Unromantic dinners for all

June 15, 2001

It's high time a nervous government tackled food policy, says Tim Lang.

These three books explore the crisis engulfing the British, European and global food systems. Foot and mouth disease is the latest reminder to British politicians that they ignore food and farming at their peril. But what are they to do? These books argue that the current difficulties are structural and require new thinking.

Andrew O'Hagan's The End of British Farming is lyrical journalism at its best, a peroration in the grand tradition of Cobbett, Crabbe, Addison and many who have wandered the British countryside since industrialisation. His thesis is stark. Farming as we know it has reached the end of a 50-year era. Agriculture went into decline after the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s. The two world wars underlined the need to ensure food supplies near to home. The current policy of support for agriculture was put in place by Labour after the second world war: the 1947 Agriculture Act was the foundation stone of the new productionist policy, altered in part only by entry into the Common Market in the early 1970s. Europe altered the form and mechanism of policy, but not its goal of food security through home-grown production. This goal is now in tatters.

O'Hagan weaves history around interviews with farmers and their families. One farmer tells him: "It's no longer a North/ South divide we have in this country: it's a rural/urban divide." Incomes have collapsed; the economics of farming do not add up. O'Hagan interviews mainly animal breeders who have seen catastrophic drops in prices over recent years (after many good years, it has to be added). Even a big southern cereal farmer, despite having the largest bit of machinery the author has ever seen, says he is being forced onto a treadmill of cutting costs, monocropping more and losing the soul in farming - the "culture" in agriculture. The book is almost a neo-Marxist treatise about alienated workers (in Land Rovers), declining rate of profit, brutalised land and animals and scheming food barons.

My shelves are full of such cries by thoughtful people over two centuries uttering unpalatable, unromantic truths. O'Hagan spends a day in a London Sainsbury's supermarket and tracks one product to its origin, a former farm churning out dairy products from bought-in milk and run from a Portakabin. Whereas Sainsbury's extols the virtue of this entrepreneurship, O'Hagan shows us how vulnerable the enterprise is to the whims of the retailer. You could say, here is a new agribusiness employing 30 people - or you could say that this samizdat rural operation is kept afloat by powerful outlets such as Sainsbury's, which could kill it by ending the contract. O'Hagan is clearly nervous on the small business's behalf.

For O'Hagan, the central truth is that Britain has not been a peasant culture for more than 200 years, but rather an industrial nation. "Part of the agricultural horror we now face has its origins in the readiness with which we industrialised the farming process... We did the thing that peasant nations such as France did not do: we turned the landscape into a prairie, trounced our own ecosystem, and with public money too, and turned some of the biggest farms in Europe into giant, fertiliser-gobbling, pesticide-spraying, manufactured-seed-using monocultures geared only for massive profits and the accrual of EU subsidies."

The French reference is interesting. France is different from Britain yet the same, according to French farm leaders José Bové and François Dufour in The World is Not for Sale . Bové was the farmer who achieved worldwide fame for the "dismantling" of a McDonald's restaurant in Millau and his subsequent dignified 19-day imprisonment by an inexperienced judge. The protest had started as a symbolic demonstration by small farmers against the arbitrary imposition by the United States of a block on imports of Roquefort cheese made from their sheep's milk, in retaliation for a European refusal to allow imports of hormone-reared US beef. Thus the French farmers, supposed anti-globalisers, were actually protesting to maintain their right to export. As members of the Conféderation Paysanne, they had long criticised the concentration of central control over agriculture, rather than the patterns of world trade. But at Seattle in December 1999, I remember speaking on a platform with Bové at a "teach-in" organised by the International Forum on Globalisation, where the opera house was overflowing and Bové had the vast audience eating out of his hand. He finished by presenting a huge Roquefort to the audience. They went wild.

This book is a series of interviews (by Gilles Luneau) with Bové and Dufour, his friend from the Confederation Paysanne. These two tribunes of the new radical 1960s farming generation argue that the crisis is global and consumer-led: "The struggle we were waging was against the downgrading of agriculture, against the World Trade Organisation. Over the past three years, consumers have been exposed to a number of health scares... and they have had enough. Town dwellers understand that an attack on the countryside and the quality of its produce is an attack on the relationship between the farmer, his land and the consumer. It is precisely this relationship that is missing in produce affected by food scares."

