Talking outside the Box? – Patrick Holden on a new agenda for organic farming

The director of the UK’s Soil Association, a peak organic farming body, has been in Australia talking about a new agenda for the organic movement.

There’s a chance to hear what Patrick Holden  said on Radio National.

Patrick Holden in Sydney Feb 2009

The   broadcast talk spoke of a ‘Rob Hopkins effect’ – referring to the impact on Holden’s thinking of the originator of the Transition movement – a grassroots push to plan for communities that will be more resilient in the face of the twin threats of peak oil and global warming.

Holden’s words are like a primer on the Egalitarian mode of understanding the world. He speaks of major threats to civilisation, of population size as a problem, of a need to change our values, not just our living arrangements. He extols the benefits of bottom-up, as opposed to top-down planning, and of localising the economy.

Towards the end he also speaks of the need for the organic movement to go beyond merely speaking to itself. And this is where the issue lies. How can an almost text-book Egalitarian agenda communicate beyond the self-imposed ghetto of Egalitarianism? Is there a way of talking outside the box of one’s own worldview?

For Egalitarians, the worldview proposed here makes perfect sense and it all hangs together nicely [disclosure: I actually think this too, most days]. But for everyone else, it remains eccentric, biased, stupid or even dangerous. How can this impasse be overcome?

There are a number of points of engagement, where dialogue needs to take place – not with a view to denouncing competing worldviews, but intending to come up with solutions, policies, practices, organisational structures, that allow some give and take between Egalitarian, Individualist, Hierarchical and Fatalist ways of organising.

For instance, is ‘peak oil’ really the great problem Patrick Holden and others claim it to be? Maybe so, but many deny this. Where is the common ground for those who are concerned with energy supply to the agricultural sector, whether or not they are motivated by Egalitarian concerns?

Or again, surely the concept of appropriate economic scale can be addressed openly, without alienating those who think all talk of the local is code for a forced return to the Dark Ages.

I am arguing that a lot more thought needs to go into the way Egalitarians present their arguments. Do they really want to be heard by those who disagree with them? Or are they more interested in defining themselves ever more clearly against other viewpoints?

None of this should be read as a criticism of organic agriculture. For those who think it’s a fad, or worse, try reading this recent UN report on Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa, which concludes:

“The evidence presented in this study supports the argument that organic agriculture can be good for food security in Africa — equal or better than most conventional systems and more likely to be sustainable in the longer-term.
The 15 case studies examined in-depth have shown increases in per hectare productivity for food crops, increased farmer incomes, environmental benefits, strengthened communities and enhanced human capital. “

(If by now, you’re not thinking “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they”, you haven’t yet got the point).

And it’s not a criticism of the Transition movement, either. In fact the Australians reading this may be interested to know there’s a new ‘local’ edition of the Transition Handbook coming out on 25th Feb.

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