The real price of cheap food

A moving film uncovers the rural world abandoned by new Labour

<strong>The Lie of the Land</strong

Molly Dineen is a brilliant film-maker, but even those of us who count ourselves among her biggest fans thought that her last but one documentary, about Geri Halliwell, was off-key. You knew she'd got too close when she interviewed the former Spice Girl in the loo - an intimacy which, for all that it said plenty about Geri's cloying neediness, made you fear for Dineen, whose films, however involving, have always been so clear-eyed.

Luckily, Geri was a blip - a girly aberration. By way of a follow-up, Dineen first made a film about reform of the Lords, which pulled off the great feat of making one care about hereditary peers. Now comes The Lie of the Land (3 May, 9pm), a film populated by the one group of desperately poor for whom the present government seems to have absolutely no sympathy: farmers. Did David Miliband, in the lull after the excitement of his putative Labour leadership bid, settle down to watch? I doubt it. He's too busy talking recycling to worry about the people who produce - or should produce, if only the supermarkets would let them - our food.

Dineen did something very simple: she went out into the countryside, found a few of its older and least-privileged inhabitants, and talked to them. Her focus was ostensibly narrow. Having joined a tiny Cornwall hunt - the Cury - her attention was caught by the meat on which the hounds were fed: the carcasses of animals from nearby farms. The next day, she joined the master of the hunt, Ian Williams, as he drove from farm to farm picking up more of these animals - the "flesh run", as it is known. Sometimes they were already dead; sometimes it was part of his job to kill them. For each calf he picked up, he was paid £2. Occasionally, the farmer would also leave him a gift - a bag of fudge on the day Dineen was with him.

This business was shocking for two reasons. First, because Ian was often killing a healthy calf simply because it had no market value and the farmer could not afford to keep it. Second, because this business was virtually his sole source of income. Back at his run-down farm, he skinned a calf and remarked out loud that it was a good size. He'd get a few extra pence for the hide.

The Lie of the Land didn't do much more than examine the pitiful finances, and the Kafka-esque bureaucracies, of farming in 21st-century Britain. The material was oddly repetitive, one farmer after another explaining how the government now pays them to manage land rather than produce food.

But oh, it was powerful. Dineen rehearsed important arguments: about the supermarkets' lust for cheap (and thus unethical and non-British) food; about how if British livestock farming ceases to exist altogether, as is widely predicted, the countryside will physically change for ever.

Yet it was her human-interest stories that really moved. I thought about the time when the countryside marchers came to town - when I was tempted to shout at the mass of Barbour-coated oafs who were waddling through Hyde Park: "Get off my land!" - and felt guilty.

Here, there were no chinless wonders, no women in sage quilting. These were ordinary people who were clinging on by their fingertips. Ian, in particular, brought a lump to the throat: the archaic way he referred to his broken car window as "he" rather than "it", the way his mum still cooked lunch for him every day in the house where he was born. Dineen didn't try to protect him from the squeamish gaze of the liberal urbanite. We saw him kill, we saw him dismember. In part, this was because she was determined not to sentimentalise the countryside. She wanted us to see things in relative terms: which is worse, fox-hunting or cheap meat? But mostly, I suspect, it was because she knew we would fall for Ian anyway. Why, I wonder, are the rural poor of so little interest to new Labour? Is it that they don't complain? Ian seemed bewildered rather than angry, and it was left to Molly and her camera to articulate the painful story of the ground shifting beneath his feet.

Pick of the week

Gavin Stamp’s Orient Express
8 May, 7.15pm, Channel 5
Amusingly posh architecture writer traces the train's original route.

Return of the Tribe
Starts 8 May, 8pm, Channel 5
The Insect people of Papua New Guinea come to observe Britain.

Balderdash and Piffle
11 May, 10pm, BBC2
Victoria Coren examines the roots of words describing madness.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning