Food — or the potential lack of it — has played on a lot of people’s minds lately. The government’s mixed-messages, misinformation and pointless power-play with regard to the coronavirus pandemic led to fear-induced panic-buying which highlighted the weakness of ‘just in time’ supply chains; which are, of course, designed to maximise profit rather than meet people’s essential needs. This was followed by an upsurge in the numbers of people buying seeds as they realised that now might be a good time to start to ‘grow your own’ — my community project, Bentley Urban Farm, has been trying to encourage this for years!
For something so fundamental to life, there have been surprisingly few studies into whether the UK can actually feed itself. The Land magazine have provided a couple of noticeable exceptions with their important essays Can Britain Feed Itself? (Simon Fairlie, issue 4 Winter 2007/8) and Can Britain Farm Itself? (Ed Hammer, issue 12 Summer 2012). But, as Ed Hammer himself notes, no UK government has seen fit to produce a publically-funded study along the same lines. Indeed, most DEFRA reports seem more concerned with economics and the production of key commodity crops than the question of food security and the nation’s health. Luckily, we anarchists measure the world with very different yardsticks and Freedom co-founder, Peter Kropotkin, sought to address this very question over a century ago in his book, Fields, Factories & Workshops. (Spoiler Alert: when it comes to the question ‘Can Britain Feed Itself?’, Kropotkin, Fairlie and Hammer each answer the question with a resounding Yes!)
In the late 20th Century, Freedom editor Colin Ward updated Kropotkin’s work to create Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, which is available from the Freedom Anarchist Bookshop. Ward begins his editor’s introduction with these words:
“Fields, Factories and Workshops is one of those great prophetic works of the nineteenth century whose hour is yet to come.”
I would argue that, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, that hour is most definitely upon us. Kropotkin famously coined the term ‘mutual aid’, which has definitely found its moment in the community-based responses which are putting the government and local authorities to shame. It is my belief that Kropotkin’s theories, and the studies he made with regard to UK agriculture, are not only still relevant, but are arguably more important than ever.
As I’ve already mentioned, Fairlie, Hammer and Kropotkin are each confident in Britain’s ability to feed itself. Fairlie’s essay is itself inspired by the work of Scottish ecologist Kenneth Mellanby, who in 1975 concluded that Britain can feed itself if we eat less meat. Cards on the table, I’m a total liberationist vegan who sees the exploitation of life in any form (humans, animals or ecologies) as central to most of the world’s problems. As such, my work at Bentley Urban Farm focuses on vegan permaculture and vegan organic market gardening.
Chemical assisted vegan agriculture is by far the most efficient way of feeding the nation, with one hectare of arable land feeding 20 people. The problem here, of course, is that chemical use in farming is driving ecological collapse. Either directly through the use of herbicides and pesticides, or indirectly through industrial agriculture’s creation of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O), which is more potent than both carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Vegan permaculture still does well compared to all other agricultural methods though, with one hectare feeding 8.5 people.
Fairlie argues for reduced meat consumption rather than purely vegan agriculture so that animal and human manure can be used to fertilise land, and animals such as pigs and chickens can be used to maximise yield by turning waste into protein. Animals also supply material resources like wool, which would have to be supplemented in a vegan system by growing hemp and flax. Thus, Fairlie argues, livestock permaculture avoids the extra land use which vegan organic agricultural farming methods would demand. Personally, I feel that Fairlie has not addressed all potential land use or the reclamation of existing resources; nor has he included the potential of market gardening, hydroponics and other urban growing methods to increase crop diversity and provide essential micronutrients. Something which we shall return to when we look at Kropotkin. To be fair though, he does invite vegan permaculturalists to add to the debate and his book Meat: A Benign Extravagance (Permanent Publications, 2010) remains one of the most in-depth examinations of potential food security in the UK.
