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Interview: Colin Tudge, biologist, author

19 July 2013

' We cannot put the world to rights without digging deep'

My wife, Ruth, and I are working with Schumacher College at Dartington, Devon, to establish a "College for Enlightened Agriculture". The launch and first course is in late September.

This is part of our Campaign for Real Farming. Associated with it is our new Fund for Enlightened Agriculture, and the annual Oxford Real Farming Conference - the antidote to the official Oxford Farming Conference. It's held every January.

What we now have imposed on us by the powers-that-be - the complex of big government, banks, and hi-tech farmers - is designed to maximise profit in the short term. They don't ask questions about how much we need, or how much we can produce. All the emphasis is on productivity: grow monocultures; put on loads of fertilisers; get rid of labour; go for economies of scale, big machines, the bulk-buying of chemicals.

The result? Massive piles of surpluses, mass unemployment, bad food. It's a hideous, destructive system, but it makes money in the short term. The powers that be are not going to change their mind. We've tried talking to them, but they won't do it differently, because their own power would be compromised if control was decentralised.

If we want the world to be different, and food to be sustainable, we have to create it for ourselves. We're creating an agrarian renaissance, a grass-roots-led movement, small mixed farms and markets.

France and Italy are now losing their family-farm traditions. Spain is the worst. Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Turkey . . . -their greatest asset is their agriculture. It's fabulous, the basis of very good societies, wonderful cuisine, all using excellent ingredients. But they have been forced to abandon this in favour of monocultures. Poland has wonderful small piggeries, but they're now acquiring huge pig factories: one million pigs in one plot. It's done with American money, supported disgracefully by EU money.

The reason for keeping pigs was originally for churning up ground, and using waste to manure ground. Their meat was a bonus. Now, all the assets are lost, and the pigs eat specially-grown soya flown over from Brazil. Their sewage is a huge embarassment, thrown into rivers. We ought to be very, very angry about this - much more so than we seem to be.

Ask three questions: What do we need as a human species? What do other animals need? What is it actually possible for the world to produce? The hope is that the possibility exceeds the need.

Then there's a moral question: What is it good to do? Some people think sustainable food production isn't a good thing to do - or behave as if they don't.

Nature is very productive and very resilient. It's been sustainable for the past 3.8 billion years by being very diverse, tightly integrated. It makes use of what's around. It doesn't use fossil fuels: it leaves them in the ground. How does that translate into farming? Polyculture.

The myth is that small farms can't feed the world. Half the world's food is still produced by small mixed farms, not helped by governments. Twenty per cent comes from fishing and back gardens. Industrial food only produces thirty per cent. It's a most horrible con, a scam. It beggars belief that elected governments like ours can tell us so many things that are completely untrue. Look at the statistics.

So we're trying to create a people's takeover. Everyone can become involved. As best you can, try to avoid supermarkets. People are even setting up farms and markets in north London. Communities could buy their own farm: you can do a lot with ten acres, which might cost you £100,000. Work it yourself, or employ a market gardener. We're writing a book, Eight Steps Back to the Land, about how an ordinary person could become a farmer in a village, town, or a community-owned farm.

The Church could be a seriously big player in this. I've talked to a number of clergy about it. It has a lot of land, but uses it shockingly badly. It's managed by the Church Commissioners, who see it as their brief to make money. They're not interested in the social values of the land they're administering. If they applied morality to their land use, they could make a huge difference.

Any transition will inevitably mean a rise in prices. But only about 20 per cent of what you pay for your food goes to the farmer, and he is massively in debt for his machines and fertilisers; so ten per cent of that just goes to the banks. In a local market, 60 per cent goes to the farmer, who doesn't need capital investment; so, in the longer term, food should become cheaper.

Forty years ago, we spent about the same on food as now, but most of the money went to the farmers. Now, most goes to the middle people. Farmers are absolutely essential because they produce our food, but the middle men aren't.

We cannot put the world to rights, or any particular aspect of it, without digging deep: to the politics and economics that shape our lives; and then beyond them to the grand ideas and assumptions that underpin the economic and political dogmas. We find when we do that the most profound questions are those of metaphysics, which, alas, has gone missing from Western thinking, except within the context of particular religions, when it is linked to theology.

Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice explores these deep ideas, and concludes that most, if not all, of them are wrong, which is why the world is in a mess, and suggests alternative versions that are more likely to be right.

I don't have a conventional, or specifically Christian, view of God. But I do discuss the absolute importance of transcendence, an appealing version of which includes the idea that there is an intelligence embedded in the universe, or behind the universe, which may indeed lead to an agenda. Nature is obviously wondrous, and, in the end, is clearly beyond our ken. It must be seen at least to be sublime, and, beyond that, to be divine (even without a specific idea of God) and to be revered. Coleridge expresses it well, and I love Rudolf Otto's word "numinous".

I am a biologist by education, and, like many biologists, even some of those who claim to be "atheist", I have always seen nature in this light. All the 17th-century founders of recognisably modern science were devout, and saw science in the way that Bach saw his music: "for the glory of God" - specifically, as a way to engage with the mind of God. Science for them, and for their medieval predecessors (both Christian and Islamic), was an act of worship. The present bleak, mechanistic view is, of course, a disaster for nature and for all of us, but is also a sad betrayal of what science ought to be.

I don't claim to have experienced God. I constantly feel, for want of a better word, the sublimity of nature.

I wrote Good Food for Everyone Forever because the UN tells us that the human population should stabilise in 2050 at around 9.5 billion. So, if we can feed 9.5 billion, we have cracked it. The best-informed sources, as opposed to hyped-up government reports, tell us that the world already produces enough to feed 14 billion.

The trick is to design farming specifically to provide good food without wrecking the rest - what I call "enlightened agriculture", or "real farming". But present policies are designed instead to maximise and centralise wealth, which is a quite different ambition.

If we succeed in our present plans, we will have helped to install enlightened agriculture as the global norm. It would be good to be remembered as part of that.

My life is very conventional, in a middle-class English sort of way. We do, however, eat better than most. Where we live in north Oxford we have access to very high-quality local food, including a local micro-dairy with 17 Ayrshires.

Family has always been very important. I have three grown-up, married children, and four granddaughters.

As a child, I wanted to write about animals and plants. This is what I do.

I was very strongly influenced by a primary-school teacher, Miss Crichton, who went off to be a missionary, and by a biology teacher, Doug Hillyer, who was a fine scientist and also a Welsh lay preacher.

I last got angry about a recent speech by the Secretary of State for Agriculture, Owen Paterson, who, like almost everyone in positions of influence in British agriculture, knows nothing about it. Among other things, he told us that we should be export-ing biotech, GMOs, not because they will do anybody any good, but because it will make a few businesspeople richer.

I'm happiest with family, and friends, and nice scenery, and falling asleep in front of the telly.

How about being locked in a church with Rowan Williams? He is one of religion's great thinkers, who rises above theological differences.

Colin Tudge was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Good Food for Everyone Forever is published by Pari Books, and Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice by Floris Books.



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