Small is beautiful for 21st Century farms?

Molly Conisbee

25 March 2011

In the last year two proposed ‘mega-farms’ have been the subject of controversy. A proposal for a huge dairy in the Lincolnshire, Nocton, which envisaged housing initially 3,750 – rising to 8,000 – cows indoors was withdrawn following concerns about underground water contamination. Meanwhile Midland Pig Producers is currently proposing an indoor pig factory in Foston, Derbyshire which will house 2,500 sows and up to 20,000 piglets. Molly Conisbee examines the ideological assumptions that underlie this drive towards the ‘mega’, as well as the responses needed to reframe this debate towards a more environmentally sustainable alternative.

I believe it is the task of the Soil Association to continue systemic work on the subject of wholeness, which has been stated perfectly as the relationship between soil, plant, animal and man…right ideas, in order to become effective, must be brought down and incarnated in this world and the commercial interest must be made into the servant of correct ideas. EF Schumacher, writing in Living Earth magazine, 1971

2011 is the centenary of economist and thinker EF Schumacher’s birth. ‘Fritz’ Schumacher was Chief Economist at the National Coal Board for a number of years; his writings on economics, perhaps most famously Small is Beautiful was widely read, particularly during the 1970s (the Times Literary Supplement nominated Small is Beautiful as one of the 100 most influential post-War books). The aim of this article is to consider how Schumacher’s philosophy and economics can help the contemporary organic movement to challenge one of the most worrying and unethical trends in modern farming: huge-scale dairy and pig farms, as typified by recent planning applications in Nocton and Foston. These mega-units stand against everything the organic movement, and human-scale economics (which means learning to live within our environmental limits) stands for. Current debates around food security – which argue that scaled-up production is the only means of viably feeding a growing world population – fail to tackle some major fault lines. Creating a purely consumerist model for food and farming which fails to address issues such as resource use (water, phosphates, oil) or acknowledges the rising tide of global obesity and hunger (two sides of the same coin under current production methods) are doomed to deliver a disastrous business-as-usual model for both the environment, and human and animal health and well-being.

Schumacher was President of the Soil Association from 1970–77. During this time he wrote an article for the Association’s Living Earth magazine, in which he passionately made the case for the practical application of economic and organic thinking into practice and lived experience. ‘Let us not defend a type of pristine virginity’, he noted in 1971, ‘to remain a little, esoteric splinter group, at a time when the whole world is crying out for precisely the kind of thinking the Soil Association has been engaged in for the past 25 years’. In the current context of economic downturn, credit crunch, environmental degradation, and attendant social and political instability, the time has perhaps never been more instructive to return to some of Schumacher’s writings – on the need to re-think what a humane economics might look and be like as lived in practice.

There is a natural affinity between the values of the Soil Association, and more broadly, organic systems and principles, and a model of economics ‘as if people and the planet mattered’. Organic is a system of wholeness, of working within a natural order that respects seasons, cycles and fallow time; that harnesses the power of nature to develop fertility and abundance, and, fundamentally, respects sentient beings (animals and people) at the heart of that process. Appropriate size and scale – subsidiarity– are absolutely at the centre of this economics as philosophy and practice. That is to say that Schumacher believed that bureaucracy should be minimized; decision-making made as locally as possible; community autonomy encouraged; and markets, technologies and production systems be the servant of people, rather than the other way around.

In 2011, there is another key anniversary for the organic movement, as the Soil Association reaches 65. Founded in 1946 by a pioneering group of scientists, farmers, nutritionists and doctors, its early mission was to educate the public – creating an informed body of opinion around this key relationship between healthy soil, animals and people. Its early aim was not to certify organic food and farming – this came later, with a legal definition around organic standards and principles that the Soil Association was central to establishing.

Mega is better

65 years on, and the world is facing some similar problems in the politics, practicalities and economics of food and farming that Lady Eve Balfour and later Schumacher grappled with. The men and women of post-War Britain had some of the same challenges we face today – how could we feed ourselves sustainably? What was the connection between the general health of the environment and people? What was the relationship between socio-economic status, diet and health? How could the post-War Government’s response of scaled-up, chemically-intensive agriculture be challenged with a viable, alternative model that helped to protect small and family farms, placed high importance on the wellbeing of animals and crucially, maintained soil fertility through natural means?

However, we also face the specific challenges of our own time – our contemporary food and farming ‘predicament’, in which we have witnessed intensification in every sense of farm consolidation and production methods. There were, pre-World War II, around 500,000 farms in the UK – the majority of which were small, mixed units of less than 50 acres.1 Around 1.5 million families made their livings from agriculture during this time. According to Richard Benson, author of The Farm (a moving account of the decline and sale of his own family’s farm in Yorkshire), the current number of British farms stands at around 191,000 ‘and of those, 19,000 account for more than 50 per cent of national output’.2 The post-War journey in agriculture was that of consolidation and scaled-up production systems – which has created its own narrative of large-size-as-efficiency. The knock-on effect of this – increasing monoculture with its consequent impact on the environment, landscape and wildlife; and the systems of government and EU decision-making, subsidy and controls that have underpinned this, have been brilliantly exposed by writers such as Graham Harvey3 and Richard Benson, amongst others. In addition, food security is firmly back on the political agenda. A combination of natural disasters, rising farming input costs and poor harvests is already having a severe impact on food prices globally. At time of writing, protests across the Middle East are in part inspired by the rising cost of key food staples. In the UK-context this has given a boost to the biotech industries, who argue that the only way we can feed ourselves in the future is via the techno-fix of genetic modification, which will help address pesticide use, water shortages and diminishing soil fertility. Scaling up production methods, and applying the ‘efficiencies’ of factory systems for animals (using antibiotics to address the risk of disease) and consolidation through scale and mono-cropping also define this vision of global food production.

Thus the ‘perfect storm’ story sets the stage perfectly for the coming of the mega-dairy, pig farm or other scaled-up venture. While the mindset that produced the post-War Agriculture Act of 1947 was understandably framed by the desire to never see starvation on mainland Europe again, today the pressures of climate change, population growth and diminishing resources appear to be inducing policy makers to reach for the ‘mega’; it has become a standard line of Government spokespeople that the drive to feed people efficiently and cheaply is inextricably intertwined with the economics of large scale, with the case for ‘human scale’ farming being outweighed by these external drivers. And the phrase ‘outweigh’ is used advisedly in this context, as another distinct challenge for today’s policy makers is the growing tide of obesity and obesity-related illness, which is also embedded in our national food and food-production culture. It is estimated that diet-related ill-health costs the NHS around £8bn per annum, and that this will rise to around £50bn by 2050. An obesity-related crisis was not on the radar of a post-War generation, which had, amongst other things, trimmed the nation’s waistline. We must look here not just at limits to growth – but limits to girth.

Less is more

Schumacher’s thinking on these issues is instructive. Human-scale economics is of deep resonance to our food and farming systems, just as to our banking, business, health and education sectors, and should be fought for. The potential phenomenon of a proposed mega dairy at Nocton in Lincolnshire, involving between 3,770 and 8,100 dairy cows, and the proposed pig farm at Foston in Derbyshire, containing 2,500 breeding sows and around 20,000 young pigs, would both be the largest of their kind in the UK. And although the Nocton proposal was recently withdrawn after objections from the Environment Agency, the company is looking for alternative sites for development; it appears to be only a matter of time before they find a suitable site.

The coming of the mega farm would represent a huge change in British farming practices; one which would have undoubtedly horrified Schumacher, both philosophically and ethically. The massification of animal farming is well established in the USA, for example, through vast feedlots that litter the Mid-West in particular. Despite the presence of factory farming in the UK the scale of Nocton and Foston proposals is new in its sheer ambition and scale.

Already a key feature of US agricultural systems, the mega-animal production units are described by journalist and campaigner Michael Pollan, amongst others. In The Omnivore's Dilemma he documents the way in which scaled-up, in this case intensive beef farming, has impacted on landscapes, economies and diets as part of a national distortion of the food chain via big business and perverse government support:

The underlying problem is agricultural overproduction, and that problem (while it understandably never receives quite as much attention as underproduction) is almost as old as agriculture itself. Even in the Old Testament, there’s talk about how to deal not only with the lean times but also with the fat: the Bible advises creation of a grain reserve to smooth out the swings of the market in food. The nature of farming has always made it difficult to synchronize supply and demand. For one thing, there are the vagaries of nature: farmers may decide how many acres they will plant, but precisely how much food they produce in any year is beyond their control.

The rules of classical economics just don’t seem to operate very well on the farm. When prices fall, for example, it would make sense for farmers to cut back on production, shrinking the supply of food to drive up its price. But in reality, farmers do precisely the opposite, planting and harvesting more food to keep their total income from falling, a practice that of course depresses prices even further. What’s rational for the individual farmer is disastrous for farmers as a group. Add to this logic the constant stream of improvements in agricultural technology (mechanization, hybrid seed, agrochemicals and now genetically modified crops – innovations all eagerly seized on by farmers hoping to stay one step ahead of falling prices by boosting yield), and you have a sure-fire recipe for “overproduction”; another word for way too much food.4

Organisations such as the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and others have of course mounted rigorous objections to the proposals for mega dairies and pig farms. We have pointed out the moral, ethical, welfare and environmental fault lines that underpin a system that exploits our fellow living creatures in this way. There may also be a calculation to be made on the cost to local economies – particularly smaller farms who will find it hard to compete with massive production systems. Inevitably this has not been considered as part of the drive to scale-up.

