Food, families and farming: how are these realities related to each other in a world full of
people – the dominant species in a creation otherwise monopolised by plants and insects?
Food, families and farming are interdependent.
Without enough food children (and adults) fall ill and die.
Without enough children subsistence farmers can’t manage land or survive old age in
societies without pensions – so most resist family planning.
Fifty years ago, when I first reached Africa, most women bore 7 or 8 children, but half died
(often before age 5) of malaria, infections or malnutrition – though usually some survived
for support in old age. About 30 years ago my servant in Lusaka happily reported the birth of
their 7th child, and got my congratulations, but a few days later he said ‘My wife and I don’t
want to make any more babies’. I told him, ‘That can be arranged’ and took them to a family
planning clinic.
While human numbers were small hunter-gatherers roamed the savannahs and forests of a
pristine creation - killing enough animals and gathering enough fruits, leaves, nuts and
seeds to feed their families – probably ‘working’, on average, only 2 or 3 hours a day.
As human numbers increased and people settled in larger communities, farming developed
to cultivate useful plants and domesticate animals for food, labour and company. Methods
were matched to local environments. We all need food for survival, energy and festive
occasions, but profit was not yet a motive, as ‘economies’ used reciprocal gift-giving, not
‘money’. If farming was successful populations increased – if not, numbers decreased and
survivors moved to new land or changed their strategies. Banquets of rich food and wine,
freedom from fear and war, and the overcoming of sorrow and death were OT measures of
well-being - and delight.
In the 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries farming became ‘agriculture’, farms enlarged,
methods improved, yields increased and profits became important. When the ‘industrial
revolution’ enlarged cities in the northern hemisphere, farming became a specialist activity,
although many people continued to grow some food for themselves. During the 1939 – 45
war most families in Britain, mine included, had allotments and ‘dug for victory’. Childhood
was still hazardous and less than 3 billion people were alive in the whole world. Food was
precious - never wasted, and obesity was rare. Industry and the ‘war effort’ relied heavily on
fossil fuels, mainly coal and some oil - but travel was limited, plastics hadn’t been invented
and chemical fertilisers were not widely used. Hardly anyone knew what was happening to
people living in ‘foreign parts’, especially in the distant south, and many in the industrialised
north rarely moved away from where they were born.
This world has changed – hugely - in my lifetime. Living conditions (water, sanitation and
diets) improved before I was born, and now vaccinations prevented or antibiotics dealt with
infections, so that most children in the northern hemisphere survived to reproduce. Slowly
these benefits spread to southern nations – now independent from former colonisers and
starting to ‘develop’. Soon populations exploded – reaching a peak increase rate of 2.19%
per year in 1963 – increasing most rapidly (3% pa) in developing nations where children
under 15 made up nearly half of each population, creating huge reservoirs of future parents.
At the same time industries flourished because energy from fossil fuels was cheap and
plentiful, while better living standards (and higher expectations) spread to ‘developing
countries’, cheap travel increased and farming expanded – both as a profitable industry and
as a planned ‘green revolution’, designed to feed actual and expected populations.
The global population reached 7 billion in 2011 and is expected to climb to 9.2 billion in
2050. There is more food around, but about 1 billion people remain hungry and poorly
nourished, while another 1 billion are overweight, disabled by size or diet-related diseases.
Many people in the north no longer know how to cook, their children don’t know where
food comes from and relationships to food are distorted by excess of choice (no seasonal
foods now), status or fashion (eating disorders, fast food, TV cooks and competitions) or
returning poverty (food banks). Families don’t eat together regularly and celebrations
centre round highly processed foods and an excess of alcohol.
During the second half of the 20th century people worried (successively) about the cold war
and a nuclear holocaust, racial or gender integration, the rapid spread and lethal nature of
HIV infection, and ‘economic growth’ - as the ‘essential index’ of human well-being. But
other important changes were rather less obvious - and often went un-remarked.
