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Meat market: the risks of our corrupt global food chain

Colin Tudge says we may discover that horse-flavoured “beefburgers” were a scam — but far more dangerous are the big health threats posed by intensive farming. He urges us to take matters into our hands.

Throughout the horse meat fiasco, Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for the Environment, has been keen above all to reassure us. Despite appearances, we are perfectly safe and can rest in the knowledge that the powers that be – the government, the European Union, the corporates, the bankers, and their expert scientific advisers – have got things perfectly under control. All will soon be back to normal, and “normal” is a very good place to be.

Healthy horse meat is excellent fare, but that it’s where it shouldn’t be shows that the whole, ever more complicated global food chain is absolutely not under control.

As it now stands, the global food chain might have been devised by a committee of viruses expressly to facilitate their passage around the world. The thinking behind it has nothing to do with the rhetoric of politicians – “food security”, “health”, “justice”, “animal welfare”, “the environment”, “biodiversity”, “sustainability” – and everything to do with money and power. It is designed expressly to maximise wealth and to concentrate that wealth in the hands of very few people – who in practice are the large corporates; which in turn, for various reasons, governments of all parties prefer to deal with.

The National Farmers Union, which is seen as the official voice of agriculture, is little more than a club for agribusiness people; nothing to do with the sons and daughters of the soil who mercifully are still hanging on and doing the serious work but who, alas, seem unable to get their political act together to speak their mind.

If agriculture in Britain and around the world were designed to do what most people innocently suppose is its job – to provide us all with good food without wrecking the environment at large and driving our fellow creatures to extinction – it would not resemble what we have now.

The farms that can produce the greatest quantity of good food, without cruelty and with little or no collateral damage, while providing good jobs for huge numbers of people, are mixed (many different crops and livestock interacting synergistically) and low-input (as organic as possible). They are complex and so must be skills-intensive (using many farmers) and are generally small to medium-sized (as there is no advantage in scale-up when systems are complex).

Today’s industrial farms, by contrast, are designed to maximise wealth and output through the use of fertilisers and pesticides. They cut costs by cutting labour and so must be as simple as possible – monocultures and factory farms. The prairies and factories also need to be as big as possible to achieve economies of scale.

Many lines of evidence show that if farming were designed along more enlightened lines internationally, no one need go hungry. There is no defensible reason why a billion people should be undernourished. Billions of people worldwide would have good and satisfying jobs; even in Britain we could easily make good use of all of the million under- 25s who are now unemployed. We would not be seeing the foul and hugely worrying decline of our fellow species, which extends from the ground beneath our feet to the deep oceans. Horseburgers would be inconceivable. As things are, despite the soothing words from on high, they are inevitable: not accidents at all, but systemic. We have already seen far worse.

So, here’s the irony – politicians such as Owen Paterson claim to be concerned with food security, human health, animal welfare, sustainability and all the rest but in practice their policies are leading us in precisely the wrong direction. They are diametrically opposed to what we need. The key to food security (and everything else) is, first, to grow as much food as possible at home on mixed, low-input farms and, second, to keep food chains as simple and short as possible. Yet the free-market dogma that prevails emphasises “competition” – not as farmers once competed, to see who has the smartest dog or the shapeliest onions, but for short-term profit. All farmers everywhere must, we are told, compete with all other farmers everywhere.

David Cameron, in his Christmas 2012 televised address to the nation, urged us to keep an eye on the Indonesians, the latest kids on the economic block. Paterson told the assembled agribusiness people at the Oxford Farming Conference last month that we must focus on food for export: not for eating but as commodities. He had just been enjoying Yorkshire-grown beef in China, he said – a growing market and a great potential moneyspinner. He also told us that we should be selling our biotechnology to the world, not because it is what is needed, but because we are good at it. Science, like everything else, is now seen as a commodity. All this is a horrible diversion, a waste of resources, brainpower and, above all, precious time.

If we in Britain did set out to grow our own food we could easily be self-reliant; so could most countries in the world. This is not all that’s involved in food security, but it’s a very good start. “Self-reliant” does not mean “self-sufficient”; naturally, we should continue to import tea, coffee, oranges, bananas, cinnamon and nutmeg. We might even import some meat if it was left on the carcass and we knew where it came from, as in the case of New Zealand lamb. But we should not be reliant on imported meat, and certainly should not be scouring the world for whatever is cheapest.

