February 7, 2002




There will be empty jam jars when children in the south of England go looking for frogs' spawn this Spring. Britain's frogs -- those in the vicinity of London  are in a bad way, with the spread of a virus which causes their toes and legs to fall off. They seem to have caught it from goldfish imported from the United States, where goldfish farmers are in the habit of blasting bullfrogs with shotguns; the goldfish then pick up or carry the virus present in the bullfrogs.


It was striking the newspapers carried this story on the day that Sir Donald Curry's report into the Future of Farming was published. Some of rural England's woes are home-grown. While scientists are even less certain about the origins of BSE, or 'mad cow disease', than they are about the 'ranavirus' killing frogs, there is, alas, no doubt that it is a British disease. But others have been brought in from overseas. In 1999, the swine fever that devastated pig farms in East Anglia may have arrived in the form of a salami sandwich, discarded in a field and gobbled up by a hungry porker. It is still not certain where last year's #4bn epidemic of foot and mouth disease originated, but it must have been somewhere outside the European Union. No wonder that high on the list of Sir Donald's recommendations is the promotion of locally produced food.


Localisation, as opposed to globalisation, is likely to become something of a mantra for the food industry. It is a motherhood and apple issue. Whatever the realities of food distribution, no one, not even the big supermarkets, can say they oppose it. Sainsbury's are typical in having chosen Jamie Oliver to front their advertisements: the Naked Chef, famous for his 'luvverly-jubberly' chats with neighbourhood butchers and greengrocers, gives the cosy illusion that the superstore is really a corner shop. Farmers markets, the first of which was started in Bath in 1997, have proliferated at an astonishing rate: there are now over 300. Demand for organic produce far outstrips the 3% of British agriculture that supplies it. Once, farmhouse ice-cream, home-cured bacon and British goat's cheese would have been rarities; now the Internet is awash with them. Rare breeds are being taken off the endangered list. Supporters of local food hope there may be a parallel with the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). When CAMRA started in the 1970s, traditionally brewed British beer seemed on the point of extinction, as the gaseous, industrially produced alternative usurped its place at the beer handles. Twenty years on, a modern Inspector Morse would be able to fortify his crime-solving powers at any number of micro breweries. The only threat to real ale comes from the perversity of young drinkers, who prefer lager.


Until Sir Donald's report, local food was most vociferously championed by discriminating eaters, in quest of 'authenticity' on the plate. Cooks like Clarissa Dixon Wright and restaurateurs like Antonio Carluccio celebrated the gourmet qualities of wild mushrooms and game. Their voices have been joined by a broadly green lobby with more far-reaching concerns. A public whose confidence in food has been battered by successive crises --salmonella in eggs, pesticides in carrots, BSE in beef, genetic modification in cereals - have understandably erected health into a totem. While costly government action generally follows each media outcry, Parliament does not always have the foresight to limit risk in advance. The Suffolk farmer Lady Cranbrook, a spokeswoman for the Country Landowners Association, is hardly everyone's idea of a raging Genoa-style environmentalist. But she believes that Britain is lucky to have escaped having suffered only the catastrophe of foot and mouth. Foot and mouth is not a disease which generally attacks people. Imagine what could happen if the next epidemic is of a 'zoonosis', or disease that crosses the species barrier from animals into humans. Zoonoses, which include Aids, Ebola and Lassa fever, are extremely unpleasant and often fatal. While current science supposes variant Creutzfeld Jacob Disease to be a zoonosis, created in the UK, Europe is generally not a breeding ground for these killer plagues. Given that British demand for meat could be supplied wholly by home production, is it sensible to go on importing beef and chicken from regions of the world that are? At present, despite the traumas of last year, Britain continues to import beef from Argentina, Botswana and Namibia  countries where foot and mouth is prevalent, though in areas other than those from which the imports are supposed to originate. Customs and Excise appear reconciled to having lost the battle against illegally imported antelope, monkey, tortoise legs and other exotic flesh from Equatorial Africa, however much it oozes blood and maggots.


Whatever threat is posed by the feeding of antibiotics to animals, hormones to dairy cows and GM products to people lies in the eye of the beholder. Suffice it to say that the regulatory regimes of countries from which Britain imports (notably the United States) can be different from that at home. Consumers may well feel that the standards of supervision in Thailand and Brazil  major exporters of chickenmeat to the UK's catering trade  are likely to fall short of that enforced by Britain's environmental health watchdogs. To Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at Thames Valley University, government should remember the costs picked up elsewhere in society when a cheap food policy  driven by imports  is pursued. The bill at the supermarket check-out does not show the amount that may be spent by the National Health service in rectifying the consequences of food poisoning or unhealthy diet.


