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12 March 2001

Get on your bike, Farmer Giles

Our farmers spread disease, destroy wildlife, threaten tourism and soak up subsidy. British agricult

By David Cox

At bien-pensants dinner tables, a consensus has been reached on the appropriate response to the latest British farming fiasco. Replace all those nasty, intensive agri-factories with small organic enterprises, and damn well put up with the high food prices that would result.

Never mind that diseases such as foot-and-mouth are endemic on the homely farms of the developing world and virtually unknown on the vast and soulless agricultural production lines of North America. Don’t worry that while a hike in food prices might be acceptable to the chattering classes, it would be a different matter for the poor, some of whom spend half their income on food. Or that the price hike would need to be accompanied by a further hike in the subsidies paid to an industry which already receives more subsidy than all the others put together.

The government is well aware of these objections, which is why it has hesitated to climb on the organic bandwagon. Instead it has toyed with a diversionary attack on the supermarkets, which have done more than anything else to raise agricultural standards. Its real agenda, hinted at by the Prime Minister last Tuesday, is, for once, more radical. It wants to shift Britain’s farmers gently away from the whole business of food production.

This approach reflects certain realities with which middle-class diners have yet to catch up. British agriculture is just not worth the endless trouble it causes. In spite of its subsidy drip-feed, it generates just 1.3 per cent of GDP. It has already given us the nvCJD plague, which will subject an unknown number of people to a horrific death. Compared to BSE, the current crisis may seem footling, but it is striking at the heart of our national life. Tourism, now threatened by the closure of the countryside, is our biggest single employer – occupying 6.6 per cent of the workforce; agriculture employs just 1.5 per cent. Cancelled sporting events will be missed by millions. Country walks, now officially discouraged, are (after gardening) our second most popular outdoor activity.

Like so many of the other irritations that agriculture has inflicted on British life, foot-and-mouth stems largely from our farmers’ attempts to match the efforts of competitors able to wring economies of scale from the North American prairies, the Argentinian pampas or even the plains of northern France. Animals are hustled frantically around the country, so they inevitably infect each other, in pursuit of “efficiency”. Cows were turned into cannibals for the same reason.

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It is the desperate quest for competitiveness that leads our farmers to drench their fields in poisonous chemicals, creating a pollution disaster for which we all pay through our water bills. The same quest requires them to subject their livestock to shameful conditions. It has led them to gut our countryside of the hedgerows, ponds, ancient woodland, downland and water meadows that gave it the character once so celebrated by poets and painters.

Yet it has been obvious for 200 years that Britain’s future lies not in the soil but in what we now call “the knowledge economy”. Instead of struggling to feed ourselves from our own puny acreage, we should buy in the best and cheapest food that the world can provide. It was for this reason that in 1846 Robert Peel repealed the “Corn Laws”, which had protected British farmers by barring most food imports. This move provoked a century of agricultural recession, that did wonders for both the British economy and the British countryside, which developed the wildlife-rich, unkempt charm that was captured by Rupert Brooke in “Grantchester”.

It was the Second World War that overturned this happy state of affairs. In the face of the U-boat campaign in the Western Approaches, domestic agriculture came to be seen as a strategic necessity. Attlee’s postwar government, determined to solve one of the nation’s few problems that had actually gone for good, began the limitless subsidy of agriculture. Since our entry into the Common Market, this has been administered largely through machinery devised to compensate the French for German industry’s access to their markets.

Understandably, the Blair regime has decided that the threat of another U-boat campaign is no longer pressing enough to merit such a troublesome insurance policy. It is trying to persuade our EU partners to get rid of the elaborate system that guarantees high prices for farmers, however much they produce. Instead, it suggests that the farmers should be subsidised to deliver environmental benefits.

Farmers prefer to see themselves as feeders of the people, not as wardens of a rural theme park. But if it’s a matter of preserving the public subsidies that sustain their comfortable lifestyles and their power over the land, they are not going to argue. The French are putting on a display of Gallic resistance, but even they can see that once the myriad farmers of eastern Europe start sucking at the enlarged EU’s teat, production subsidies will bust the bank.

So everything’s nicely sorted? Of course not. Sustaining redundant farmers with “eco-support” may prove the line of least political resistance, but it is a scandalously cowardly way out. Conserving the countryside is a laudable objective, but it will not be best achieved by bribing those who have been destroying it to desist from a few of their most damaging activities.

Subsidies for agriculture should be abolished, as they have been in New Zealand. The resources released should be redirected to areas where they are really needed, such as schools, hospitals and the London Underground. If this happened, one-third of Britain’s farmland would probably carry on producing competitively. Agriculture might well become unviable on the remaining two-thirds.

Farmers would have you believe that without their “stewardship”, the countryside would somehow fall apart. Nothing could be further from the truth. Land prices, currently bloated by farm subsidy, would fall. This would allow in new kinds of rural landowners – wildlife organisations and individuals keen to create nature reserves, amenity foresters, local authorities seeking to establish country parks and would-be small-scale subsistence farmers. Between them, they would create a landscape far more wildlife-friendly than the agri-deserts which currently despoil so much of Britain. Farmers claim that no one but them could possibly want the countryside, and that if they left, their nice tidy fields would be overrun by weeds. In so far as there is any truth in this, so much the better. Those “weeds” are the indigenous plant cover of our island – hawthorn and gorse, birch and oak. Britain is desperately short of wild areas and could do with more.

Farmers didn’t demur when miners and shipbuilders were told that the world didn’t owe them a living. Now it’s their turn to get down to the Job Centre and look for a proper job. They should be told to get on their bikes – and to take their disgusting diseases with them.

David Cox is the chairman of a forestry company

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