The Fall and Rise of Respectability

My parents and grandparents went to some lengths to instil in me the importance of respectability. This concept was one I struggled to understand when I was young and then realised wasn’t important as I got older. What I did learn was that it was important to my older family and the older generation and discovered through my friends  that our generation didn’t give respectability any real value. So what I learned was how to play the game of respectability to not upset older people.

I think my main objection to respectability was that it was so complicated and seemed to lack a coherence or a logically related set of premises, it seemed like a fairly random set of rules and thus required commitment to learn. Really respectability had been important for generations, bound up with the issue of class that bound society together for a long time. Respectability is about showing that you have learned this very complex set of rules. Hence it is showing that you have been educated. This was an important badge of respectability during a period when a large chunk of society didn’t receive any formal education. The older generation are very impressed when our generation wave around degrees or have letters after our names, when my generation isn’t at all.

Much of these complex rules were not just about respectability and education but also about our culture and it’s traditions. I think the older generation have been fearful of the way my generation unpicked all the traditions and worked out which ones had sense or useful purpose to them and which were remnants of things that had once been useful but no more. I think they feared we would lose our culture and sense of who we were.

I kind of get that fear, but the rules are so harsh that they hold a culture bound to arbitrary rules that actually inhibit cultural growth. What I mean is that you can spend so much time and energy following the rules that you lack  the time to realise why something is valuable.

To illustrate this idea by example. As a child I was taken to a music concert, great, but this involved such things as dressing in uncomfortable clothes that I wasn’t comfortable wearing, sitting still and receiving instructions on how to appear I was appreciating the music. So, being an anxious child, I felt obliged to follow all these bizarre rules to keep my parents and grandparents happy, so much so that i didn’t get to enjoy the music! It was only later that I was able to relax and open my ears and really start to appreciate what the musicians were doing. So I now look down on anyone who suggests there should be ‘dress codes’ at musical concerts, if you like dressing up, great, if it’s not your thing, that is just as cool. I personally, make a point of not dressing up at all as all music should be accessible to everyone, whatever helps you open your ears is what is of paramount importance.

The other issue my cohort had when growing up was that we realised that we were growing up in rural Wales. We could look back on our families tilling the land for generation after generation and for me that meant I was one whole generation away from the land and that tradition.My cohort have been realising that in European terms our local culture hadn’t undergone the rapid changes experienced by those who went to the large towns and cities, that we also needed to learn the new etiquette of a more globalised world, especially those of us who had lost the farming tradition.

For my generation the world isn’t one of knowing the arcane rules of respectability. Perhaps we are more interested in what things are valuable and useful and disparage those things which aren’t. In a way all this is is just a completely new set of rules of respectability, with the difference in that the rules relate to the world we know rather than old traditions.

We live in rapidly changing times. Rural Wales was late in awakening to industrialisation, so when my parents generation realised that they weren’t to continue the agricultural tradition, Europe was beginning to struggle with post industrialisation, we had missed out perhaps almost entirely on the industrial era, apart from tractors replacing horses. Tractors replacing horses was surely progress, saving so much time and not needing to grow crops to feed the horses. However these very changes meant that fewer people were needed to work the farm. Many farms became one or two man operations and the rest of the family had to go and find work elsewhere, which almost invariably meant moving away.

Until that is, broadband came, and the transport network got so congested that staying at home for administrative jobs started to become the best option. Furthermore the beginnings of the effects of climate change are starting to have real unignorable impacts and the era of cheap oil and indeed it’s tractors is coming to an end. Perhaps I am witnessing the end of that  flight to cities to find work and all in just one generation.

Welsh farmers have largely always looked down their noses at all the city people, sitting in offices not producing very much of any real use. They are largely right of course. Whilst they have been spending all their days proudly producing food for people to eat. After all owning land was the height of respectability. European history has always been about the those at top of society who own the land.

The thing is anyone can farm. Humanity for most of history has been made up of farmers. It was only during the industrial period when modern conveniences enabled rises in living standards that land, farmland, for a time lost it’s value, enabling a generation of farmers to finally own their own land. It can be viewed that they got lucky to have ended up with the the thing that meant respectability to the very last generation that valued respectability.

I grew up with the concept of ‘look smart and wear a collar and tie’. The dual meaning of smart of being educated and dressing well, is perhaps no accident as both meanings are really about respectability. There is some evidence of this word ‘smart’ flipping in meaning as the meaning of respectability changes. We now talk about being ‘street smart’ and making smart decisions. These newer meanings of smart are not about old respectability but more about being a useful individual and contributing to rather than exploiting society.

