Paul Gilk - Nature's Unruly Mob

Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture






British Working Class Movement

Here are two real stories.

In Britain up and down the country farmers who sell milk are going out of business. Farms that have been in the same family for several generations are closing their dairy herds and milking parlours. The reason is quite well known. The price these farmers are offered for the milk they produce is below the costs of production, even by cutting those to the bone, as they say. Is this a free market? So it is said. But who are the buyers? Four or five nationwide supermarket businesses. Their buyers can in reality control the price by the power of not having any alternative outlet. Economists describe a market in which there is only one producer as a monopoly. This is near the opposite - a market in which there is only one buyer, a monopsony or oligopsony - few buyers.

In a monopoly the producer tends to raise his prices to whatever he can get away with and the buyers have no choice. In a Monopsony it is the producers who have no choice. (And when they formed cooperatives the right wing governments of both Thatcher and Blair encouraged them to convert these to a "normal" shareholders company, which then went bust. It seems that at present only companies with shareholders are considered "legitimate"). This has at least something in common with feudalism (lack of real choice).

 Another story. For years school meals in Britain have been held down in price so that only the very cheapest food is used for them, regardless of whether it is actually good for children to eat. A well-known tv chef, Jamie Oliver, investigated what his children were actually eating at school and decided it wasn't what any parent should want. He noted that one of the types of food on offer was Turkey Twizzlers, a kind of reconstituted food from unknown parts of the turkey, supplied by the biggest agri-business producer of intensively reared turkeys. (No names, no law suits).

He started a campaign for better cooking in schools, using better ingredients. With the help of the Channel 4 tv company he started a campaign to improve school meals by training school cooks to use real ingredients. He devised inexpensive meals using good ingredients. He even gained support from the then prime minister Tony Blair and schools ministers and extracted some money from the Treasury under Gordon Brown. Gradually the message of better food spread and many schools adopted the new methods - in many cases a return to the practices of the past: cooking food on the premises (instead of having it delivered in lorries), using fresh produce bought from local suppliers.

But. Did the children like the better food being offered? The numbers of children eating the new school meals went down and many preferred to sneak out of school to buy at the fast food suppliers. Schools tried to prevent the students from leaving the school grounds, but some parents even sent in chips and burgers over the fence, as though their children were in prison and being tortured with poisonous food.

Many people have been so accustomed to the cheap food supplied in supermarkets or sold in fast food outlets that they can't recognise the attempt to provide vegetables and fresh materials as beneficial.

Here, too, governments have encouraged or forced schools and public bodies to "outsource" these services to companies with shareholders, who have no interest in the effects of their activities except for the money they make.

These stories illustrate two features of the situation described by Paul Gilk in his book "Nature's Unruly Mob" - a rather obscure title for a book about a vital problem affecting us all - how food is grown, distributed, processed and eaten.

The general World Problem has many implications which are manifested in every aspect of human culture.

Among these are the patterns of settlement - low density suburbia is not likely to be livable as we abandon fossil fuels. Quite possibly the Powers That Be are aware of this and are terrified of revealing it to people. Possibly they are as blind as they seem - or are so much under the control of the Corporations that they cannot reveal what needs to be done.

Our whole food production system at every stage needs a great deal of fossil fuel to make it run. Fertilisers need energy, derived mostly from oil and coal; the huge farm machines run on oil; the processing consumes energy. Transport from one end of the country to the other uses large amounts of energy. Can this fossil input be replaced by income energy? If so, what would be the consequences? Always we have to consider the unprecedented number of humans alive now and calculated to be alive in the future. How can we feed them? We aren't feeding them all now. The agri-business advocates claim we can't feed people without even more intensive agriculture. Are they right?

Is it food?
Another question is whether the "food" that is produced by this huge oil consuming machine is really nutrition, in the sense of being what humans need to lead healthy lives. Organic producers espouse the idea that before industrial agriculture the soil had many qualities that were needed to grow healthy food, many of which were ignored by the modern theory of agriculture. Probably the most important of these soil components is "trace elements" (or micronutrients). The whole complex of organic ideas is based on the concept that industrial agriculture has deprived the soil of qualities necessary for health, and that their absence produces a great deal ill health in the humans who have become dependent on this "food".

