Graham Harvey: The killing fields of Britain

The countryside is the home of TB, illegal hunts and 'commodity farming' that has little to do with good food. Better animal husbandry would help us rediscover our rural roots
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The Independent Online

On the Reading council estate where I grew up our milk was supplied from a local dairy farm which had set up a home-delivery round during the lean years of the 1920s. The milk was totally fresh, and because it was mainly from grass-fed cows it would have been rich in vitamins, anti-oxidants, minerals and the kind of healthy fats that protect against heart attacks and cancer.

Our milk came pasteurised. But it would have been quite safe and probably healthier consumed raw. The policy of tuberculin testing had virtually eliminated bovine tuberculosis from the national herd, though it had been a serious scourge in the early years of the century.

Today bovine TB is back with a vengeance. Almost 6,000 cattle herds are currently under restriction in the South-west and West Midlands. The Government is drawing up plans for a mass cull of badgers, seen by farmers and vets as the source of the infection that has led to the compulsory slaughter of 22,000 cattle this year.

It's a controversial strategy whose success is far from guaranteed. Coming after a series of epidemics in the national herd from mad cow disease to foot and mouth it poses serious questions about the underlying health of our livestock.

Why do British cattle seem so uniquely susceptible to disease? The human form of TB is principally a disease of people with impaired immune systems. That's why it frequently afflicts cancer patients and Aids victims. When, in the second half of the 19th century, the toll of the dread "white scourge" began to fall, it wasn't drugs that led to the improvement. It was better diet, better housing and better public hygiene.

Given the nature of the TB bacillus you might think the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) would want to find out why the disease has taken such a hold on the cattle population. What has been the effect of concentrating animals into ever bigger herds in overcrowded sheds? What has been the effect of taking cattle off pasture and feeding them what are for ruminants unnatural feeds such as cereal grains, maize and soya. It might even be useful to find out why the badger population has suddenly become susceptible to this disease.

Who is to say that the environmental conditions that are weakening the immune systems of cattle and wildlife might not be contributing to the wave of degenerative diseases in the human population? The Government is seeking answers to none of these questions. Instead it is slaughtering tens of thousands of badgers in the hope that this will halt the epidemic.

With much of Britain's agricultural policy now controlled from Brussels, our elected politicians seem powerless to protect us from the consequences of bad farming. In fact, they appear to have no clear vision of what the countryside is for.

On Boxing Day an estimated 300,000 people turned out to show their support for the country's hunts. Despite the ban on hunting, the sport seems more popular than ever. Prosecutions under the 2004 Act are now bogged down in a High Court appeal, and the hunting fraternity clearly think they have the Government on the run. It would be hard to find a better illustration of the Government's lack of direction on rural policy. Here it is stuck with a piece of legislation that is starting to look unenforceable. The tussle with the Countryside Alliance seems certain to distract attention from what really matters in the countryside what we do about farming.

Since Britain joined in 1973 what was then the European Economic Community, agriculture has undergone a revolution. Everyday foods are simply not what they used to be. In the 1950s and 1960s much of our food was produced on mixed farms, where grazing leys were alternated with cereal crops. This centuries-old pattern produced foods that were rich in nutrients crops well-endowed with essential trace elements; meat and milk filled with vitamins and omega-3 fats. EU subsidies have destroyed the mixed farm and turned lowland farmers into large-scale producers of low-cost commodities such as wheat and rapeseed. Industrial cropping, with its heavy dependence on chemical fertilisers, depletes soil organic matter and curbs the biological activity without which plants can't take up trace elements.

What you get are dumbed-down crops. Since most go as raw materials to food manufacturing companies, this loss of nutrients is of little concern. So damaging are the processes used by the industrial bakers and the breakfast cereal companies that most natural nutrients are lost anyway. To give their products the appearance of healthiness these companies must add trace elements and artificial vitamins.

Animal foods have gone through parallel process of industrialisation. With cheap, subsidised grains flooding the market many beef and dairy farmers take their animals off pasture for much of the year. Instead they feed them on the industrial grain crops with unknown health consequences.

Where I live on Exmoor the traditional way to rear beef was to keep a herd of Devon cattle, Red Rubies, and raise the progeny on the herb-rich moorland pastures for three years or so. It would be hard to imagine a more climate-friendly way of producing beef. There were practically no inputs. The evidence is growing that beef produced this way is the healthiest you can buy.

Sadly, this intrinsically low-cost food has seen its market destroyed by the global surplus of subsidised cereal grains maintained for almost 30 years by the EU and the USA. We're well used to reading of the damage caused to developing countries by western grain surpluses. What we're less familiar with is the notion that industrial grain production puts real farmers out of business in our country.

These are issues that the Government has largely ignored if, indeed, it even understands them. Yet it would be hard to think of a more beneficial step politicians could take both for human health and the health of the planet than to get ruminant animals off their deadly grain diets and back on to clover-rich pasture.

During his brief spell as Environment Secretary, David Miliband coined the phrase "one-planet farming" farming that helps us live within the needs of the planet. Significantly his speech contained no reference to food quality or human health. As it happens, mixed farming would deliver not only the Government's sustainability objectives but also healthier food. But this is an option the politicians appear not to have grasped. Worse, their chosen route to greater sustainability biofuels threatens to take British agriculture in precisely the wrong direction.

Commodity cereal growing is a style of farming that can't survive without state subsidies. Two years ago global wheat prices were down to 65 a ton, leaving intensive cereal growers with barely enough margin to cover the cost of fertilisers and pesticides. Without more subsidy from the taxpayer they'd have had little option but to switch out of commodity production and start growing food for people.

George Bush's decision to cover the prairie states with biofuel plants has given industrial grain production a new lease of life. State aid for biofuels are no more than farm subsidies in a new guise. Sadly they put off the day when British agriculture has to return to sustainable mixed farming.

There's just one bright spot. The doubling of wheat prices brought about in part by the demand for biofuel feed stocks, has started to make the feeding of grains to livestock uneconomic. One unexpected benefit of the cereals boom is that we're starting to see cattle moved back on to pasture where they belong.

Though the Government appears not to have noticed, there's one vital question hanging over the countryside: should British farmers be large-scale producers of low-value raw materials for global commodity markets? Or should they be producing high-quality, nutrient-rich foods for the people of these islands?

If Gordon Brown is looking for a new "big idea" to give the Government the initiative on rural affairs, he could do worse than pledge to return good farming and good food to the British countryside. There's no question that the British people are ready for healthier food. Sales of organic food have now topped 2bn. Farmers' markets and vegetable box schemes are thriving. And supermarkets report that their "healthier options" lines are among their fastest-growing products. After decades of being served up with the second rate, the population are now hungry for something better.

The hunting ban was seen by many as a sop to Old Labour for keeping the New Labour project on course. With the growing crowds at hunt meets it's a policy that's looking decidedly jaded. The promise of safer, healthier food from a renewed countryside looks a far more compelling proposition.

Graham Harvey is author of 'We Want Real Food' (Constable and Robinson, 7.99)

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