The great irony for me growing up of wearing of ties is that the people who wore ties all the time were and still are the big business executives and politicians who made decisions for their personal gain and failed to appreciate what the communities they effected needed. It seems to me that the wearing of a tie is a mark of the disrespectful. I grew up during the Miner’s strike, and the baddies were all wearing suits. I only wear them when etiquette and tradition demands though.

Anyone who analysis society realises that the things that respectability valued, such as land or education are largely acquired by luck or an odious obsession with garnering the facets of respectability through acting in a disrespectful way, such as the acquisition of land to be a rentier, rather than actively working the land. Somewhat paradoxically respectability regards those who are respectable by luck of being in the right family  in the right place much more highly, rather than those who have acquired respectability by behaving disrespectfully by the new generations definition. Perhaps because the mistakes of the previous generations of the powerful were more innocent and on a smaller scale than those made by those in power today.

So, whilst my generation watch as the old respectability does, we are witnessing the rise of a new one where what is regarded as respectable has flipped and  is utterly different and instead values being true to yourself and your community, rather than learning the rules to be someone different and of entering a sub-community. Where diversity and difference is at last valued and conformity isn’t. The interesting question now is whether or not respectability will flip again in a new direction with the next generation or whether we stop valuing people’s acquired traits at all. I’m sure if either of these two directions is more worthy than the other.

 

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Waiting for the bus that never comes

I used to hate waiting for buses. It was the not knowing how long you had to wait, whether it was worth getting my book out, whether I had time to pop to the local shop, an answer to whether  the bus had been cancelled so I could go to the pub for a pint or two whilst waiting for the next one. Often these days you can use an app’ on your phones which will tell you where the bus really is and how long it will be, which solves all these problems of lost time waiting and makes bus travel a lot less annoying.

Unfortunately there is not an app’ for the UK government. Brexit is like waiting for the bus that never comes; We know the service will be crap but at least we may soon be on the ruddy thing and we are no longer waiting.

We are in this strange Brexit zone. No-one talks about Brexit anymore, I think we are all fed up of going through the same tired arguments yet again, the arguments that frustratingly never get around to their logical conclusion. There doesn’t seem much we can go about it and we don’t want to open up those divisive arguments again. Of course we do make lots of jokes about how pathetic the UK is being by not having a Brexit plan and trying to wing it and keep the important electoral demographics happy during the process, rather than formulate sensible policy. I’m sure those outside the UK are making the exact same jokes.

It’s not only Brexit fatigue, it’s this whole three year period whilst the UK negotiates Brexit on the fly, with no plan of what to do with it. We kind of want to know what will happen at the end so we can start preparing for it and start thinking about how to adapt to it. We are waiting again without knowing when the bus will turn up. With this Tory UK government having decided to take all the responsibility for Brexit and secured government by a gnat’s wing to do so, there seems little to do but get on with our lives in the meantime.

When and indeed if Brexit does happen, I expect the vast majority of people to be disappointed, only a particularly bizarre few are going to get what they want. The big issues of the “debate” over Brexit of immigration and better regulations are not going to be tackled as there is unlikely to be any agreement of how best to resolve these problems. Of course we could actually have a debate, work through the issues and come up with sensible policies, but that isn’t how the British state works. The EU doesn’t work that way either of course, but is perhaps less likely to do anything truly daft, which was always my argument for remain; that the UK can and should do more to sort out our problems rather than waste years on Brexit with no plan for post-Brexit.

I am still aware of all the problems with the EU: economic migrancy, regulations that don’t really apply and are a hindrance to the UK economy, the Eurozone holding back the economies of Southern Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) etc. The problem with Brexit was that acknowledging these problems but not offering an alternative, not looking at what the alternatives are, the arguments never got beyond this beginning of forming an argument, taking the first premise as a conclusion.  A great weakness of the EU was failing to sort out the CAP. The CAP was a strong argument for Brexit, however the UK has not promised to replace it with anything better, instead suggesting that agriculture won’t get any subsidies, but don’t worry we can import lovely unhealthy foods like chlorine chicken and hormone beef from the US, making food regulation even more complicated. How is this better than staying in the EU?

The other powerful Brexit argument was that the UK would never be offered a choice on the EU again, so Brexit should be voted for to give Britain the chance for modern democracy and reform of our failing institutions. However instead of preparing for this, instead we hear about binding ourselves to a different set of damaging “free trade” deals.

We know that both of the major Uk political parties are slaves to their focus groups, rather than what is best for economy. Tory Bliar’s  [Tony Blair] “Labour” government, only implemented limited devolution to gain votes and the Tories only had Brexit to win an election as well. Britain just needs to end this ghastly Westminster system, have true democracy and that means Wales getting to decide it’s own affairs, rather than decided by these two lots of political careerists.

