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