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Food for thought – or diet for disaster?

Friday 11 July 2008

Our bemused countryside commentator John Sheard, who has tried to make sense of this week’s mixed messages on world food production – and failed – attempts to separate a modicum of wheat from the New Labour chaff

IN A move that made a bull in a china shop look like a butterfly alighting on an orchid, our accident prone prime minister chose to embarrass this once proud nation at an international conference this week by lecturing us on wasting food – after scoffing a six course lunch to be followed by an eight course dinner.

He chose a summit conference of leaders of the world’s richest eight nations in Japan, where one of the bitterest topics was looming starvation because of soaring food prices, to lecture us because we throw away too much food – which is in fact true - and to slam our supermarkets for their “two-for-one” give-aways.

Gordon Brown
Brown's food for thought – or diet for

Whilst back at home, His Environment Minister, the vegetarian Hilary Benn, announced one decision which will certainly stop English farmers producing more food and trailed another which suggests that this unhinged Government is thinking of taxing cows, sheep and pigs for – sorry about this – breaking wind.

For some 20 years now, I have been trying to make some sense of various British and EU food policies and, with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and all its suffocating red tape, this has not been easy. But never before have I been confronted with trying to interpret a policy which seems to suggest that the best way to improve food production is to put higher taxes on it.

Whilst Brown was pictured pouting on all the front pages at the G8 summit in Japan, Defra in London issued a 124-page report called Food Matters which complained that farm animals release a lot of C02, methane and nitrous oxide – all dangerous greenhouse gasses.

And the obvious way to stop this, suggested the paper, was to hit them with so-called “green taxes” in the same way that they are taxing petrol and diesel despite soaring oil, food , gas an electricity prices. The NFU went into an immediate spin, accusing the Government of using the so-called “green wash” to camouflage yet another stealth tax.

On top of this, Hilary Benn decided not to order a massive cull of badgers which, in the South West, are accused of spreading cattle TB – an accusation refuted by many scientists and bodies like the RSPCA.

Now – sorry about this, dear reader – I think that the latter decision is the only sensible one made all week, although it has infuriated all three main farming organisations (See News, Tuesday). I shall explain my reasons later but in the meantime, let’s examine the past decade of New Labour food policy.

First, Tony Blair didn’t even think that food production was important. He is alleged to have asked early in his reign why we should bother growing our own food when it was cheaper to import it.

And when it comes to supermarkets, this Government has persistently backed the spread of out-of-town food retailing despite the fact that it has forced the closure of thousands of small food businesses on the High Streets of small market towns.

Planning refusals by local councils have regularly been overturned by Whitehall, much to the distress of conservation bodies. And I believe the reasoning behind this came from Gordon Brown himself.

As a money-grubbing Chancellor, it was in his interest to keep food prices down so that he could pick-pocket what was left over to feed his tax-and-waste money lust. Now those days of cheap food are over – and the buck stops where it belongs.

As a money-grubbing Chancellor, it was in his interest to keep food prices down so that he could pick-pocket what was left

When it comes to the decision against a massive badger cull, the reasons for my approval are simple: as Hilary Been himself said, the scientists do not know if it would succeed – or make matters worse. To kill tens of thousands of one of our best loved mammals on such shaky grounds would have been inexcusable from a moral point of view.

But even more important is public perception and, in this case, the old view of town-versus-country. It is the townies who pay most of the taxes which subsidise farming and by demanding this widespread slaughter, the industry would have shot itself in the foot.

The image of the ever-whining farmer was almost wiped out in a wave of public sympathy during the foot and mouth debacle seven years ago. Now, it is beginning to creep back again, boosted no doubt by Governmental indifference.

But to have committed genocide against Brock the Badger, the kindly, wise and avuncular creature from The Wind in the Willows, would have made enemies of millions of townsfolk, the people who in the end pick up the bill. There is a much simpler solution: more research for a Bovine TB vaccine and, in the meantime, generous compensation payments for the unfortunate farmers whose cattle must be destroyed.

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