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Why do good ideas and intentions morph into accountancy and policing?

A cri de coeur for craftmanship

· Inspiration

No agriculture, no food, fibres, feed and fuel. Agriculture is the last thing we would want to lose. But everyone is aware of aspects of farming that threaten, harm or ruin the world, at a small or large scale. Water shortage, pollution, declining ecosystems, soil degradation, animal welfare or working poor farmers, baring (financial) risks too big for them, ‘socially dying’ rural areas, just to name a few.


And then, behind a desk, with the best intentions, you can write down the criteria and smart solutions to prevent this type of disastrous things to happen: Use less water, know your market, test your soil. Agricultural scientists and economists may review and finetune these ideas so that the Good Agricultural Practices hit many targets in one go. Some model-farmers can test and adjust the language to make it is easily and properly understood. You may convince the relevant stakeholders and decisionmakers that this is the right thing to do.


If you happen to be in an influential position, you may develop these ideas into ‘A Standard’ or a protocol or a checklist. All good, if that would simply lead to cleaner water, happier animals, better incomes and more biodiversity. Or, more modestly, to happy farmers encouraged and inspired to work on these issues, and save money, nature and become more resilient.

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Giant Happy Farmers in Arras (France).

But then someone asks, ‘Is this farmer really more sustainable than that one? What is good? What is good enough?’ To answer that question you need to measure and compare 'objectively' and have annual, independent checks. And then the army of auditors walk in, the paperwork increases and 'good agricultural practice' becomes 'good administration'. The passionate farmer who -already for 20 years- evaluates his soil by looking, feeling, tasting, smelling and the drainage capacity of his field and adding his own compost, doesn’t send some soil to a lab to get a number. But his 'fingerspitzengefuel' scores negatively at the audit, and -perhaps worse- he doesn’t feel recognised for his dedication. Where did responsibility, pride, craftmanship, creativity, joy, experience and trust go? How are these rated and encouraged?

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One of my winegrowers with an old vineyard told me that the French wine authorities would come and check his performance, like they do every 6 years. He told me that they were going to tell him that he must plant his grapevines 1-2 meters apart and not 3 meters like it was done 36 years ago in his case. He was prepared to go to court for this nonsense, because I didn’t want to tear down his beloved grapevines (that can produce another 20-30 years) for no reason.


I don’t blame anyone (or it should be me 😉), but where does it go wrong? I don’t think we disagree about the relevance of the issues (I don’t mean the spacing of the grapevines). Most people who work in this space have good intentions, most farmers I talked with do care. But why do good things end up in paper work, that very few people like, help or improve?

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On my bike, I do not always stop at a red traffic light… does that make me an irresponsible biker? I don’t think so with my 50 years of experience. But if someone decided to audit my bike-behaviour or a French gendarme had seen me, I had failed or was fined. Would more auditing or policing make me a better bike rider? No. Are there irresponsible bike riders? Sure.

Can’t we think of systems that serve people, encourages the good and eradicates most of the bad practice? Or is paper work and (total) digital surveillance soon everyone’s inevitable destiny? And if it is inevitable indeed, let's make sure that the farmer gets benefits for the data (s)he provides. Like the deal when you sign up to Google or Facebook, perhaps. How can it help him/her to take responsibility and action?