The whole is not the sum of its parts

A challenging discussion was launched recently on an email discussion group about the origins (legitimacy?) of the principles of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Most people in the UK wouldn’t know IFOAM even if it leapt up and bit them on the bum, and they may end up a little glazed eyed if they bothered to read the principles because they come across as a bunch of worthy platitudes. However, principles in agriculture do have some importance in the UK at the moment as Government continues on its long road of potential reform. Consultations come out, Strategies are produced, leading to more consultations. What is probably missing is a thoughtful discussion on the purpose and future development of agriculture, rather than what always seems to occur is deliberation on some process-driven mechanisms. And while I appreciate that many are looking for the new panacea, I don’t think organic farming is the only game in town for reform of UK agriculture. As a permaculturist, I offer an alternative.

Permaculturists switch interpretation of their guiding principles between a permanent culture of enduring social organisation and of a permanent agriculture where they seek to utilize the planets resources in a sustainable way. I like another definition better, of permanent landscapes because it fits more precisely with my understanding of Permaculture and how, in my ideal world, I would integrate myself with nature and become a part again of its self-regulating systems.

My permanent landscapes would show an understanding of natural processes and exhibit the purposeful and integrated approach that I seek to maintain in all that I do. Aspirations, while dearly beloved by those seeking fulfillment of visions, have little priority in my landscapes since to me the central point of purposeful integration is to achieve the aims of a successful design. We do it because it works with the grain of natural processes, it has a purpose or purposes that achieve our goals, and we are sensitive to our use of resources in co-operation with other earth users. Intervention is for regeneration, remediation or even retro modeling. There is however no presumption for intervention when in fact a superior strategy is often trusting to Mother Nature to deliver the goods at her own pace and in her own time.

Within those generalised terms, I would be specific in elevating the use of trees in a temperate climate. Trees are a principle tool in reshaping the ecology and soil economy of degraded landscapes and are key in returning land to high productivity (i.e. many yields) and durability (i.e. stability or permanence). The history of this islands woodland is littered with false trails and romantic notions. Here is the reality - we lost our woodland cover to wholesale change from the coming of agriculture. This is arguably a tragedy from which we have learnt little, even though we have lived with it for 5000 years. Permaculture for me breaks through this lack of understanding and learning, and offers hope that the tragedy – the essential selfishness of agriculture – can be redressed. The reasoned approach and rational intervention that it can inspire is translatable to a world divorced from its natural roots and constantly battling to hold back its influence.

The conviction that this analysis is more than mere conjecture encourages me to look within contemporary debate for the ability to provide a supportive contribution from Permaculture. This is not the absolutists approach, rather an attempt to identify where this understanding of natures’ cycles can be highlighted and reinforced in deliberative and consultative processes in a way that is accessible and achievable for non-permaculturists. It is about providing options and solutions within a rational and integrated approach. Thus I take the opportunity to respond to Government when asked - and in the case of agriculture, there has been plenty of opportunity within these last two years.

I saw great things, a mood for change that was open to new approaches and that appeared to be grasping the need for the 'joined up thinking' that supposedly has put the New into Labour. Each phase has, as would be expected, brought its disappointments, but then it has also showed progress in the use of language that held out hope that understanding would follow. I have to say now that the Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food released by Government before Christmas just seems to be missing the point. There is of course the danger that I may be missing their point, but it does seem instead that agriculture and its future development in the UK is always destined to miss the boat when it comes to thoughtful reform.
Take for example the proposal for the new entry-level agri-environment scheme, so beloved of the Curry Report (the Policy Commission of the Future of Food and Farming). The Strategy gives it these four broad objectives (for which you can read aspirations):

• wildlife conservation;
• protection of the historic environment;
• maintenance and enhancement of landscape quality and character; and
• improving public access.

These are the so-called public goods that such schemes are supposed to produce in return for taxpayer subsidy. In advance of the publication of the Strategy, the concept of public goods in agriculture was met with incomprehension by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (The future of UK agriculture in a changing world – Oct. 2002) which said:

“The evidence we received on public goods, made it glaringly obvious that there is no such thing as a clear, overarching public good but a host of objectives, described as public goods, usually promoted by lobby organisations. It is not clear what role the public has in defining a public good.”

I would go further and say that these objectives are useless unless they fulfil some purpose that is seen to benefit the farmer by reducing their need for intervention (i.e. agri-chemical usage, ploughing etc.) creates opportunity for more and varied yield (as understood in a wider context) and which makes a contribution to water management, carbon sequestration and wilderness regeneration. This list of purpose is the integrated approach, although to be fair to government there will be included an element of the stand-alone farm woodland schemes in this entry level scheme. But in the main, farmers will receive payment in the scheme by accumulating points in perfunctorily choosing management activities from a list of options. No whole farm approach here, then.

Integration would be implicit in a whole farm approach, giving rise in America to the term farmscaping where the whole resources of the farm are managed and applied in an integrated way. In the UK, this approach of Integrated Farm Management is promoted by a Linking Environment And Farmers (LEAF). Whole farm approach is the language that government has used in its Strategy, but their understanding is different to what you may assume. The government proposes to adopt a whole farm approach in its contacts with farmers, redesigning them all – subsidies, regulation, advice – around on-farm activities, and making the best use of the information available and minimizing bureaucracy and duplication. Few would complain at this except that it is about regulation rather than an integrated approach to agricultural practice.

Government also proposes an audit-based approach to identify a farms strengths and weaknesses, helping farmers to improve business management, and allowing government to concentrate advisory and enforcement effort in areas where risk is high or difficult to manage. Partly I welcome this as I manage the farm business advisory service for a Yorkshire subregion. I also recognize that this would be a parallel to the self-audit that LEAF members undertake when assessing their farm for change into Integrated Farm Management – except that again the crucial element of farmscaping is missing in this audit-based approach of the Governments Strategy.

As contentious an issue for many is the Governments apparent acquiescence in the Strategy to treating organic farming as a separate case when it comes to its proposals for the broad and shallow agri-environment schemes. Organic farming is just as addicted to subsidy as the mainstream farming that it despises, and so it is no surprise that they lobbied hard to get agri-environment payments but without having to meet any scheme requirements. Again, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee pre-empted this part of the Strategy in their earlier report (see above):

“We support payments to farmers to convert to organic farming provided that the decision to switch to organic methods is justified by a strong business case. Any ongoing payments should be related to a farmers participation in other schemes linked to specific outputs and not to being an organic producer. Although opportunities remain for farmers in the organic sector, conversion payments should not be used to permit inefficient and unprofitable enterprises to stay solvent. Above all, organic farming should not be seen as a panacea for the ills of British farming”

If I have to look for some redeeming quality within the Strategy, then I would have to identify the intention to decentralise the delivery of the Strategy, with the rural teams in Government Offices around the regions having to involve stakeholder groups in drawing up Regional Delivery Plans and in setting up a regional Implementation Groups to assist the process of delivery. A start in localisation that might just show it to be a good thing.

Mark Fisher, 4 January 2003