When common sense is a crime

Britain produces more milk than it needs. So why do we still have to import it? Zac Goldsmith on how

Until recently, any meeting between farmers and Greens would invariably have been hostile. Farmers have accused Greens of making it harder for them to function. Greens in turn have accused farmers of lacking concern for the natural world and of generating low-grade food on the back of squalid practices. Worse, they say, taxpayers have been paying them to do it.

At the end of last year, and partly in response to a barrage of letters from farmers to the Ecologist magazine concerning the government's mishandling of the foot-and-mouth crisis, I met with a small group of frustrated farmers and professional campaigners. The result is Farm, a campaigning organisation for British farmers. Ordinary farmers and environmentalists are beginning to form an alliance. It's about time.

Farmers and Greens have very nearly identical interests. Both have a vested interest in good stewardship of the land. Both can see the dangers of a system that marginalises farmers, jeopardises food security and devastates the environment. Neither relishes a future in which Britain will be completely dependent on imports, and neither welcomes the trend towards increased adulteration of our food, which includes genetic modification.

It's a trend that, sadly, has the full support of the government. For instance, the chairman of the Countryside Agency, Sir Ewen Cameron, has gone on record as saying that if farmers are to remain economically viable, they will have to farm areas no smaller than 3,000 or 4,000 acres. It is even possible, he said, that farmers will need to form Soviet-style collectives of up to 20,000 acres to produce commodity crops at world prices. Meanwhile, Lord Haskins, the government's so-called rural recovery tsar, routinely berates Britain's farmers for not being sufficiently "market oriented" or "internationally competitive", and has suggested that more than half of them should leave the profession and allow their land to be amalgamated into ever larger units.

This is completely at odds with the recommendations of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, led by Sir Donald Curry, which said that going down the internationally competitive route was probably impossible and that farmers should instead be reconnecting with consumers and adding value to products. Nevertheless, it is a position that Tony Blair and his colleagues fully endorse. For them, the problem lies with a subsidy system that is responsible for rewarding bad practice and distorting markets in favour of Europe's undeserving farmers, and to the detriment of farmers elsewhere. In a sense they are right. It is true that farmers in Britain and Europe have been recipients of fat subsidies. But under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), 80 per cent of those subsidies go to just 20 per cent of our farmers.

That is why, despite the payouts, 52,000 farmers and farmworkers left the land last year, more than double the figures for the previous year. With average yearly incomes approaching £10,000, Britain's farmers are facing collapse as at no other point in history. And so are farmers everywhere. The world, not just Britain, is facing a rural crisis.

And with the demise of independent, family farmers everywhere, we are seeing a corresponding rise in the power and profits of giant food businesses. Small- or medium-scale farmers today, no matter where they operate, have become minor cogs in a system over which they have no control and within which they have no bargaining power. This alone should make it plain that there isn't a fair or free market for farmers or consumers. Two traders alone control 80 per cent of the world's grain trade. Four companies control three-quarters of global pesticide sales. In Britain, just four retailers account for 70 per cent of the grocery trade.

These companies not only benefit from the rules of international trade; they write them. National and international rules have been twisted and bent in their interests. The effect today is that food grown next door, marketed locally with no artificial props, is a luxury, while food grown the other side of the world, covered in every conceivable chemical, packaged to the hilt and transported at great cost to the environment and taxpayer, is somehow economic. Small-scale local producers for local consumption face a continuous barrage of crippling regulations while big traders benefit from global deregulation.

The big producers have been enormously successful at engineering the rules in their favour. When the Prince of Wales suggested that public hospitals, schools and military bases should source their food from local producers as a solution to the rural crisis, he was told that his proposals contravened international law. They do. The law makes common sense a crime. Under the CAP, for instance, even though Britain produces more milk than we need, we must nevertheless import large quantities from abroad.

All this makes a nonsense of the government's talk about free-market pressures, or the need for farmers to be internationally competitive. "Free" market pressures aren't bankrupting Britain's farmers. Policies are.

The taxpayer subsidises intensive farming to the tune of £2.4bn each year. And who pays for the infrastructure, without which it would be impossible to shuttle basic foods around the world? We do. Meanwhile, endless regulation chokes small producers and clears the path of competitors for the giant corporations. Only the biggest farmers can hope to survive and even they will find it hard to compete with monocultures in the developing world, where labourers work for peanuts and standards could not be lower.

Last year, Farm commissioned an independent survey in which 87 per cent of respondents revealed they did not want subsidies; they merely wanted a fair price for their goods. Britain's farmers should not have to depend on subsidies. But for as long as the entire infrastructure is artificially geared towards long-distance transportation of intensively produced goods, they are going to need some form of support. The government is right to campaign against unfair advantages. But unless it looks beyond subsidies, its position is false and immoral. A genuinely free market ensures the price tag on produce is accurate and complete. It ensures that people know what they are buying and can make a choice. Removing tariffs and direct subsidies in Europe and America, without renegotiating trade rules that undermine local producers, will not only damage our farm base, it will undermine small producers in the developing world.

Over the past 50 years, aid-funded development has encouraged third world countries, if not forced them, to do away with their domestic food base in favour of specialisation for export. During that time, poverty has increased by many factors and environments have been ruined. Eighty per cent of the world's malnourished children live in countries whose economies have already been oriented towards export.

Putting all your eggs in one basket, as a nation, means depending for your most basic survival on an increasingly volatile global economy. It means banking on the assumption that the land will always accommodate intensive agriculture, and that you will always be able to afford the food imports you need to survive. It's a risky business, and more so when you consider that countries are going bankrupt and turning to aid for their survival, that industrial agriculture is exhausting the land and poisoning people. Breadbaskets, the world over, are becoming deserts.

The global food system is a disaster for all but a handful of giant food businesses. It is mugging everyone and everything.

The choice could not be clearer: we can accommodate trends in the interests of agribusiness, and allow Britain, as a goal of policy, to become dependent for its most basic survival on volatile commodity markets. Or we can choose to support agriculture, based on diverse farms and farm types, that feeds the nation, sustains local communities and enriches our countryside and its wildlife.

Zac Goldsmith is editor of the Ecologist magazine: www.theecologist.org

For information about Farm, click on www.farm.org.uk