Taking the Broad View with Nic Lampkin

My last interview in this particular series was with Prof. Nic Lampkin of the Organic Research Centre on the subject of policy and political challenges to agriculture.

As I have said before there are times when actually I would prefer to run off and be a hermit, not deal with other people and certainly not deal with politics or policy.  In fact when I have listened to politicians in the past, I have sometimes wondered whether that politician and I occupied the same world (just as an example – a few years ago Owen Paterson had not heard of community supported agriculture, I’m not sure that it surprised me, but I was not impressed).

Others bravely confront the world of politics and agriculture and have done so in order to support constructive policy and make the world a better place.  Nic Lampkin is certainly one of those individuals!  So we sat down last Thursday morning to discuss political challenges to agriculture in the 21st century.

I had sent some questions to prepare the interview and in response Nic recommended that I take a look at his presentation on the ‘Role of Regulation in Organic Farming’ in Estonia to IFOAM EU.  It was only 13 minutes long but it answered many of the questions I had sent. (the presentation can be found here) Hmmm.  Then what do we talk about?  Well here are a few highlights:

Organic as Open Source

Nic said that historically biodynamic and organic agriculture are ‘open source’ concepts.  There has been continual input and refining of the principles of these approaches to agriculture because they were ideas that were the products not simply of one individual (not even biodynamics) but of many individuals who were combining their points of view, finding commonality and allowing both principles and practice to develop, well, organically (pun intended).  That presents a serious difficulty for regulation.  How is it possible to encapsulate principled and developmental approaches in regulation?  Is it possible to continuously redefine and update regulation in response to experience?  How can we keep this ‘open source’ quality when regulation seeks an easily assessible pass/fail approach?

Agroecology as learning process

Well I would love that idea wouldn’t I?  Nic described involvement in agroecology as a continual learning process, not something ever finished, but always developing.  Can regulation support this?  If so, then we will have regulation which truly supports the impulse.

regulation that encourages positive development

A developmental approach is pretty common in the agroecological sector and regulation can be seen as a fossilising influence.  But not necessarily.  It should be possible that regulation can work as a support to development.  Nic mentioned sustainability assessment tools as a support for farmers, something that can motivate farmers in the process of change.

He said that ‘it is vital that regulation and certification are not a ceiling that limit creativity and opportunity’ but a supportive platform from which to begin.

Make regulation an inclusive process

At the moment the process of developing regulation and policy is not as inclusive as it could be.  By including the producers, processors, traders and (very importantly) consumers, regulation can become a collaborative experience, taking into account the principles and best practice of producers as well as the aims and expectations of consumers.  Taking a well-rounded view of regulation is a bit like taking a well-rounded view of the farm, understanding it as an organism, not just a group of diverse enterprises.

change the conversation – from input to output

Traditionally organic agriculture has been viewed as the avoidance of certain inputs (chemical fertilisers, pesticides etc.) and has involved lists of what you may or may not use.  Those lists are useful but they are really only a small part of the agriculture itself!

Agroecological impulses such as biodynamic and organic (among others) really involve both process and aims.  In fact many of the aims are the same – regeneration of the soil, plant resilience, care for animals and their well-being, fairness to humans (in the work and the supply chain) – in fact working on the ecological/social/economic levels that are usually considered as the three pillars of sustainability.  So if the aims are similar, how do we find the methods?  According to Nic we look for ecological processes rather than technological ones. (mostly…)

By focusing on the aims, rather than the inputs we remember our sense of purpose and meaning in what we are doing, and we begin to take into account all of the benefits of this kind of farming!  This is about producing food, but not only.  It is also about all the things mentioned above, and those ‘public goods’ cannot be separated from the activity of producing food.

Also by recognising the commonality of aims, different streams within the agroecology remember how much they have in common.  As Nic said almost 99% of our DNA we have in common and this DNA is really in the aims of the different streams.  We have much more in common than separates us after all.

I have to admit that I never expected a conversation about policy and regulation to be so inspiring!  But it most certainly was.  These were all the right questions, talking of aims and aspirations – the confidence that regulation has its place, and can be a support, but also the confidence that agroecology is not just about producing food, it is much richer than that.  So perhaps the conversation is not simple, the message is not a soundbite – but it is rich, inclusive and diverse! (signs of resilience!)