Life expectancy increased (especially in the north) – good – but that began to undermine
pension provision and increase demands on health services. The ‘Green revolution’ doubled
crop yields and fed exploding populations, but soil quality and quantity diminished and
water tables fell as aquifers were mined (but not replenished), and heavy rainfall eroded
land now bare of forests, felled to grow soya beans or palm oil plantations, to fuel cooking
fires or burn bricks for improved homes. Rivers shrank, lakes, springs and wells dried up.
At the same time energy use (mainly oil by now) increased sharply – for industry, farming,
transport, aviation and manufacture of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, plastics or ‘stuff’ in
general. But forests to absorb and use the resulting carbon dioxide emissions were
shrinking: so quantities of ‘greenhouse gases’ in the atmosphere (necessary to maintain
safe and comfortable temperatures) began to rise, allowing global temperatures to rise, too.
The commercial interests that opposed recognition of damage to health caused by smoking
in the mid-20th century swung into action once more, mounting a counter-campaign that
still confuses many people - who continue to hope that ‘global warming’ will turn out to be
a mirage. It isn’t a mirage, climate change is real and happening now.
Meanwhile ‘industrial’ farming methods (monoculture crops, chemical fertilisers and
pesticides, mechanical cultivation) were enthusiastically promoted in many developing
countries by their governments, ‘advised’ by ‘international experts’. Subsistence farmers
were often dismissed as old-fashioned unproductive peasants, a role some accepted through loss of confidence in themselves and their culture in colonial times. Pests
flourished, soil productivity declined and crop yields were only maintained by using more
and more fertiliser each year, further eroding farmers’ profits.
As climate change ‘bites’ previously stable weather patterns alter (unpredictable rainy
seasons, higher average temperatures) and extreme weather events (droughts or floods)
become more common, leading to crop failures and hunger. Young people tend to despise
farming as a career - yet cannot find either desirable work or tertiary education. Crisis for
food, families and farming!
Fortunately there are positive developments, too, that tend to ‘get lost’ underneath the
negative news that clogs our papers.
These changes relate to population growth, a re-assessment of small-scale farms and
alternative ways of farming, more interest in nutrition security (rather than just ‘food
security’) and an increasing dis-satisfaction with how contemporary communities function
(or fail to do so). There is beginning to be a groundswell of understanding that human
beings need to live co-operatively with each other and with the natural systems on which
they depend for well-being and survival – not in competition or conflict – a conflict that ‘we’
don’t win.
Population growth is no longer rising almost vertically; now the curve is beginning to
flatten. The world recently reached ‘peak-child’ – the point where the number of children
aged 0 to 14 levelled off and became nearly constant. This has happened because global
fertility rates have halved in the last 40 years and are now below 2.5 children per woman,
and still falling. So global population is expected to peak soon, probably around 2050, when
9 to 10 billion people will be alive. This change has several reasons: child survival and
education for girls and women are the most important. My servant and his wife wanted
family planning when they realised that all their children were going to survive and would
need to be fed and educated. Repeated studies have shown that education for girls is the
best way to reduce the number of children each woman bears – providing they can access
Our present century is a time of transition that may prove difficult, because a substantial
‘bulge’ of older people will continue to need support or care, but when input into - and exit
from - a stable population come into balance, probably after 2100, things will improve. The
New Scientist this month carried an article entitled ‘Japan’s ageing population points to our
global future’. It reported an ultra-low fertility rate of only 1.4 children per woman, leading
to ‘demographic contraction’ of the population of Japan. Russia, Romania, Hungary and
Germany are following similar patterns, sometimes modified by immigration. The article
concluded that ‘the global population bomb is slowly being defused.’ In 2013 China relaxed
its one-child policy - fearing that population decline would impede its economic
development in 30 years’ time.
