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Food, farming and fantasy: a Government view

Friday 19 March 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who thought for a while that the Government might at last be beginning to understand the importance of food and its production, despairs at the latest quango report which, be believes, is as plausible as the legendary pie in the sky

FOR most of this short year, I was beginning to think that the townies who run this toweringly incompetent Government of ours were at last beginning to understand a little of how the countryside works: not a deep understanding but just enough to give me a glimmer of hope.

Environment secretary Hilary Benn, although much jeered at by livestock farmers for his vegetarian beliefs, seems to be genuinely interested in his role, despite the fact that he represents an inner city parliamentary constituency in Leeds. At least he knows where Yorkshire is.

dairy Cows
A future behined bars?

Some of the civil servants at Defra also seem to know what they are at and two of the quangos under their umbrella, the Environment Agency and Natural England, are doing some excellent work in areas that are important to me personally, like river quality and the re-introduction of threatened species like the otter and water vole.

I suspect that the people doing this good work are the ones who actually get off their backsides and get out and about in the countryside. But, sadly, this week demonstrated that the Whitehall-bound desk jockeys and their quangocrat masters and mistresses still hold sway when it comes to imposing politically correct nonsense on natural activities which won’t be bound by red tape.

And the biggest failing of the lot is in that rather important role of ensuring that food gets onto the nation’s plates. In the same way that it has totally neglected the people who are responsible for the Defence of the Realm – the soldiers who are dying in their dozens in Afghanistan – they have been unable to grasp the simple fact the main role of the countryside is to produce food.

One of the saddest things I have heard, not just this week but for many years, was a broadcast on Radio 4’s farming programme from a farm in Lincolnshire in which the owner explained he was going into battery milk production: i.e., keeping milkers inside like battery hens so that they produce more milk per kilo of feed than outside in the fields.

I literally cried out in my morning shower – much to me wife’s alarm – at this disgusting piece of news for it means that we are going backwards: ever since it was created after the foot and mouth debacle, Defra has preached the gospel of more natural, environmentally friendly, sustainable agriculture. And now, cows are being taken out of the fields!

There will be readers who blame the farmer for this but I turned off the shower to listen to his explanation. And it was simple: British supermarkets pay so little for their milk that the small dairy farm with 50 or so cows is doomed to bankruptcy: intensive milk production is the only route to survival.

So who is to blame for this? For at least five years now, New Labour has been fighting off the demands for a supermarket Ombudsman to ensure that their suppliers are not blackmailed into the workhouse by these awesomely powerful companies. For all that time Gordon Brown has been fiercely resisting that pressure (although, according to the Guardian a few weeks ago, he was now thinking about it).

And now, cows are being taken out of the fields!...

The Tories say that will create such as post immediately if they are elected but Brown has gone quiet since the Guardian leaked its report. Could it be that he is weighing the votes in this and has decided against: after all, there aren’t many farmers, and most of them vote Tory, whereas millions shop at Tesco every week?

There were two other examples in this saga this week which suggests that politicians today look upon food as a campaign tool rather than a matter of life and death, rather as they look upon the countryside as a leisure park for day trippers rather than a working environment struggling to put that food on the nation’s tables.

Yet another quango, which has spent another year at vast expense investigating the way we eat, came up with the following direct quote:

“The Council of Food Policy Advisors has published its second report to the Government, recommending that efforts to promote healthy diets and environmentally sustainable food production should focus on the power of consumer demand to bring about change.

“Food: a recipe for a healthy, sustainable, and successful future” also calls for a debate about land use in the United Kingdom in order to find the best way to balance the needs of agriculture with other demands such as housing, energy and infrastructure.”

This is a load of tosh with a sting in the tale. Leave it up to the customers? Well, we all know what that means: poorer families will continue to stuff themselves with the cheapest, fattiest and saltiest gunge that the supermarkets can turn out at the highest profit margins – and the NHS will end up paying the obesity bill.

And there is also that ominous reverence in paragraph two to the future rural of rural land. It is well know that Gordon Brown would like to concrete over the countryside to raise more money in taxes for a population likely to grow to 70 million by 2050, mainly as a result of the immigration New Labour has encouraged.

And the final daft blow from Defra was to lay down new cage sizes for breeding game birds like pheasants and partridges as though they were battery hens doomed to a life behind bars (See News). These cages are to keep predators out, not the birds in, and they are released as soon as they are old enough to fend for themselves.

The joke in that – if there is one – is that there is a growing demand for pheasant meat, which is low in fat and cholesterol, which means it is exactly the sort of food a sensible government should be promoting. But such considerations are of no importance in the food fantasy land occupied by Labour. Food is about votes not nourishment.

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