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Colin Tudge and Ruth West were part of a group of three that in 2010 founded the Oxford Real Farming Conference: a two-day annual conference organised as an alternative to the Oxford Farming Conference, a multimillion symposium funded, organised and attended by corporate agroindustry. The Real Farming Conference, by contrast, platforms those working at the radical edge of agriculture: this year’s vast programme includes “land speed dating”, to match up landowners and those seeking land; an event to celebrate ten years of the Global Peasants Movement; and a panel discussion on the “agri-spin” used to mask climate-ruinous agroindustrial practices. Colin, who is a biologist, science writer and broadcaster, is the author of sixteen books including The Great Re-Think: A 21st Century Renaissance (Pari Publishing, 2021). Ruth is an independent researcher, and (alongside Colin) part of the team that makes up the Real Farming Trust.

Interview by Nell Whittaker
Portraits courtesy Real Farming Trust

NELL WHITTAKER What were the conditions around the founding of the Oxford Real Farming Conference? 

COLIN TUDGE It started with a chap called Graham Harvey, who was an agricultural journalist I worked with on Farmers Weekly in the early 1970s. He observed that the Oxford Farming Conference – the original one, which has been going since the 1920s – was a load of rubbish: corporations and government saying, “All you have to do is do what we tell you.” Graham, who was better informed, said we should start an alternative conference, which seemed to me to be an outlandish idea, but Ruth took it up. In January 2010, we had a meeting in an old mediaeval library in Oxford, of which there is no shortage. There was about 80 people there, some very distinguished within farming circles. It was chaired by Crispin Tickell, who had been the British ambassador to the United Nations. Also in attendance were Professor Martin Wolfe, a pioneer of agroforestry, and Professor Bob Ørskov, who was at the Macaulay Institute then and one of the world’s leading animal nutritionists, and a few other characters including Patrick Holden, one of the outstanding thinkers of our age. We had a nice chat for one afternoon but that was all, because it was snowing like hell, so people left after only a few hours because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get home. 

RUTH WEST That first year, we had a bucket for donations and we just got enough to cover the hire of the room. We didn’t think it would get much bigger, we just thought we ought to do it again because people clearly thought it was worth doing. We chose the place opposite where the other farming conference, as I call it, was held. 

CT It’s at the beginning of January as that’s a slack time for farmers, if there is such a thing as slack in farming. We wanted to be in the same place at the same time, firstly to show our intent, but also because when the press came up to the Oxford Farming Conference they found we were there as well. 

RW They got the story of the two farming conferences.  

CT The traditional one and the interesting one. 

NW How is the conference funded now? 

RW We have quite a few grants and then some straight sponsorship from like-minded organisations like, for example, Cotswolds Seeds, or Dorling Kindersley. Sheepdrove Trust allowed us to move from where we were because we were spread out in Oxford, and people complained about the walking. Now we’re in the Town Hall. We don’t pay speakers – everyone who comes is treated the same and every conference is led and generated by who’s coming. It means that if you’re speaking, you want to be there, you’re not there because some corporate is paying your expenses. 

NW What’s wrong with mainstream agriculture? I was reading your blog, Colin, and interested when you were talking about David Ricardo’s “competitive advantage”. 

CT I had this idea that there should be something called “enlightened agriculture”, but people thought we needed something shorter, and that’s where I came up with the expression “real farming”. Enlightened agriculture has two arms – one is agroecology and the other is food sovereignty, which are both ideas that have been around for some decades. Agroecology is an ecological concept that says that farms should be designed as ecosystems, or, as a good friend of ours likes to say, “a closed ecosystem with leaky borders”. The point of enlightened agriculture as a whole should be to provide good food for the whole world – forever, indefinitely, without cruelty and without exploitation. It’s eminently achievable. The other arm is food sovereignty, an idea pioneered by the organisation La Via Campesina, the World Peasants Organisation, in the 1990s. The actual details are very complicated, but it boils down to the idea that every society should have control of its own food supply. If you put those two things together, you’ve got enlightened agriculture, otherwise known as real farming. Now present-day farming, as practised in Britain and increasingly the world over, is not conceived that way at all. In fact, the whole world is run according to the peculiar offshoot of capitalism known as neoliberalism, which stresses competition rather than cooperation to maximise personal material wealth. We finish up with a foul mess like the one we’ve got now, with wrecked ecosystems, a wrecked society – but neoliberalism prevails. If we seriously want to treat everybody well without wrecking the world, you want mixed farms, preferably, or a nice mixture of farms. Broadly speaking, you want to be as organic as possible, which means you need lots of labour. What we need is lots and lots of small, organic, but ecologically-run farms. In a neoliberal system, you want to cut down the labour as much as possible because it’s expensive and replace it with machinery and industrial chemical fertilisers. You need the system to be as simple as possible to accommodate that, and if you’re investing huge amounts of capital in equipment and agrochemistry, you can get economies of scale by consolidating. It is monoculture on the biggest possible scale, with absolutely minimum or preferably zero labour. While farms run like that are relatively recent, the underlying ideology has been around for a long time. One example is the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, where people starved, even though the warehouses were full of oats – because trade is the more important thing.