In the late 19th century it was observed that if plants were given supplies of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) - often derived as by-products of such industries as steel making - they grew faster and bigger. The conclusion was that this extra produce had simply enlarged the amount of food available for humans and was therefore an unqualified Good Thing. At the time nobody knew that there was another question that ought to have been asked: was the plant that had been stimulated by these chemicals still of the same quality as humans have been accustomed to eating throughout their evolution? Since the theory of NPK fertiliser was first proposed many of us have come to realise that there is evidence that the resulting produce is not actually food but what José Bové calls Malbouffe - bad nutrition (or false food).

Trace elements (Micro-nutrients)
One element that tends to go missing in industrial soil is Selenium. Small quantities of this element seem to be essential for protecting people from degenerative diseases such as cancer. Some British soils are naturally deficient in Selenium and the populations dependent on this soil have higher rates of cancer. (The ice sheets scraped the selenium out of some soils, and deposited it elsewhere.) Other soils had traditionally a higher proportion.

Another quality of the soil that changes when it is industrialised is the humus content. Writers and scientists in the Organic tradition, notable Sir Albert Howard, one of the founders of the British Soil Association, now the main standard setter for organic farming in Britain, emphasised the role of soil fungi growing in the soil complex in the growth of plants including crops for food. These advocates were sneered at by the "modernist" school as believing in "muck and magic", but really their beliefs can be supported by experiment.

Howard found, while Director General of Agriculture for India, that well-fed cattle in India did not get Foot and Mouth disease from infected cattle even when they had opportunity to be together. His conclusion was this disease is actually a symptom of bad soil, and so was Coffee Berry Disease, later again shown by Tim Hutchinson in Kenya to be cured by humus rich soil fed by his biogas system.

It is a quite rational response to finding that soils lack trace elements to want to put the missing or depleted elements back. One useful way to do this is by spreading crushed igneous rock dust on to the fields. This tends to produce the sort of soil found near volcanoes - the reason that volcanoes attract farmers, despite the dangers of being blown up every few years. The wines of the slopes of Vesuvius are famous for their taste. Rock dust can restore the soil.

British supplier

Social aspects of farming
Traditional pre-industrial farming employed a lot of people (at very low wages). These people transmitted a culture, rich in stories and practices, that in Britain at least could often be traced back to time immemorial - beyond the historical horizon, even into pre-Saxon times. Of course most of this culture was dissipated when industrial methods came to farms: tractors instead of horses, harvesting machines, threshing machines, combine harvesters and all the other machinery needed now. Each innovation removed people from the land and sent them to live in the new industrial slums. An acreage that once employed 100 farm workers may now be managed by two or three, with some occasional contractors. Indeed, in Britain it is common for many tasks on a farm to be performed not by permanent workers belonging to the farm and village but by migrant workers from eastern Europe or even further afield such as China, managed by Gang Masters (not far off slave drivers). It is hard not to be reminded of what happened to ancient Rome as family owned farms were replaced by Latifundia, operated by workers with no rights at all - slaves. The Gracchi brothers were spokesmen for the people displaced by these practices. They failed to reduce the influence of slavery. How far is our modern agri-business analogous to that ancient Roman problem, which it can be argued brought down the Republic and ushered in the Empire - a military dictatorship run entirely in the interest of the super-rich or their military mercenaries? How did the Latifundia do this? By dissipating the solidarity that caused all citizens to work together for the common good - what Ibn Khaldun called Group Feeling.

New edition
Paul Gilk's book is a new and revised edition of the book first published in 1986. Since then agriculture has continued to change, with fewer family farms and more and bigger agri-businesses. In Britain, notoriously, supermarkets control much of what farmers do by specifying the details of what they must produce and requiring their standards for the size and appearance of produce, making a proportion of the harvest unsalable (funny shaped potatoes or carrots, slightly imperfect apples). They also bear down on the price. As supermarkets are huge buyers and there is little competition between a small number of these monopsonist buyers, farmers, who traditionally find it difficult to combine together in their own interest, find themselves reduced to tiny profit margins, or even selling such produce as milk and bacon at a loss - receiving less than the costs of production.