Much of the motivation for Brexit was hope, hope for new systems that actually worked and performed their function to be developed, rather than continual decline in living standards. Paradoxically, the only way for Brexit to work is bring Westminster government crashing down and allow genuine reform from the bottom up. We are still waiting for that but anxious that that day may never come.

Ethical meat and good things to come from Brexit

One of the consequences of the UK EU referendum, is that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned leaving the government without any leadership on post-brexit and no brexit plan. Furthermore  the opposition Labour also choose this time to enter into their own leadership debate. This has left the confused divided UK with no clear idea how brexit is to proceed, so many of us have ended up speculating and talking about possible solutions, as I have done on this blog.

I kind of wanted to return to discussing more random things, but the real world is often hard to ignore. My most popular post on this blog has been about ethically sourced meat. I think the popularity of this post is due to it being a topic people are actually interested in and also that there is not a plethora of articles about this subject. It’s kind of a taboo subject, perhaps because the meat industry doesn’t really want people thinking about it’s practices, as it could hit it’s profits. However I think it is deeper than that as it is a topic that resonates with the issue of what it means to be human and how to morally live our lives.

In the last few weeks, I have heard from a lady whose friend read a book that convinced them to become vegan. She then read the first quarter of this book and chose to abandon it because she felt that if she did get to the end she would also become vegan and she didn’t like the idea of stopping eating meat. I was also in conversation with a gentleman in the pub who said he hated the idea of thinking about eating animals though he ate meat regularly, that he hated being given fish to eat with the head still attached as he didn’t like seeing it’s eyes. He eats meat but prevents himself from thinking about it.

Perhaps generally, people do not like the idea of radically changing their lifestyle. Becoming an ethical meat eater, a vegetarian (veggie) or a vegan is not easy. Taking this plunge means you need to think carefully about what you can and cannot buy and re-arranage the balance of meals. Eating out becomes a chore, unless our are lucky enough to be going to a vegan restaurant. In the UK, we are lucky that every restaurant does cater for veggies, but usually the offerings are tired and bland and not worth the price tag, you could make something tastier at home for a lot less money. Nonetheless sometimes we are go along to social eating events with no appetite for enjoying the food.

Last weekend I was in another discussion about a post-brexit Britian; it is even getting tedious for political anoraks like me. An interesting question was asked to everyone: Name one positive thing that can be achieved post-brexit. My answer was agriculture.

Basically, being in the EU, our agricultural industry is subject the rules and subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The problem with this is that it is an example of a ‘one size fits all’, with the idea of that all farming in the EU is subject to the same rules, so no region can change it’s rules to create a competitive advantage. This is a problem as there is a lot of diversity in agricultural production across Europe and this common policy inevitably  advantages some forms agriculture over others anyway. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of the EU is that it’s regulatory systems and associated compliance (red-tape) tend to favour larger businesses as smaller businesses spend a greater proportion of their time in coping with compliance. So, the benefit of leaving the EU, means we would no longer be subject to the CAP. Then more sustainable, better systems can be implemented, ideally reducing farming subsidies and making agriculture profitable without subsidy.

There is a big issue with this, which is why so many ‘Remainers’ fear brexit. It’s all very well to have the potential to create better systems, but the likelihood with the  defunct political system of the UK, that we would more likely end up with a system that is even worse than the CAP. That instead of Brexit benefiting small and medium enterprises, we may end up with systems that further advantage large businesses.

What is wrong with large businesses? In agriculture, big specialised, industrial farms are favoured and supported by large subsidies, whilst small family farms receive much less subsidy, particularly upland farms of Wales. Welsh hill farms, produce a fantastic product, Lamb, however it is not marketed well; I was told this week that most of the lamb sold in California comes from New Zealand, even when it’s not in season, yuck! Hopefully the Welsh government will take over Welsh agricultural policy and rectify these problems, because I doubt the UK government will do so. In terms of sustainability, large scale agriculture is costly, it isn’t actually more efficient.

Organisations such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) do not like the idea of product differentiation (so you can know how and where food was produced), for example free range milk, most UK agricultural produce is not labelled to tell you where and how it was produced. In UK shops, you just buy ‘British milk’ without any idea how or where the cows were, or even if it’s British at all (as country of origin labels can be applied if only one stage of production occurred in that country). This lack of consumer choice favours the big industrial producers, the consumer does not have a choice between free range and industrially produced milk, there is no true market in milk in the UK.

