A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Romantic, but 'rong...a fine critique of agricultural prospects

One of the last remaining nuggets in the dross of our media underworld still worth the monthly mining is undoubtedly Prospect Magazine, which continues to print accessible, but deeply thoughtful, essays on a wide range of important topics.

A particular gem, just published, and luckily selected as one of their open access essays, is by Richard H. Webb, Director of the Consultancy, StepOut, and Research Associate at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences at the LSE: 'Virtual Agriculture' (Prospect, November 2003). This commentary is essentially a much-needed critique of Colin Tudge's over-romantic and over-lauded book (and green tract), So Shall We Reap.

Here are two key quotations from the long piece, which should, however, as always, be read in its entirety:-

(a) "The greens are hostile to big business on principle, and agribusiness in particular. But in many other respects they stand shoulder to shoulder with the farming subsidy lobby. They both need the public to believe a number of unsubstantiated things about agriculture - not least that there is a crisis to be managed. And they both celebrate the agricultural "exception," arguing that the normal rules of business should not apply to farming and food production. While both would like the third world farmers to flourish, neither wants them participating in a globalised market. Small farmers are good, our own small farmers are best. Dependence on foreign food is dangerous."

(b) "Tudge is stubbornly ignorant about finance, although he attacks its practitioners with great ferocity. A few minutes in a bookshop would have told him that cash and profit are very different motivators, that a balance sheet is not where agricultural wages appear, and that a low-margin, high-turnover business is absolutely not what everyone wants.

What comes through is Tudge's - and by extension his supporters' - contempt for business. For Tudge it is a "dogfight." His is a world populated by distant hate figures and shadowy organisations, but he shows little understanding of the concerns of the small farmer. Nowhere in the book is there any objective reference to what farmers actually think and feel. The vast dataset on farmer opinion - tens of millions is spent each year on surveys - remains untouched. Perhaps the hugely diverse values and personal ambitions of billions of people fit poorly into his romantic assumptions about the nobility of their calling.

So why are we told that this is "a tract for our times?" How can those who articulate the green case possibly be comfortable with such a curiously unbalanced mix of myths and beliefs, such a partial view of the world? Is it because it suits their interests to have the deracinated urban middle classes believing these things about food and agriculture? Without such a myth, the public would not allow them to transfer the vast CAP budget to their plans for a managed landscape - the game of virtual agriculture that they hope to play across Europe."

Trenchant stuff which goes right for the jugular of deeply-muddled green thinking on agriculture. I have long been wary of elitist ideas (protectionism by another name?) concerning agricultural exemptions from normal market forces in the UK, especially in respect of the developing world and the issue of fair, open, competition. Webb encapsulates my fears far more cogently than I could myself. I endorse his arguments completely. It is a fine article, and one that shows clearly how much green thinking on agriculture is romantic but 'rong.

I would also encourage everyone to read the print version of Prospect Magazine on a regular basis. A light in a darkening media world!

Now for some virtual coffee. Philip.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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