Tag Archives: farming

Food for politics

Every hierarchical society has depended on the labour of an underclass – slaves or peasants, or both. This tends to go with a reliance on cereal crops, or potatoes – cheap carbohydrates that will keep your underclass alive and productive, but won’t do much else for them. What it gives us is an approach to farming that does the land no good at all – diverse crops mixing trees, horticulture and animals clearly works best for the land, but it doesn’t give you a cheaply fed underclass. Diversity also makes food harder to control.

Brendan Myers pointed out in his excellent book – Reclaiming Civilization – that once you have a granary, you have an essential resource that can easily be controlled by a few armed men. Storing cereals allows some people to become the ‘protectors’ of the cereals, and by that means they get power over everyone else.

People who mostly depend on one crop are much more vulnerable. One bad harvest spells disaster. One hike in the price of the key foodstuff and many are pushed to, or over the edge. Frightened people living in scarcity are easier to manipulate and control than happy people who experience sufficiency.

What if we were able to eat more broadly, and more locally? What if food wasn’t traded internationally for the profits of those who only get their hands dirty playing the markets? What if we had more food security around the world, and less dependence on the big companies that control seed, pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers?

What if the food you eat is a key underpinning of capitalism? What would changing people’s diets do to the world’s political structures?


Field Trees

Ancient trees in fields are wonderful – I found a number of them at the weekend. In a field, an ancient tree has the space to really grow, and as a viewer, you have the luxury of being able to see it well from all sides.

Field trees are not the norm in agricultural landscapes because they make it harder to move big machinery around. In a landscape with the hedges grubbed out to allow the movement of big machines, there will be no ancient trees standing in the middles of fields.

Field trees are more likely to remain where animals are farmed – providing shelter and shade through the year. For an ancient tree to have survived the medieval period of grubbing up everything to plough the land, it likely needs to have been part of an estate. Large trees are often found in the parks of the wealthy – later on they were grown for their picturesque qualities. An estate might also cultivate large trees for building material. Sadly, a tree, or a woodland is most likely to survive when someone considers it useful in some way. If the land owners wanted a hunting preserve to play in, the wood survives.

Sometimes field trees exist because they were part of a farming style that deliberately mixed tree cover with animal husbandry. This might include pollarding the trees to provide food for livestock. A former pollard will have a broad trunk and then a cluster of branches at above head height.

Some field trees are lone survivors of former woods – you can spot them because they tend to be less spread out and taller. Sometimes former field trees can end up surrounded by woods- again, the shape gives them away and the trees around them will all be obviously a lot younger.

Fields of monocultures, devoid of hedge and tree are little more than industrial units. Nothing much lives there that does not directly serve humans. A tree is a sign of diversity, of life, of there being more going on in a landscape than human business.

 


French Revolution

Food prices in France are so high that protestors are taking direct action. (Radio 4 have been reporting on this a lot so no doubt www.bbc.co.uk has more info if you want to look it up). The protestors resent the profits made by supermarkets at the expense of both their employees and those buying from them. I heard over the weekend that basics – meat and pasta were the cited examples – are now prohibitively expensive. Protestors are going into supermarkets and giving away food to people. They have not been arrested at time of writing, because of a law dating back to Napoleon that entitles shoppers to try before they buy.

All of our food production depends on oil. Agriculture involves tractors. Everything in the supermarkets is moved around by lorry at the very least. Fuel prices impact on food prices, directly. Taxes on fuel increase food prices. In the UK, value added tax adds to the burden of cost. While I am no fan of anything that encourages profligate use of fossil fuels, the increasing difficulty for poor people to eat well, is alarming. In Western cities there are food banks for those who cannot afford to buy food, and hunger is a genuine issue. This is both shocking and inexcusable, especially when you consider how much food our societies routinely throw away needlessly.

In Somalia, there is famine. I gather that the western enthusiasm for quinoa as a foodstuff means that in its south American countries of origin, the price of this essential foodstuff has been raised such that poor people can no longer afford it.

A big part of the problem is that food production is an industry. We leave it to ‘market forces’ to sort everything out, held internationally by the insane belief that markets are somehow a fair and reasonable way of solving everything. It all comes down to supply and demand, right? Except that it doesn’t. Markets are all about short term profit. They aren’t a system that’s going to plan for long term problem solving, or dealing with the challenges of climate change. Currently food supply is part of the problem, not the solution. Market forces will not show compassion to the starving, or help people in France who can no longer afford pasta.

Most of our food, in Europe, is not produced locally. Where we source from developing countries, we still pay them far too little, for all that the fair trade movement has tried to improve this. Supermarkets squeeze domestic producers so that they are barely viable. Farming in the UK is not in a good way. The profits go to the companies and their shareholders, and the big supermarkets make a lot of money. They do it on everyone else’s backs. We’ve been seduced by their apparent convenience, we’ve forsaken the small, local shops and the local producers, stripping essential services out of rural communities along the way. We just get in our cars and drive to the supermarket. Lo and behold, they now have a strangle hold on the food market, we depend on them, the alternatives have all but vanished in many places, we have to drive to them and the prices of food have risen dramatically in the last few years.

This is a situation that we, and our immediate ancestors, have all helped to create, and if we want to change it, we are going to have to do that collectively as well. If the price on fuel came down, food prices might go down too. Might. Do we think the supermarkets will keep a little extra for themselves? I think we can assume they would, in such circumstances. Perhaps the French protestors have the right answer. I’ve no idea what would happen to anyone trying to do that in the UK.

If you want to protest, if you want to do your revolutionary bit, buy something, anything, from somewhere other than a supermarket. Often there are frighteningly few options, but if you can get a thing, anything, straight from the producer, do it.