I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I’d be confident to recommend any of these books to the farmers I came to know and respect even though I had many reservations about what they were doing.

Overseas readers will need to know that the Potwell Inn, virtual though it may be, is firmly situated in the South West of England whose soils are nowhere near as suitable for arable farming as they are for grass. The temperate climate, and soils all favour the production of grass and so (since humans don’t have rumens) by far the most economical use of the majority of the landscape is grazing which allows cattle to turn sunshine into concentrated food that we can eat. And so there is an inescapable focus on meat and milk production which, when it’s done intensively is undoubtedly a cause of real environmental concern.

I’m interested in food security and so the lorries, thousands of which are stacked up against the closed border in Dover today, represent the almost 60% of food that we import and the fragility of the supply line – in one news report. Therefore if we’re to increase self-sufficiency to a much safer 80% it seems inevitable that we will have to make the most effective use of all the land we have and play to our strengths. Sadly, (vegans and vegetarians may think), the future will have to include a significant amount of traditional (and rotational) mixed farming because much of the South West is unsuitable for the kind of large scale grain and pulse production that would be needed to avoid importing huge quantities of protein food. The point about the ecological catastrophe that’s bearing down on us is that it’s universal. It doesn’t respect borders.

Incidentally I noticed an article in this week’s Farmers Weekly on a similar track, discussing whether lupins could replace imported soya as a protein food for cattle. Personally I think the future lies in eating much less meat and feeding cattle on grass which they’ve evolved to digest, rather than concentrates that keep them in a perpetual state of stress and digestive disorder. The irony in the article came when I saw that the breakthrough has come through the licensing of several new weedkillers, one of which is called “Nirvana”. Is that some kind of sick joke?? I quoted Wendell Berry only a couple of days ago saying that intensive farming takes a solution and turns it into two problems. There’s only one way of ending industrial meat production and that’s to eat less meat and only buy the best and most sustainable meat as occasional treats. Those who argue that such a move would mean meat for the rich and starvation for the poor miss the point that:

  • (1) once the subsidies are removed from industrial farming, the prices will converge, although they’ll never meet.
  • (2) We will have to address inequality within any green new deal.
  • (3) The environmental benefits will be felt universally.
  • (4) The potential health benefits of ending the reign of junk food are almost incalculable.

” …. all of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore”

Michael Pollan – “The Omnivore’s Dilemma

So without resorting to a long piece that I’m completely unqualified to write; it seems to me that we have an urgent need to develop the skills we’ll need to invent or more likely rediscover in order to achieve a sustainable and ecologically safe food future, and perhaps surprisingly much of the emphasis will have to be placed on changing our food culture on the consumer side. I’ll reserve the philosophical and spiritual aspects to this to another post, but practically speaking we’ll need to bring the teaching of growing, harvesting, cooking and preserving back into the mainstream as Michael Pollan suggests.

We’ll have to hugely increase the provision of allotments by local authorities because these are the laboratories for a greener future. Anyone who has experience of growing their own food, even in small quantities, will quickly learn to recognise quality and pay less attention to price. Informed consumers make better, greener buying choices and waste less. Allotments can be much more productive than the equivalent area of conventional farms.

We’ll also have to build a huge network of local food and farmers’ markets to reduce food miles and completely overhaul the agricultural colleges to address a wholly new ethos; turn agriculture and horticulture into a better paid and better regarded occupation and offer training at local colleges to give people the skills they need to get the most out of gardens and allotments. Finally we need to grow more fruit and veg – much much more of them. One of the tragedies of the CAP was the subsidy paid to established fruit farms to grub up their trees, only to pay them some years later to replant them.

Food security really is possible without resorting to ever more intensive and destructive chemical farming and the destruction of the environment; but as I’ve been arguing, the change in our food culture will need to be huge and it will demand leadership and vision that is nowhere apparent in our present political system. But the thought that it’s our Christmas lunch that’s rotting in the back of a lorry on a border somewhere ought to focus our minds pretty sharply.

And if I don’t get the chance to write again tomorrow have a very happy christmas if that’s your thing; and if it isn’t – do enjoy the next few days!

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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