New Internationalist

Feet and Mouths

Issue 337

The worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in history has sharpened the contest for the future of farming, food and wildlife in Britain. Horatio Morpurgo scans the landscape.

Hung over a farm gate in the village where I grew up is a sign, its message daubed in red paint: ‘Keep Out – Foot And Mouth – Due To Meat Imports.’ The view over that gate, into the North Devon countryside, is glorious: this is the England immortalized by Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, Ted Hughes.

It is also now at the dead-centre of the worst foot-and-mouth outbreak in history – the Southwest is stock-rearing country and very seriously affected. It’s peaceful here all right: most of the fields are now empty and farmers are advised to stay at home as much as possible. Over three million livestock have been slaughtered. The pyres did not make a pretty sight.

Journalists have often remarked on this contrast between the countryside of the poets and the countryside of the present. They have been heaving big literary sighs: ‘Countryside dead. Nothing happens next.’

Only something, inevitably, will happen next. And there is another literature of the countryside – an angrier, perhaps fairer tradition, best exemplified by William Cobbett. As England industrialized in the early 19th century he travelled on horseback around the country and chronicled in his Rural Rides the decimation of the rural economy. His style is pugnacious, aggressively plainspoken. He knew and loved the culture he was describing from the inside. He thought it worth defending from its enemies, worth fighting for, worth hoping for.

Farming’s social problems had been building for some time before foot-and-mouth. Incomes, especially on stock farms, have collapsed over the past two years. Even a medium-sized farm no longer supports a family. The family farm as it has existed for centuries is not deemed worthy of existence.

To return then to that sullen sign over a farm gate, blaming ‘imports’ – otherwise known as foreigners. The outbreak has indeed evoked chauvinistic reactions. It has been blamed on Chinese restaurants or meat illegally imported from Taiwan. North Devon, for example, is not cosmopolitan: jeering at the French is a favourite pastime here, much as it was all over England in Cobbett’s day. The French reaction to mad-cow disease did not help – they banned all imports of British beef, whilst continuing to export the other way even when their own herds became infected.

But there are as many ways of reading that sign as there are of reading this crisis. After all, the outbreak did probably originate in low-grade imported meat. The sign is a reproach to the British public too, for preferring to pay less for their food. The problem, it also suggests, lies with a system which finds cheap, unregulated imports acceptable, and with a culture that doesn’t care where what it eats comes from.

Broadly speaking there are two competing versions of the countryside’s future. The ‘Food-Factories and Parks’ model would see further technologically driven ‘efficiencies of scale’ in farming. These would exist alongside other essentially recreational areas, where the public would visit and experience pastoral feelings. As things stand this is by far the likeliest outcome: the Government persists in spending far more on research programmes for genetically modified crops, for which there is no demand, than it does on supporting organic solutions, for which public demand is enormous and growing.

Which brings us to that ‘other’ version of the countryside, one in which sustainable agriculture will ‘reduce the tension between food production and nature’. Its detractors ridicule organic farming as a ‘religion’, but The Soil Association – its leading promoter in Britain – sees 10 per cent of farmland under organic cultivation by 2010. The figure is just 3 per cent at the moment, but the demand is certainly there – 70 per cent of such produce currently has to be imported. As the most traumatized consumers in Europe, the British are now among those most actively interested in organic produce. By 2005 it is predicted they will be buying $4 billion-worth – more than any other European nation.

Yet the situation is more complex than it seems at first. Surveys in Denmark, Britain and Austria show that farmers converting in this new wave are motivated less by the earlier idealism of the movement, and more by the financial rewards now available – 87 per cent of converted land in Britain is grassland, as stock farmers look for ways to increase their premiums. These are desperate times for such farmers. Within Britain there is more enthusiasm in some places than in others, with the highest concentration of organic farmers in the Southwest.

There is significant variation across Europe, too. The Danish, Swedish, German and Italian Governments all have well-funded ‘action plans’ in place. Britain’s Labour Government occasionally talks green but its own action plan, launched in April 1999, was massively over-subscribed. Funds had run out by November 1999 and the scheme was promptly shut down. The Blair Government has yet to prove anything more than a rhetorical commitment.

A Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now renamed the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) consultation document gives some pause for thought: ‘The conversion of larger producers is expected to help the development of the home market, enabling the UK to capture more of the value in this sector.’ For ‘larger producers’ read: the supermarkets. This is not the language of small-scale production or local distribution. It’s the language of big business. Giant food corporations like Heinz, Nestlé and Unilever have entered the market. Tesco – Britain’s largest supermarket chain – is already undercutting local producers with its ‘Organic Roundabout’ home-delivery service. These products may be slightly cheaper. But they may also be missing the point.

