NSL Blog

Farming for our future

May 13, 2012

No doubt we are faced with a complex problem of how to feed the world, how to create sustainable abundant food supplies. The answer for corporations, who are designed for and desire unlimited unattainable growth, is to scale up and simplify. Fordist oil based economic principles applied to nature with devastating consequences.

This story in in two parts the first deals with the devastation wrought big firms after big money destroying natural eco-systems and communities, peoples lives and way of life. The second part explores an alternative, realistic way of approaching sustainable farming and agriculture from Tim Mead of Yeo Valley Farms and Rebecca Hosking.

This is the story highlighted in Raising Resistance which explores Latin American farmers’ struggle against the expanding production of genetically modified soy in South America. Biotechnology, mechanisation, and herbicides have radically changed the lives of small farmers in Latin America. For farmers in Paraguay this means displacement from their land, loss of basic food supplies.

Geronimo Arevelos and a group of small farmers stand defiantly in a corporate-owned soy field adjacent to his own, blocking a tractor from spraying herbicides that will decimate his crops and expose nearby families to toxic chemicals. As corporate farms seize farmland and rapidly expand production of genetically modified soy, Geronimo and the campesinos find themselves in a life and death struggle. Raising Resistance illustrates the mechanisms of a global economy that relies on ‘monocrop’ agriculture and corporate ownership of land. In telling the story of Paraguay, Raising Resistance poses the larger question of whether the global community wants to go on living with a system that allows one crop to prosper at the expense of all others.

Interestingly GM crops rely as heavily on an oil based economy as any other.

Non-linear thinking to find epic (transformational) wins:

YEO VALLEY FARMS: In an interview with Shareable I wrote about Yeo Valley Farms a large organic diary farm based in the Yeo Valley near Bristol. Yeo Valley Farms, the largest organic dairy farm in the UK, is a great example of how to deal with ambiguity and how to design for transformation.

The farm was faced with an uncertain future for two simple reasons: first, the volatility of running the farm on a oil-based economy (cost of fertilisers, pesticides, and fuel), and secondly, being too small to compete in the industrial supermarket economy. These two volatile variables pointed to an unsustainable future. The need was to create a resilient sustainable business that could endure, but how to do it?

Tim Mead owner of Yeo Valley embraced this ambiguous situation, and explored the problem as a systems challenge. If the farm currently exists in a system that is economically hurting us, how do we deal with that? The answer was to go organic, to remove and reduce the impact of the external volatile forces over which they had no control.

Importantly Tim did this for hard headed rational economic reasons, And 25 years ago when Tim made this decision it was considered highly unorthodox. Organic large-scale farms? Culturally it was a bold move, it takes a strong presence of mind and deep conviction to not be swayed by fashionable thinking.Tim had looked ahead, identifying a pattern that made sense even though the current thinking was to run farms like industrial machines. He sought the best possible long-term future of the farm.

Running a large farm organically requires some head scratching from time to time, but it is sustainable and Yeo Valley produces the best milk in the UK. He reduced the cost of his inputs, and increased the quality and quantity of his outputs. He created a greater demand for a superior quality product. Yeo Valley makes eight out of every 10 organic yogurts in the UK.


This is a documentary made by Rebecca Hosking who tells a simple story about why industrial approaches to farming is no longer sustainable. And what we can do about it.

Summary: So there are other viable alternative ways to look at complex problems. But we need to design around the needs of humanity, not around the needs of large corporations. We can have economic vibrancy but we need to ask this of ourselves:

  1. Is what we do as a organisation truly serving the needs of humanity and society?
  2. How do we design better for society, our organisation, and be commercially vibrant – all at the same time?
  3. Are we able to think holistically about the challenges we face?
  4. Do we have the right and appropriate literacy to describe where we need to be getting to?
  5. Do we at a regional level understand how to design for resilient societies? As the only way we build resilient societies is by creating resilient food systems.

Further reading:

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