The New Statesman Essay - Why it matters what we eat
Farmers should not cower before experts or authorities, argues Colin Tudge
Earlier this month, Mr Cotton of Swindon was fined £90,000 for feeding bits of pig to other pigs from what, on television, appeared the most evil of witch's brews; a seething porridge of God-knows-what. We habitues of Sainsbury's and Safeway should give thanks that the authorities, the powers that be, come down like so many bricks on such disgusting practice.
But it wasn't disgust that prompted Cotton's fine. It was the specific breach of the new laws that are designed to prevent the spread of BSE, and forbid the feeding of ungulate (hoofed animal) to ungulate. Cotton's defence rightly pointed out that his apparently cavalier approach to husbandry was more or less in line with the official policy of just a few years ago. BSE itself was officially acknowledged and admitted to be bad only after a great many cows had staggered to unseemly graves and several human deaths had shown that what some biologists suspected might be possible had become an undeniable fact.
The point is not to make Cotton a scapegoat. We should not be impressed by showcase trials. We should, rather, be very angry indeed: not specifically with Cotton, but with a system that has allowed profit to be the principal driver of British agriculture; justified this narrow greed with spurious and deceptive appeals to science and a crude form of social justice; systematically mocked anyone - organic farmers, environmentalists and moralists - who has argued that humanity, aesthetics and, indeed, humility and common sense must be crucial players in the design and strategy of agriculture; pulled the wool over all our eyes while suggesting that we, peremptorily dismissed as "the public", are hopelessly muddled sentimentalists who should be jolly grateful for the cognoscenti - scientists, accountants, politicians - without whose cool-headedness and foresight we would surely starve.
It isn't enough, in short, to put the odd recidivist in the stocks. We should demand a new approach - "we" meaning the British in particular and humanity in general. It is time to point out that agriculture cannot and must not be run solely for profit, albeit with the occasional concession to deprived communities and the odd beauty spot. If we want farming that truly serves our needs - and avoids cruelty to animals, as well as the obliteration of wildlife and the unhappiness of farmers - then aesthetics and morality must be built into the fabric. British farmers (through the National Farmers' Union) need at last to acknowledge that they have no future - they cannot compete with better climates and bigger fields and cheaper labour - unless they seize the moral high ground and take the aesthetic and humanitarian lead. Why should we "buy British" if the beasts are raised on concrete and fed on trash? The Union Jack alone should not carry the day.
It is hard to summarise all that is wrong with British farming - which means with modern, western farming in general. But a few points relating to livestock make much of the case. Animals, after all, have become the principal drivers - they are the end where the profit lies; they tip the ecological balance; they have become the centrepiece of modern cuisine; and they, rather than crops, raise issues of welfare.
Traditionally, farmers divided livestock effectively on ecological and nutritional grounds. Pigs and poultry are omnivores (meaning they eat everything and anything) and, in the past, were fed on household scraps. Cattle and sheep are ruminants, meaning they are bulk-feeding herbivores, and, in the west, they were and are fed on grass. The best land was used for horticulture (vegetables and fruit) and for arable farming - meaning the staple crops, notably potatoes and cereals, but also pulses (such as peas). Grass for ruminants was grown on land that was too steep, or high, or wet for ripening and harvesting corn - the hills and marshes. Sensible amounts of cereal were used to supplement the diets of livestock - notably, to help them through the winters. Mixed farms were typical (arable and livestock, often with some horticulture). The various kinds of crop and beast complemented each other. Such farming reached its pinnacle in Britain in the 1950s.
The traditional pattern made perfect ecological sense and, although there is always scope for cruelty, was humane: cattle like grass, after all. It was also aesthetically pleasing: the hens in the yard, the cows in their flowery meadows. But it had several economic drawbacks. It was, by modern standards, labour-intensive; and labour, as the accountants were quick to point out, is the most expensive input. Output depends on growth rate (or yield of milk and eggs); and livestock do not produce to their genetic maximum when left to do their own thing in yard and meadow.
Pigs and chickens grow quicker and eat more when they don't waste energy on movement - so put them in boxes. Everything grows quicker when given richer food - so give them more and more cereals and protein concentrates (including imported soya - and bits of other animals). Bullocks ("steers") used to take up to three years to turn into beef. Now they are typically pushed through in 18 months.
Most significant of all, however, as any trader will attest, is throughput. If people eat tatties and bread and bits of meat on the side, as was traditional, then there's an obvious upper limit to their intake. Rich people may eat more than poor, and fat more than thin, but still the physiological ceiling is all too close. Solution? Bump up consumption of livestock (meat, eggs, dairy). Given that it takes about ten pounds of cereal to produce one pound of meat, this effectively removes the ceiling both on consumption and on production. So long as people eat more and more meat, then farmers can produce as much grain as their fields can be persuaded to yield (in Britain, the "limiting factor" is sunshine). Meat consumption can be increased indefinitely by throwing most of the animal away. Traditional diets included tripe and trotters, but these are now exported or variously "processed", not least for pet food - and the BSE scare finally banished the oxtail. It's an ill wind.
So, from the Sixties onwards, we have eaten more and more livestock, which has long consumed most of our home-grown cereals and pulses. With a more traditional, low-meat diet, Britain could feed its own population several times over. Pigs and poultry are mostly raised indoors in "factories", while cattle are increasingly kept in vast herds of a hundred or more (a wild herd has about a dozen animals), and all race pell-mell from conception to the abattoir. Apart from the incorrigible sheep, still grazing the hills, aesthetics are passe. You still see cows on grass, but meadows of flowers are strictly for the tourists. Most of the serious stuff happens out of sight. I have seen pigs in intensive units and visited abattoirs, and I don't want to see them again.