This situation favours huge farms run like factories, controlling ruthlessly the costs, one of which is Labour. Local people refuse to work at the wages offered, and very cheap foreign workers are brought in by Labour Contractors. Frequently the media expose the workers' conditions as being hardly better than slavery, often cheated out of their wages and housed in shacks. Government and European Union rules on working conditions are seldom enforced by an inadequate number of Inspectors.

Another notorious consequence of this economic straitjacket is the recently publicised practice of killing male calves soon after birth as being unsalable. At best they are used to feed foxhounds.

In the United States giant feedlots of meat animals have replaced farms. Often the animal waste products of these factories are simply discharged into the environment, causing the ordinary citizens to pay in their property taxes to clean them and deal with the consequences. Why don't these businesses use the waste products to make biogas for energy and fertiliser to return them to the soil? A good question, which goes to the heart of the agricultural problem.

The animals who experience these industrial processes also suffer from new diseases. How far are these diseases, including Foot and Mouth, BSE (mad cow disease) the result of the methods of production? Governments seem unable to ask this question and a huge industry is devoted to attempted cures, of the symptoms rather than the probable cause. The big businesses owning these feedlots and the battery chicken farms, bribe government officials at the highest level not to regulate them, or to impose taxes on the waste products, or honest tests on the food value of what comes out. They like to use growth hormones (in the US, but forbidden in the EU) regardless of what effect they have on the humans who eat the meat. The antibiotics given to the animals routinely have caused many bacteria to become resistant, something that will soon make several human diseases impossible to treat with common antibiotics, and perhaps not at all.

Questions the food industry doesn't even want asked are: does bad food affect children's behaviour in schools? Does it affect ability to learn? Does it cause low level bad health, and major diseases such as diabetes and cancer? And of course Obesity. One might even wonder whether the epidemic of drug taking in western societies is related to western food lacking vital qualities? Prisoners have been shown to improve their behaviour when fed organic food (experiments which usually come to an end because the Prison authorities can't or won't afford the higher cost per meal).

José Bové belongs to a culture of excellence in food. He quite rightly asks the question of what effect these "Anglo-Saxon" farming practices have on the quality of food for people. The quality of food in French schools is world-renowned - a menu has to be posted at the school gates for all to see. (The author has experienced the food served in a Lycée in France and felt immensely healthy after it.) The Fast Food producers, which are one of his targets, encourage the industrial production of meat - indeed, require it. But Fast Food has come to France, even if not on the scale of other countries. Bové is leading a campaign against it.

Paul Gilk belongs to the progressive farmer tradition of Wisconsin. He attributes these effects on agriculture to the lack of solidarity people experience by living in societies where radical individualism has become the dominant philosophy. Joint stock companies are supposed to be the best method of organising the economy. But we can see that when they provide human services of which food growing and eating is vital, they don't behave in our best interests. Gilk does not hesitate to quote Kropotkin, Lewis Mumford, William Morris, Paul Goodman and Carl Jung. He asks what are the effects on society of the alienation between consumer and farmer, illustrated by the Jamie Oliver story when he found that children often have no idea where their food comes from, beyond the fast food shop. Attempts to make school meals slightly healthier in Britain in recent years have met with resistance from children who prefer the junk food, and even from parents some of whom attempt to sneak malbouffe into the schools for their own children. Even the tradition of home cooking has died in many homes and been replaced by fast junk food and processed foods from the supermarkets.

Cindy Engel has written an important book. She surveys what is known about animal feeding behaviour (including her own research) and shows that animals can make use of their environment to correct nutritional lacks by eating plants not in their usual repertoire, or eating certain minerals that may correct things they are missing. She suggests humans are in the same position as domesticated animals that usually have no access to these substances. They get sick and can't easily self-medicate.

Here's another shocking story: the destruction of ordinary people's institutions.