If Lang is right, this is just one of many 'externalities' in the global food economy. Another is the hidden cost of transport. Lang cites a German study of strawberry yoghurt which found that a truckload of 150 gram yoghurts would travel 1,005 kilometres. 'The strawberries came from Poland, yoghurt from north Germany, corn and wheat flour from the Netherlands, jam from West Germany and sugar beet from East Germany. The aluminium for use on the cover came 300 km. Only the milk and glass jar were local to Stuttgart, where theoretically the yoghurt "came from".' Between 1978 and 1999, the distance travelled by food in Britain, before being sold to the end consumer, rose by 50%. Our reliance on road transport to replenish supermarkets was vividly demonstrated in September 2000, when a blockade of fuel depots by disgruntled hauliers and farmers protesting against the high cost of fuel caused an unexpectedly rapid emptying of supermarket shelves. Typical ingredients in a family meal may have travelled thousands of miles before reaching the plate. Calabrese is flown in from Guatemala, runner beans from Zambia, even turnips and onions come from New Zealand. Environmentalists deplore the energy this trade expends. According to the environmental pressure group Sustain: 'For every calorie of carrot, flown in from South Africa, we use 66 calories of fuel.' Ironically, organic produce can, in this respect, be just as environmentally damaging as the conventional equivalent, given that as much as 70% of the organic market is imported.


Needless to say, the carbon dioxide emissions associated with so many 'food miles' contribute to the accumulation of gases that is supposed to be causing global climate change. In turn, climate change is likely to affect the world's capacity to produce food. Scientists cannot predict exactly what will happen, but it is possible that some of the bread baskets of the world will become less productive, while low-lying coastal areas could flood. While Britain, along with the rest of the EU, has taken a leading role in the negotiations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions around the world, the government appears not to have made the connection with farmland. If Government-approved scenarios about climate change are correct, farmland could become once again the vital strategic resource that it was during the Second World War. The relaxation of planning policies, the abandonment of fields to scrub and the decay of British agriculture could be rued. Meanwhile, a policy that effectively exports much of the agricultural production which could take place at home to developing countries is depriving those countries of the farmland needed to feed their own people. According to Lang, Brazil has one of the worst child malnutrition rates in the world, but devotes millions of acres to growing soya for use in European animal feed. A German study has shown that 80% of Brazil's oranges go into the making of orange juice that is drunk in Europe. If German rates of drinking orange juice became standard around the world, 32 million acres would be needed for growing oranges.


Last month, the Curry report recommended that the government should encourage local food as a means of reviving Britain's agriculture, after food and mouth. The Policy Commission hopes that Britain will emulate France, where shoppers may be given precise details of the provenance of their fare. The concept of localisation is not without problems. As the economist David Fleming points out, it is very difficult to define what is meant by local. (What food could be regarded as local to London, or New York?) Furthermore, as Curry acknowledges, local food is a frail vessel which will have to be rowed hard if it is to make headway against contrary world trends. Trade liberalisation continues. The World Trade Organisation, driven by the US, wants food to be treated as a commodity like any other. It has little truck with governments who fear health risks (it does not accept the precautionary principle), and none at all with those who raise environmental objections. The Common Agricultural Policy must be reformed before the EU can embrace countries like Poland, where the average farm size is 10 hectares and 18% of the population work on the land. Reform will leave British, French and German farmers further exposed to world prices. Above all, the multiple retailers which control the food system in Britain are not likely to change their ways without pressure. More than four-fifths of British food is bought in supermarkets. Chief executives like Sir Peter Davis of Sainsbury's, who sat on the Policy Commission, may like the idea of locally produced food, but supermarket buyers, incentivised to reduce costs, will only take it if they can do so at the price of the industrially produced equivalent. Like civil servants, buyers are moved on every couple of years, from meat to cheese, from cheese to dried goods; this prevents them developing the expertise in any area which would allow them to source from specialist or local producers. They use the threat of importing vegetables from Zimbabwe to drive down the price of those grown on the Fens.


Conditions in Britain are well suited to growing apples  tasty ones  and the country could perfectly well be self-sufficient in them. But most of our apple orchards have been grubbed up. As a result, British apples are marketed as a speciality product in supermarkets, where many of the fruit on offer will have arrived by plane or tanker from the other side of the world. By value, only about a quarter of the apples eaten in Britain are grown here. On present trends, it is difficult to imagine that other sectors of agriculture will not follow the apple orchards into decline. The one straw of hope which concerned shoppers can grasp is their own purchasing power. Rightly or wrongly, consumer opinion turned so violently against genetically modified crops that the big retailers were forced to declare themselves GM-free zones. If the vogue for farm shops and farmers markets catches on, consumers could force supermarkets to source more food regionally, with proper labelling and promotion. If not, it may be good-bye to the British farmer, much as Southern England is saying good-bye to the frog.


Clive Aslet is editor of Country Life.