Agriculture and food are life and death issues. Without food we starve to death and without a healthy countryside we cannot produce food. So it is literally a matter of life and death that we nurture and maintain biodiversity and soil fertility.
Unfortunately, the present global economic system is not designed to give priority to nurturing and maintaining natural resources. The single objective of the current economic system is to increase gross quantitative consumption, regardless of who benefits. The destruction of natural resources is not measured in the national accounting system.
The current global monetary system is controlled by corporations, financial institutions and rich individuals. It therefore inevitably works in such a way as to prioritise their interests at the expense of both nature and the poorest people, who lack financial and other resources. Money and power are two sides of the same coin as one inevitably leads to the other. Politics is therefore controlled by the same monetary elite, referred to here as the Monetariat, that also controls the economy. In UK the two-party electoral system reinforces this control by allowing the interests of the Monetariat to be maintained by excluding smaller minority parties from power, leading to undemocratic rule by a party masquerading as a majority government when in fact it has been elected by a minority of the votes. Rather than being a democracy the political system can be more accurately described as a plutocratic oligarchy.
In these circumstances it is unlikely that natural resources will be protected and inequality reduced without making major radical changes to the current political and economic systems. In particular the monetary system needs to be democratised so that money is guided to where it can be used to the maximum benefit of the public, instead of being used primarily in maintaining and strengthening the grip of the Monetariat on wealth and power.
A first step in the direction of reducing inequality and increasing prosperity is to strengthen the hand of local government so that power is delegated upwards from the grass roots, not downwards from the elite Monetariat. Relatively small local or regional authorities can identify local needs and desires more accurately and deal with them more effectively than a large complex central bureaucracy. When they make mistakes, as inevitably they will do sometimes, they will be less difficult to correct and do less damage than central government mistakes, which can be on a much larger scale.
Creating a local or a regional currency that is issued and controlled by a democratically elected local authority brings power back to the local level. Any local, regional or national currency will, of course, be limited in what it can achieve by the extent of its own local resources. But a local currency can help to make it possible to deploy these resources to the maximum benefit of the community by guiding money to where it is most needed, thereby releasing the potential of the resources that are available. Regional, national and international currencies will all probably be required to release the full potential of the different resources of a particular area, but the starting point is to ensure that the local community prioritises making best use of its own resources. Just as water is needed to make land productive so money is needed to enable local populations and local economies to realise their potential.
The first priority for a local currency must be to enable every citizen to have a minimum level of resources to enable them to develop their own potential. This means that the money created by the local authority needs to be directed first of all into a system of Universal Basic Income (UBI) so that each individual can develop their own special talents for their own benefit and that of the community in which they live. There is a general belief that people should be allowed to pass on their inheritance to their children. By the same principle UBI provides recognition of the fact that every baby, child and adult is equally entitled to benefit from the common inheritance of the community’s wealth, to which all members of previous generations have contributed. It also makes economic sense to facilitate the release of whatever human talents there may be, for the benefit of society as a whole. This is not possible for people who are wholly preoccupied with obtaining the bare necessities that they need in order to survive. The size and extent of the UBI will be for each local authority to determine, probably starting low and increasing as wealth and resources will allow.
Money is the essential mechanism that facilitates economic exchanges and stimulates the creation of wealth. So long as it is put to good use, providing goods and services that are in demand, it will retain its value in the community in which it circulates. The size of the community can vary but the authority that issues the currency needs to be the same as the taxation authority. This will ensure that the currency will retain its local value as it can be used to pay local taxes. But it also means that the quantity of money in circulation can be democratically controlled, through creation and taxation, to ensure that it is put to good use for the public benefit. It can also be directed where it is most needed and/or where it can be most productive.
In addition to UBI payments, a local currency can be used to provide equity for specialised local development corporations (devco). Since the newly created money does not carry any need for charging interest (it has been created by the local authority, not borrowed from any third party) it can be used to fund joint ownership of start-up businesses that it may help to create in partnership with local entrepreneurs. Local currency can thus be used to stimulate innovative businesses and research and development into new productive enterprises.
In the case of housing, for example, the devco can invest local currency equity in a local housing association or in partnership with a would-be house owner. The local currency equity investment can be used for the purchase of local services, labour and materials, thus stimulating the local economy and making best use of local resources for low carbon buildings. Separate funding will still be needed in national or international currencies for buying in materials and services that are not available locally. The occupier will pay rent to the devco but can purchase shares to obtain full ownership over time.
Local currency funding can also be used by local authorities to make better use of their land holdings by developing new housing with good broadband telecommunications and access to agricultural land for smallholdings. Agrivillages and other forms of community housing can be designed to enable young people and job changers to cooperate together in food production, processing and marketing. This will enable locally appropriate communities to be sited with good connections to local markets. Shorter supply lines providing good quality, healthy local food at competitive prices will benefit urban populations whilst providing a decent living and a satisfactory and fulfilling life-style for the food producers.
By using local currencies to provide productive local employment and housing, the local authority can build up the health and prosperity of the local population and thus reduce dependence on central government and on imported goods and services. It is not sufficiently recognised that the most productive form of agriculture does not come, as the big chemical agro-companies claim, from very large monocultures and factory farms, but from organically farmed smaller holdings. In terms of the quantity and quality of food production per hectare, more labour-intensive cultivation of diversified smallholdings with symbiotic combinations of plants, animals and fish produce far the greatest ratio of outputs to inputs of calories. This matches the optimum dietary requirements of humans, neatly summed up by Colin Tudge as “plenty of plants, not much meat - and maximum diversity”.
The productive efficiency of farming is determined not just by large machines, toxic chemicals and artificial fertilisers, even though they may give an expensive short-term boost to production. Human knowledge is the determining factor in food production as in all other activities. That knowledge needs to be based on as thorough a study as possible of the ecology of the specific area in which the food production takes place.
Now that that the human population of the planet has risen to over 7 billion and is expected to increase further to 10 billion or more in this century, it is essential that we approach both diet and food production from a fundamentally different angle to that of the prevailing fashion. We have to produce sufficient calories to nourish and protect the health of this population in order to avoid following in the footsteps of other smaller human civilisations that have perished in the past. To do that we need to make use of increasing availability of human energy and knowledge (thereby increasing productive employment) to produce more food from less land, whilst increasing fertility and biodiversity. This is the opposite of the current fashion for minimising human energy input and destroying natural resources.
It is fortunate that the healthiest diets are matched by the most sustainable kind of farming. Organic smallholdings have the potential to produce exactly the combination of plants, animals and diversity that are best for human health. But what is lacking is the political leadership needed to make the radical changes that are essential in order to bring about a fundamental change in farming and food consumption. ‘Business as usual’ seems so much easier than persuading people to change even though it is in their best interests to do so and even though human civilisation will not survive unless we change.
This a guest blog by James Skinner for the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission. James is an economist actively engaged in renewable energy, conservation farming and sustainable transport initiatives, both working as a director of Ultra Light Rail Partners Ltd., Sustraco Ltd. and Advanced Anaerobics Ltd., and as a Trustee Emeritus of the New Economics Foundation and Founder of The Travel Foundation and Conservation Farming Trust.