But it remains necessary to feed a world population that is still growing and will stabilise
with about 3 billion more people than are alive today – many expecting to eat to a higher
standard than their parents. So farming outputs need to increase in a world where there is
little spare land to bring into production, and where water supplies are shrinking and soil
quantity and quality is declining: can it be done? The answer is probably ‘yes’.
In the last 5 years the number and productivity (actual and potential) of small-scale
farmers has at last got international attention. Individual outputs may be small, but there
are a lot of them and small-scale farmers already feed most people in developing countries.
Observations show that – given appropriate farming methods - output (per hectare) of
small-scale farms can increase faster and further than the output from large farms which
depend on ‘industrial’ methods: monoculture of hybrid seeds, often-wasteful irrigation,
conventional machinery and tillage, chemical fertilisers and pesticides based on fossil fuels.
But desirable changes in small-scale (and large-scale) farming depend on the adoption of
nature-friendly, organic or semi-organic methods that respect natural cycles and use
resources we already have more thoughtfully and creatively. Such methods preserve water,
trees, organic material in soil, synergisms between mixed plants and encourage natural
predators to control pests. All decomposable ‘wastes’, including human wastes, are redefined as resources to be recycled - not destructively disposed of as ‘rubbish’. Natural
resources include free supplies of fertiliser, produced by legumes (plants and trees with
their seeds held in pods) which fix nitrogen from air and transfer it in useable form into soil
and leaves. Semi-arid countries in Africa are better supplied with large and productive
legumes than we are in the northern hemisphere.
In Africa a lot of farming effort needs to be re-directed into useful activities, away from
‘traditional’ practises of sweeping bare ground, burning crop residues and digging and
‘ridging’ empty land after harvesting crops. Instead, rather less energy can be used to collect
and spread vegetable ‘wastes’ to cover bare land after harvest (restoring organic material to
soil) and to conserving rain by digging substantial drainage channels and equally substantial
ridges around carefully-mapped contours. This only needs to be done once (thoroughly, and
then maintained) in order to stop, collect and allow heavy rain to soak into soil, to restore a
good water table - and ultimately to renew springs, all-season rivers and lakes and to
maintain wells and boreholes. Even farmers in the northern hemisphere are abandoning
‘tillage’ too, though their main motive seems to be rising costs of fossil fuel!
At last the essential services provided by trees are being appreciated, reducing the
destructive felling of forests (to clear land for ‘development’) that blighted the 20th century.
A Kenyan woman Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, started a Green Belt tree-planting
movement in Africa, and the northern hemisphere is beginning to catch up. Trees can
prevent water and wind erosion of soil and halt the spread of deserts (a process that has
already done much damage), as well as productively removing carbon dioxide from air.
In 2008 a study by the United Nations Environment Programme found that organic
approaches to small-scale farming in sub-Saharan Africa consistently increase food
production, promote bio-diversity and resilience to environmental stresses and build up
natural resources – including soil quality. But they also have surprisingly positive effects on
communities – strengthening them and bringing families out of poverty.
In the past too much attention was paid to ‘food security’, expressed in terms of staple
crops as sources of ‘energy for work’ and too little attention given to ‘nutrition security’:
provision of enough calories, protein, vitamins and minerals for growth and tissue repair. In
the south many non-hungry people don’t get enough vitamins or minerals because their
diets are not varied enough – too few vegetables and fruits. In the north many overweight
people (and their well-exercised slimmer neighbours) would have better health if they ate
less red meat and dairy products but ate more pulses, nuts, grains and seeds. Reducing the
size of meat and dairy herds would free up land to grow human foodstuffs (not food for
cows) and reduce methane production by cattle: methane is a potent greenhouse gas which
contributes to global warming, alongside carbon dioxide. We may also need to widen our
diets to include insects (already popular in Africa) and algae which can be grown in large
quantities but need less space, nourishment and water than conventional crops.
