‘Britain no longer needs farmers’ — time to nationalise the land?

The end of [British] farming?” asked a feature in The Guardian at the end of February. A few days later it was leaked to the media that an aide to Boris Johnson’s conservative government had suggested that Britain no longer needs farmers and should import all of its food, since farming is worth only 0.62% of the country’s annual gross value added (still £9.9 billion, mind). This presumably came as quite a shock to Conservative-voting farmers.

Just 1.5% (476,000) of the British workforce are farmers now, falling in a secular trend from 22% since 1850 (and even then Britain had the smallest proportion of its population engaged in farming of any country in the world).

According to The Guardian feature, post-Brexit government rewilding reforms aimed at reviving some of the land degraded by capitalist farming techniques — the use of cheap, poisonous chemical pesticides, for example, a result of the need to maximise profits — are expected to see many of the remaining small farmers go bust and/or swallowed up by the larger farms.

(As for shooting, says the feature, it’s “never been very profitable. In recent decades, the sporting estates have become still less viable. As one veteran gamekeeper [said], very few of them actually make money.”)

The improving productivity of land leads to both lower food prices and, unlike non-agricultural land, lower groundrent.[1] The low profitability of British farming, combined with a necessarily monopolistic system that concentrates profit generated by small farmers into the hands of big business, is causing a food supply crisis. In 2014 the National Farmers Union said that Britain’s food self-sufficiency had fallen from 78% to 60% over the previous 30 years. In 2019 it said that on 11 August, the country would notionally have run out of food if the public had only eaten British food from 1 January.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University, says that figure now stands at 53%: “We have a massively fragile just-in-time supply chain; a depleted agriculture sector which produces only around 50% of the food we eat; and production methods which are damaging to the environment and human health.”

English farms are increasingly dependent on public subsidies, indicating a trend towards nationalisation. In 2016, subsidies made up around 57% of the total profit on average.

All this appears to back up the theory that British capitalism — where 80% of the workforce now works in services — is closing in on its final crisis, since automation is abolishing the source of value, the exploitation of commodity-producing human labour.

(Indeed, in May 2019, the world’s first raspberry-picking robot went on trial in Britain, where farms have faced increasing labour shortages since the Brexit vote. Each robot will be able to pick more than 25,000 raspberries a day, 10,000 more than a human worker. Fieldwork Robotics, a spinout from the University of Plymouth, intends to lease them to farmers for less than the £1 to £2 per kilogram of raspberries paid to workers.)

Britain’s food self-sufficency has fallen because capitalism becomes increasingly parasitic as it ages. Because capital only preserves its value if it expands, it has to expand and cheapen the exploitable labour base; and this is done mainly by exporting capital/investing overseas — much of the surplus value extracted from labour and contained in a commodity goes towards the GDP of where a commodity is sold rather than where it is made. This is why of the six million hectares of cultivatable land in Britain, only 168,000 hectares are used for fruit and vegetables.

As the oldest, most deindustrialised and decayed capitalist power — Britain has long had one of the world’s lowest rates of profit, maybe even the lowest—arguably it would be logical if Britain were to become the next capitalist country to become socialist.

Is this really possible in conservative, imperialist Britain? History has a way of forcing change and conflict to unfold. The next recession is going to be much worse than the last one, meaning two things: the number of capitalists will be reduced; and the number of assetless and poor workers will increase.

It is therefore worth thinking ahead: if a radical left-wing or even revolutionary communist party came to power, how should it go about tackling the land question?

While the instinct of the revolutionary communist to immediately nationalise the land is the right one, whether that can be done in practice depends on the balance of class forces. If most of the owners of land go completely bust, then it would be possible. But if not, and the number of dedicated militant activists, soldiers and police available are not sufficient to assure certain victory — bearing in mind that they will have many other tasks to deal with at the same time — then other strategies may have to be pursued. (We may well also need the least hostile farmers and their expertise to work for or with the state.) This could start by taking tracts of abandoned land under public ownership, rather than all of it.

Nationalisation vs land tax

In his essay, “Venezuela and Socialist Economic Policy”, Paul Cockshott outlines how the question could be intelligently handled.

“In the immediate situation in Venezuela, the nationalisation of land may not initially be politically opportune, since it could drive the small farmers into a [powerful] political alliance with large landowners.”

(Indeed, the SPD’s failure to offer subsidies or land reform to peasants in Weimar Germany saw the peasants join forces in a pro-Nazi alliance with the large land owners. In contrast, Lenin convinced the Bolshevik party to give land to the poor peasants rather than nationalise it. Without this, the alliance between the poor peasants and the working class and thus the revolution itself would not have been possible.)

Cockshott continues: “An alternative, which over the long-term would produce a similar effect, would be to introduce a land tax on the rental value of land.

“The threshold for the tax could be set high enough to ensure the small farmers paid nothing. Well, only a token amount. But for larger, more fertile estates, it could be set at a level that would confiscate the greater part of rent revenue.

“The effect on the land owners would be similar to that which would be achieved by nationalisation depriving them of their unearned income and making it available for communal uses, but it is ideologically harder for them to mount a campaign to justify tax evasion than it is to mount one to justify resistance to expropriation.”

Nationalise supermarkets

What does have to be nationalised is Britain’s large supermarkets. Lang says at the heart of the problem is the fact that only eight companies control 90% of Britain’s food supply, concentrating the bulk of profit produced elsewhere into the hands of near-monopolies.

Lang says: “The prioritisation of price has hollowed out UK agriculture, so that primary producers get the smallest slice of the cake. They get about 5% or 6% of the value of the food we buy. They need double that. And that 50% self-sufficiency should be nearer 80%. Not out of nationalism, but so we are in a position to contribute globally. We have a default position of assuming someone else will feed us.

“The government is now so reliant on the retailers, they are setting them up to fail. At the height of the arguments over a no-deal Brexit, the heads of the big food companies were briefing the government about just how fragile the food supply chain is.”

The sight of empty shelves during the cornonavirus panic has also exposed the danger of a just-in-time supply system that, very sensitive to disruption, is motivated by the profit motive. ‘Panic buying’ was not really the problem.

As Greg Callus pointed out on twitter: “Supermarkets in the UK took £193.4bn in revenue in 2019, which is £3.7bn/week. [Only] £1bn extra has been added over 3 weeks: approx 10% rise per week for 3 weeks.

“Supermarkets are masterful: cheap goods at low margin in huge bulk, with highly sophisticated FMCG just-in-time supply chains. If you operate a Tesco Metro in Central London, you don’t:
(a) carry excess stock (just exactly right amount based on models): wasted working capital
(b) rent very expensive premises with larger stock rooms than you need when stock-minimisation & just-in-time replenishment is part of the financial model that makes it profitable at all. That entire model for all supermarkets is based on predicable and modelled seasonal demand.”

Other solutions

The emergence of ‘cellular agriculture’, ie lab-grown food, should also smooth over the task of resocialising the land and therefore potentially keep social conflict to a minimum. Some cultured meats and fishes are already coming to market, and as prices continue to fall so the demand for traditional farmed meat will fall. Estimated to be around 10 times cheaper than animal protein by 2035, the result is expected to be the near-complete collapse of the livestock industry. The state should scale up the research and development of this technology to the maximum in order to bring prices down sooner, especially since it is expected to be much less energy-intensive than agriculture, thereby saving vast amounts of water and carbon emissions.

A 2011 report conducted by the universities of Amsterdam and Oxford concluded that cultured meat could potentially require 45% less energy, 99% less land and 96% less water than conventional meat, leading to 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. If the US switched to synthetic beef, the likely reduction in emissions would be equivalent to taking 23 million cars off the country’s roads, with the substitution of a single synthetic meat burger for the ‘real thing’ saving the equivalent to over 50 showers.

