To create the small farming world of the future he envisions, farmer and author Chris Smaje says it is time to ditch destructive agriculture practices.
In place of the behemoth global farming systems and networks currently destroying soils and leaving hundreds of millions of people malnourished, Chris wants to see a shift to A Small Farm Future – also the title of his new book, to make local economies the cornerstone of a resilient and thriving world.
A lot of the problems that we’re facing in the world today I think of as nature telling us ‘sorry – it doesn’t work like that here’.Chris Smaje
For Chris, my guest today on Inside Ideas, many of the world’s challenges stem from the choices societies make in organising themselves, which is a theme he explores in the book.
“We tend to focus on initial problems like climate change, energy, water issues. We often look at them as technical problems, engineering problems if you like and of course – they do have that dimension,” he said. “But ultimately they arise out of how we choose to organise ourselves as societies, how we think about our relationships with each other and with the natural world, so I try and have that trajectory from the more immediate biophysical crises to issues like politics, the economy, and culture.”
Chris co-runs a farm in Somerset, southwest England, and was previously a social scientist, working at the University of Surrey and Goldsmiths College. He writes regularly about agricultural, ecological and social issues, for academic and non-academic publications, as well as on his blog. And what he continually calls for is an end to the run away devastation caused by the fractured relationships humans have created with nature.
“A lot of the problems that we’re facing in the world today I think of as nature telling us ‘sorry – it doesn’t work like that here’ and we need to rethink. So we need to bring these different elements, the different crops, the livestock, the trees, the water and human living back into a more steady relationship and that has to be done locally. It has to make sense locally in terms of the local ecology in place.”
He added: “One of the points I make in the book is that one thing we’ve done is become increasingly reliant on this small number of, mostly cereal crops, which increasingly are grown in bread basket parts of the world like the North American prairies, which are semi-arid areas which are very vulnerable to climate change and water stress, but also productive historically. But the ironic result of that is that by producing this torrent of cheap grain, which partly emerges from cheap fossil energy and other inputs and also from subsidies, it has undermined people’s ability to produce subsistence in other parts of the world using more local subsistence crops and that pushes people into a more commercial model of farming in lower income countries, with people producing coffee or tropical food crops for example, and that can be a very precarious existence. So again there is this trade-off irony of greater and greater crops threatening the ability for us to keep up that abundance, which is also not that great economically for us.”
To begin transforming the system, Smaje says people must first reconnect with nature, ‘let it do its thing’, within a new system of sustainable local economies.
“The essence is we need to work with the landscape, to have good landscape design integrating the different elements. It’s almost like humans then are just kind of skimming off the surface flow of the ecology and letting it do its thing,” he said. “But we’ve got into this whole other way of thinking in the modern period where we’re always looking to maximise return on investment and I think that has created some positive things perhaps but also has a down side – we’re back to trade-offs again. And part of that down side is that the ecology doesn’t really work in that way.”
No matter what level you are at Chris says you should ‘get growing’ and support the transition to more local economies. I am delighted to take a deep dive with Chris on these issues that are so critical to the future for people and planet.