Bové, the son of university researchers, got into farming via protests at the French military taking over land at Larzac in the 1970s. Dufour comes from older farming stock. Twenty years ago, Bové was a land squatter; today, with Dufour, he is a national hero. In between, a lot of hard work went on. Much of their book amply demonstrates what British farming lacks: a radical cooperative tradition, building urban-rural links, the hard slog of organising, self-education about esoteric matters such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the EU, which few but the cognoscenti were interested in - all this being interspersed in the daily grind of building a farm enterprise rooted in community.

The book is a great reminder that a new tradition of cooperation is being born in the small-farm sector worldwide. The international Via Campesina movement against globalised agriculture is one such network organised "from below". The Welsh farmers who began to organise and demonstrate against retailers selling lambs dear when bought cheap might, just might, presage a new direction this side of the Channel. In Britain, land is expensive and in the hands of a rich minority. There is relatively little access to it. British farming is also impaled on its ridiculous individualism (but with the state as its corporate insurance). Bové and Dufour are full of pride and hope; O'Hagan, despair.

Vaclav Smil's Feeding the World is also a serious global analysis. In one corner are the catastrophists, who argue that we are reaching the limit of how many people can be fed. In the other corner, cornucopians are technological optimists who see food scarcities as temporary aberrations resolvable by technology. Smil says both these positions in their extreme form should be rejected but that both contain elements of truth on which policy should be based. One does not have to espouse Malthusian Armageddon to realise that there is a problem in ensuring that a burgeoning population is fed over the next half century. Nor, Smil argues, should we necessarily have faith in "our rich repertoire of technical fixes and social adaptations". He does not quite say so, but the truth is that the political processes take too long to organise resources in the right way before crises hit. Wars have a habit of bringing food policy-makers to their senses. Only, this war is without bullets.

Smil sees more slack in the system than the "extreme" analysts allow. There are policy options; farmers can be encouraged to produce more or less. The key driver, he argues, is to raise incomes generally. If more people are earning more, the "pull" through the food economy will be considerable. He says less about what constitutes a fair return to farmers. With lengthening food distribution chains, the farmer receives less and less of the price paid by the consumer. Although Smil envisages problems ahead with regard to availability of farmland, water supplies, biodiversity and more, these are surmountable and manageable. He agrees with some techno-fixers that there is room to increase efficiency gains.

In a late, magisterial chapter on nutrition and health, Smil rehearses what I think is our biggest challenge. He reminds us that although we may be tempted to wallow in complexity, the basic picture of the relationship between nutrition and health is pretty clear. We know what a good diet is, broadly speaking. But we choose to eat food different from that to which we are biologically suited (partly because we are bombarded by advertising for unhealthy foods). Diets that have been "relatively stable for millennia have been transformed with industrialisation and urbanisation in affluent societies". Smil should add that these trends are manifest in developing countries. Obesity is the fastest growing diet-related health concern in the world. But Smil's solution to this is weak, a classic recipe combining better general education with public information. While I agree that individual consumers have a role to play, to expect them to get a grip on the powerful food industry is not on. Consumers have more power than they often think, but much less than Smil proposes.

So, what lessons do these books offer a new UK government?

The first lesson is the need to get clear what food and farming are for. Current policies are neither coherent nor consistent. The government offers rhetoric about the environment and consumers when the reality is that the food economy is increasingly driven by traders, retailers and giant processors, acting in tension with each other.

Lesson two is the need to get a grip of multilevel food governance. Power is creeping upwards from national governments and is midway between the regional level (the EU) and the global level (the WTO). The BSE, foot and mouth and dioxin crises have created a chance to reinvigorate food democracy and curtail the Common Agricultural Policy.

Third is the need to seize the moment. There is public interest in food and farming. Powerful interests are nervous of public scrutiny. Unbelievably, there are voices in Whitehall arguing for doing nothing: wait and it will all blow over. I doubt it.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy, Thames Valley University.

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