A rant from Colin Tudge
The appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (agriculture is in there somewhere) continues the British tradition of putting people in charge of farming who don’t know anything about it, or indeed, as far as can be seen, have ever given it a moment’s thought. “New Labour” did it too – Margaret Beckett and super-Tzar Larrie (Lord) Whittie – while the Tories in recent years gave us Owen Patterson (“Sell more beef to the Chinese!), Liz Truss (“Sell more pork to the Chinese!), and Angela Leadsom (“Butterflies must take to the hills!” (though I paraphrase).)
The idea, of course, as with most ministerial appointments, is that by coming to the subject fresh these bolts from the blue can be “objective” – in the same way that I, say, could take an objective stance on Mediaeval Arabic or Australian rules football, having not the slightest clue what either is about. But never fear! As with all his predecessors, a few lunches with a few landowners and the top echelons of the NFU, some techies from Monsanto, and a few selected intellectuals, will soon bring Gove up to speed. Like his predecessors, he simply has to learn a few stock phrases and idées fixes and graft them on to the standard neoliberal agenda.
So he and we will be told that British farmers must above all “compete” in the world market to keep prices down, because the economy in general and agriculture in particular is now “global” – especially when we leave the EU with all the protection it brings and are ‘free’ to compete with the rest of the world head-to-head, under the gentle guidance and wise counsel of the WTO.
In effect, the mantra has it, all crops and livestock must be seen as commodities. To compete, farmers must be “efficient” – in cash terms, that is, and in the short term. The cost of any damage is as far as possible “externalised” and long-term damage (the full horrors of which don’t become apparent till after the life of the present parliament) is “discounted”, as accountants somewhat ambiguously put the matter. In the name of efficiency costs must be minimized – which in the short term is achieved by sacking people, replacing them with big machines, reducing the whole exercize to monoculture and making good the inevitable problems including the gleeful invasions of specialist pests, with industrial chemistry – or, soon, once we have swept aside those meddlesome greenies, with GM.
All is made even more efficient by “scale up”: merging small farms – anything less than 100 acres – into bigger ones, so that the machines, the bigger the better, have room to turn round. Until the bubble burst, bankers queued up to lend the vast sums required, which means that much of what the farmer earns and much of what people spend on food goes to bankers, to pay off the debts on the loans. But that’s fine. It produces a “buoyant” economy. Soon the time comes when dispossessed erstwhile workers will work for almost nothing, and then they can be bussed in, en masse, to carry out essential tasks for less than it would cost to buy a new machine (and to pay off the bank-loan), and then kicked out since they have no proper status. So as Del-boy from Fools and Horses used to say, it’s still luvly jubbly. The prettier workers’ cottages are sold for weekenders (the erstwhile workers can live, well, somewhere else) and more or less everything is put up for sale “to attract foreign capital” — from Arabs, Chinese, and Russian oligarchs, or anyone else with a cheque book. We continue to land-grab the world over (along with the Arabs, Chinese, and Russians) and thus create a new generation of banana republics, while we ourselves are also seeking, or so it seems, to achieve banana republic status on our own account.
Meanwhile lip service is paid to the “need” to increase production to “keep pace” with “rising population” and “rising demand”.
Above all we must always remember that although we must try to produce as much of our own food as possible (that we import so much cheese is a “disgrace” according to Liz Truss) we can always buy in our food from people with more sunshine and lower standards if farmers get too uppity, just as we did with coal – not least from the vasty fields of Africa, once the Chinese have had time to get them sorted.
All this is called progress. Politicians, industrialists, and senior academics who run think tanks and organize portentous conferences in prestigious venues all subscribe to the grand thesis. Those farmers and growers, cooks, scientists, economists, and citizens at large who feel in their bones or spell out in fine detail why the grand thesis is flawed at every turn are written off en bloc as hippies and loonie lefties, if not, these days, as potential terrorists. Very few politicians of any party really care about agriculture, or what they call “the environment”.
As for Gove: I will send him this blog. After all, it summarizes all that he and the government think he needs to know.
Colin Tudge June 15 2017