The Agrarian Renaissance must not be a top-down affair. It should be led and driven by ordinary people – a giant exercise in democracy.
The College of Real Farming and Food Culture (CRFFC) aims to kick-start the Agrarian Renaissance - a complete rethink and recasting of farming and cooking and all that goes with them.
Since farming and cooking sit right at the heart of all the world's affairs, this in turn requires a complete rethink of absolutely everything, from growing beans and feeding cows to the philosophy of science, to economics, politics and moral philosophy, and into the depths of metaphysics.
Then, or at the same time, the ideas must be translated into action. In effect, we need to start the world all over again - but not through step-by-step reform of the status quo, because that won't get us where we need to be; or by revolution, a head-on fight with the present powers-that-be, because nobody wants that, and the outcome of revolution is far too uncertain.
This must be achieved by creating the kind of world we want to see, in situ, and allowing the present methods and the institutions that are serving the world so badly to wither on the vine. Hence 'Renaissance'. But the Agrarian Renaissance must not be a top-down affair. It should be led and driven by ordinary people - a giant exercise in democracy.
The ambition may sound too vaunting, even ludicrous - yet it is all quite doable. All the ideas that are needed to transform the fortunes of the world are out there. They need further refinement - no idea is ever perfect - but all are essentially benign, many, if not most, have arisen through democratic movements, and all have been shown to work when given a chance.
Do we want to survive beyond 21st century?
Billions of people worldwide are dissatisfied with the current inequality, the injustice, and the destruction of our fellow creatures and the fabric of the Earth. Many millions are trying to farm according to the principles of what I have been calling enlightened agriculture - aka real farming - rooted in the methods of agro-ecology and designed expressly to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest.
Others are setting up related, complementary enterprises, from charcuteries to micro-breweries and bakeries, and many thousands of NGOs, clubs and institutions are trying to help them on their way, from the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy in 1986, to the global peasant movement Via Campesina, which began in the 1990s, to consortia seeking to acquire land to be farmed along enlightened lines, including Britain's Ecological Land Co-operative and Biodynamic Land Trust, and France's Terre de Liens.
All that is needed to turn the global frustration into a critical mass is a little more coordination - which the College will help to provide.
The rethink is certainly necessary. The UN tells us that a billion out of 7 billion people are chronically hungry, while another billion suffer from food that is not fit for purpose - the world population of diabetics is now more than twice the total population of Russia, and diet is almost the sole cause. Biologists estimate, conservatively, that half of all our fellow species are in realistic danger of imminent extinction.
All wild habitats, and a large proportion of the world's farmland, are degraded. As the coup de grâce, we face climate change. The Pope, archbishops, senior scientists and enlightened economists have warned us of late that we will be lucky to survive the 21st century in tolerable form if we go on as we are.
Yet if we farmed as if we really cared about the human race and our fellow species, and adjusted our eating to match - not necessarily austere veganism, but traditional cooking - our descendants and most of our fellow species could still be here in a million years and have a far better time than most people do now.
Enlightened agriculture must be the norm
Though agriculture is a prime, and sometimes the sole, cause of all these disasters, the corporates and governments like Britain's, and their chosen advisers who run it, simply offer more of the same: more high tech (with GMOs the latest gizmo), and the neoliberal global economy that is supposed to promote efficiency - and all, of course, with the present oligarchy still in charge.
Yet it is easy to show that if only we farmed as if we really did intend to produce good food for all, without destroying the rest, and if only people reacquired the skills to turn what grows best into great cooking, as shown over centuries in Italy, France, Turkey, India, China, and so on, we could all live well.
The world already produces enough for 14 billion people - twice as many as are now on Earth - and 40% more than will ever be needed, since the UN tells us that numbers will level out at around 10 billion. Yet still the powers that be advocate more production, because that is profitable. ("Pile 'em high!" as Tesco's founder, Jack Cohen, used to say.) We need instead to acknowledge that enough is enough, and focus on quality and provenance.
