Received wisdom of the moment

It is surprising that FMD has spawned more discussion about the future of farming than BSE, even though they can be considered to be tragedies of equal measure and indicative of a similar problem. May be its because the impact of FMD in the public's mind has been greater because the timescale is so much shorter - BSE played itself out over a decade and more, with an incubation period before symptoms appeared of years, rather than the days it is with FMD.

This fevered discussion has been a lifeblood to the media, allowing them to call in their favourite experts and to develop a position with their regular readers or a profile with their viewers. Science has taken its usual beating with the issue of vaccination being a saviour or a hindrance depending on which scientist you heard that day - or in fact which non-scientist, as some strange people suddenly became very knowledgeable about the issue. (I wonder if these people even know the difference between a nucleic acid and a protein i.e. what a virus is usually made of!)

There have been exceptions: a Panorama program cut through the sentiment and arcane nature surrounding farming and gave a mostly dispassionate view of potential future options. Sure enough, it was roundly panned by all those that have their own agenda, and particularly by those who don't want their received wisdom of the moment to be challenged. But it is being challenged, and most effectively when more and more ordinary people get access to debates rather than the privileged few that always get expression in the media.

The letters page of newspapers has traditionally been the only platform available to commonfolk, and I claim an interest here. The Independent newspaper published a letter from me advocating a radical idea of using farming subsidies to purchase farm land. This would then be used to create real National Parks on the lines of the American system, owned by the nation and free of livestock. But getting a letter published is a lottery and thus it has been the new democracy - of the greater accessibility of the internet - that is showing the value of wider participation.

An example of this was the contribution posted by Liz Turner from Plymouth to the online discussion page on the Panorama program. Nestled in amongst some pretty predictable comments, Liz  explained what she thought the program said to her, and gave her options for the future. Thus her contribution was reasoned, rational, non-confrontational and accessible for people to make up their own minds. More importantly, Liz showed that she was not an ideologue. She concluded that a transformation of livestock production to organic practice would be unlikely to meet demand and would succumb to the need eventually to embrace even more mainstream broadscale practice than it does at the moment. Her solution was a transformation to a sustainable (organic) plant-based food production system that she considered had a better chance of success in feeding us than organic livestock production would have. Now, how many advocates of organic farming have given themselves the space to consider a similar distinction? Would they be confined to the straightjacket that has mixed farming (Norfolk rotation) as the archetype of organic practice?

Here is another example from an email discussion group on sustainability. Peter Samsom works with the Northumberland National Park Authority in a Land Management Initiative (LMI) funded by the Countryside Agency. The aim of the LMI is to identify a new vision and objectives for land management in the national park, which Peter describes as an area of mostly remote uplands. The hills are used for extensive production of livestock, sheep and beef, either for breeding stock or for meat. And its is the livestock subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy that Peter says have been essential to maintaining this way of farming and its rural community.

The remoteness of this area creates difficulties: the current cure-all of farm diversification is difficult to achieve, as alternative business opportunities are not many in upland areas. Population density is low, making it difficult to find trained staff, and also there is no critical mass of population nearby to sell produce into (so much for local). Peter is in touch with his rural community and says that the farmers must know what society wants them to do, and how support for the farming sector can be re-established. Peter asks for people in touch with non-farming communities to explore some pretty fundamental questions. Do we want these hill farms to continue producing meat and if so by what system? Could the upland farms provide other benefits such as be managed for biodiversity, landscaped to provide better water management and reduce lowland flooding, and can they provide areas for access and recreation? Peter admits that these other benefits are very much side issues with the farmers, but they would not be so if society saw them as priorities and decided to invest in them (with their taxes?). By throwing open the use of this hill land, Peter shows that this discussion is not just about replacing one farming system with another, which those with the received wisdom of the moment would have us believe.

I applaud Peter for seeing that it is about matching up the expectations between farmers and society for that land use. He makes the offer that because he is able to talk directly and on a community basis to the people of these hills, he can pass back to them the ideas and aspirations that similar direct communication in communities that consume the benefits can come up with. Peter has established a powerful communication route that greatly enhances the participation of people in together deciding their futures. In the new agenda of building social capital, this is a process that needs supporting, and as it develops it will break the deadlock of only a few being able to express a view and have it taken note of.

Mark Fisher, 9 April 2001