Let the farmers bleat. It is their own fault they are suffering

`The farming lobby is milking its plight for more than it's worth and telling a few porkies'

FARMERS ARE suffering. Yes, some have gone bust and more will follow. The Welsh Assembly is in uproar about the plight of beef and sheep farmers, and Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, was under increased pressure yesterday to introduce emergency aid.

But the farming lobby is milking its plight for more than it's worth, and is telling, quite frankly, more than a few porkies. Rather than explaining the simple truth, it has tried to focus on what makes most of us weep: the apparently senseless slaughter of those sweet calves and sheep because of the current cruelties of the market place.

This is hardly the whole truth. First, all livestock are destined to be dead meat sooner or later and, from the farmer's point of view, soonest is usually best. Let's look first at those sweet baby calves, just days old, which farmers say they are now having to shoot because they are worthless. There is nothing new in this. It's been going on since serious intensive agriculture began during the Fifties. Daisy the dairy cow won't produce her prodigious gallons of milk without calves. Usually she is impregnated (artificially) with the finest beef bull semen in the land. The result, whether it is a boy or a girl, is a calf that is beefy enough in shape and taste to become steaks sold in the supermarket. Many people think their steaks come mostly from calves that have the pleasure of suckling their mummies for months in the field. Wrong. They are taken, days old, from their dairy mums and raised in "orphan herds" for beef.

OK, that's pretty bad. But why are some shot at birth? Every few years Farmer Brown needs to replace Daisy when her milk yield begins to fall. To get a highly efficient new Daisy you have to impregnate her with the finest dairy bull semen in the land. If the calf that finally pops out is female, that's excellent. The farmer has a new milker. But if the pure dairy calf happens to be a boy (a 50-50 probability) then that is bad news - because the dairy male has no udder, and has virtually no backside (where good rump steaks come from).

Think back to the protests at the ports - the demonstrations against live animal exports in 1994-95 - and it will become clear (if it hasn't already) what used to happen to these dairy male "mistakes". They made up almost all the veal calves that were shipped live to crates in Holland and France. And valiant as the protesters at the ports were, they did not stop the trade. What did was the BSE ban on all beef exports (including live calves) in 1996.

So why didn't farmers raise a big fuss then? For the simple reason that the Government dusted down an obscure EU subsidy, officially known as the Calf Processing Aid Scheme, and wickedly nicknamed "the Herod subsidy". Instead of carting their week-old calves to foreign crates, farmers were now paid a fat fee (somewhere between pounds 50 and pounds 90 depending on the pound's strength) to send these calves straight to slaughter before they were 20 days old.

The logic of all this is brutal. There is too much beef on the market. These calves (more than 500,000 a year) would only depress prices further. So pay farmers a kick-back to get rid of them quickly. Initially they went to pet food. More recently they were just killed and incinerated. So why all the fuss now? That's simple. The "Herod subsidy" dried up completely at the end of July. The net result is that farmers are getting nothing for the calves because live beef exports are still banned (and will be for the foreseeable future) and the fat subsidy is finally gone. Farmers claim that this is all a sudden shock. But it isn't. The Government, under pressure from farmers, extended the subsidy more than once, and warned months and months ago that it would finally end (under EU regulations) in the second half of this year. And yet a bunch of farmers were still cynically clever enough to dump a cargo of these animals at the gate of the sanctuary run by Carla Lane, the television scriptwriter and animal welfare campaigner.

Much the same lack of candour applies to farmers when they bleat about sheep. Who hasn't seen the TV shots of sheep in a field as a reporter says the farmer cannot give them away? Then cut to the same reporter outside a supermarket, holding a tiny packet of lamb chops for which she has just paid an "outrageous" pounds 4.

Yes, supermarkets are making a fortune, and their investigation by the Competition Commission is long overdue. But, once again, that's not nearly the whole story. Those "worthless" sheep in the field are old, worn out ewes - tired mummies who have borne the lambs we in fact choose, in our affluence, to eat. Mutton (ewe meat) has not been on the British menu for generations. Just as with baby veal calves, we don't want to eat it. So ewes, at the best of economic times, don't fetch much.

Expecting a downturn in the market, farmers did what farmers always do. They produced more sheep to compensate. Of course, this was a disaster, which they don't like to talk about. Next the Russian economy collapsed, and with it the market for sheep fleece to keep them warm in their terrible winters.

Then the Government, on expert advice, increased the safety procedures for removing sheep offal and spinal cords because of valid fears that BSE may now have got into sheep too. That put up slaughterhouse fees, and farmers lost out. Finally, the strong pound has made it harder to export lamb, and crucially mutton, to France, where people still sensibly eat it.

No, this isn't a simple story. But it is plain economic truth. Farmers are suffering. But much of it is of their own making. And they kept damned quiet about the export and subsidy tricks they were up to in the past. The truth is that intensive agriculture is an ugly business. It is rife with cruelty and absurd subsidies which farmers, and we as consumers, have connived in.

There is only one sensible solution, radical but elegant in its simplicity. Let the farmers open their books and their farm gates. We all need to know exactly how food is produced for our tables. We have been gluttons for our own punishment, because we have wanted cheap food without asking too many questions. That era - in both health and money terms - should now end.

If it did, we should all be better off. And farmers could earn our genuine sympathy when they, like so many others of us, fall on genuine hard times.

James Erlichman is a writer on food and health issues

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...