But nothing of a robust kind can be achieved ad hoc. Enlightened agriculture needs to be the norm, but it can't be if the land is owned by banks that seek only to maximise their short-term profits. All countries need to focus more than they do on self-reliance - not to be confused with total self-sufficiency - but all are pressured instead to treat all crops and livestock as commodities to be sold on the world market to the highest bidder, and to hell with the home population.
The world has drifted so far to the Right that those who suggest that we should cooperate to make a better world are seen as dangerous subversives. Neoliberalism rules - a form of brute Darwinism that says that the world will be better if we all compete, ruthlessly - and those with the most power still believe Margaret Thatcher's dictum "There is no alternative."
A curriculum for a different worldview
So the curriculum of the College of Real Farming and Food Culture, the CRFFC, must be broad. I've summarised it in tiers:
The top tier - the goal - defines what we want to achieve: convivial societies in a flourishing biosphere.
The second tier - action - is the core of the whole endeavour: enlightened agriculture matched by a true food culture - people who truly appreciate good food and encourage farmers to produce it, as we may still find in rural Italy.
Tier three shows what's needed to support real farming and good cooking: politics that is true democracy; economic democracy; and law that is truly just. Britain's most recent governments, from both big parties, have sent young men and women to war in the name of democracy, but none has been truly democratic. Economic democracy is neither far Right nor far Left, but embraces the mixed economy.
Traditionally, this meant public and private ownership side by side, but now, as Martin Large discusses in his book Common Wealth, we need a tripartite mix, with private, public and - perhaps most of all - community ownership. All should be conceived as social enterprises, intended to pay their way but designed primarily for the general good of humanity and/or the biosphere. The final strut, the law, needs constant reform. It needs above all to be just, and often it is not.
But we will not install the kind of organisation we need unless we really want to - which means we need to address the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. This, as I see things, has four major components. Science aspires to tell us how the material universe works and what is physically possible. Moral philosophy seeks to define what is good - not mere cost-effectiveness, but compassion, humility, and a sense of oneness with all of Nature.
Science and morality both are rooted in metaphysics, which is now much neglected in the Western world although it asks what Sayyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University calls the "ultimate questions". I take those questions to be these: what is the universe really like? (Is the material world all there is?) What are the roots of morality? How do we know what's true? And - the great unanswerable, but key nonetheless - how come?
Finally, the zeitgeist, and hence all life, is shaped by all the arts. With Schubert, or indeed John Lennon, we look at the world differently.
Building an online forum for collaboration and cooperation
So what have been the origins of the CRFFC, and how will it work? In 2008 a group of friends and I set up the Campaign for Real Farming, from which, in January 2010, sprang the first Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), conceived by the agricultural writer Graham Harvey as the antidote to the Establishment's Oxford Farming Conference (OFC).
Graham has now moved on to other things, but we have expanded the ORFC and now it is bigger than the OFC. At the 2012 conference we launched Funding Enlightened Agriculture to help farms of an enlightened kind, and related enterprises, to get going. The CRFFC completes the circle.
The College itself will begin in virtual form - as a website, an edited but otherwise open forum. So it will be a college in the true sense of the word: a meeting place for like-minded people. At the same time - already well in train - we will run 'pop-up' events wherever we are invited, from one-off lectures to weekend courses, to (some time in the future!) a full-blown MSc.
If, somewhere down the line, someone leaves us a country estate with land on which to create a model farm, that will definitely take us to a new plane. But just in virtual and pop-up form the CRFFC can achieve a great deal. At the very least, it will help to coordinate the endeavours of others, and cooperation is all.
By the time this piece is published, our website should be up and running. Please watch this space and join in.
Colin Tudge is (with Ruth West and Graham Harvey) a co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference and writes at the Campaign for Real Farming. His latest book is Six Steps Back to the Land (Green Books, 2016).