My answer to the question of how to ethically source meat is simply buy locally from small producers and usually via a traditional Butchers shop (if you are lucky enough to still have one!). There are many advantages to doing this: The food will generally be tastier and of higher quality. It is likely to have been ethically produced and you can ask about this, because even though there is no label, the butcher will know which farm it came from and they  will want to keep your business; it also means purchasing food involves talking to a human being rather than a computer, which is preferable! It will be more sustainable, both in production and in having vastly reduced packaging and have far fewer food miles from an efficient local distribution system.

The other good thing to come from Brexit, is increased political discussion and a realisation of how messy distribution systems are. Industrialisation has done many great things: We can drive cars, have computers and order stuff from all around the world. However it seems we have reached a point where people try and industrialise everything, even when there is no societal advantage of doing so or efficiency advantage.

 

Fear of Ideas

All people fear new ideas to some extent, a fear of change and the unfamiliar.  Such fears are natural, but often embracing new ideas or ways of thinking can be immensely positive. The familiar, the status quo, seems safe, so why even consider change? Well, sometimes the status quo is bad for people as individuals and wider society. sometimes it is easy to forget that everything is a journey, we can take small cautious steps, we can always turn and go back or in a different direction. Such a steady cautious approach is safe, rather than leaping crazily across to another place, a place that is strange and unknown. Accepting new ideas doesn’t change who you are but can make you a better person, just take small firm steps.

I have written much on this blog about my overcoming anxiety. Making such a change was scary, there was a fear of my personality changing, a change in my values, a change in how I think. I think this was why I rejected, like many other anxious people, the calls of people to just let go of yourself or to just not be anxious, this is taking that giant leap into the unknown. Better advice to the anxious is to take cautious steps, allow people to reflect that the direction they are going in is one they are happy with.

This process of change, of alleviating fear, occurs in many areas of life and realising this, has helped me understand why other people are cautious of other ideas. For example, my becoming a Christian.  When I was young, I lived in a traditional Christian community in rural Wales. My generation were highly sceptical of religion, we regarded it as a load of nonsense. We regarded religion as scary irrationality. Growing up there seemed to be this maniacal street preachers, evangelicals waving their arms around as if possessed by spirit, a seemingly very conservative culture that stifled innovative ideas. Then one day i was exposed to the joy and wonderful music of renaissance polyphony and the choral works of J.S. Bach, this music helped me understand some of the core ideas of Christianity, that they were good, open ideas, that the complexity and suffering of human existence, could be understood as a whole, that it was okay to accept this and that doing things to make the world a better place was a righteous thing to do.. This music led me onto a journey of discovery of the Christian faith and along the way I became a Christian. Becoming a Christian was not scary, it didn’t change how I am, or my other beliefs, it simply helped me become a better person. It has helped me appreciate that there are no easy answers, no single mantra to base your life on, that faith, like anything else is a journey.

Another issue, I am passionate about and  often write about is food. I became a vegetarian at the age of 15 because I became aware that many animals reared for the meat I ate were kept in inside with restricted space, this seemed cruel and wrong on animal welfare grounds. I now ethically source meat, I don’t believe it is wrong to rear animals for meat, but in rearing animals there is a contract that the animals should have a reasonable quality of life and be able to express natural behaviours. What I have come to realise is that there is a wonderful synergy that can be achieved with animals welfare, sustainably looking after agricultural land and the wider environment, sound economics, healthy food and a greater enjoyment in eating. Though it seems there is a fear of changing diet and shopping habits, even with such positive outcomes. Though i appreciate I arrived at this synergy by taking slow steps and consideration of each step. I used to fear that having high animal welfare standards may mean that it was not possible to feed all the humans on the planet by farming in such a way and may cause environmental damage. I was so pleased to realise that this isn’t the case, positive change benefits other areas. My message on food is that only eating meat as a treat and not everyday is healthier, cheaper, more sustainable and maintains animal welfare. Meat from animals that can range freely and are fed in a sustainable way, develops muscle, which makes the meat tastier and increases nutrients in the meat, making it healthier for the animals and the consumers. Rearing animals, working with nature, rather than against it, not only seems better, it is also better economically. So, I would encourage people to ethically source meat and save money by cutting out eating low quality meat in every meal, ultimately it’s cheaper and more enjoyable.

I think the idea of being open to new ideas and ways of being is so important, to better ourselves individually and wider society. However it is important to journey slowly and carefully, keeping our feet firmly on the ground as we do so.