What is the excuse for all this? Profit. In a capitalist society, those who do not satisfy their shareholders (and more and more, it is a matter of shareholders) go to the wall. Successive governments have protested that this system is socially just. Because the whole point of modern high-tech, low-labour farming is to keep costs down. All is done in the cause of cheap food. Without cheap food, the poor would go hungry.
Yet Britain is a rich country. If some are poor - as they surely are - then the causes run deep, and are not to be countered by cheap handouts. Human injustice cannot be redressed by being cruel to animals just because they are further down the pecking order. Besides, British food is not cheap. The whole point of the drive towards livestock is to "add value". Further "value" is added by packaging and processing. Old-fashioned diets were cheap because they were low in meat and because the ingredients were minimally interfered with; the miller, the baker and the carter were all that came between farmer and consumer. Food is cheap when people practise the gentle crafts of cooking. "Food poverty" is now a well-recognised phenomenon: that food is dearer in deprived areas because only the highly processed stuff is available.
We cannot return lock, stock and barrel to the idylls of the past. Fifties farming was heavily subsidised, and Britain still leaned heavily on its empire. But the broad strategy of farming was right. Cattle are still ruminants and pigs are still fossickers, and both are sensitive creatures. Modern methods of pest control are wonderful, and today's genetics are breathtaking; both could be used to support agriculture that was structurally sound. Instead, high tech is, in effect, employed to prop up what should be seen as malpractice: antibiotics to counter the ever-smouldering infections among crowded and unhappy beasts; genetic engineering deployed, not really to feed people, but to make it easier for big companies to sell more herbicide and practise monoculture in bigger and bigger fields.
While all this has been going on, however, some noble souls have argued for different values. Vegetarians protest largely on welfare grounds. Environmentalists have bewailed the loss of hedgerows and the ploughing of good grass to make way for poor arable. Organic farmers have shown that livestock can be raised humanely, and that crops raised with tender, loving care - and a lot of technique - can withstand the majority of pests, even without pesticide. Yet every movement that seemed to counter the industrialised orthodoxy, and anyone who dared to suggest that aesthetics and morality are important, too, has been derided and/or obstructed. The scientists have, for the most part, lent their miraculous skills to the orthodoxy - or at least, they have if they wanted to stay employed. The alternatives have grown despite the derision from on high. To be sure, the government is supporting organic farming up to a point - but is this a sea change, or a passing fashion?
This is as good a time for real change as we are liable to see. Furthermore, the very mechanism that created the present ugly mess can now be used to make something much better. At least, it can do this provided we wrest control from the industrialists and accountants, and their political and scientific henchmen, who have been allowed to run the show for the past 40 years or so. That is: we can effect the sea change through the mechanism of the free market. The necessary changes can be made by nothing more or less than a consumer movement. Britain's farmers would be very well advised to go along with it - and indeed, wherever possible, to take the lead.
So what is needed? First, that we, as consumers, should be prepared to pay more for food that is obviously "good": safe, nutritious and tasty, but also known to be produced by means that are friendly to livestock and wildlife. Second, that the propaganda which, over the past few decades, has spread such concentrated nonsense about the joys of convenience foods and haute cuisine should be countered by information that is true, and by a proper revival of real cookery. No coercion is required, or desirable: just a level playing field of information. Third - and, in some ways, most difficult - we need to break the vicious circle that ensures that science produces only those high technologies that support the kind of industries that generate the cash required to finance the science that produces . . . and so on and so on. The highest tech is often most appropriate to the humblest tasks, which, in turn, are often the least profitable.
The irony is that farmers and agribusiness could have reached this desirable point if only they had truly believed and acted upon the hard-headed business principles that they have pretended to espouse. For years, many people have been saying that they want meat produced by humane means and vegetables grown without the aid of organochlorines and their like; that they care not simply about the appearance of food, or even its taste, but its provenance, its history. In all other industries, the producers acknowledge such inclinations among their customers - and rush to oblige. Is a BMW twice as good as a Ford? Of course not, but people pay twice as much because of its perceived status.
If food really is just a commodity, like any other, and if farmers really do want to be treated like any other producer of any other "good", then why won't they conform to the normal conventions of trade? Clearly, they do not. Instead, when consumers say that they do not want rapeseed oil that comes from engineered plants, the agribusiness people and their scientific henchmen queue up to pour scorn. "Don't be so stupid! The new oil is identical to the original to the nearest atom!" I'll take their word for it. But as people in every other business know, chemistry is not the only thing that counts; nor should it be. Despite the government's apparent enthusiasm for organic farming, the imperious finger is still wagged. We are told that, in the end, "scientists" must make the important decisions on what is good and bad. Well, as a philosopher might say, scientists are necessary, but they are certainly not sufficient. Even if they could be trusted to get things right in their own domain (an enormous "if"), they must still, if "civilisation" means anything, be subservient to morality and aesthetics.
Mr Cotton deserves a rap over the knuckles, to be sure. But he also deserves our thanks. He has shown the world how appalling the farming practices of recent years have been - even though they have been condoned by successive ministries in the sullied name of accountancy and of science. He has shown us very clearly why we need something better and why we should never again allow ourselves to be gulled into thinking that the authorities and the experts know best.
Colin Tudge's latest book, The Variety of Life: a survey and celebration of all the creatures that have ever lived, is published by Oxford University Press (£35)