As the Lincolnshire farmer John Turner points out, we could easily be producing all the lamb and beef we need – and making a great contribution to pigs and poultry, too – if only we made proper use of our natural pasturelands. “Our climate, geography and history make us very good at growing grass,” he told me. “And you don’t need imported soya to fatten animals that are raised on it – in fact, you don’t need concentrates of any kind. We have a mixed farm of 100 hectares [250 acres] with a suckler herd of a hundred Limousin cross Friesians, and the calves are entirely grass-fed, from weaning to slaughter. In the country as a whole, grass is our most underutilised resource.”

At least four-fifths of Britain’s 18 million hectares of agricultural land is pasture. Industry pressure in the past few decades has downplayed grass (there is more quick money in soya) but a small group of farmers in 2011 created the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) – now rapidly growing, and with its own branding and label. Turner, the PFLA vice-chairman, says: “Every piece of beef or lamb we sell is traceable back to the field the animal was raised in.”

This is relatively easy, because the chain of delivery is so short – and everyone on the chain at least knows the next person on it, through consumer to butcher and typically from there straight to the farmer. This could be the pattern throughout Britain if successive governments were not so wedded to the global market. But they are, and so we have a crisis where people no longer know what they are eating or buying from the supermarket.

If crooks along the tortuous food chain can add horse to our meat products, why not dog, or rat, or cat? Given that the world trade in bushmeat is now vast, why not add bush rat, or baboon? What’s to keep out meat that has been assigned for pet food? Why not meat that has been condemned? What guarantees can be given?

The evidence from recent decades has told us time and again that, for all the bureaucracy and propaganda, the global food chain in which Britain plays such a proud part is run on a wing and a prayer. For more than 30 years Britain’s livestock has suffered from a succession of epidemics – all of which led to mass slaughter and some of which put all of us in grave danger. Importing meat without making proper checks and engaging in cutprice husbandry at home have been the direct cause of all the epidemics that have beset British livestock almost continuously (with overlaps) over the past 25 years, driving many farmers to suicide – and killing more than 150 consumers, for good measure.

In February 2001, England suffered the worst epidemic of food-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the history of the world. By the following October, ten million cattle and sheep had been reduced to smoke and ashes; a crisis network was set up to cope with the despair of farmers and suicides by them; and it all cost more than £2bn – with at least another billion lost to tourism, since it appeared no one believed the assurances by Prime Minister Tony Blair that, despite the funeral pyres of livestock, the British countryside was still open to all (and people were right not to, because it wasn’t). Even in cash terms, the policy of slaughter and cremation, all to protect meat exports, seemed ill-advised.

Fortunately, though this is just a lucky quirk of biology, FMD does not infect human beings. But other animal-borne infections do, including mad cow disease (BSE), which manifests in people in the form of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD). BSE (and nvCJD) is caused not by a virus but by a rogue protein, or prion. The epidemic that began in 1986 in British dairy cows could well have been home-grown, not imported, but it began with cost-cutting just the same.

The outbreak, according to John Webster, the author of Animal Husbandry Regained: the Place of Farm Animals in Sustainable Agriculture (2012), “was undoubtedly due to the inclusion of meat and bone meal of cattle origin in rations for dairy cows and their early-weaned calves, and exacerbated by a rendering process that failed to destroy existing prions”.

No normal farmer would feed bits of cows to other cows – but it’s cheap; and it is cheaper still not to boil the bits up properly before feeding the animals; and if Britain’s farmers are to undercut their wily foreign rivals they must be even wilier.

To be fair to the then Conservative government, once alerted, it took rapid and effective steps to prevent further transmission of BSE – by forbidding the practice, previously condoned, of feeding sheep carcasses in animal feed to livestock and forbidding the sale of beef on the bone. But people were already infected, and once the prions have a hold they do not go away, though it may take decades for them to manifest themselves.

The first human incidence of nvCJD was detected in 1995: three young people took the terrible and inexorable path through dementia to death. Human mortality peaked in 2000 at 28, yet still there are up to three deaths a year and the total so far is 171. And, as Professor Webster says, “. . . there may well be more deaths in people infected before 1989 but not presenting clinical symptoms”.

