A view from the fields – is our economic system a barrier to organic growing?
20 September 2013
Collette Haynes and her husband Peter she started Ashurst Organics in 1994 as a community supported venture, supported by Common Cause Co-operative, a social enterprise based in Lewes, East Sussex. Since then the box scheme has survived almost entirely by word of mouth and Collette feels that they have continued because of the support of scheme members who feel as much a part of the land as those who have helped farm it. In this personal perspective, Collette examines how our dominant economic and cultural perspectives currently militate against the true success of the organic approach, but despite this we must remain true to our principles and “get stuck in” if we are to build a better world.
At the time of writing this in April the dominant news headline is that Margaret Thatcher is dead. The press has been awash with comment, documentaries and obituaries debating her legacy – the Thatcher revolution now analysed with the benefit of hindsight. Was she the last great conviction politician, a champion of freedom – or the Wicked Witch of the West? Opinions differ, but either way, loved or hated she is to be seen off with a £10 million state funded funeral – a mark of respect if ever there was one.
Political division and discussion have also been dominant themes within Mother Earth and the organic movement as a whole of late. Is organic by nature conservative or progressive? Is organic a political movement or a philosophy? And does it matter? Surely, we’re a system of farming – so producing the best quality food is all we should concern ourselves with? It is certainly more than most of us on the ground, farming or growing can find the time for.
As an organic grower, rather than a scholar or academic, this article is purely a ‘view from the fields’. But I feel very strongly that these questions do matter. That where we stand, how we understand the bigger political picture and where we fit into it are crucial to understanding both how we have got to where we are, and in deciding where we go to next.
My belief is this: the enemies of organic production are not slugs, pests or disease. In a healthy soil, producing food is relatively easy (notwithstanding 2012’s extreme weather). The reason that making a living from organic is so hard is ‘the system’. And by that I mean the way we conduct our economy – which in our case is our unregulated, free market, capitalist economy (coincidentally, Thatcher’s system of choice – the product of her revolution).
Blaming ‘the system’ could of course just be ‘casting problems at society’ to use Thatcher’s words. And certainly there is nothing worse than feeling like a victim. Taking individual responsibility is the first step towards empowerment and was arguably a positive outcome of Thatcher’s revolution. The difference between her outlook and an organic perspective however is that we believe that there is such a thing as society. Even more, we believe there is also such a thing as a natural environment. And that all of these things; Thatcher’s individuals, society, even the soil, plants and animals are one and indivisible. Our responsibility to ourselves therefore lies beyond our person, our families and our immediate neighbour because what we do, what we value and what happens to our environment have an effect on everything else.
Neo-liberal capitalism however has a more singular lens when it comes to principles. Ecology is something to be afforded only once the principles of profit and economic efficiency have been satisfied – being green is a luxury (or an ‘externality’ in the language of economists). To be an organic grower and believe that ‘small is beautiful’ and not take advantage of economies of scale, or to undertake ‘husbandry’ in a relatively expensive labour intensive way – to the benefit of our natural environment – is therefore to be pitched against the ‘system’.
But there is another reason the system has become an enemy of organic and that is through the cultural acceptance of the market perspective. The theory goes that consumers and producers battle it out to determine price and economic efficiency in a ‘may the best man win’ marketplace duel. No barriers, no state controls (though many of both exist) – just self-reliant, enterprising souls, jostling to succeed. Since the Thatcher revolution our economy transformed from a sporting arena with rules into a kind of cut throat gladiator’s ring. We entered the era of ‘Greed is Good’.
In this economic Gladiator’s ring consumers believe that they have the power to give the thumbs up or the thumbs down as to whether businesses live or die. The consumers are kings and whoever best performs on price wins – with the theory being that price competition leads to affordability and thereby equality. Consumer choice is presented as democracy in action. Rational, self-determined choices made by the people. But it doesn’t take much to realise that all too often the ‘gladiators’ in the arena (the Big Guys) will conspire among themselves, so that economic diversity and democratic power will eventually be replaced by Corporate power or in our case, the power of ‘Big Food’ – with all the problems that entails.
Back in the 80’s consumer choice was the neo-liberals’ silver bullet that silenced socialist/alternative ideologies. Capitalism gave everyone the power. Granted, only the power to shop, but for a while we in the West did mostly improve our lot and live like kings. Everyman could grace his table with pineapples and then squander their riches by watching them rot in the fruit bowl.
And for a while we believed the market would weave its magic for organic. King consumer would choose organic and large scale conversion would soon follow. But then the bubble burst. 2008 and the credit crunch kicked in like a hangover. Affordability became imperative and, despite a groundswell for ethical purchasing, organic was already tainted beyond measure as an item of ‘conspicuous consumption’ – a lifestyle product. So much so, that even now we are afraid to speak our own name. Consequently the ‘o’ word has become almost invisible – even amongst green thinking citizens. We have committed the ultimate undemocratic sin by charging pennies more and have been branded ‘elitist’.
Not a great place to be. But we know that our food system isn’t quite as rosy as supermarket shelves would have us believe. Look deeper and wider and we still see food poverty, obesity, a chronic decline in home production, animal welfare issues, honey bee decline, food miles and carbon emissions to name but a few of the problems we face. We have allowed the market to decide but the market has in many ways got it horribly wrong.