Inspired by Fairlie’s work, Ed Hammer’s essay looks at the ability of UK farming to increase productivity and to employ greater numbers of people (a so-called ‘double yield’) in light of the 2007/8 financial collapse. Economically speaking, Ed’s piece will be highly relevant in a post-COVID Britain, where many of the issues prevalent when Ed wrote the essay will once again be centre stage. The COVID-19 crisis has already wiped out millions of regular incomes and will see more businesses up and down the country close permanently before it is over. It is likely to affect a far greater percentage of the general population than the financial crash ever did. Sadly, the UK government has already proved beyond doubt that it will always put the financial security of billionaires before that of the oi polloi. The National Farmer’s Union (NFU) have already called for help in the fields to stop crops going to ruin. This situation is set to get worse before it gets better. The final paragraph of Hammer’s essay reads:
“As we head into the century of “sustainable intensification” it is essential that those of us concerned with the realities of producing food continue to provoke debate and demand answers to the most basic of questions relating to our food supply – perhaps starting with the simple maths of food insecurity vs. rising unemployment. Because if the alternative is one man, one computer and the thousand acre field we may very soon find 150,000 more allies calling for a resilient farming that supports good soil, healthy people and a hearty culture.”
We can now expect even more ‘allies’, and the call for resilient farming should be on the lips (and megaphones) of anarchists everywhere. Which brings us back to Kropotkin.
Where Farlie focuses on agricultural farming practices and trends developed in the wake of the green revolution, and Hammer focuses on the economy and employment, Kropotkin, while remaining scientifically astute, was actively proposing radical socioeconomic change for the betterment of humanity. In short, he called for an anarchist agrarian revolution.
In his postscript to Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, Colin Ward says:
“Kropotkin sought a society which combined labour-intensive agriculture and small-scale industry, both producing for local needs, in a decentralised pattern of settlement in which the division of labour had been replaced by the integration of brain-work and manual work, and he was optimistic enough to believe that trends in his day were leading to this kind of society.”
Autonomy is obviously anathema to all systems of centralised power, and modern populations have become arguably more paternalistic since Kropotkin’s time, relying on a rentier economy and an overreaching state to provide their basic needs. Which is great for maximising profits, but — as with ‘just in time’ supply chains — it is not so hot during a global pandemic.
Not that things were perfect a century ago. Kropotkin himself lamented the generally held attitudes towards tool-use and manual labour which were key to his vision of decentralised power through decentralised productivity.
“In olden times men of science, and especially those who have done most to forward the growth of natural philosophy, did not despise manual work and handicraft. Galileo made his telescopes with his own hands. Newton learned in his boyhood the art of managing tools: […] Linnaeus became a botanist while helping his father — a practical gardener — in his daily work.”
Such attitudes towards physical work are a product of the division of labour created by all hierarchical authoritarian regimes. The dominators (be they royals, priests, bankers or oligarchs), quite understandably, seek to avoid toil and encourage/force others to do their bidding. Over time the norms and values of the dominant culture are used to justify divisions of caste and class until society becomes convinced that any injustice is simply ‘human nature’ (or ‘the will of God’ depending on the culture). Western culture has so internalised the snobbery towards tool-use and manual labour that many otherwise intelligent people can be described, without malice or judgement, as ‘practically useless’. A situation for which Simon Fairlie, in another of his Land essays, has described as ‘dystechnia’ (Growing Up Dystechnic, The Land, issue 12, Summer 2012). The problem of dystechnia has further deepened in recent times as schools, institutions and the national curriculum have become ever more risk-averse, creating a tendency to shy away from practical tool use (at Bentley Urban Farm we once received a donation of tools from the local council which they no longer used for training because they had wooden handles, which might give people splinters!).
As I have mentioned in a previous article about Bentley Urban Farm, we have witnessed first-hand the transformative power which productive physical work can have on so-called ‘problem children’ who have been excluded from school (I would argue that exclusion is a far greater ‘problem’ than any child I have ever met). Market gardening isn’t just a way of growing food, it is therapy for a dystechnic world. When mind and body are employed together (especially in an outdoor environment) there is a harmony which cannot be reached in a traditional (mind-centric) classroom setting. This is not to say that everyone can excel at practical activities, or that physical labour is somehow better than mental labour, but everyone is most definitely impoverishing their lives if they do not engage with practical activities to the degree which is possible for them to do so.