This is why I was upset by the words of Donald Trump this week. Often politicians and other orators need to be regarded cautiously, they appeal to core conventional beliefs of a culture, then can take great leaps into the unknown, without questioning, without scrutiny. using Trump as an example, he states that there is a fear in Western societies of terrorism and in this most people will agree. However then Trump leaps onto blaming Muslims moving into the US as part of the problem, when there is no rational basis for this belief, it simply plays on fear and encourages fear, when fear is the actually the enemy. If Trump was a great expert on the history and politics of the Middle-East, then he may be worth listening to, however Trump himself has stated that he knows little of the history or politics of the Muslim world, thus he is not qualified to make meaningful comment. We are perhaps fortunate in Wales to have a significant Muslim population, there are a part of our communities, our workplaces, so it is clear that they are as decent people as any other sub group. The knowledge that the family down the street are ordinary decent people and are not secretly plotting the overthrow of civilisation, to think that they were would be extreme paranoia. However where there isn’t a normal family living in your locale it is much easier to play on the fears of the unknown.

Ethically Sourced Meat

I was a vegetarian for 15 years because of concerns over animal welfare and my inability to ethically source meat as a teenager. Having lost an argument over dairy products (I was being inconsistent), I decided to take up ethically sourcing meat and dairy products and became mostly vegetarian. I often explain my position to people and often people find my position appealing, they then ask ‘Is it easy?’ to which the answer is sadly ‘no’. Ethically sourced meat is basically meat from animals that have been reared in a traditional manner, where animals can express natural behaviours, generally grazing outside during the warmer months.

Ethically sourcing meat isn’t easy for two reasons. Firstly there is a lack of a clear labelling system. In the UK food labeling is a bewildering array of labels and standards, whether publically regulated (state level) or independently regulated (where you have to trust the labeling body). The second issue is a lack of direct connection between the consumer and the farmer, it is difficult as an individual consumer to monitor welfare levels at each farm, hence the need for labeling). Basically it all comes down to trusting the source

So, my solution has been to take a precautionary principle, sources of meat are investigated and then personally approved. Then the products have to pass a more important second test, this is a visual test of the meat itself, as free range meat looks and tastes differently to intensively produced meat. This second test involves identifying the quality of the meat by the presence of marbling (deposits of fat in the muscle which is indicative of an active life) and colour (active muscles are generally a darker hue), these qualities are then confirmed by the taste test.

My system is actually fairly inefficient, as I have to invest time and effort when sourcing meat products. Indeed, occasionally i consider going vegan for a simpler life! Really a proper labeling system would be more efficient, instead of every individual consumer conducting investigations, a single body can do the job for everyone, which would be much more economically efficient.

The system sometimes fails due to geography. In rural areas it works fairly easily, as relationships are built up with suppliers such as local butchers and other independent stores, who can state where and how the meat was reared and it is possible to check up on claims, so trust is established. In urban areas it gets a lot more complicated, as any followers i may have are aware, I was living recently in an urban area of Southern England, which had no local butcher shops and only supermarkets were available within convenient shopping distance for a weekly shop. what happened was that my meat consumption dropped to barely one meat containing meal a week. The issue was that the supermarkets only had a very limited range of ethically sourced meat and generally charged a very high premium for it. I could have ordered meat online, but being available for delivery of  a refrigerated product was overly burdensome.

What it is is that the British public do tend to want ethically sourced meat, but are constrained from doing so, by the post-industrial way our society is organised. Since free-range eggs have been labelled and regulated  consumption has increased from 2% to over 50%, the demand is there. Economic efficiencies of scale enable urban living and diversity of industry, yet with meat the industry has developed without popular consent for welfare standards and to have industrial efficiency in meat production and distribution requires labelling. Sadly the state, the UK and EU governments have failed to develop a comprehensive food labelling system that the consumer can trust. This lack of economies of scale hits farmers, where farmers do produce a high welfare, sustainable and tasty product, as individual small businesses, it is very difficult to get their produce to the the market for higher quality produce. Local farmers to me, sell on their high quality product in the same way as producers of low quality produce, because once the animals are sold at market, the high quality status is lost into the vast pool of meat that goes off for export to England and beyond.

Another question to address is will a comprehensive labeling system ever come about? There is a desire from politicians in both the Welsh, UK and EU government to implement a system. However, there are hurdles in place caused by international trade laws and there is potential under the proposed TTIP trade treaty for this process to become more difficult. Far from promoting free trade, these international laws stifle free trade by blocking regulatory systems, as states cannot breach these laws by implementing ‘non-tariff barriers’, by which having a local labeling system is difficult as it favours local businesses over foreign ones who can’t readily buy into the labeling system. Potentially TTIP will require a common labeling system to cover all of the EU and all of North America, it may take a very long time, if ever to reach a consensual agreement.

So, potentially, this leaves the consumer to regulate themselves, develop individual relationships with producers. This seems to be a failure of laissez-faire capitalism, where once economies of scale were thought to come from increased international trade, these economies are actually prevented by the system itself as consumers increasingly resort to local level solutions, rather than industrial solutions. It seems that no longer can individuals trust their local state democratic apparatus to regulate markets and thus free up there time to be more economically productive, there is no longer perhaps a ‘once size fits all’ approach, everyone has to do everything themselves, it does increasingly feel like it!

