BOOK REVIEW / Help] There's a Gatt symposium in my soup: The Politics of Industrial Agriculture T Clunies-Ross & N Hildyard Earthscan pounds 8.95

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOOD is at the heart of our existence, one of the indispensables of human life and civilisation. What we eat defines not only what we are, but also the society we live in and the environment that surrounds us. Thus the industrialisation of agriculture, and the growing control by giant corporations over every aspect of food production, processing and retailing, is something that affects all of us. It is an issue, argue the authors, that is in urgent need of attention.

Is it tolerable that the cost of the food we eat is an annual loss of 24 billion tons of topsoil a year, enough to fill a freight train stretching to the moon and back five times? Are the 4kg (9lb) a year of food additives we consume good for us? Is it right that 'efficient' European farming is riding on the back of millions of 'ghost acres' in hungry tropical countries? Britain is supported by two such acres for every one in production here, while Holland, with its 4.5 million cattle, 14.5 million pigs and 100 million chickens, requires eight times that.

And what of the impact of modern farming on wildlife? The Department of the Environment lists 1,685 insect species, 149 plants, 51 breeding birds and 25 mammals as rare, endangered or vulnerable, the victims of agricultural intensification. Since 1947, more than 600,000km (375,000 miles) of our hedgerows have been grubbed up, and some 97 per cent of our species-rich meadows ploughed under. Pesticides, many of them untested for safety, are applied to more than 98 per cent of crops.

At the heart of these problems is a growing alienation of producers from consumers. In the US today, the average food item travels 1,300 miles between farm and consumer, and the EC is fast going the same way. Supermarkets hold

a near monopoly over food sales, and other corporations are busy buying up smaller rivals and partners, in pursuit of vertical integration and market control.

Seed companies in particular have been targeted by major oil and petrochemicals companies such as Shell and ICI, long suppliers of pesticides and fertilisers, and by food processing companies such as Unilever. Under their control, biotechnology is being harnessed to create such wonders as herbicide-resistant crops, thus entrenching chemical farming methods and proprietary products.

Meanwhile, thousands of farmers, caught between production expenses that typically add up to 70-80 per cent of gross farm income, debts that in 1991 consumed 70 per cent of UK net farm income, and declining farm prices, have been pushed into bankruptcy. Where Britain had nearly one million farms after the Second World War, fewer than 300,000 remain. In the US, the largest 50,000 farms now account for 75 per cent of total production.

All of these tendencies will be further nourished if the present round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) goes as planned. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Gatt is the proposal to unify the world's standards on food quality and pesticide use, under the control of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, part of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. Unelected representatives from agrochemicals and food processing companies would apply the lowest common standards, with a massive reduction in food quality.

Fighting agricultural industrialism is vital, say the authors, but it is even more important to develop practical alternatives. Despite 'an economic and policy framework which is overtly hostile', on the ground solutions such as organic farming have taken root. The 'farm rebels' are, in the US at any rate, thriving.

Producer-consumer links are being rebuilt. In Japan, for example, there are 660 producer/consumer co-operatives, the largest of them with 150,000 members. Germany and the US are witnessing the development of 'Community Supported Agriculture', in which people buy shares of a local farm's production. And in Sweden, Denmark and Australia self-sufficient eco-villages are being established. As ever, Britain is lagging behind. But perhaps this book will provide some much needed inspiration for change - the clear intention of its authors and sponsors.

Comments