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Do we need industrial agriculture?

Keith Parkins | 19.02.2007 17:56 | Ecology | Globalisation | Health

Do we need industrial food production, is there not a better way?

'The true measure of agriculture is not the sophistication of its equipment, the size of its income, or the statistics of its productivity but the good health of the land.' -- Wendell Berry

'Without tending to do so, large-scale ventures seem to reduce ecological richness and human-scale endeavors to trivialities.' -- Paul Hawken

'A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safeguards human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace. The growth of such a culture was once a strong possibility in the farm communities of this country. We now have only the sad remnants of those communities. If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden the possibility now perishing with them, we will lose it altogether. And then we will not only invoke calamity – we will deserve it.' -- Wendell Berry

The outbreak of H5N1 bird flu at the Bernard Mathews poultry farm in Suffolk, has caused many people to not only question whether they want this form of food production, but to vote with their feet. Although supermarkets have reported a fall of poultry sales of only 10%, Bernard Mathews has seen their sales slump by 40%.

The food industry would say this form of food production is inevitable, that there is no alternative. They are wrong, very wrong.

Last September, the Food Programme on BBC Radio 4 featured a farm in the USA, I think it was in Virginia. Sheep, cattle and hens were raised. The sheep and cattle would graze a field. The hens would then be moved onto the fields in mobile arks. The arks would be moved every few days. The hens scratch around, eating parasites, they manure and dig the pasture, but are never in one spot too long for disease to build up.

A friend has a small farm high up in the mountains in Tenerife, in the foothills of El Teide. He grows sweetcorn, beans, potatoes, and a wide variety of other crops, around the perimeter of the fields are over 200 fruit trees. Hens and ducks roam the fields during the winter and early spring, at night they are returned to their pens. The hens and ducks root around, digging up weeds, eating pests, manuring the fields. Eggs are laid in little nooks and crannies around the farm. As crops are grown, the hens and ducks are slowly restricted in where they can roam.

Walk into an industrial poultry shed, housing upwards of 1,000 birds in semi-darkness. The one thing that hits you is the strong smell of ammonia. The birds have ammonia burns on their feet through standing in their own shit. Any disease spreads through the sheds like wildfire, as we have seen with the recent H5N1 avian influenza virus at Bernard Mathews.

Free-range poultry breathe fresh air. By rooting around, they fill their guts with a range of bacteria which makes them better able to resist disease.

Salmon farming in Scottish lochs is an environmental disaster. The lice-ridden fish are penned in cages. Large amounts of chemicals are needed to keep disease down to manageable levels. The effluent output is equivalent to the sewage output of a small city. The seabed below the cages is a dead zone. Compared with their wild Atlantic cousins, the farmed salmon are fat and flabby.

Fish farming is not new. Medieval monks practiced fish farming. The difference is they worked with nature, not against. In France, in the Dombes region in eastern France near Lyon, fish are still farmed in ponds and lakes, a system that dates from Medieval times.

Fish farming is normal practice in south east Asia. Ducks roam the flooded paddy fields. Fish are also introduced. The ducks manure the fields, the fish eat the larvae of the pests. Both ducks and fish provide additional food.

Beef rearing units in the US generate huge lagoons of slurry.

In Cuba, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the US embargo, they lost access to cheap oil and agrochemicals. As a consequence they were forced to go organic. Fields in the transitional stage showed a drop in productivity, but the organic fields are as productive if not more productive than the chemical doused fields.

Industrial agriculture places the emphasis on monoculture, the output of only one crop is measured. Multi-culture has many crops. Although the output of the main crop may be lower, the combined output is higher.

Work carried out by Vandana Shiva and others, shows that intensive multi-cultures are more productive.

Food writer Colin Tudge has put forward the idea of a World Wide Food Club. Farmers and artisans produce quality food for discerning food lovers. A similar idea to that proposed by the Slow Food movement.

This has happened in Saxmundham, the small market town that said no to Tesco. It has bucked the trend of widespread closure and bankruptcy of small shopkeepers. It still has a butcher, baker, fishmonger and greengrocer. These shops in turn provide outlets for local producers.

Industrial agriculture has become a business, a business that is trading in the global market place, where the market dictates what is produced and the price.

We need to return to farmers producing for their locality, where what is produced is suited to local conditions.

An emphasis on the production of basic staples, potatoes, wheat, maize, beans and peas and other pulses. Horticulture practiced. Cattle and sheep grazed on pastures best suited. Pigs and poultry fitted in wherever, fed on the leftovers. Small-scale biofuel production or power generation.

We need to work with nature, rather that trying to kludge nature with an overdose of chemicals to work with us.

If we look at all the great culinary traditions, we had dishes with copious amounts of grains and pulses, but very little meat. These were dishes which were adapted to what the farmer produced, who in turn was attuned to what nature was best at providing. These dishes exhibited great variety.

We are in danger of creating a monoculture of the mind, where we all shop and eat in the same global shopping mall, where everywhere looks the same, where we all wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, eat the same junk food. All controlled by global corporations.



Joanna Blythman, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, Fourth Estate, 2004

Joanna Blythman, Bad Food Britain, Fourth Estate, 2006

Jose Bove and Francois Dufour, The World is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food, Verso, 2001

Brian Donahue, Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, Yale University Press, 1999

Fast Food Nation, March 2006 {DVD}

Heather Coburn Flores, Food Not Lawns, Chelsea Green, 2006

Hygiene 'lapses' at bird flu site, BBC News on-line, 16 February 2007

Andrew Kimbrell (ed), Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Island Press, 2002

Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food, Chronicle Books, 2002

Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food, The Ecologist, April 2004

Felicity Lawrence, Not on the Label: What Really Goes Into the Food on Your Plate, Penguin, 2004

Caroline Lucas, Stopping the great food swap: Relocalising Europe's food supply, The Greens/European Free Alliance, European Parliament, March 2001

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Think global ... Eat local, The Ecologist, September 2002

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield & Steven Gorelick, Bringing the Food Economy Home: The social, ecological and economic benefits of local food, International Society for Ecology and Culture, October 2000

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield & Steven Gorelick, Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness, Zed Books, 2002

Old, New 'Factory Farming', Food Programme, BBC Radio 4, 18 February 2007

Keith Parkins, Localisation: A Move Away From Globalisation,, November 2000

Keith Parkins, Sowing Seeds of Dissent, Indymedia UK, 6 September 2004

Keith Parkins, Seeds of Dissent, September 2004

Keith Parkins, Renewable energy: biofuels and local power generation, Indymedia UK, 17 February 2006

Keith Parkins, Seedy Sunday Brighton 2007, Indymedia UK, 6 February 2007

Keith Parkins, Avian influenza, Indymedia UK, 9 February 2007

Keith Parkins, Why do we feed our kids junk food?, Indymedia UK, 12 February 2007

Keith Parkins, 'It's safe to eat if cooked properly', Indymedia UK, 12 February 2007

Keith Parkins, Bernard Mathews given the all clear to ship live birds into exclusion zone, Indymedia UK, 13 February 2007

Keith Parkins, Bad Food Britain, to be published

Carlo Petrini, Slow Food, Columbia University Press, 2004

Nick Routledge, The future of farming, Seed Ambassadors, 18 January 2007

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2001

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, The Ecologist, April 2004

Super Size Me! {DVD}

Colin Tudge, So Shall We Reap, Penguin, 2003

Colin Tudge, Feeding People is Easy, Pari Publishing SAS, April 2007

Keith Parkins
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Display the following 2 comments

  1. helpful — ia
  2. Colin Tudge — John Whiting