Proper Milk and Happy Farmers!

Cows-skipping

At last, an opportunity to celebrate and promote good news! I may come across as some weirdo milk obsessive (not that this isn’t entirely untrue), my grandfather did grow up on a dairy farm in Carmarthenshire, so I have a connection to dairy farming, (milk is in my blood <sic>).  I have despaired about modern society rejecting the value of good quality produce. A new dairy initiative has been set up to promote and distribute traditionally produced milk from cows that graze on grass (as indeed they should), check out  and look out for freerangedairy.org.

So, why am I so excited about this? I have been saddened as small dairy producers have fallen by the wayside as the supermarkets demand lower and lower unsustainable farm gate prices for milk. The mega-dairies have arose with cows never seeing the light of day in giant factory farms. I have found this particularly annoying, as such production methods are not as sustainable, or even efficient as pasture based systems. Basically more labour is involved in looking after the cows and harvesting grasses (or worse grain) to bring in to feed the cows, this system is really inefficient though economically cheaper only because of a distorted market.

I only buy organic milk. Well almost… not all of the cheese I buy contains organic milk, I love cheese and I wish I had better access to decent cheese made with sustainable milk,  cheese it the one compromise I make in ethically sourcing food. I digress, like intensive chicken meat, organic milk makes up 2-3% of the market in the UK currently. It has always puzzled me why free-range eggs make up >50% of the market and not chicken. I remember seeing in the supermarket a ready meal containing intensive chicken, and the label was promoting the fact that the sauce contained free-range eggs, did no-one else see the irony?

Perhaps the reason for this is simply price. People will happily pay a few pennies more for ethically sourced eggs, but not a few pounds more for a free-range chicken. Conscience, it seems, does have a price for the majority of people. So, I’m excited by this new scheme as without having to jump through the expensive hoops to certify as organic, free-range milk will only be a few pennies more than intensive milk, it can win, our environment need not be blighted by ugly smelly mega dairies.

Another thing that has frustrated me is that the family farms of upland Wales, the area where I grew up and the area I call home, are relatively poorer than farmers elsewhere in the UK. Basically because the land is less productive, however they produce a superior product in free range lamb, yet have often been unable to command a superior price for their superior product. I may be bias but i think it is true that Welsh lamb is sweeter and more flavoursome than lowland English or New Zealand lamb. Actually, the best lamb I have ever tasted came from Scotland (and it does pain my Welsh heart to say that).

Also recently, I’ve discovered a way to describe my food requirements in a way that doesn’t offend people but makes clear what to offer me. I am ‘mostly vegetarian’. The phrase is apparently widely used in India to describe Hindus who aren’t entirely strict with their vegetarian diet, yet haven’t entirely abandoned the traditional Hindu diet. The phrase ‘mostly vegetarian’ works to describe people like me who only eat free-range, traditionally produced meat products as an occasional treat (due to pricing). No longer will I have to explain myself in restaurants for taking the veggie option, then chomping through a rare steak of lovely Welsh beef at home. Basically I have often had a hard time explaining to people that I don’t eat intensive meat and some homes I’ve visited have been offended by this, so I’ve longed for a way to describe it.

I wish this scheme every success, and hopefully someone will read this and buy a pint of proper free-range milk?

Meaty Intolerance

Sometimes, I find it a challenge to be tolerant of people who are intolerant of vegetarians. Particularly such arguments as: Humans are omnivores, it’s ‘natural’ to eat meat. These arguments smack of the highest hypocrisy as the implication is that industrial intensive farming, rearing animals in cages on high growth diets is somehow ‘natural’, it isn’t, To many it’s intolerable. Yet veggies are labeled as being awkward people.

I grew up in rural Wales, in a community of small family farms, rearing animals in a traditional free range way. When I was fifteen I discovered that much of the meat I was eating was from intensive factory farming. I found this intolerable and became a vegetarian. Many years later I felt able to ethically source free range meat. This means I now eat meat once, maybe twice a week. Actually the traditional pre-industrial diet.

It annoys me sometimes that people still regard me as ‘awkward squad’ as I don’t eat meat at restaurants. when I first meet people I identify as practically vegetarian to not cause offense, until people get to know me better. The thing is that when I explain my food preferences to people, or expose urban people to the reality of food production, they tend to agree with me, but don’t act. Two reasons are often given:

1/ It’s too expensive. Well yes, but you don’t have to eat meat in every meal, meat should be a treat, not an everyday thing. It seems people are not prepared to make the changes in how they shop or cook.

