In the city, for the consumer, there are always options. In the country, for struggling medium-sized farmers, there aren't. There, the force of urban consumer choice, far beyond the power of politicians, will wipe out rural businesses, hopes, companies - and yes, probably some lives, too. Once this plague has passed, a whole culture of agricultural know- how will have passed away. And what must hurt more than anything is that the disappearance of those farmers will cause barely a ripple of disquiet among the ruminant urbanites.
There has been a terrible reversal in farmers' reputations. Not so long ago, they were respected national heroes, whose sweat and knowledge helped the country to survive war and eat ever better in peacetime. Townies might not know much about farming, but they knew farmers mattered. Only a few generations ago, most factory workers, clerks and professional people would have had some dim memory that their people had come from some working village, shire or farm. In millions of Victorian and early 20th-century workers' homes, prints of farmyards and cottages kept the memory of a rural past alive.
Quite recently, there has been a dramatic change in attitude. A rampant urban moralism has increasingly painted farmers as big-business villains - cruel, greedy, insensitive, polluting. When protesters against the live export of lambs or veal calves blockade Shoreham, urban morality speaks. When hunt saboteurs pack into minivans and head for the shires, urban morality is outraged. When suspicious consumers challenge store managers about pesticides in fruit, when suburban ramblers find old hedges have been grubbed up, or twitchers fail to hear expected birdsong - then, and in scores of other examples, urban Britain stares bleakly at rural Britain, and finds it wanting.
From the other end of the telescope, the minority still working the land stare back at the cities and suburbs and see a haze of hypocrisy and ignorance. They see consumers wanting cheap, interesting and varied food, without being ready to spend much time or money on it. Yet the majority who prefer life that way descend into moral spasm whenever they glimpse the consequences of their impossible demands. Then thinking farmers hear lectures from "animal lovers" who have never sat up at night with a sick calf. Now they must listen to a great roar of approval for the destruction of their livelihoods.
We have been walking towards this disaster for a long time. As the first industrial country, Britain has been losing any connection with growing food for hundreds of years. From the 18th century onwards there occurred one of the great changes in mankind's history. It was simply but well described by the historian Harold Perkin as "a revolution in human productivity, in the capacity of men to wring a living from nature ... " This, Perkin said, "enabled a minority of a much larger population to grow the food for all the rest, releasing the majority for other kinds of work, including modern industry, mechanised transport, large-scale government, mass warfare and the professions. It created the modern city ... "
Our contemporary world, with its liberating technologies, its huge human population, its myriad consumer choice, its cyberspace and Post-Modern irony, rests on something most of us no longer think about. The countryside is a place that few people live in and fewer understand. The pressure on agriculture to make less earth produce more food becomes ever more relentless.
There is nothing new about urban squeamishness and willing ignorance when it comes to food. Vegetarianism and a concern for animal welfare have been well-recorded, if minority interests for hundreds of years. In the early 1700s the Duke of Montagu, who loved lambs but said that "when by chance he saw 'em killing one, he turned his head away and could not bear to look" is the hypocritical ancestor of modern man.
This disconnection between beast and plate, field and food, has grown more dangerous with the rise of factory processing and industrial techniques. Anonymous, highly flavoured, brightly packaged gunk - sweetened breakfast gunk, crispy-dyed snack gunk, breaded microwave TV gunk, even gourmet gunk - is producing an extraordinarily ignorant generation. A survey for the Countryside Campaign, launched last November, discovered that one in five children aged seven to 10 believed that eggs were laid by pigs and bacon came from chicken. A third didn't know that oats, barley and peas were grown in Britain. One in 10 thought there were lions, tigers and kangaroos at large in the British countryside.
Urban adults are, no doubt, less ignorant. We are pretty gullible, even so. We are stupid enough to think that brown-shelled eggs are more "natural"; and when egg producers put colouring in chicken food to ensure that we get brown-shelled eggs, very few of us stop and ask what suddenly happened to all the white-shelled eggs.
We think, or pretend to think, that cows live in fields and that "free- range" chickens spend their lives pecking at corn in cobbled farmyards, rather than in factory-style sheds. And so on. This thoughtlessness about how food happens can lead politicians, like the rest of us, into hilarious inanity, as when Teresa Gorman reminded the Commons, in tremulous tones, that the salmonella scare had caused the death of a million chickens. What, I wonder, did she think was meant to happen to them? That they were going to end their days in Bournemouth retirement homes watching daytime television?
Squeamish ignorance about food is dangerous partly because it leads to events like the current beef and brain disease affair. We swing from long periods of complacency to explosions of hysteria. But it is directly dangerous, too. Had consumers and the media been more interested in food production and more knowledgeable, would farmers have experimented with feeding cows on the mashed remains of sheep? Would the Ministry of Agriculture have been so relaxed about the widespread use of organo-phosphates? Would there have been more caution about the effect of plastic packaging on meat?
Farmers must take responsibility for what has happened on their farms. The hysteria from which they are suffering is partly the result of the consumer ignorance from which many of them have profited in the past. But the urban consumer cannot turn round and bleat "no one ever told me" about what happens in abattoirs, food processing plants and egg farms. The information, to be sure, is partly hidden by the bland wall of food company propaganda, which splashes words like "natural" alongside images of Tuscan peasants, Swiss pastures and half-timbered English barns. But it is not secret. It takes a moment's thought to make one wonder at the relatively low price and abundance in the supermarket. And after wondering what has been done to achieve this - a fourfold increase in agricultural production since 1945 - it is not hard to come by the truth.
We are free people, and with freedom comes the duty to be informed and to think. Our ignorance of our countryside is, for the most part, willing. We are ready to think of it via vague, reassuring images, from Postman Pat to Constable, as a place of tranquillity and unchanging values rather than as a heavily mechanised terrain whose inhabitants worry about market share, unemployment and return on capital.
Wendell Berry, the American farmer and writer, has reflected that what he calls the "industrial eater" has lost sense of the culture and origins of food, and that this is highly convenient for the food industry: "The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are in exile from biological reality ... It would not do for the consumer to know that the hamburger she is eating came from a steer who spent much of his life standing deep in his own excrement in a feedlot, helping to pollute the local streams."
Well, we know now. And we also know that what seems convenient for the food industry may turn out to be disastrous, not just for some passive consumers but for the farmer, the farm worker, the abattoir owner, the local haulier, the cheesemaker and the village shop - in short, for the countryside itself.
There are political answers: an assault on the Common Agricultural Policy, which encourages intensive volume farming at the expense of smaller-scale farms; positive encouragement for organic farming; perhaps a labelling and grading system designed to promote high-quality British food.
But the real power for reform lies with us, the consumers, not only free but hugely powerful, and in historical terms wealthy too. Modern prosperity is encouraging a demand for locally butchered meat, organic vegetables and speciality cheeses. It may be objected that this is an elite, middle- class development, but many reforms in taste and culture start there. We have enough quantity; indeed, too much quantity. We need quality instead. We need to become a country that grows less, better. This is a lesson that applies to more about modern Britain than its agriculture. But our agricultural economy, which has come close to disaster in recent days, is where the quality revolution must start.