Opinion Articles

Liberal manoeuvring in the real green economy

  • RSS Feed Icon

The entry of the Liberal Democrats into the Coalition Government in May 2010 inspired a new wave of historical research into the party and its place in British politics. A party policy review, which seeks to identify how to allocate money, skills and research effort, was launched recently by the Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert and closes on 29 February. Given that food production is not mentioned in this review, we believe the Liberal Democrats could benefit from an injection of fresh policy ideas and impetus by examining the inter-war Liberal Party's promotion of agricultural science.

Just as now, the inter-war Liberal Party was in a state of flux, including over its science policies. Britain was importing a great deal of its food, and many believed that in case of an emergency it would be better to source food more locally. Having suffered a collapse in electoral support since their landslide victory in 1906, the Liberal Party was in need of fresh directions and, in 1928 issued its famous 'Yellow Book', Britain's Industrial Future. In this volume, agriculture was seen as the greatest industry in Britain and a central plank to the modernisation of the economy.

Committed Liberal agricultural modernisers included those working on vitamins and diet, such as the biologist John Boyd Orr, and the electrification of farms by the engineer R. Borlase Matthews. They travelled to such varied locations as the US, Denmark and Spain for new ideas. Matthews conducted experiments with electric heaters for making hay in the winter and for ripening strawberries faster. He even travelled to republican Spain during the civil war to gauge the level of mechanisation on Spanish farms, and reported this information to the Trades Union Congress.

These Liberal policies, such as the planting of trees, farmers' access to high quality credit, more secure land tenure, and the better marketing of British agriculture were well known at the time, and were seen to be progressive and modern. The idea that the British countryside has always been a tranquil oasis populated solely by nostalgic squires and ruddy-faced yeomen was invented by historians in the 1980s, particularly Martin Wiener's English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit (1981). In these histories, the fact that inter-war policymakers counted agriculture as an industry - also as a form of manufacturing - was conveniently forgotten.

Far from being a repository of bucolic traditions, the British countryside has been alive with scientific and technological ingenuity, not just from certified scientists but farmers, farm workers, agricultural engineers and other groups less celebrated (and certainly never mentioned in discussions of science and technology policy). A corrugated steel barn thrown up haphazardly to store grain at lower cost; a seed drill modified by hand to deliver insecticide pellets; a pesticide sprayer assembled from industrial pipes and nozzles; a grain drier bodged from parts of an aeroplane engine. These technologies were - and in a few cases still are - found down country lanes where few policy experts ever tread.

Unlike almost every other industry, farming consistently demonstrated large productivity rises through the twentieth century, and these went hand-in-hand with enormous ingenuity in the development and use of machinery, chemicals and crop varieties. After World War Two, governments emphasized national production of food, investing heavily in fertilizer inputs, supporting chemical companies that manufactured and sold pesticides, and freely giving subsidy payments and technical advice to farmers. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food became almost synonymous with pesticide firms like ICI to the extent that some farmers had difficulty distinguishing company sales representatives from civil servants.

The problem is that many who formulate policy talk in the wrong terms when they think about science and agriculture - if they think about the subject at all. In the standard narrative, the countryside is a world of the past, rather than of the future. It resists novelty, rather than embracing or even generating it, and therefore has little connection to the cutting edge of science and technology. Accordingly, the countryside came to be seen in some quarters as an amenity for leisure, rather than an agriculturally-productive space. At the same time, an obsession with particular 'high-tech' interventions crowded out other forms of innovation that contributed to rural production. Pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which had been emphasized in post-war policy and had obvious negative effects on the environment and, in some cases, on human health, came to stand for the totality of possible scientific inputs to the countryside, rather than just one small part of it.

Today the technological focus no longer falls on chemical boosts to agricultural productivity, but on genetic modification (GM). But in the case of GM, the UK is far behind its international competitors. Even if we wanted our science and technology policy to drive forward home-grown GM, the barrier to entry is now vast. US-based multinationals such as Monsanto, DuPont, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland Company are far ahead of UK competitors in the development, manufacture and trade of such crops.

But there are lessons to be learned. A government research agency, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), funded the development of a nutrient-enriched 'Beneforté' super broccoli that was recently planted out on a large scale (and sold in supermarkets). The broccoli is grown in the USA and UK and sold in both countries under a licence granted to the seed conglomerate Seminis-Monsanto. While this 'super' vegetable's commercial fate remains unknown, it shows that agricultural inventions are important - and that they exist in the here-and-now, rather than in some unspecified future. It also shows that conventional high-tech isn't a prerequisite: the broccoli was developed through plant breeding, not genetic engineering.

Farmers probably realise all of this instinctively - as do many in the agricultural policy community. Reports such as DEFRA's 'Driving Export Growth in the Farming, Food and Drink Sector' highlight the potential of agriculture as an export industry. In the last two years, the BBSRC has recognised its farming past (the agency was once the 'Agricultural Research Council'), and started to articulate multi-million pound research programmes in food security.

But more needs to be done if we are to convert aspiration into practice. Food security is about how our seeds, animal feeds and other agricultural inputs are produced, sold, used and transported, by what companies, from where, and at what cost. These factors need to be considered together in ways they have not been before if we want to talk fully about the role innovation plays in our rural economy. For example, in working out how a dash for GM in British agriculture would influence the cost and stability of our seed supply, given that GM technologies are owned by overseas companies.

In designing a new science policy for the allocation of UK government research funding and the training of the scientific workforce, the Liberal Democrats could draw on the past (and the present), recognize the importance of agriculture - and play to the strengths of the real 'green economy'.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More