Put farmers out of their misery

The agricultural economy is a false economy, left to struggle on not for its own intrinsic worth but for its worth to the tourist industry' '
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The Independent Online

Again and again, in the coverage of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, the scenes of slaughter in infected areas of Britain have been described as "medieval". The allusion, presumably, is to plague. But the comparison has meaning only as an index of how removed the media is from the reality of livestock farming.

Again and again, in the coverage of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, the scenes of slaughter in infected areas of Britain have been described as "medieval". The allusion, presumably, is to plague. But the comparison has meaning only as an index of how removed the media is from the reality of livestock farming.

Most of those who wish to corral foot-and-mouth disease in the distant past, across a millennium, from the modern experience of agriculture, are under the impression all human and animal life is represented on Old MacDonald's farm.

In truth though, the scenes which assail us each night on television, and assail unlucky rural dwellers in real life all day long, are most reminiscent of the BSE crisis, or the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth. Such scenes, of course, are a part of modern agriculture, not outlandish happenings recorded only in melancholy lines from Beowulf.

And while this particular crisis is grand and visceral, another truth is that crisis more generally is another everyday fact of modern farm life. That's why farmers have been quietly hanging themselves in their barns for decades, shooting their heads off, or, if they can, selling up.

In 1967, during the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth, the agricultural sector accounted for 6 per cent of employment. Now it accounts for 2 per cent. The reason for this is simple. The average farm income in Britain is now £5,000 a year. The agriculture industry in Britain is not economically viable. We want to maintain our bucolic vision of England's green and pleasant land, but not because we value farmers, or agriculture - far from it. The vision is all we're interested in. Quite literally, we just like looking at it, and this is not a pleasure we believe we should have to pay for in any direct sense.

This we have in common with the rest of the world, which persists in seeing Britain, particularly England, as full of green fields, dotted with ancient trees, sheltering gentle cows flicking horse-flies with their tails. Clearly the pictures of cattle, legs sticking out at crazy angles, piled in pyres and belching smoke, which the world is viewing, are a little bit damaging to the picture of Britain that Constable painted for the world.

So is our green and pleasant land really agricultural any longer, or is it a theme park or a heritage site?

The development of the foot-and-mouth crisis suggests more and more that the latter is the correct answer. Almost 75 per cent of Britain is made up of agricultural land, sustaining a quarter of a million agricultural holdings, 44 million sheep, 11 million cows, eight million pigs, and crops not only to feed the animals and supply the domestic market, but also, to the tune of 30 per cent, for export. Yet all these resources combine to make up only 1 per cent of gross domestic product. And this sort of farming is intensive? It's not intense, it's desperate. And the measures being taken to curb foot-and-mouth are desperate too, and all to protect our ability to export meat. As if exporting meat was important, economically, or in any other way.

The agricultural economy is a false economy, which is left to struggle on not for its own intrinsic worth, but because of its worth to the British tourist industry. This is the real reason why the foot-and-mouth crisis is important, and scary. The tourist trade represents six times the gross domestic product of agriculture, and employs 7 per cent of the workforce. And, crucially, even though it has been flat for the last couple of years (blame the strong pound), the tourist trade is expected to expand, unlike poor old agriculture, which is expected to die slowly, quietly and inexorably.

Slowly being the operative word. Agriculture must struggle on in some form for some time, but only to provide a backdrop to the thrusting young service industry that is really bringing the wonga into the rural economy. The sight of deserted, pretty tourist villages, or unvisited stately homes, is the sight that is pulling at the heartstrings of economists, who were keen to minimise the crisis until the toll it was going to take on tourism became apparent.

Meanwhile, we carry on with our crazy attitudes to the countryside as shaped by agriculture. The farmers may not be being vilified as much as they are used to being, but there is still a -common view that it is they and their nasty, greedy methods, not the demands of the economy, who are the villains of the piece.

These views are every bit as unrealistic as the sentimental ones which are touted in the defence of British agriculture. These are emotional not economic, and all revolve around the idea of farmers as the custodians of the countryside. Such arguments suggest that farmers are important because they represent our synergy with the land and with nature, the continuity of husbandry and land tending, and the link between the toil of a population and the food that it eats. They also are concerned with the land disappearing under concrete without farming. This didn't happen to New England when the farmers moved out a century ago - far from it - and it needn't happen here.

Anyway, in a global economy, this is all airy-fairy stuff - pretty talk that does not pay for a row of turnips. No one is willing to maintain farming just because it is symbolic of the ancient values of the horny-handed sons of toil - particularly not the sons of toil themselves, who are bailing out as fast as they can.

This of course just exacerbates the problem. As farms become fewer and larger, and only big, ruthless concerns can make a wodge in the global economy, the real future of the British countryside is merely postponed.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, indicated that he knew the lie of the land when he exhorted farmers to diversify. Farmers must diversify, but the small farmers have no capital to diversify with, and the large farmers are driven by short-term goals of cutting costs and increasing production.

Visits to the countryside may for the present have been curtailed, but soon enough we will be back in rural Britain, making trips to disappointing children's farmyards, making purchases at touchingly limp farm shops, or taking part in paint-balling excursions.

All this diversification does point to a future for rural Britain, but at present that future is not being truly acknowledged or helped into existence.

Prince Charles, as a landowner, does have the right idea about how Britain's countryside can develop in the future. His organic farms, expensive biscuits, and pretty, twee, village, may be easy to knock, and may seem to jar with his hunting, shooting and fishing activities (though I don't see why, myself), but they are the only future that can possibly work for our rural communities.

Farming is all over, bar the shouting, and land-owning is back. Only enlightened despotism can save the countryside, aided by the fact that very rich people are still keen to live there. Build them their grand houses, with their grand gardens. Insist that on their land, there must be some set aside, for themselves or for local workers to run a specialist herd, or an organic jam concern, or a golf course, or a biosphere.

Accept that agricultural Britain is not a living industry but a heritage industry; that for that reason food produced in Britain must be expensive and specialised, and that cheap food must come from elsewhere in the fabulous world economy that has given us this mess.

This is the price we must pay if we really want those pretty views as we drive along the motorway. There's no such thing as a free lunch, although the farmers do their best to provide us with lunches that are astoundingly cheap. But nowadays there can be no such thing as a free bucolic view either. The sooner we realise that the countryside can only survive as a network of heritage smallholdings, supported by the wealth of the nation, the sooner farmers can be put out of their misery without resorting to suicide.