In the 19th century in Britain ordinary people, making use of the Methodist tradition of mutual self-help, devised alternatives to the system which oppressed them. They devised Building Societies to put their money to use to help each other build decent homes (which the factory owners seldom had any interest in doing - Robert Owen and Titus Salt, being well known exceptions). They built up the cooperative consumer societies mainly to avoid the problems of poisoned food sold in the conventional shops, they combined in Trade Unions which didn't just campaign on wages but also provided many other services. The Co-ops bought farms to grow decent food under their own control. To save for their old age they devised Friendly Societies. These organisations were the basis of a possible economy quite different from our modern situation, dominated as it is by huge anonymous corporations sucking the profit away to the super-rich. It is easy to see why all these institutions, which belonged to ordinary people, have been destroyed, especially by the Reagan and Thatcher governments. It is also easy to see who gained from this destruction - the Super-rich.

The Building Societies were encouraged to become banks, owned by shareholders instead of by the members - but first they grew so large by mergers that the members no longer regarded them as mutual bodies under their control - small building societies that remained independent have mostly continued to be successful. In Britain every one of the former large building societies that converted has failed, gone bankrupt, been taken over by bigger banks or foreign banks. That's a story we won't continue here. But when the Building Societies did change they changed in their attitude to their customers, no longer members but marks, to be cheated whenever possible (sub-prime mortgages, anyone?). Race Mathews (former Labor Minister in the state of Victoria) explains how the building societies were converted, by their own corrupted employees.

By the way, this is not Marxism. Marx never understood how this Methodist-derived culture worked. He misunderstood the British Working Class Movement, especially its democracy. But after all, why should he understand it? He was the financial dependent of Friedrich Engels, an employer.

The final destruction of course was that of the Labour Party, originally the pinnacle of these mutual organisations. "New Labour" took its money from big business, and sneered at the Trade Unions, one of the few remaining survivors of the alternative economy. In the United States the Farmer-Labor party was stamped on much earlier and never even allowed to become influential.

Can ordinary people recreate a 21st century version of the mutual economy? Probably only that can be the real solution to the problems Gilk describes.

The author buys almost no food in the supermarket - sugar and fruit juice about covers it. He buys most things in the Farmers' Market where one can ask the seller where it comes from and what methods were used. And every meal contains something grown in the garden (treated with volcanic rock dust). 2009 has seen an excellent crop of potatoes.
 The Big Problem
Probably the world's human population has increased beyond what the income of the planet can support. "Experts" are always telling us that organic agriculture cannot feed all the people we have at present, and are likely to have in the near future. This may or may not be true. (Usually the people telling us this are committed to various policies they believe are based on science and backed with lots of money.) If it is true it indicates that the mass of people are condemned to eat sub-standard food. Fortunately there are some signs that world population may decline after a peak in the 21st century. (See Fred Pearce)

Paul Gilk - Nature's Unruly Mob

Nature's Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture

José Bové - Le Monde n'est pas une marchandise. ...

The World is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food

Albert Howard

The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture (Culture of the Land):

Mein landwirtschaftliches Testament

Harold Gotaas - Biogas

Composting Sanitary Disposal & Reclamation

DVD - Food, Inc. (Schlosser)
A film about industrial agriculture and its effects on us, and the politics and money

Race Mathews - Jobs of our own
description of Mondragon and other cooperatives

Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stake-Holder Society

Paul Goodman - Growing up absurd

Growing Up Absurd

Drawing the Line Once Again: Paul Goodman's Anarchist Writings

Das Verhängnis der Schule.

Cindy Engel - Wild Health

Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn from Them

Wild Health: Gesundheit aus der Wildnis. Wie Tiere sich selbst gesund erhalten und was wir von ihnen lernen können

Food is different

Food is Different: Why We Must Get the WTO Out of Agriculture (Global Issues)

My wife has a useful web site
Making Your Own Food And Medicine
George Monbiot on Peasant farming
Fred Pearce - Peoplequake

Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash

L T C Rolt - High Horse Riderless

High Horse Riderless (Green Classics)

Craftsmanship and engineering, faults in our industrial civilisation

Biogas index

Geotherapy Index


Last revised 12/04/12

Since 5/12/09

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