An interview with Helmy Abouleish

Discussing the social challenges of agriculture with Helmy Abouleish of Sekem

I have had a few weeks of social challenges.  In fact one day I was stewing in a rant worthy of Joel Salatin (everything I want to do is illegal). However, a conversation with Helmy Abouleish (definitely a socially gifted individual!) was just the antidote I was looking for to the ranting/stewing, why can’t I just retreat from the world feeling in which I was indulging.

Because I know that realistically, retreat from the world, however tempting, is not my answer, nor is it really an option.

Agriculture is one of those activities in which human culture has been intertwined for as long as we can remember.  In the 21st century social interaction as part of agriculture often just happens, rather than is consciously designed – contact between producers and processors, wholesalers, retailers and consumers may be cordial or difficult, but it is rarely seen as part of the ‘real’ activity of agriculture.  So in my longing for isolation and becoming a hermit, just to avoid the messiness of other human beings (I have enough of my own messiness to be getting on with), it was good to remember that the social cultural aspects of agriculture can also be cultivated and cared for.

Below are a few ideas from the conversation that left me more hopeful and possibly even more realistic.

Agriculture is taking the human into nature
'Agriculture is the opposite to nature. Humans interact with nature through culture and create something which was not there before.  This can create something which is far beyond the capacity of nature to renew itself.  It is about taking nature to the next level rather than preserving what is there.' 

- Helmy Abouleish

Countless times I have asked students ‘do you think the world would be better off without humans?’  It is an idea that I enjoy challenging because it is an assumption I used to make myself. I think my initial stage in changing this assumption was to move to ‘we have created the mess, therefore it is our responsibility to clean it up.’

But I have gradually moved more…  What if it is not just our burden to clean up the mess we have made?  What if it is our gift, that we have the capacity to improve on nature?  A big thought but worth thinking (I think).

Nature takes a minimum of 500 to 1000 years to create 1-2 cm of new topsoil, we can do it faster. The processes that break down waste products into nutrients that are available for plants happen naturally, but they happen more quickly and more efficiently in a compost pile.

Just two examples of ways in which humans can create something which is far beyond the capacity of nature to renew itself.  This is not interference at a fundamental level, changing nature to suit human needs, this is a collaborative process between the human being and nature to support and multiply natural renewal.  We can do that.

Two possible views

Helmy pointed out that there are two very different views of agriculture.

The first – agriculture is an industry with the aim of producing food.  This is narrow and somewhat dismissive of the other aspects of agriculture.

In turn this can lead to economic understanding of agriculture that encourages paying attention only to the output/production of the farm.  Maximise production at all costs, to maximise economic benefit and at the same time maximum amount of food.

The second – agriculture is a complex activity involving environmental, social, cultural and economic aspects.  Culturally we have been tied and shaped by the activity and rhythms of nature and agriculture.  Now that we are free of those bonds, how can we work with the complex cultural history that exists and reimagine agriculture without losing the relationship that has been cultivated for so long?  Or how can we build those relationships in a new way?

This second view of agriculture is of course one with which I sympathise more (surprise!).  According to research done at Sekem, by looking at all of the roles that agriculture plays, including all of the benefits (ethical, environmental, social etc.) biodynamic agriculture is the most productive and most ‘cost’ effective way of producing food (when all benefits are taken into account).

Don’t patronise, preach or convert

At the end of our conversation we spoke about creating possibilities for healthy social interaction in the context of agriculture.  At Sekem, everyone who works there, from the farms to the tea packers, has access to cultural activities and education.  But it is offered, not enforced.  We cannot force culture down people’s throats if they do not want it. We cannot convert farmers who are not interested.  We can simply do biodynamics and see if curiosity comes.  In Egypt it has, and many farmers have looked over the fence to see how soil is created in the middle of the desert.  When questions come, then spot the opportunity and be ready to talk.

Because at the heart of biodynamic agriculture is freedom, curiosity and interest.


So I am recovering from my longing to rant.  This interview was after all a balm for my soul, enjoyable and complex, in parts challenging and soothing.  Because although ranting and retreating are sometimes useful as short term modes of coping and getting through the day, I know there are better things to be doing with my time.