Gove and the Great Ministerial Tradition

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

5 thoughts on “Gove and the Great Ministerial Tradition

  1. I agree with all you’ve said but feel it is pointless to say it to Michael Gove instead send him all the positives and examples of profitable small scale farming businesses – sequesting carbon, selling nutritious healthy food with minimum inputs etc; maybe someone will take note that there is a group of farmers out there doing something different and it works and works extremely well; maybe then you will get invited to lunch and the opportunity to talk.

  2. Well Liz, let’s hope it would be a good lunch, because otherwise Colin’s day will be completely wasted. Oh yes, some politicians do ‘listen’ – but it’s only with one ear. The other one has already been bagged by the agrichem/big pharma lobby group. Need we ask which ear will prevail?

    I have dealt with them for the past 35 years and have never even come close to finding a genuine ‘human being’ in the higher echelons of office who has survived more than a year or two before being ‘moved on’ because he was getting too close to backing the ‘wrong horse’.

    Party politics is a ruthless game. It is not our game. Colin is absolutely right in saying that only a ‘people’s take over of the food chain’ will alter this otherwise intractable dedication to power and profit that leads agriculture into the abys.

  3. Stuart Meikle says:
    Dear Colin,

    You seem to be sharing the frustration of many of us with the general inability to find politicians who can separate the interests of a few groups and friends from their Ministerial roles. I am not sure how much that is the case in the UK so it may just be that Mrs May’s recent Defra appointment has been made because she likes dumping disliked colleagues into the black hole that she sees Defra as. Certainly, elsewhere, my concern has been that political appointments have been mostly about ensuring that food production can be fully exploited as a profit-making opportunity for the few. It is something that I have seen increasingly since the 2008 crash and, first, the collapse of the property market and, second, sovereign bonds going pear-shaped. Food and farmland then became the must have investment for those with a ‘portfolio’.

    What I have been impressed with when it comes to returning to the UK farming and food scene after years away is just how many interested parties there are who want to see positive change. True they will be aligned against the industrial, ‘sustainable intensification’ lobby but they might yet develop to a point where they can drive change. Of course a change of government could help change the agenda, not least because it may bring a more issues-engaged fraternity to the fore.

    For now, however, we must give Michael Gove the chance to show himself as a politician who is willing to be open-minded and who can provide the food and farming industry with enlightened leadership. I am sure we would all be willing to help him on his way to do such. Personally, I just hope he does not fall back on the recent default position of ‘grow more, sell more, export more’ and to deregulate everything to facilitate such an approach. It is one that those of us with real farming knowledge have recognized for what it is, totally unsustainable in every respect.

    On another note, I am working on an extensive food, farming and rural policy document for the UK. I am writing it with the intention of trying to get a consensus across many organizations for a really comprehensive post-Brexit policy. For the future of farming, rural communities, any number of environmental issues, and the nutrition of the population, it is not something that can be done using today’s favoured medium of the sound bite. In contrast, my policy extends to 12 chapters and, so far, 333 policy recommendations. I hope now others will be able to add to it and to ensure that it is not missing any important components.

    My best wishes


  4. Colin, that was quite a rant, but I do think that you have not given Gove a fair chance. The real problem is not the man (and as we know they change frequently) but the system. We need a paradigm shift, but that requires us to give up so much that we hold dear (such as cheap food and fast cars) and there are far too many very wealthy (and therefore influential) vested interests. A good start would be to internalize the true and full costs of food production, such as pollution, carbon, energy and biodiversity. On that basis we could “compete” and be seen to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And most of all we have to stop talking to ourselves and start talking to the great British public.

    Hugh Warmington

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