We have had other near misses in recent years, too – swine flu and bird flu, both of which can and do kill human beings.

These epidemics were not acts of God. They were not simply bad luck. They are not the kinds of things that could happen in the best-regulated systems. They all resulted directly from cut-price husbandry – inferior feed; fewer men and women to look after the stock; too few vets present to monitor the animals before they fell sick; fewer abattoirs and faster transport, so that animals which are incubating infection can travel from one end of the country to the other, taking their viruses with them; and seriously dodgy imports (such as the chickens that brought us bird flu). It’s cheap (the taxpayer foots the bill later, at least) but it is also horrendously dangerous. Horseburgers perhaps are just a scam that was waiting to happen but far worse disasters are waiting to happen, too.

Can anything be done? First, we (meaning people who give a damn, including and especially farmers and scientists and economists with impressive expertise) need to analyse, to find out what’s gone wrong with the present world food chain and provide a better alternative. In fact, much of the analysis has already been done; it’s out there in a series of reports from many different sources. They all tell us that farms that could really feed the world would be conventionally structured: “polycultural” (very mixed, with many different crops and livestock working together); low-input (as similar to organic as possible); skills-intensive (lots of farmers); and (usually but not necessarily) small to medium-sized – given that in such complex systems there is little advantage in scale-up.

Such farms can be the most productive of all, at least when measured over decades rather than a single season. They are also the most sustainable, and the most wildlife- and people-friendly, not least because they come closest to mimicking nature. Such farming – designed expressly to provide good food without wrecking the rest – has been called “enlightened agriculture”.

In truth, what the whole world needs is what Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith recommended more than two centuries ago: a nation of small farmers, served by a nation of shopkeepers. We need small, mixed farms that are intended primarily (though not exclusively) to serve the communities where they are sited; and we need a network of small bakers and butchers and brewers, and shops and markets, that is designed to turn what the farmers grow into delectable food and deliver it straight to us. The shift from what we have now would cause a great upheaval – but the necessary mechanisms would not. Small farms and shops, and local involvement, are parts of life that radicals write off with contempt as “petit bourgeois”. They are not frightening at all. They could be embraced with equal zeal by old-style Tories (including Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher in her early days) and core Labour supporters alike.

There are many good examples of enlightened practice – including Cultivate, a social enterprise newly set up in Oxford by half a dozen young men and women who sell local produce from a van. They are not finding it easy – but they would if only they could establish a proper food hub, an intermediary between the farmers and the retail outlets. “But,” says Julian Cottee, the founder of Cultivate, “we really need premises within the ring road – and the very few premises that are suitable are out of our price range.”

One answer to this (especially in the absence of sustained government interest) is community-supported agriculture (CSA), which means what the name implies, and can include all points along the food chain from farmer to shopkeeper. More broadly, there is a growing interest in ethical investment – an approach that I and others are now exploring in conjunction with several specialist banks and investment companies. In this, the mechanisms of capitalism can for once be used for the public good.

We need nothing less than an agrarian renaissance: people who give a damn collaborating in many different ways, not directly to attack the people whose decisions shape our lives (a waste of energy) or to persuade them to change their ways (they won’t), but simply showing how to do things differently.

Horseburgers have been a fiasco and the story may well turn nastier yet. But we may have cause to be grateful. The adulterated burgers have drawn attention to a huge and horrible reality to which remarkably few people have been paying serious attention: Britain’s and the world’s food production strategy, driven by dogma and shot through with inconsistency, is a disaster that has run out of control. It is a free-for-all, at best an invitation to the rich and powerful (and criminals) to fill their boots, and an ever-present and often principal cause of many of the ills besetting the world, from famine to environmental degradation to mass unemployment and gross economic injustice.

If people worldwide begin to see their countries’ food strategy for what it is, acknowledge the shortcomings of those who have assumed control of it, and start to take matters into their own hands, the occasional horseburger will have been a very small price to pay.

Colin Tudge is the author of “Good Food for Everyone Forever” (Pari Publishing, £9.99) and is also the co-founder of the Campaign for Real Farming and the Oxford Real Farming Conference

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion