Helping farmers put real health on our plates

“Public money for public goods” isn’t healthy and neither are market comparisons – you have to take the whole

"Public money for public goods” isn’t healthy and neither are market comparisons - you have to take the whole

The Importance of the Concerned Citizen & Reciprocal Obligation

If you are a farmer you will know that “public money for public goods” is the in-vogue catchphrase that’s currently masquerading as agricultural policy. Few farmers though, have yet woken up to the fact that they farmers are not needed to maintain dry stone walls, or hedgerows, or trees, or rights of way or rewilding large tracts of land. These can all be delivered by non-farming contractors on a transactional basis, i.e., they can come in, be paid to do the work and leave. It’s just an extension of the dread hand of the valueless market. More about this later.

Farmers and non-farmers will probably know without thinking about it, that Calvin Klein has little or nothing to do with health. I’ll bet you also intuitively know that neither he nor any of his representatives are likely to turn out as voluntary fire fighters if your house catches fire. But do you know why? 

If you want a short read and a quick answer, then skip to the end now. Or feel free to read the end bit and then come back here and see how the snakes and ladders of consumerism and citizenship do relate to with farming, food and health – and Calvin Klein.

Hopefully, if you are reading this, it’s because you have become aware that Whole Health Agriculture has set out its stall out to “make health infectious”; to encourage and support farmers to “farm for health”; and to research, develop and implement practically the concept that “health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible”.

But having put up the stall, how do we sell our wares? Are we even selling or are we giving them away? Who to? We know we want to speak to farmers, health professionals and people who are neither of those professions. Yet who or what is this latter group? 

At first, we tended to call them “consumers”, we then began to use the term “citizens” and now we favour “concerned citizens”.

Because of the way our society is organised, individuals are addressed as consumers far more often than as citizens and we need to be clear sighted about what this means and its implications.

Consumers or Citizens and “Community Empowerment”

I have always taken the view that our planet of finite and diminishing resources cannot afford consumers and we will not survive without citizens who understand the ecological limits of farming and food production.  

However, Ali Bate (a colleague with a consumer and business marketing background), pointed out to me that things are no longer so black and white. There are now a significant number of “concerned consumers” who are willing to use their buying power towards ethical and environmental choices. This is clearly a market force to be reckoned with.

According to Ali:

“there is certainly an increasing shift in the classic business model towards a shared value of solving social problems that intersect with individual business goals. There is also a shift from people simply being ‘consumers’ to being global ‘concerned consumers’ and possibly ‘citizens’ as they change their purchasing patterns and put their £’s behind more ethical foods and socially conscious brands and businesses.”

Ali provided me with a table (below) from an article headed “Consumer or Citizen?” which explores approaches to “community empowerment” and compares the ‘consumerist’ or ‘user and chooser’ approach with the ‘citizens’ or ‘maker and shaper’ approach to empowering people.

Consumerist Approach

“User and Chooser”

‘Compliance’ culture

Performance, measurement, services


Citizen Approach

“Maker and Shaper”

‘Innovation’ culture

Experiences, choices, demands


Of course, things are not so clear cut.

Bound, packaged and rigged – the limits of ethical consumers and markets

First of all, we are all consumers – even when we aspire to be citizens – and if we think for a moment of our own behaviour and aspirations as individual consumers, we can see that there can be significant contradictions. For example, we may want fresh food but we also want convenience; we may want healthy and whole foods but most of us sometimes welcome a touch of champagne and canapés; we may support our local economies but hold on to aspirations and tastes that make us global shoppers. 

In essence, all of the initiatives of “ethical consumerism” such as fair trade, organic, free-from, pasture-fed, meat free etc. etc. are trying to persuade us to be “active” rather than “passive” consumers. Which is good but it is limited because it keeps us in the consumer box and packaging. Moreover, whether these initiatives help convert us into “active” citizens is debatable.  

Secondly, as consumers – even ethical ones – we act in markets which are rigged in favour of a status quo where all the rules, codes, economic and structural imperatives are embedded in and built upon an entire history of unsustainable behavior and activity. Changing that requires the establishment of boundaries and restraint and therefore, trade-offs within those boundaries. 

But – and this is critical – the establishment of boundaries and trade-offs are essentially value driven. They are dependent on a view of the world. 

If you believe in robust economic growth and think it is essential, you will draw the boundaries and trade-offs in a different place and in a different way from someone who believes that economic growth is destructive and inequitable. 

Similarly, if you believe that nature and natural resources can be measured and given a monetary value, your view of boundaries and trade-offs will be different from someone who believes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and some things are so valuable, they are beyond price – they are literally priceless.

This is obvious but has been largely ignored or denied.

In recent years we have been introduced to the “triple bottom line”, “true cost accounting”, “the circular economy” and now we have the mantra of “public money for public goods” which is somehow going to change farming and food. All of which ignores the wholistic nature of true sustainability and hides or denies the fundamental conflict between how our society functions and the world we live in and live on. 

Finding shared values

Worse, is that these approaches are based on the notion of consensus – or rather, the promotion of false consensus.  

The idea that there can be consensual agreement between global corporate interests answerable to no-one and small scale, locally based business and ordinary people by giving a price – a monetary value – to finite and diminishing resources is, frankly laughable; except it’s not funny.

There are little or no shared values – especially over equity – in that so-called consensus. 

The need to find really shared values and true consensus gets us back to WHAg’s world view that “health – whether of soil, plant, animal and man – is one and indivisible” That is to say, the health and wellbeing of all living organisms is bound inextricably together within a diverse but unified set of structures, relationships, dynamics, communication and life cycles.

Recognising that truth is the only viable route to shared values and real consensus.

The question is, can we make our world view a widely shared one? Where does it fit on the consumer/citizen spectrum and how does it fit in a world run by trade and markets? Could we help create a business model which isn’t just about supply and demand, profit and loss, buyer and seller, price and competition, but a commercial relationship based on rights and responsibilities?

Rights and responsibilities held in common

Reciprocal obligation is an idea that my late friend and colleague, David Fleming, and I worked on in the past in the context of a “post-climatic, lean economy” – which sounds complicated gobbledygook but it’s actually quite simple.

I have put this forward a few times in my past life in the organic movement, as a proposal for the basis of appropriate trade. In short – relationships between communities (or countries) should be built on the basis of rights and responsibilities on all sides (this is reciprocal obligation). 

It could also be the basis of the relationship between farmers and citizens; i.e., if citizens accept that farmers have rights and responsibilities, then farmers also have to accept that citizens have them too.

This goes beyond mere monetary transactions in a producer/consumer relationship. It also goes beyond the idea of “ethical” shopping and pricing based on a monetary notion of “true costs of food” which are merely extensions of the producer/consumer paradigm. 


It goes beyond a “passive” view of citizenship in which I, as a citizen taxpayer, pay the farmer for the provision of public goods but do nothing else. It That view limits recognition and relationships to simple transactions and ignores the whole interface of health of food, man, animals, ecosystems, environment and culture. which cannot function in a commodity market.

Similarly, whole health – as opposed to reductionist, quasi-health management – cannot be delivered in an essentially transactional relationship even if one party to the buying and selling is nominally a citizen in the role of taxpayer.

For whole health (and possibly stewardship, culture, other things) we need to see ourselves as citizens first and foremost (not farmers, shop keepers, accountants etc.) who have a function (e.g. farming, shopkeeping etc.) within a whole mutually dependent community or whole organism.

This requires the recognition of an element of fellowship within shared citizenship – I have rights, you have rights, I have responsibilities, you have responsibilities and these are to each other and our community/network/ which also has rights and responsibilities to us as individuals. In other words, reciprocal obligation.

The role of loyalty, fellowship, community and the living social organism

I may well have sown complication and confusion so, to get out of the ‘virtual’ hole, here is an extract from Garrison Keilor’s novel “Tales of Lake Wobegon” which David Fleming came up with to illustrate this point. For loyalty – think “reciprocal obligation”.


Getting more than you bargain for

When the Thanatopsis Club hit its centennial in 1982 and Mrs. Hallberg wrote to the White House and asked for an essay from the President on small-town life, she got one, two paragraphs that extolled Lake Wobegon as a model of free enterprise and individualism, which was displayed in the library under glass, although the truth is that Lake Wobegon survives to the extent that it does on a form of voluntary socialism with elements of Deism, fatalism and nepotism. Free enterprise runs on self-interest. This is socialism, and it runs on loyalty. You need a toaster, you buy it at Co-op Hardware even though you can get a deluxe model with all the toaster attachments for less money at K-Mart in St. Cloud. You buy it at Co-op because you know Otto. Glasses you will find at Clifford’s which also sells shoes and ties and some gloves. (It is trying to be the department store it used to be when it was The Mercantile, which it is still called by most people because the old sign is so clear on the brick facade, clearer than the “Clifford’s” in the window.) Though you might rather shop for glasses in a strange place where they’ll encourage your vanity, though Clifford’s selection of frames is clearly based on Scripture (“Take no thought for what you shall wear . . .”) and you might put a hideous piece of junk on your face and Clifford would say, “I think you’ll like those” as if you’re a person who looks like you don’t care what you look like—nevertheless you should think twice before you get the Calvin Klein glasses from Vanity Vision in St. Cloud Mall. Calvin Klein isn’t going to come with the Rescue Squad and he isn’t going to teach your children about redemption by grace. You couldn’t find Calvin Klein to save your life.

If people were to live by comparison shopping, the town would go bust. It cannot compete with other places item by item. Nothing in town is quite as good as it appears to be somewhere else. If you live there, you have to take it as a whole. That’s loyalty.

Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days, 1985. 

Taking it as a whole

The point about comparison shopping is very apt for farmers in the UK. Without taxpayers being willing to act as citizens and not just consumers then many UK farmers will go bust. Even “ethical consumers” paying premiums is not enough.

Trying to rejig the market with “true costs” etc. is not enough – neither is “public money for public goods”. Someone has to provide a price for goods and for costs and that depends on values – and if you value as a consumer or if you value as a citizen. There is no market comparison or algorithm which can do that.

And the things that really matter – fundamental health management and wellbeing – requires a recognition of something beyond narrow markets and beyond narrow citizenship. It requires a truly wholistic perspective that we are all part of the same living organism.

That perspective is WHAg’s and making it a reality is our business.

Lawrence Woodward (with thanks to Ali Bate for her valuable insights and input)

Lawrence Woodward OBE

About the author:  I’m the WHAg Chairman, the founder and director of the Organic Research Centre (ORC), and regularly advise & speak about the principles and methods of organic agriculture. 

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