Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Food 2030: The Future History of the Countryside

I was listening to Hilary Benn on the radio this morning. He was describing a green and pleasant vision of the future in which shoppers chose to pay over the odds for food produced locally on small farms, and in which - somewhat miraculously - these farms increased productivity while reducing their impact on the environment.

One or two farmers may have choked on their cornflakes at this. A government initiative to promote home-grown agriculture is undoubtedly A Good Thing, but the history of farming suggests that consumer choice will not, as Benn hopes, power a food revolution.

The problem for British farmers is simple: grain, meat and fruit can be grown more cheaply in other countries, so much more cheaply that shipping costs are practically irrelevant. This isn't anything new. When, in 1815, farmers found themselves unable to compete with cheap imports, the government introduced the Corn Laws, which imposed tariffs on grain coming into the country. But Conservative economists protested that high food prices meant higher wage bills for industry and lower demand for manufactured goods, and in 1849 the tariffs were removed.

As cheap grain and other products flooded into the country British agriculture went into freefall, and so did the fortunes of the landowning class. The mass migration from village to city accelerated, and the balance of power shifted from landowner to industrialist.

Except for a brief period after World War I, when tariffs were again imposed, farming was in recession until the 1940s, when German U-boats did for British agriculture what successive governments had failed to do. Post-war, governments obsessed with food security paid farmers to grub up orchards, tear down hedges and fill in ponds. EEC and EU subsidies had the same effect.

Today, the buying power of the supermarkets makes life hard for all but the biggest, most highly industrialised farms. Where small farms survive, as they do in Somerset and Gloucestershire, they rely on a niche specialism (a rare cheese) or sell through farmer's markets and car boot sales.

The effect on the countryside - and on nature - of these historical processes is visible and fascinating. In his book Nature Cure, Richard Mabey writes of his move from the Chilterns to the industrial farmland of East Anglia, a landscape reduced to its most simple form (sky, earth, wheat), in the quest for profit. Downland has suffered a similar fate, with much of Dorset now covered in a vast expanse of corn.

In the West Country the disappearance of orchards from the landscape provoked a backlash, led by Common Ground, and a resurgence of interest in local fruit varieties. But what strikes me as I drive or walk around the Somerset hills is the emptiness of fields that had fed countless generations of cattle and sheep.

Why, when meat and dairy products can be imported for a song, should our farmers bother?

The countryside of 2010 has two distinct faces. One shows huge fields of crops fattened by fertilisers and protected by pesticides. The other shows overgrown hedges and empty pastures. The first is the face of commercial reality; the second the face loved by the walker and the Romantic.

Hilary Benn seems to wish he could bring the two together - make the commercial more Romantic and the Romantic more commercial. Whether he succeeds or not is, I suppose, up to us.

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