I should be clear that we’re not talking about ‘toil’ here. Kropotkin was greatly enthused by advances in growing techniques. Somewhat confusingly to the modern reader, he talks a lot about ‘intensive farming’, but his work predates the so-called ‘green revolution’ of industrial farming. Kropotkin is actually talking about the potential of greenhouses and market gardens to provide food at a local, community level and his work is very much in the current ‘dig for victory’ vein:
“For thousands of years in succession, to grow one’s own food was the burden, almost a curse, of mankind. But it need be so no more, If you make yourselves the soil, and partly the temperature and the moisture which each crop requires, you will see that to grow the yearly food a family, under rational conditions of culture, requires so little labour that it might almost be done as a mere change from other pursuits. If you return to the soil, and co-operate with your neighbours instead of erecting high walls to conceal yourself from their looks; if you utilise what experiment has already taught us, and call to your aid science and technical invention, which never fail to answer the call — look only at what they have done for warfare — you will be astonished at the facility with which you can bring a rich and varied food out of the soil.”
Kropotkin’s vision, like that of William Morris and Ebenezer Howard, was one where the divisions between town and country, home and factory, school and gallery, are blurred. Humanity would live in self-organised communities supported by small-scale industry and more localised food production. This may seem like a distant dream, but advances in technology and methodology actually make Kropotkin’s vision for a better, brighter, braver world more possible than ever before — if we are prepared to embrace Kropotkin’s enthusiasm for innovation.
Kropotkin was right about the liberating power of new horticultural techniques. While still labour-intensive compared to industrial agriculture, market gardening is a world away from the toil of pre-industrial farming — take it from somebody who runs a project where people grow plants for the benefit of their mental and physical well-being. Food growing should be an integral part of everyday life. Each of us should grow something which we enjoy eating. Every school should have a market garden, every university a farm. A recent study from the University of Sheffield found that urban land in Sheffield alone could grow fruit and veg for 90,000 people, and that growing on parks, rooftops and other urban spaces could provide 15% of the nation’s ‘five a day’ (The hidden potential of urban horticulture, Jill L. Edmondson et al, Nature, 2020).
I find this report encouraging, but I think we should look at the island as a whole. Do we need to grow food in parks? The problem with our municipal green spaces is, to be blunt, that they’re too fucking municipal. Do we really want to replace straight rows of shrubbery with straight rows of veg? At Bentley Urban Farm we’ve been experimenting with plants which can rewild urban parks whilst adding potential value during times of need. What if, rather than growing food, we used parks to grow the green manures Fairlie mentions? Plants like phacelia look pretty, are perfect for green manure and have the added bonus of being great for pollinators — phacelia is like bee catnip, everyone should grow it (it is non-native, so best grown in parks and private gardens). Such plants provide green cover during the winter to suppress weeds and keep soil ecologies healthy; benefit wildlife whilst in bloom; and can be cut-back to provide green manure for other sites to reduce the need to grow green manure on agricultural land in a vegan agricultural system.
Likewise, plants such as sea kale, oca, yacon and sea buckthorn can be grown as low-maintenance, attractive park ornamentation. As with the phacelia, they’re beneficial to wildlife, but can also be used as human food crops in times of emergency. In permaculture this is known as ‘stacking functions’. Permaculture is a design system which learns from and echoes natural ecologies for the benefit of humans and nature alike. It is just one of the innovations which have appeared in the century since Kropotkin published Fields, Factories and Workshops which make his vision even more possible. Another is hydroponics, which allows for greater food production in land-poor urban areas.
With cannabis ‘grows’ seemingly on every other street of the UK nowadays, hydroponic technology has more than proved itself (unlike prohibition and subsequent drug laws, which have proved themselves detrimental to the safety of society) and every community now has the transferable skill-set which would allow weed growers to diversify into food crops (once profit is no longer a key motivator). Cannabis cultivation perfectly illustrates both the potential of new growing methods and the power of decentralised production methods.
Developments like permaculture and hydroponics make Kropotkin’s vision for localised food production easier and more possible than he could have imagined. Other new technologies, such as CNC milling machines, laser cutting and 3D printing (collectively known as a Fab Lab), do the same for his dream of decentralised local manufacturing. Indeed, thousands of 3D printers across the UK have recently been put to use to make up the short-fall in PPE for hospital staff and other key workers during the current pandemic in yet another beautiful act of mutual aid. No anarchist should be surprised that the government has failed us during this time of crisis. But every anarchist should be given hope by the selfless actions of individuals and communities in this time of need. The lesson is clear. We can, and should, provide for ourselves. Now, where did I put that spade?
Photography by Warren Draper