Nestled along the banks of the Thames is the stately home which so inspired Kenneth Grahame to write the children’s classic, ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Ratty, Mole and Badger clubbed together to persuade the flamboyant and self-destructive Toad, fascinated by the latest shiny things, to see the error of his ways.
That same estate provided inspiration for this modern collection of essays delving into food and the latest shiny things of industrial farming. Sir Julian Day Rose presents a fast and furious x-ray view of what’s happening beneath the skin of today’s global food system. He reveals how the mantra of ‘sustainable intensification’ is wheeled out regardless of the consequences, in much the same way as Toad careering about the road in his flash motorcar.
Through the pages of this book, Rose combines personal insight, passion and directness with a lifetime of first-hand experience. What comes through is his pioneering spirit, turning his estate organic well before it was the thing to do. He took on the forces of homogenised food and opposed government plans to ban raw milk.
Farming for food not profit
One of his big concerns is of organic food becoming just a healthy appendage to an unhealthy food system. He fears the emergence of a two-tier food culture where the better off eat decent food and pay a premium for it whilst factory farming feeds the rest.
What should be the real driver of our food system, he asks; feeding people or profit? It’s a sentiment with which many would agree but is it just idealism, no more real than a tale of animal friends beside a riverbank? Rose shows why society has to answer that question if we are ever to achieve a truly sustainable food system.
He tells of lifeless monocultures and factory-like sheds producing poorer quality food. Of how they wreak havoc on the environment, undermine the future of food and fail those much cited beneficiaries, namely the poor. When these hidden costs are totted up, so-called ‘cheap’ industrial food starts to look… well, nasty.
Changing things is no easy matter: “how can we ever change the rules of the game” asks Rose “if those in charge of the rule book have little or no desire to count the true cost of industrial agriculture?”.
Rose is critical of Europe’s subsidy system and the way it pays per hectare regardless of farm size, favouring big farms. He goes to the heart of what it means for farmers on Europe’s new industrial frontier – Poland – describing his personal battles to stop small farmers there being driven out of business. He writes flowingly of his campaign with Jadwiga Lopata to protect the Polish countryside and render it GM-free.
Whilst no fan of Europe, he is equally critical of the UK which “thinks it clever to copy the United States” he says, and “apply Ford motor company principles to the management of sentient livestock”. I couldn’t agree more.
Small scale farming supplying local markets
As I read through the pages, I can hear some asking don’t we need factory farming to feed the world? Particularly with a coming population of nine billion or more? Rose tackles this old chestnut head-on, pointing out how there’s more than enough food for everyone today and in the foreseeable future, if only we didn’t waste it.
He sees industrial farming in the same light as the “monstrous ticking time-bomb” of nuclear power. It has “nothing to do with benevolent concern for the human race” he says, and everything to do with maintaining “profit-driven” dominance of the food chain.
He believes human scale developments hold the key to human scale solutions. Like feeding local people – whole towns in fact – with nutritious food grown on their doorstep; matching local demand with local supply from ‘market towns’ where thousands of people are supplied with food from the nearest farmland.
Always thought-provoking and sometimes downright provocative, Rose asks “who owns the food chain?” and warns of a coming countryside populated with little more than “industrial agriculturalists”. And it’s not just rhetoric. We can see it happening before our very eyes: In Poland, where intensification is clearing farmers off the land like farming’s going out of fashion. And in British dairying where ‘sustainable intensification’ threatens to sweep herds off grass into mega-dairies.
At once political and pragmatic, Rose’s essays are an impassioned plea for change. I found them engaging, enlightening and life affirming. They have much to convey about the destructive intensification ravaging the countryside and what a better future might look like. Written overlooking the wind-swept willows of the Thames, ‘In defence of life’ is like a wise look from Badger, urging Toad to come to his senses before it’s too late.
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