NW Your book, The Great Rethink, lays out a plan for overhauling the entire agricultural – and therefore social – system. Can you summarise those ideas in brief? 

CT We need to approach agriculture at four levels. The first task is to define what it is you actually want to achieve. Governments do this, vaguely – they say, we want growth, or to put America first, or whatever, but they never get specific. There are three things we are trying to achieve – one is a convivial society, the second is personal fulfilment for everybody, and the third is a flourishing biosphere. Note the word biosphere rather than environment – biosphere means the living world, and environment means surroundings, which means real estate. What do you need to do to achieve these ends? You need to build an appropriate infrastructure, for which you need a government that is sympathetic, which our government is not. But you’re never going get any of that right unless you have the necessary mindset. Mindset has four basic components. The first is a decent science education, so the individual can work out how the world actually works. The point of science is not to take the world by the scruff of the neck and beat it into shape, the point is to appreciate the world more fully. The second thing you need is to get your moral philosophy right. One should focus on what Aristotle called the virtues – in particular compassion, alongside humility, and a sense of oneness with the world. The third is that all big ideas – science, politics, and everything, moral philosophy – all end up in metaphysics, which a chap called R.G. Collingwood in the 1930s said was the sum of all absolute presuppositions. The last thing is the arts, because the arts are human creativity in free flight, and the arts change attitudes. So that is the essence of what we need, in a nutshell. 

NW On that point, about science being a means to appreciate the world more fully – could you tell me about topsoil? 

CT The American farmers have a very revealing term for it, “dirt”. Dirt just means grit and filth, a version of soil’s basic minerals, sand, silt, clay, that’s it. But what people don’t realise is that the natural world depends entirely on the living creatures within it, living creatures of all ranges, right down to prions. Everything relies on it, from subviruses right up to whales and sequoia trees. If you look at soil, the mineral base is glued together with organic materials of one kind or another made by literally thousands of species of bacteria and archaea and protozoans and fungi, all interacting. Proper soil has a microarchitecture, which includes spaces for air and water. You can only maintain such a structure if you have loads and loads of microorganisms beavering away. One statistic I came across recently was that half of all the species in the world are soil organisms. A teaspoon full of soil should contain more bacteria than there are stars in the Milky Way. Any one species of tree could have as many as 150 different mycorrhizal fungi living in its roots which connect over miles, making a wood one big organism. But the more you try to plough topsoil and turn it upside down, which was de rigueur a few years ago, the more you upset the microfauna, and the more you add chemicals, the more you destroy the bacteria and archaeans. Eve Balfour, who co-founded the Soil Association, said way back in the 1940s that if you look after the soil, the crops will look after themselves. We now realise that looking after the soil means looking after the microorganisms in the soil, and the macroorganisms — worms, earwigs and all the other stuff that lives there. Topsoil is what’s keeping us all alive. 

NW How do you begin to dismantle what we have – bad governance, for instance?

CT What I’d like to see is what I’m calling a global renaissance, which must be driven by people at large. The Renaissance of the 14th century onwards was driven by intellectuals and bankers, and artists like Michelangelo, and the Medicis, so it was an elitist movement that left fundamental structures intact. We need another renaissance at least as radical as that but led by us. There are loads and loads of movements around the world, fighting for rights, for permaculture, for land. Now, if they were only more coherent, and worked together more and talked more, one would have something that was genuinely powerful. It manifests in things like marches which the government is increasingly unpleasant about. 

RW The agroecology movement is one alongside other social movements. Interestingly, the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] of all things, is now talking about consciousness. When you get a body like the UNDP saying, “Well, yes, unless we have a change of consciousness, we’re not going to get the changes that we need”, then perhaps that’s how social movements will connect. 

NW What’s the difference between a renaissance and a revolution? 

CT Now that’s a very interesting question. There are three ways in which you can change society. The first is reform. Slavery was at least legally ended by a series of reforms, and women’s suffrage came about by a series of reforms. However, they are ad hoc and when you have a political system like ours, reforms introduced by one party can be reversed by the next. The second thing is revolution, and revolution often gets out of hand. People who are revolutionaries eliminate what’s there to build something else, so it becomes more destructive than it needs to be, and it can’t be controlled. The Russian Revolution didn’t envisage Stalin. The Arab Spring looked very good for a few weeks and then the whole thing collapsed. It’s not permanent enough. Renaissance literally, of course, means rebirth. It doesn’t mean you will wipe the slate clean and then start all over again, but you rethink everything for first principles, and when necessary, you restructure. The question of what it’s good to do is a matter of morality, and the question of what is it possible to do is a matter of ecology. ◉