An elephant in the room
The organic movement has been campaigning long and hard to moderate and treat the negative symptoms of our food culture. But very rarely do we ever venture to question the cause. We appear happy to try to change the system from within and are nervous of ‘telling consumers what to think’. We lead by example and we endeavour to inform but reluctantly look up at the bigger picture to declare that ‘it need not necessarily be so’. We know that our principles are diametrically opposed to a system that is dependent on commoditizing everything and locked into unlimited, unsustainable economic growth on a finite planet. And we know that our economic system cannot practise ecological caution if it is a hindrance to the primary principle of private profit. But still we say nothing. It is the elephant in the room.
But how can we say anything? Organic has become the social pariah of the market economy. People need only to shout ‘affordability’ and we cower in shame. Of course food needs to be affordable, yet no one ever asks why most people are so poor that they cannot afford their basic needs. Why has the trickle down not redistributed real wealth? Why do we want our food ‘affordable’ at the expense of producers and the environment, and yet our shelter (another basic human need) so unaffordable? In this light, ‘affordable’ food starts to look suspiciously like an opiate of the masses.
What is missing from our current system (and to be fair other economic systems such as communist experiments have lacked them too) are values other than short term human preservation and competitive economic growth. We need principles which are capable of filtering decisions and inspiring action – such as the IFOAM Principles of fairness, care, health and ecology. These are things we teach our pre-schoolers but abandon when it comes to operating our economy. Hard wiring the principle of ecology into the core, as the IFOAM principles do, is what any new economic system of the future must do. We need to extend our parameters of care and fairness to include the natural world and all living systems if we are to continue to thrive as a species.
We need to invite the natural environment into our notion of democracy; just as we did when we spoke for the Rights of Man, the Rights of Women or Civil Rights in America. The abolition of the slave trade was seen as economic suicide, yet people evolved, culture changed. It is possible. But ideas such as these, which could change cultures, cause reformations and inspire a renaissance, are prone to condemnation. If the power of these principles were to be fully realised empires could crumble. Is it any wonder that the ‘o’ word has been crucified?
To me, the term ‘organic’ means ultimate fairness. It is not elitist. For a start (and any member of the Organic Growers Alliance will adhere to this) we growers do not do what we do or live in relative austerity just so we can feed the rich. We are Levellers in service to the soil not servants to the elite. But (personal grudge aside) more importantly, if you take away the consumer lens and look at the world from an organic producer’s perspective, an ecological perspective, organic becomes the complete opposite of elitist. In fact:
- It is elitist to expect to be able to bend the natural world to our industrial and consumer will.
- It is elitist to exploit the earth’s natural resources for personal profit.
- It is elitist to exploit cheap or modern day slave labour for our own consumer convenience.
We are part of the planet, not its lord and master and we should be grateful for it. But all the while we live in economies, societies and cultures that do not tend to equity. While we have a food system that can cause 1 billion people to starve while another 1.5 billion suffer obesity we will always have to exploit and suppress. Something or someone will have to pay, be they peasant farmers or the ecological systems of the natural world. We cannot democratise organic healthy food until true democracy and fairness exist in society. We cannot democratise sustainably produced food until we as a people and a government value it.
It is worth mentioning here that while equity does not require all people to be the same, it does mean more than the right to shop for the same stuff. What we, the planet and the poor need are ground rules that allow for a more diverse power distribution that can offer ecological, economic opportunity – in other words true democracy, based on principles. As Hans Herren pointed out at the Soil Association conference in 2011, the world food system produces enough food; where it has problems is in distributing that food in an equitable fashion. The problem is systemic.
So what do we do?
We could wait for our own ‘Eco Maggie’ – a green rinsed, conviction politician who could wade in and give a biodegradable hand-bagging to anyone with too much power and not enough eco-sense. Monsanto, the unregulated banks and City gamblers, ‘King’ consumer, the NFU, the major political parties – the list of those whose heads our prospective eco leader would bang goes on. But no, we are supposed to be the good guys. Listening is an essential part of the path to true democracy and a better global economy that recognises all human and planetary rights not just consumer and corporation rights, and listening was never Thatcher’s strong point.
Instead we need to hold onto our own convictions – despite the name callers and the prejudice. Rachel Carson and Eve Balfour were just as revolutionary as Maggie and it’s their words we need to remember. If we can be part of the process of shattering the market lens so that we can help create individuals, a society, an economy and a culture that can think beyond what Oscar Wilde described as “the price of everything and the value of nothing”, then we will be creating a sustainable world, not just a market for sustainable products.
Organic is both conservative and progressive, a philosophy and political creed. We should not be afraid to enter the economic or political debate as all things are one and indivisible. It was Thatcher who said “you may have to fight a battle more than once to win it”. Our challenge is in how we should take part. How we can make ourselves visible again to ‘consumers’ who have been entranced by the politics of patience, promise and passivity? How can we become relevant again to consumers, who even while morphing into Transition Townsfolk, forsake organic “because it is too expensive”? How can we convince our fellow citizens to walk over and see the world from a different place on the mountain so that they start to value the natural world and its importance to our long term health and survival?
It isn’t easy being green. It’s even harder being an organic producer and having a holistic mindset but the reformation is occurring. We have campaigned well, we have asked nicely for support, but we desperately need good governance and an economic system that is more fertile ground for organic, sustainable production. And with an ever changing and volatile climate we have no time to lose.
For sure the Cartels, the corporations and the City might have to adapt but no more than the miners, the ship builders and UK farmers had to. If Thatcher has any positive legacy it’s to get stuck in. But this time to enter the era of its Cool to Care. Like her we should not hold back – she showed conviction and she got a funeral to die for.