There are other initiatives than just the organic ones. Wildlife trusts have entered into partnership with farmers to ensure a style of farming – whether organic or not – which encourages particular ecosystems. The Devon Wildlife Trust has such an agreement with 20 farmers on the Culm Measures, a geological formation running through North Devon. The farmers receive a premium and help with marketing their produce – in this case beef from the local North Devon Red, a small, slower-growing cattle-type which has grazed these low-lying meadows for centuries, creating a uniquely rich sward for plants and insects. Between 1984 and 1990 it is estimated that 60 per cent of this habitat was lost. Since the inception of the scheme the loss has slowed to a trickle. Beef reared in this way is sold locally in a box scheme around Christmas and has proved a great success.

Supermarkets, with their massively wasteful distribution systems, can be bypassed – and increasingly they are. Traditional street markets may be in decline, but in April 2000 there were 160 farmers’ markets in Britain – a fivefold increase in just one year. Box-schemes – where a mix of organic vegetables is delivered to the doorstep by local producers – also rose from 195 to 340 in the same period. One survey of a box-scheme on the Devon/Somerset border found that 75 per cent of customers had heard about it from other users or the growers themselves. The tyranny of mass-marketing looks a little less sure of itself in this context.

This perhaps, rather than statistics, may indicate where agriculture is headed next. The truth about organic is that it is still growing so fast that no-one knows yet how much of the land-surface or market-share it may finally occupy. One Lincolnshire farmer converting to organic was interviewed about his crop protection. He talked about the insecticidal soaps or other permitted chemicals which he uses: ‘Before, we decided about crop-protection on the advice of an agronomist. Now we decide for ourselves on the farm. It’s as if we are taking back responsibility for our crops.’

Here is the heart of it. Fully modern farming in Britain generates an estimated 400 million tonnes of hazardous waste per year. Its ‘external costs’, in terms of what it costs us in taxes, in human health, in cleaning up the drinking water, in greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change, are hardly calculable. As for the damage it does to wildlife – never mind statistics, even words fail.

The supermarkets may see in organic yet another exercise in cut-costs-destroy-competition, but then again they may have underestimated the movement. Perhaps the real reason for the soaring market in organic is that it offers more trustworthy food and is about respect for nature – not a concept the supermarket mind can readily comprehend.

The Henry Doubleday Association, outside Coventry, is one of the largest study-centres for organic methods in Europe. I spoke to Lorna Jackson, a young researcher there. She doubted that the multiples will destroy the movement: ‘For a start, farmers’ markets aren’t just another shop. They’re an event. And they aren’t just in the country – they’ve taken the supermarkets on in their own territory. We’ve had four new ones start up in the suburbs of Coventry just in the past year. It’s the same with box-schemes. Not only are they still cheaper than supermarket organic, but most of them now offer visits to the small mixed farms where the produce is grown. Supermarkets will never be able to do that. They buy each of their organic lines from a few large-scale producers. People who join box-schemes or buy at farmer’s markets aren’t just shopping. They’re making an active choice about how they think the world should be.’

That’s the sort of talk which would have warmed William Cobbett’s heart. He saw a new industrial and political class fattening itself on the demoralized rural poor, and the sight of it filled him with rage. What he would have made of supermarket profiteering is not hard to guess. He quotes with approval a saying of a lawyer friend of his about the financial arch-modernizers of his day – the happy-clappy globalizers of our own: ‘I tell you what, Cobbett, we have only two ways here: we must either kiss their , or kick them: and you must make your choice at once.’

Cobbett made his choice. He got himself elected to parliament and, as the demand for democratic reforms grew, he fought hard for a wider electoral franchise. This bore fruit in the Reform Act of 1832. For him the connection between rural exploitation and the (decayed) health of the body politic was self-evident. For a people as divorced from the life of the land as we are, that connection may not seem so self-evident. But the French and American farmworkers who marched together in the Seattle protests were perhaps searching for some of that old understanding, a solidarity between people and the land, between people and each other.

Any culture which makes a mockery of those who grow its food will pay. Mad-cow disease and foot-and-mouth are the price British culture is being made to pay. The joke, such as it was, was on all of us in the end.

Horatio Morpurgo usually writes for literary magazines nobody has ever heard of. He lives in Bridport, Doset.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Feet and Mouths

Leave your comment