• 31
  • JUL
  • 2017

I disappeared deep into the Welsh countryside for two days earlier this month to learn about harmony, as in “Harmony in Food and Farming”, writes Angela Karp.

The occasion was a conference organised by the Sustainable Food Trust and inspired by a book by Prince Charles, Harmony, A New Way of Looking at the World. The book was published in 2010 to a measure of critical acclaim (once wheat had been separated from chaff seemed the broad consensus) and his keynote address to open proceedings at Llandovery College was billed as his first public reflections on it.

I left for Wales truly excited at the prospect of this unusual experience; and I worked hard to banish any pre-conceived notions, prejudicial or sceptical. As scientists, we stand by the robustness of our approaches, and rightly so. But we need to be careful that robustness does not isolate us or result in a lack of open-mindedness. I was eager to listen and learn.

I found the keynote address engaging as Charles unfolded his thesis, layer by layer and one supporting example after another. And profoundly thought-provoking.

The principal take-home messages are that there is something deeply wrong with human integrity because we have lost the connection between who we are as individuals and what we do; because we continually focus on fixing problems without paying attention to central causes; and because we have lost sight of the fact that all things are connected on our planet. 

I was reminded that “connectedness” is something that the great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt understood. He articulated nature as an interplay of phenomena in his “Essay on the Geography of Plants”, first published in 1807. In this essay, Humboldt describes the web of life and how one set of anthropogenic actions, such as clearing forests, can negatively impact somewhere else because all things are connected. Scientists are very connected, I thought, almost by definition.

Charles said he felt a need to write his book as a “call to revolution”, which is also the book’s first line, because humankind simply cannot continue along their current path. Increasingly, he noted, there is little place for harmony in a world dominated by economy. When we separate what we are from what we do, he said, our sense of humanity is diminished and we fail to condone or stop activities that we know should not continue.

Others approached the theme from different angles. Ellen MacArthur, former round-the-world yachtswoman, advocated a regenerative circular economy with no waste; John Eliot Gardiner, the conductor, drew fascinating parallels between the harmony achieved through the juxtaposition of intervals and chords in music and the components of natural systems; Gunhild Stordalen, founder and president of the EAT Foundation, said individuals could make a huge difference by working collectively in three ways: eat less meat; eat smaller portions; and eat better quality (of higher nutritional value). And this was all a good week before the new environment secretary, in his own keynote address at WWF's Living Planet Centre in Woking, spoke of his determination to link future farm subsidies to environmental stewardship.

Charles finished his address by saying that he is encouraged that attitudes are changing. Science is helping to determine the fundamental patterns found in nature, he suggested. Those patterns are our patterns, and he asked how they might better serve our approach to sustainable farming. He concluded that clues are to be found in arts, music and the inherent genius of nature.  

I wasn’t sure that I’d go that far but he had set me up for the parallel sessions.

In “Eating as an Agricultural Act”, I was inspired by the ways that farmers and growers had brought value into their production systems by diversifying and producing more specialised high value products that attract a premium because of their taste and uniqueness.

In “Music of the Spheres”, I learnt how music (in more primitive forms, such as chants) most certainly preceded speech and was linked to seasons and events, such as harvests, and how harmony follows principles of Pythagorean mathematics. 

In “Principles of Harmony in Education”, I learnt how a primary school in Surrey is connecting children with their food by involving them in its growing, harvesting, preparing, cooking and serving before they sit down to eat.  

Over meals, I heard how farmers have developed sustainable production to achieve viable businesses that produce nutritional and tasty food locally; through the adoption of integrated farming, more diverse and longer rotations, holistic approaches and product diversification. This is much along the lines of what we advocate at Rothamsted, it seemed to me, and how we presented our engagement and commitment to the environment in our new five-year strategy  plan to 2022.

I was one of very few scientists present. Although I was welcomed, especially so as a representative of Rothamsted, science itself received little airing nor did the agricultural developments that have saved millions from starvation. At one point, I was reminded of those rebels in Monty Python’s Life of Brian complaining about the Romans, and almost expected to hear the refrain: “What have the scientists ever done for us?”

Nevertheless, the conference did make me ponder our role. Science does not own knowledge. What it offers is a robust set of methodologies, hard tested by critique and scrutiny, by which evidence is generated that either proves or disproves hypotheses.

Scientific enquiry is pursued to lead to a better understanding of how things work, and how best we can manage, improve, control and even manipulate them. But in achieving better understanding, do we risk losing our sense of awe and wonder, rather as a magician’s trick can sometimes lose its sense of mystery once explained? Do we reduce systems down to components and risk losing our sense of connectedness? Perhaps the surge in integrated and systems studies is a recognition of that danger.

Most difficult of all are two related issues. Firstly, what is fact, if evidence is based on knowledge today and is itself limited by available methodologies? Improve the methodologies and some facts are shown to be inaccurate, or even wrong. Scientists are their own worst enemies in this regard, forever challenging facts and/or developing new methods, often leading to controversy and conflicts of opinion. While a cornerstone of science, this is not helpful for those who need to rely on its findings.   

Secondly, science doesn’t always give the answer that you want. When I hear people say, “it would be really interesting to study this to show so and so…”, I wonder what would happen if the answer is not the one hoped for.

For non-scientists, the danger is that they will selectively represent those findings that suit. This, in turn, can result in a breakdown of trust with those who generated the results and a lack of willingness to work together. We need joint ground rules and codes of behaviour that are strictly met if trust it is to be maintained.

“I strongly agree that the time is right for a new chapter of collaboration between the research and scientific community and the sustainable agriculture advocacy practitioners,” says Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust and the conference organiser. “These individuals and organisations, including myself, have been in part responsible for creating an impression that our advocacy is based on ideology and that we are resistant to making evidence-based decisions, which is certainly not the case today.

“Regarding the conference itself, the programme was deliberately short on science and research-based sessions because that was not the main focus of this event. However, I could think of nothing more appropriate than the establishment of a small strategy group comprising representatives from research and sustainable agriculture leaders who could co-evolve a new programme of events and initiatives that bring together our two communities.”

Holden offered those thoughts after the conference had ended when I thanked him sincerely for the invitation and also raised a few reservations and the proposal to collaborate better. I welcome his response very much. 

True innovation, or that “call to revolution”, requires disruptive thinking. And you cannot do that without an open mind. To meet the challenges of producing food sustainably, we will need innovations and we will need to think disruptively about current ways of producing food.

To go back to Charles’ words – the clues are in the inherent genius of nature. We would do well to open our minds to those who try to find sustainable answers through these routes. Together we might open doors to new discoveries.