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The Countryside


Britain's Farmers - an endangered species

In the summer of 2001, the UK press was full of reports about the crisis in the countryside. This extract, kindly reprinted from ‘The Week’, gives an idea of what journalists thought the causes of the crisis were.

Apart from the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, I can’t think of a group in Britain which has had a tougher time than our farmers, said Alice Thomson in The Daily Telegraph. Having just managed to survive the ravages of BSE, they were then hit by an era of falling meat prices and now, just as prices were picking up, they are being hit again by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. No wonder The National Farmer’s Union has a chaplain on standby to counsel farmers contemplating suicide. Indeed our farmers are almost an endangered species, said Daniel Butler in the Daily Express. Since the mid-nineties, farm incomes have slumped by 70% with the result that 51,000 people have left the industry in the past two years, some 10% of the total.

If things continue like this, said Adam Nicholson in the Evening Standard, we will soon have a country without farm animals. According to FPC Savills, the estate agents, half the farms sold in southern England in the past six months were sold to non-farmers. Along the lane where I live in East Sussex, the six farms have now been replaced by “green sward and centrally-heated, modemed-up, gravel-drived and garaged accommodation for an estate agent, a film producer, a merchant banker and a journalist”. In other words, Britain will soon resemble an enlarged garden “whose purpose, essentially, is to look nice for urban- based professionals”.

Yet we have only ourselves to blame for the farming crisis, said Matthew Fort in The Observer. For our dogged pursuit of producing as much food as we can as cheaply as possible has created the conditions in which disease flourishes. In 1950 almost a third of the average household budget was spent on food. Today the figure is less than a fifth. But the relentless drive to cut costs has undermined basic standards of animal husbandry. Almost all the sausages we eat in Britain, for example, come from industrially produced pigs who spend their lives in cramped dimly-lit sheds, and who get so distressed that they try to bite each other’s tails, which are cut off to prevent this happening. No wonder they fall victim to disease. Meanwhile, the agriculture minister has closed down numerous small abattoirs, with a view to helping agri-business, and centralising slaughter in large units. The predictable result has been to increase the chances of infection, both by forcing animals to travel large distances and by gathering so many together in a single location. And the worst of it, said John Vidal in The Guardian, is that the big industrial farmers are putting small farmers out of business courtesy of the British taxpayer. In Britain, 80% of agricultural subsidies are taken by the largest 20% of farmers.

But by far the most important cause of our farmer’s plight is the EU’s common agricultural policy, said William Rees-Mogg in The Times. The dominant influence on Europe’s agriculture is the EU subsidy, and though British farmers depend on it (last year an estimated 3.5 billion pounds out of gross British farming income of 15 billion pounds came from subsidies), continental farmers get a quite disproportionate share. They are richer than British farmers because they get larger subsidies, larger tax concessions and often cheaper credit.

But that highlights the real key to the farming crisis, said Michael Mann in the Financial Times. It has little to do with the various diseases that have occurred over the past decade. The cost of BSE for example – some 4 billion pounds so far – was largely borne by the British taxpayer. No, the overwhelming problem for farmers is the strength of the pound against the euro. For the subsidies on which our farmers depend are denominated in euros; between 1995 and the autumn of 2000 the pound has risen by around 40% against other European currencies. It is that which has accounted for as much as three-quarters of the decline in farm incomes over that time. So perhaps when the Countryside Alliance hold their march, the traditionally staunch defenders of the pound should add a new plank to their campaign to help farmers: take Britain into the euro.

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