And what should Britain do with its resocialised land? That should be decided democratically of course, but hydroponics and permaculture and hemp farming — the latter so that we can make things out of a carbon-negative, durable, biodegrable material rather than fossil fuel or extracted metals — surely have very important roles to play in reviving the environment, restoring nutritional density to our vegetiation, and improving our self-sufficiency.

This of course means Britain still needs farmers, but of a new kind — the collective farmer.


[1] “The productive forces of the land are not fully utilised under capitalism. The development of industry and agriculture necessarily proceed unevenly. The backwardness of agriculture is conditioned by the fact that: 1. capital can only be used in the latter if it is capable of paying a rent above the customary wage and average profit. ‘[Quoting Marx] Landed property is the barrier that does not permit any new capital investment in formerly uncultivated or unleased land without levying a toll, i.e. demanding a rent.’ 2. furthermore, large landowners have no incentive to develop the productive forces fully, even where capital has been admitted. Absolute ground rent is the excess of the value of the agricultural product over the average rate of profit. Every progress in industry reduces the price of production and hence increases the rate of ground rent, allowing landowners to ‘put away in their own private purses the result of a social development achieved without their participation’. In agriculture, however, every development of the productive forces, by bringing down the value of agricultural products, works in the opposite direction. This means that the ground rent declines. These capitalist determinants of profitability evidently form ‘one of the greatest obstacles to a rational agriculture’ — but this has nothing to do with diminishing returns of the soil. Petty already told us (1699) ‘that the landlords of his time feared improvements in agriculture because they would cause the price of agricultural products and hinc (the level of) rent to fall’.

“Only at a relatively advanced stage of capitalist development does industry begin to penetrate agriculture with its products (machines, synthetic fertiliser, etc.). On the other hand, agriculture goes on to construct its own agricultural factories, such as sugar refineries, mills, canneries, etc. It seeks the support of the banks, which now control agriculture as well as industry. The contradictions between the two branches of production disappear more and more. The commercialisation of agriculture grows and it is only in this phase, which is just beginning to take hold in Germany for example, that agriculture is forced to reduce costs more and more through mechanisation and rationalisation of production in order not to succumb to the competitive pressure of the world market. Only now ‘productivity advances in both, although at an uneven pace. But when industry reaches a certain level the disproportion must diminish, in other words, productivity in agriculture must increase relatively more rapidly than in industry’.”

— Henryk Grossman, A New Theory of Imperialism and the Social Revolution (p125 in Henryk Grossman Works 1, Rick Kuhn).

➤ Agriculture in the United Kingdom uses 69% of the country’s land area.

➤ The UK produces less than 60% of the food it eats. Self-sufficiency has fallen from 78% over the past 30-odd years. This is a result of Britain’s imperialist character: the older and more decayed capitalism becomes the more reliant it gets on exploiting workers overseas, since the value added by workers goes to the GDP of the country in which it is sold rather than where it is made. Britain exported capital equal to 560% of its GDP in 2015.

➤ Ground rent goes up according to land value, which rises as interest rates fall, as land becomes a form of banking for ever-rising surplus capital that can’t be reinvested in profitable production. This has necessited the privatisation of social housing and the buying up of housing in general (even if it is left empty, to be sold on later at a higher price). The result has been the large expansion of private rented accomodation and soaring rents.

➤ In 1979, 42% of the population in Britain lived in publicly-funded housing; today the figure is less than 8%. Resocialising the land is therefore also key to ending the housing crisis. After WW2 large tracts of land were nationalised in order to build social housing, but half of the land in England is now owned by less than 1% of the population. Only 8.5% of the land in England falls under the custodianship of the public sector and in fact all the land ultimately belongs to the Crown.

Ted Reese is a Marxist economist and author of Socialism or Extinction (self-published) and The End of Capitalism: The Thought of Henryk Grossman (Zer0 Books)