2/ It’s too difficult to ethically source meat. This is true for the majority of places in the U.K. But if no-one doers this, there is no market pressure put on food production systems, so abuses of animals welfare perpetuate.

Really, it comes across to me, that people are intolerant of vegetarians yet when forced to think about it  they agree, but are simply not prepared to follow through on these convictions. I appreciate how how odd it is to go to a supermarket and ignore the vast majority of the meat section and all the products containing meat, to be lumbered with feeling an irritating sense of superiority in such stores, to feel like an outsider. But really, there is nothing wrong with being right, honest with yourself and true to your convictions. Being not true to yourself to support industries you find intolerable, is to me one of worst ways of living.

Arguing for Sustainable Intensification

Many arguments stem from semantic differences. Arguments often involve different interpretations of the same word, or  concept. Often there is a reluctance to shift ones own understanding of a concept, as there is an awareness that this may involve applying this shift to other arenas of thought, the fear of re-evaluation of deeply held beliefs.

So, it is important to clarify what is meant by sustainable intensification of agriculture, especially as it is a melding of two different concepts. Two different concepts that have historically be viewed as in opposition to each other.

Firstly sustainable means being able to continue a practice forever or at least for the foreseeable future. Undertaking a practice that doesn’t through it’s impacts curtail long term continuance of the practice.

Secondly, intensification means finding solutions to producing more from a limited resource. In agriculture, this has meant increasing specialisation, or increasing the inputs from other sources to increase production locally.

So, sustainable intensification means producing more from a limited resource, without in doing so affecting future use of the limited resource. however it doesn’t automatically imply that intensification can only be through increased use of external resources, it is here that issues come in interpreting what is meant by intensification. Nor does it imply simply increasing more from any one area of agriculture, a more holistic approach may be required.

Sustainable intensification has come about as a concept due to the challenge of producing enough food to feed the growing population of the world.Part of the problem is identification of what the limited resources are? The obvious answer is land, but it isn’t only land as in modern agriculture resources are used that come from outside the individual farm.  It is for this reason that traditional pre-industrial farming is often cited as being a sustainable model, because most resources used came from within the farm, so had to be sustainable. However traditional farming produces lower yields than modern farming.

Traditional farming was sustainable as local resources were used. Farms were mixed and produced food for consumption by the local community. All farms produced arable crops and animal products. what was useful was that it worked with natural biological processes, rather than seek solutions to constraints imposed by biological processes. Land was fertilised by the livestock, allowing arable crops to flourish and a portion of the arable crops sustained the animals through the winter months.

Industrialisation of agriculture, was a product of economics. The idea of producing low yields of an arable crop on land which was more suited for grazing, and conversely the idea of raising livestock on land which was capable of high yields of arable crops was dismissed on economic grounds. However the intensification enabled by this was not sustainable. It was not sustainable as the soil was drained of it’s natural resources, nature abhors mono-cultures, requiring ever more complicated artificial fertilisers and ways of combating pests/diseases. The battle of restraining nature caused ever spiralling costs.

Agriculture has become isolated from wider society. Further intensification using industrial techniques, including genetic modifications technologies, unless there is a very major breakthrough, is not going to increase yields very much. More lateral solutions are going to be required to achieve the goal of sustainable intensification.

One such solution comes through a  tweaking of the definitions, through ignoring the definition and instead dealing with the goal of feeding the world. not increasing any individual yield, but to focus on a holistic total yield. Western society has become used to consuming foods that are available all year round, from all over the world. Achieving that availability, particularly producing food out of season, invokes costs and inefficiencies. So, the solution is perhaps to ignore what the ‘market’ supposedly wants and instead concentrate on maximising production in a sustainable way. This will involve changing everyones diet. Some popular foods will become more scarce and expensive, especially out of season, other foods will become cheaper. The diets of the people of the ‘developed’ world will be changed in a similar way to agriculture, from working against the constraints of ecology to working with the ecology. Away essentially from the idea of using grain from arable land to feed livestock, to using foraging livestock to maintain arable yields for human consumption.

This process, does involve a change in how markets are viewed. Farming is after all a business, farmers main concern is making a tidy profit. A current phenomena is that dairy farmers in Wales are moving back to pasture based systems away from intensive use of concentrates. The reason for doing this is that costs are drastically reduced. So whilst yields are lower, the profit is increased. This is great economically and in terms of animal welfare, however, it is unclear whether, ultimately sustainable intensification is realised, as it is unclear how much less land is utilised globally in such a production system. There are developments in this area such as intensive foraging, where cows forage on mature grasses, which have an improved nutrient and protein content, leading to higher yields.