But the issue remains. As long as we have a government narrative that tells us food production levels need to rise inexorably, and fails to tackle the deeper issues around a food system that is as much about the politics of distribution as the amounts of food produced; and a consumer mindset that wants both cheaper food and more meat and dairy on a global basis; the case for scaled-up production will struggle to be effectively challenged. How can we begin to reframe the debate on this issue?

A new consciousness

Applying economic theory to human behavior is a complicated subject, whose ramifications go way beyond the scope of this essay. But this is what Schumacher tried to do through his human economics. Clearly, theories of ideology which regard human behaviour as constructed by circumjacent forces (where the human ‘subject’ enters into ideology, more-or-less unconsciously) cannot be dismissed, howsoever they undermine the idea of people as free-thinking, autonomous, entities. In reality, there are numerous ideologies competing with one another for attention, though there is usually what we might still call a dominant ideology which constitutes a current horizon of awareness. Since most people on the planet now aspire to the conditions of the consumerist paradise, fuelled by endless economic growth and technological innovation, both of which are predicated on a carbon based, oil dependent, mindset, we can see immediately where the basic problem lies. For food and farming, which is our focus here, this has resulted in immense pressure to produce more meat and dairy as diets in emerging economies in China and India appear to adapt to so-called ‘Western’ models. So for example, the average British person now eats double the amount of meat they ate in the 1970s; we eat less seasonally and locally, and perhaps most shockingly we waste on average between 30-50% of the food we buy. It appears that these trends are being scaled-up and replicated globally.

The question Schumacher raised for any eco-economic consciousness must surely be one of how to encourage hearts and minds to think beyond this ‘paradise’ – to envision something less socially divisive; something less inherently productive of tension (most obviously between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, especially where the latter so easily internalize the aspirations of the developing world, to include the new economic powers arising in China and India); where such a lifestyle can be seen to be increasingly in conflict with those needs of the planet’s regulatory eco-systems, now tampered with by the effects of the industrial and technological modernity which underpin a narrow minded sense of human progress.

Schumacher was trying to theorize some sort of eco-psychology of economics in order to understand and challenge this predicament. This was not just a matter of unsettling vested interests – for Schumacher vested interests were also ‘ruled by ideas’, and could thus be contested in the court of public opinion, debate and discussion. This was about challenging the premise on which those very vested interests were made in the first place.

How can we, in the organic and agro-ecological movement, engage in challenging this scaled-up world view? If, as Schumacher wisely noted, a change in quantity means a change in quality, how do we make this a coherent case in the drive to the bottom of food production? (And drive to the bottom these food systems will certainly be.)

It is tempting to think that while some traditional forms of alternative society critique are worth pursuing, humanity has yet to see a form of large-scale social organization that gets anywhere near the ideals of sustainability. Most of modernity has been based on the assumption that the earth is there for the taking, notwithstanding rearguard actions such as national parks, countryside stewardship schemes and organic food production. And this assumption is likely to be the bedrock of our self-destruction unless we re-build our relationship with, and dependency on, nature, literally from the ground up. To do this we have no choice but to re-examine our core beliefs about what it means to be modern; what it means to be the industrialized, technologized, consumerized, and psychologically blocked subjects of the ideologies that write the scripts of how we live, and the conditions to which we aspire. In short, we must interrogate with the utmost rigour those things that constitute the very fabric of our awareness as we try to find a way out of the current cul-de-sac.

Anything short of this, and life as we know it will almost certainly disappear. What have we got to lose? And where better to start than in our food production systems – and how we treat the other living, sentient beings within that system. Rejecting a vision of food and far ming which is predicated on the ideology of scale-as-efficiency, but rather looks at the wholeness of a production cycle, with a sense of its own sustainability as its central organizing principle, would mean a complete re-framing of our present debate on food and farming. A system which began with a powerful commitment to animal welfare, local economic and environmental wellbeing and strong incentives against waste, for example, leads very logically to smaller scale production, localized markets and – yes – choice editing by adjusting our expectations towards seasonality and ‘regionality’. Schumacher noted that:

The generosity of the Earth allows us to feed all mankind; we know enough about ecology to keep the Earth a healthy place; there is enough room on the Earth, and there are enough materials, so that everybody can have adequate shelter; we are quite competent enough to produce sufficient supplies of necessities so that no one need live in misery.

This is the real sustainability story that needs to be pushed back at the proponents of the ‘mega-is-better’ school of production. There is enough – even on a planet of finite resources and growing population – but our trade-off might be not everything we want, all of the time. If the price is human-scale development and better welfare for animals, that is surely a price worth paying.

Molly Conisbee is the Soil Association director of campaigns and communications. You can read more by Molly on her blog.

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.


1 Benson, R: The Farm, (2006) London: Penguin, p229
2 Benson, R: The Farm, p.230
3 Harvey, G: The Killing of the Countryside (1998) Random House
4 Pollan, M: The way we live now, New York Times, October 12 2003

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