We can increase food supplies immediately by wasting a lot less – and save ourselves
money, too. Some TV chefs now focus on avoiding waste – a habit that (if acquired in
childhood) is difficult to shake off. And lazy adults could eat fewer calories for better
This photo, in my kitchen, shows a few ideas: chicken, fish and beans as sources of protein,
soya milk, seasonal fruit, dirty vegetables, dirty because they’ve recently been dug up and
put in a Growing Local bag, not wrapped in plastic in a supermarket, local fruit juice,
wholemeal rolls, nuts, ginger and garlic – the latter good for the immune system.
I’ve come to respect - and teach - permaculture, an organic, resource-based approach to
farming that improves soil quality and quantity, conserves water and promotes diversity –
anywhere – especially in semi-arid Africa. The first essential is to keep soil covered, by a live
crop or a mulch of dead vegetation, all the time – to prevent heavy rain from compacting
soil, to prevent wind from blowing it away and sun from evaporating contained water and to
reduce weeds by excluding light from their roots. Secondly, we avoid monoculture of single
crops which makes it easy for pests to spread, but instead cultivate mixtures of ‘companion’
plants that support each other, for example maize with legumes (to ‘feed’ the maize) and
pumpkins or sweet potatoes to protect surfaces and ‘dig’ down into compacted soil.
Companion planting can prevent or minimise pest damage (onions or garlic frighten aphids
away from the cabbage family.)
In the northern hemisphere ‘being a good neighbour’ may be a dying art. People move
more often, work long hours, resent or suspect ‘differences’ amongst those with whom they
live, fear being sucked into disputes and have lost the willingness or skills needed for
human engagement with others. Isolation, chronic fatigue, loneliness, mental health
problems - and an accumulation of rarely-used tools or gadgets - are some likely
consequences. Add to these disadvantages distant or absent family support, homes that are
expensive to heat, young children, actual or expected redundancy and current government
priorities - and many families are not far from dependence on food banks and descent into
poverty and distress.
Are there alternatives to this bleak prospect? Well, yes, there’s at least one, which is
beginning to attract more ordinary people. It’s called co-housing. You could describe it as an
‘alternative’ form of family or community.
Families and individuals who share common interests (they want a healthy, sustainable
environment, or a safe and stimulating place to rear children or to escape loneliness – or all
three together) these people decide to build (or find) homes in a community where each
household has personal space in a private apartment or house, but where members can
share some facilities, tools or transport, tasks and leisure activities. They describe
themselves as an ‘intentional community’ and make major decisions about day to day life
jointly, usually by consensus. Members enjoy friendship, practical support if life is tough and
can share tools and facilities - usually including a ‘common house’ with a kitchen and space
to eat together (no compulsion!) two or three times a week, a couple of bookable guest
rooms (so homes can be smaller) and maybe workshops, a laundry and a library. Usually
individual homes are designed to be energy efficient, warm and comfortable, set in pleasant
surroundings where there are traffic-free play areas for children, an outdoor gym for adults
- and space for allotments and orchards.
‘All of the above’ are on offer in Hereford, where a co-housing group started about three
years ago. A congenial developer hopes to build passivhauses (very energy-efficient, costing
about £60 a year to heat) to challenge two misconceptions – first, that well-designed good
quality housing is too expensive for ordinary people (and certainly for rented ‘affordable
housing’) and, second, that affordable housing has to be in unattractive ghettoes where noone else wants to live. We hope construction will start this year and we are ready to expand
our membership, so if you’re interested, pick up a leaflet and get in touch.
You might prefer to watch that venture from the side-lines - but still want to go on thinking
about environmental issues as they develop. If so, please consider joining like-minded
people in Gloucester for a meeting in March (A Rocha), or coming to a weekend event in
May at Staunton-on-Arrow near Pembridge (Spring Greens), or reading a book about ‘Food’
due to be published next month.
Finally, we hope that some of you will join a proposed ‘environment group’ here in
Hereford, meeting quarterly: here is a list for names and contact details.
Thank you, everyone.

pdf - Hereford Cathedral