Sustainable intensification will be about finding ways of increasing yields on individual crops. by itself it won’t feed the world. The challenge of achieving food security for this over-populated planet, will involve changing diets, attitudes and lifestyles to more sustainable ones. This isn’t an argument for everyone to be vegetarian, as livestock will play a role in recycling nutrients and foraging land poorly suited to arable production, rather people will learn to eat less, but better quality, animal products.

For example, modern dairy herds are almost exclusively Friesian /Holsteins. These breeds have been bred for highly intensive production, involving a lot of inputs, management and are susceptible to disease, to the extent that these breeds struggle on non-optimum foraging conditions. A solution is a return to smaller herds of lower milk yielding, but more rugged traditional breeds, which , whilst producing less milk per cow, will require less inputs and play a part of working with the land, as part of the cycle preparing it to be high yielding arable land. By taking a more holistic approach the total yield of produce over the cycle per acre of land will be higher, than the industrial specialised system, people will need to adapt, as well as the farming industry to more vegetables and less meat.

Sustainable intensification is actually a melting pot of different definitions and re-evaluations of the economic systems people in the developed world live by, but the world needs it. Solutions will come from a melding of the best of traditional sustainable practice, with the best of modern techniques and scientific understanding.

Unpasteurised

I love milk and I like cows. When I was a child I sometimes stayed over at a friends farm, having fresh milk on my breakfast cornflakes, so fresh that it was still warm was a heavenly experience. Unpasteurised milk does taste different, really in any animal product, more processing leads to less flavour. I don’t understand this culture of using skimmed, homogenised ‘milk’, it’s almost tasteless, so what is the point?

It’s the same situation with beef. As a teenager I remember farmers adapting to breed lean beef cows as fat was the enemy, this was not the real cause of increasing obesity in the British population, what this did lead to was beef that lacked flavour and an increased use of continental breeds whose meat lacks flavour of traditional breeds and hence discouraged people from choosing beef on taste grounds.

The dairy industry, like all parts of British agriculture has undergone massive changes and upheavals since the second world war. Many farmers have abandoned dairy as the relative price of milk has fallen in real terms. There continues to be a crisis in the industry as prices remain low and supermarkets charge £1 for 4 pints, whilst the farm gate price has fallen to 20p per litre, despite the intensification of the industry. Arguably no-one has benefited from this change as the price saved on a pint of milk is made up by the supermarkets on other products.

Modern intensive production of milk, with the recent importation of the idea of ‘mega-diaries’ from the United States, is a far cry from the sustainable, family farm production of my youth, in the name of cheap bland milk. Dairy cows are increasingly housed indoors, even in the summer, which for social animals seems cruel. They have been bred to be high yielding, leading to huge udders that leads to lameness, increased disease and a shorter productive life span. There have also been moves to a grain based diet, from a forage based one to increase yields further, despite this requiring cereals from high grade agricultural land. The true production costs are distorted.

I feel very strongly that intensive animal production is both unsustainable and unacceptable in terms of animal welfare. There is no true market as the consumer has little choice over the quality of milk that they consume. The only choice is between organic milk, which is traditionally produced and intensive milk. I strongly advocate proper point of farm labelling for all animal products, so consumers know where something comes from and how it was produced. In the UK we only really have a reasonable system for eggs, it’s absurd that something like 50% of eggs are free range, yet only 2% of chicken is free range. Consumers should be able to choose between traditional family farms and highly intensive production of mega dairies, here the production cost between the two systems is tiny, 1-2p per litre. Personally, I only buy organic milk, not because I am a mad keen advocate of organic agriculture, but it is the only choice available to me as I refuse to support ‘mega-dairies’.

This lack of a true market, pervades both agriculture and wider society. A true market would exist where producer and consumer interact to determine price and production system. This traditional market mechanism has been lost. It has been lost as it is now the middle man/ the supermarket cartels that determine price and quality, as such there is less regard for creation of sustainable markets as the decisions are not made by either producer or consumer.

The supermarkets distort the prices. The major supermarkets discovered that consumers decisions concerning where to shop are principally determined by perceived value, the price of individual foods is less important than the perceived value of the shop as a whole. The perceived value is determined by the prices of a small number of key products, one of these is milk, hence we have the absurd loss-leader situation of 4 pints of milk for a pound. Tesco, laughably, advertised this promotion with pictures of Belted Galloways, a beef breed!

This loss of true traditional market mechanisms, the necessity of subsidising farmers to keep produce prices down is also absurd. Yet as markets develop they seem to be increasingly distorted and people in general are less happy with how their food is produced but have less power to influence it.

I would urge anyone reading this to go out and buy a pint of organic unhomogenised milk, taste the difference and support local farmers.