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It's not too late to halt the onslaught on our farmers
By Zac Goldsmith
(Filed: 04/11/2002)

There's a common myth that farmers and environmentalists have little, if anything, in common. That's not borne out by the modest but steady number of letters we receive from farmers at the Ecologist magazine.

During and after the foot and mouth outbreak, that number increased significantly, with many farmers giving harrowing and disturbing accounts of official incompetence and alleged intimidation and, in some cases, expressing the belief that, if not deliberately introduced, foot and mouth was being used as a convenient way to drive thousands of farmers off the land.

It was a salutary experience to see a normally law-abiding sector of society, not naturally inclined to conspiracy theories, become so suspicious and wary of the authorities and government.

Providing an outlet for those suspicions was a key factor in my support of the High Court challenge to the Government over its failure to hold a full public inquiry into the foot and mouth disaster. The case was lost but its merits were proved by the independent public inquiries held by the worst-affected counties.

What is clear is that the Government got it seriously wrong. It chose a policy of containment to counter a disease sweeping through an agricultural system that could not be more open - thanks to successive government policies.

The result was the bloodbath we all witnessed, and the end of the road for countless small producers. Many committed suicide, including two that I had corresponded with during the crisis.

It can't be said that there were any "good" outcomes from foot and mouth, but something that has changed is that many farmers are now questioning the political establishment and industry bodies that have, it is claimed, had their best interests at heart. Fifty years of agricultural policy have seen more than 200,000 farmers go out of business - that's 11 farmers giving up every day over that entire period, and still counting.

Challenging the Government in the courts was an immediate, short-term reaction, but something longer-term and more substantial was urgently needed. That's why, over the past year and a half, a group of working farmers and campaigners, including me, have been meeting to discuss what we could do to ensure a real long-term future for farming and food production in Britain.

The result, launched today, is Farm, a new campaigning and membership organisation for farmers and all those concerned about where their food comes from and how and by whom it is produced.

To mark our launch, we'll be handing in a letter to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett, demanding that the Government set out a long-term vision for farming and food production. I'm not expecting a convincing reply.

I suspect that, if and when a reply comes, it will be in the form of her department's "sustainable farming and food strategy", due out any time now and produced partly in response to the report of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming - one of the three commissions (not public inquiries) that the Government did set up after foot and mouth.

Mrs Beckett's strategy may include a number of the commission's recommendations, some of which were admirable, not least a welcome nod to local food.

But even if all the positive recommendations made by the commission are taken forward by Government, they will not halt the rural crisis. For one thing, the commission was nobbled before it started when the Government demanded that its recommendations be "consistent with the Government's aims for CAP reform, enlargement of the EU and increased trade liberalisation".

In other words, the experts could look at the symptoms of farm decline, but not the causes.

A number of those sitting on the policy commission knew only too well that their terms of reference prevented them from tackling the real causes of the farm crisis, not least because the organisations they represent have produced numerous pamphlets explaining that increased trade liberalisation in food is thrusting British farmers into a competition they can only lose.

But, like the Government, they chose to sit on their hands, perhaps because they were flattered at being finally asked their opinion on farm policy or, like the Government, they hadn't the vision or the guts to challenge what they mistakenly see as inevitable.

There's nothing inevitable about rural decline. We get in this country what we pay for. And we're paying vast amounts to be part of a global food system dominated by agribusiness conglomerates that have grown out of all proportion. Locally, regionally, nationally and globally, it's impossible to exaggerate how powerful they've become.

Internationally, just two grain traders control 80 per cent of the world's grain trade and four companies control 75 per cent of global pesticide sales. Our own domestic food retail is dominated by the "Big Five" supermarkets, perhaps soon to become the "Big Four", if rumours of the imminent takeover of Safeway prove true. These five retailers control 70 per cent of all grocery sales in Britain; Tesco alone accounts for 24 per cent.

Such concentration and consolidation, right through from "plough to plate", should make it plain that there isn't a fair or free market for farmers or consumers. Yet our farmers are constantly berated by the likes of Lord Haskins, the Government's ironically titled "rural recovery tsar", for not being sufficiently "market oriented" or "internationally competitive".

The food economy is not a free market. Natural market pressures are not what are bankrupting Britain's farmers. We are subsidising their collapse. It's been calculated, for instance, that the taxpayer pays 2.4 billion each year to cover the indirect costs of intensive farming - such as cleaning pesticides out of drinking water - not to mention the direct subsidies, 80 per cent of which go to just 20 per cent of Britain's farmers.

Moreover, who do you think pays for the infrastructure, without which it would be impossible to shuttle basic foods around the world? We do. The European Union has already embarked on a 400 billion-euro transport plan to expand Europe's transport infrastructure for that purpose.

And what value would you ascribe to the tremendous political access that agribusiness enjoys? What's it worth to Tesco to have members on virtually every government task force? What are the endless regulations worth to the big producers that stifle small producers?

So Lord Haskins's talk of "cheap" food is Orwellian double-speak. We merely pay twice for it; over the counter, and through our taxes.

The choice before the public couldn't be clearer: go with the trends towards agribusiness, and allow Britain, as a policy goal, to become dependent for its most basic survival on volatile commodity markets; or choose to support agriculture, based on diverse farms and farm types, that feeds the nation, sustains local communities, enriches our countryside and its wildlife, and offers opportunities for fresh blood to enter farming.

That's the farming that Farm will fight for, tooth and nail.

  • Zac Goldsmith is the editor of the Ecologist. Farm can be contacted via www.farm.org.uk